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Was slavery a ‘necessary evil’? Here’s what John Stuart Mill would say.

Mill’s lesson: The winners in unjust systems always want the oppressed to assume their fate was inevitable.

- July 30, 2020

Over this past weekend, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced a bill that would prevent federal education funds from being spent on a curriculum drawn from the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” The project defines its mission as “aim[ing] to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Cotton has implied that the Times project exaggerates and overemphasizes what he called “the necessary evil upon which the union was built,” as he said the United States’ Founding Fathers viewed it.

Was slavery indeed a “necessary evil?” One can certainly argue that the Northern Founders at the Constitutional Convention reluctantly agreed to allow slavery to persist, since the Southern states were unlikely to join the republic otherwise. But Cotton specifies that slavery was a “necessary evil” precisely because it helped build the United States into the nation it is today. To be sure, in doing so, he distances himself from former vice president John C. Calhoun, who held that slavery was not a “necessary evil” but a “positive good.” Cotton clearly states that he is pleased that American chattel slavery died long ago. But he also clearly states that he thinks this country was only made possible by importing non-consenting persons into forced and uncompensated labor, with all the attending horrors.

Here’s what John Stuart Mill had to say about necessary and unnecessary evils

The 19th-century English political philosopher John Stuart Mill gave some thought to the concept of “necessary evils.” Mill was no fan of slavery. As he wrote in his lengthy “Principles of Political Economy,” “It is almost superfluous to observe, that this institution can have no place in any society even pretending to be founded on justice, or on fellowship between human creatures.” He even criticizes it on economic terms, as did Adam Smith, as an especially inefficient mode of labor.

In his posthumously published “Chapters on Socialism,” Mill examined the viability of economic systems built on private property. Here he confronts the question of “necessary evils,” while considering early industrialism’s economic inequality combined with the British laboring class’s growing discontent and growing political power. As he wrote:

Mill describes the debilitating conditions of the English working class and the starkness of their fate contrasted with the prosperous class as “an evil equal to almost any of those against which mankind have hitherto struggled.” He then asks the crucial question, “Is it a necessary evil?”

Mill recognized that the wealthy class desperately wanted the working class to assume that their fate, which their children would surely inherit, was absolutely necessary, almost a natural law — and, in fact, told them it was so. He added, “But it was also said that slavery, that despotism, that all the privileges of oligarchy were necessary.”

Mill’s lesson here is that the winners in unjust systems always want the oppressed to assume their fate was inevitable. The wealthy want to treat the “necessary evil” as unchangeable — as unchangeable as the laws of physics. Therefore, the working class, the poor and other oppressed individuals should never question their preordained suffering.

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Mill rejected the idea that brutal inequality is “necessary”

Interestingly, Karl Marx — a very different kind of political philosopher — largely accepted the oppressors’ logic that oppression was an inevitable fact of history, at least until history itself could be overturned via revolution. For Marx, feudalism’s and industrial capitalism’s injustices, while deeply disturbing, were effectively “necessary evils” that ultimately led to true justice and equality. But Mill rejected the idea of such economic and social “necessities.” He asserted that such issues as production, slavery and the distribution of wealth are not the same as physical laws of nature; rather, they are “human institutions” that can be altered by the human will. Inequality, slavery and despotism, he wrote, are “a matter of human institution solely. The things once there, mankind, individually or collectively, can do with them as they like.” In other words, there is nothing “necessary” about injustice.

Here’s what Martin Luther King Jr. would say to Sen. Tom Cotton about American history

Cotton has elsewhere suggested that “Socialism may begin with the best of intentions, but it always ends with the Gestapo,” while voting in support of a significant tax break for America’s most prosperous citizens. He has questioned whether systemic inequalities and injustices actually exist. If Mill’s arguments are persuasive — that the powerful want to justify existing but oppressive systems as “necessary evils” — then we might question the motives of anyone who has benefited from systems built on racial and economic inequalities. Denying other voices the ability to help narrate history might push Mill to suspect that “those who have gained the prizes” have no interest in examining or changing the system that delivered those prizes in the first place.

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David Lay Williams is professor of political science at DePaul University, and is writing a book on economic inequality in the history of political thought for Princeton University Press.

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