We, A Happier World, just uploaded a video bringing the story of the abolitionist Benjamin Lay to life, inspired by Will MacAskill's new book What We Owe The Future!
This is just part of a series we're making on the book, we're aiming to publish one video each week.
Thanks to Sarah Emminghaus for her help with the script!
Sources are marked with an asterisk. Text might differ slightly in wording from the final video.
In the 18th century, slavery was still common in the west. But there were brave people fighting against it.
One of them was Benjamin Lay.
He was a Quaker activist, born in the late 17th century in England, and stood just over four feet tall.
Benjamin Lay could not stop talking about how horrible he thought slavery was. As an adult, he moved into a cave in Philadelphia, boycotted all goods produced by enslaved people, made his own clothes and refused to drink tea or eat sugar. He sometimes acted on his views in a very dramatic style: When he learned of a family that kept a young girl as a slave, he invited their six-year-old son to his cave – so the family would briefly feel the horrors of losing a child.
He was part of the largest Quaker community. He once stood outside a Quaker meeting in the snow without shoes and without a coat. He explained to worried onlookers that slaves were forced to work outside in this attire throughout the whole winter. In one of their yearly meetings, he tried to educate them about the equality of all mankind, referring to the verse in the bible that says all men are created equal.
As obvious as his morals seem to us, he was probably considered an annoying weirdo by some people at the time. It paid off to be a weirdo though. Between 1681 and 1705, around 70 percent of the leaders of the Quaker’s Yearly meeting enslaved people, and about 75 years later that figure dropped to 10 percent. A bit later, it got banned entirely.
The Quaker’s abolitionist movement became influential. They inspired and helped many abolitionists, even overseas. British abolitionists managed to persuade their parliament to abolish the slave trade in 1807 and to make enslaving people illegal across most of the British Empire in 1833. So it is possible to make the case that there were people without whom we might still have slavery in the western world.
There were also other important figures around the time who had a big influence on the abolitionists movements in their respective countries. Examples include Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery, became a preacher and wrote three autobiographies. He saw photography as a political tool and became the most photographed American in the 19th century. Frederick always looked stern in his pictures to not play into the racist caricature of a happy slave. Then there’s Harriet Tubman, who also escaped slavery and freed 70 people in 13 missions. During the civil war, she became the first American woman to lead an armed expedition, freeing over 750 enslaved people. Olaudah Equiano was able to buy his way out of slavery and his autobiography fuelled a growing anti-slavery movement in Great Britain and beyond. Luís Gama won his freedom through court, became a lawyer and freed over 500 people through legal proceedings.
Some people claim slavery got abolished because it wasn’t economically interesting anymore. But the abolition of slavery cost the British population at least 41 million pounds, which is almost 5,5 billion pounds today.**
Our morals have changed a lot over the past few centuries. Just a hundred years ago, women in Italy or France weren’t allowed to vote! And in Switzerland women can only vote on the federal level since 1971! Rape in a marriage was legal in Germany until 1997. Same sex marriage has only been legalized in the last couple of years in a lot of western countries. These major changes in our morals have happened over a comparatively short period of time. We can be certain that the coming decades and centuries will bring about drastic moral change as well, as seemingly inconsistent moral views still seem to persist today.
Examples might include the criminalization of some drugs like cannabis while other drugs like alcohol and tobacco are legal. Or keeping and loving a pet versus looking away from the cruelties of animal farming. Even Benjamin Lay already took the latter thought seriously. He was a vegetarian who even refused to wear leather and wool.
Whether you agree with these examples or not remains up to you. But let’s take away one thing: Let’s be more like Lay. Let’s look for examples in our lifetime of moral inconsistencies still happening around us and fight them. We would all love to think if we lived 300 years ago we wouldn’t have accepted slavery. But the reality is that it was widely accepted at the time, so there’s a good chance you and I would’ve accepted it too. So let’s avoid that trap now and let’s always be on the lookout, let’s keep an open mind to make sure we are not participating in any moral atrocities today, even if we don’t intend to.
We just summarised a chapter from Oxford philosopher Will MacAskill’s new book called What We Owe The Future. The book makes the case for caring about our long-term future and explores what we can do. You can use the code WWOTF to get 10% off the book at this link. I loved reading it which is why we’re making a video series summarising some of the book’s chapters. We sometimes add or own stuff too so it isn’t always an exact summary. In the next weeks we’ll be visiting Chinese history, the roman empire, Islamic golden age and more. So make sure to subscribe and ring that notification bell to get notified when they come out! See you next week!