A precedent problem
Another serious obstacle that an abolition movement faces but which is not faced by a proto-abolition movement is the precedent problem: while human slavery has been instituted and then cast off many times throughout history and in virtually every region of the world, full abolition has never yet been achieved.
Ancient societies from the golden age of Egypt to the golden age of Greece included slaves. Initially, many of the slaves were formerly the free members of a neighboring society that became enslaved when they lost a war with the enslaving society. After the initial conquest, however, the descendants of captured people were then born into slavery, such that a “slave class” of humans came into being, sometimes lasting for hundreds of years and comprising entire geographical regions. An extreme example of this far-reaching “slave class” and “slave region” phenomenon was that of the Helots, who were an enslaved people that reportedly outnumbered their oppressors in Sparta by more than ten to one.
But even the enslavement of the Helots at the hands of the militarily powerful Spartans came to an end, and human slaves have, at different times and in different places, managed to cast off their chains around the world and throughout human history. These many historical precedents have, in turn, served to guide, encourage, reassure, and motivate proto-abolitionists who came later.
Unfortunately, abolitionists do not have the benefit of such precedents for freeing the animals. To the best of my knowledge, no human society has ever abolished slavery beyond that of homo sapiens. Yes, some individual animals have been treated well by their human captors. Some dogs and cats, for instance, certainly appear to live happy, healthy, care-free lives in a human home. And other animals have just been left alone for the most part, such as deep-sea creatures or other animals who live in places that have so far remained relatively free from human invasion.
But, notwithstanding these fortunate individual cases, the stark social and legal reality has always been throughout human history that animals were considered by humans to be “property” or “propertizeable,” i.e., if one could capture or kill an animal, one owned that animal or her rotting corpse. Modernly, a handful of animal welfare laws have been enacted to prohibit a few egregious practices of animal abuse—cockfighting, for example. But abolition of slavery and emancipation of other animals are not, to my knowledge, even on the radar screen of most human societies.
The fact that full abolition has never been achieved, anywhere, anytime, should not discourage us. Many events that once seemed impossible have eventually come to pass. But acknowledging the special challenges faced by a full abolition movement will hopefully help to inoculate modern abolitionists against some of the burnout, frustration, and fatigue to which they may otherwise be susceptible.
A look ahead…
In this “Special Challenges” series, we’ll explore additional ways in which proto-abolition or proto-emancipation movements differ from abolition and emancipation movements. If you have comments, suggestions, or contributions, please feel free to send them along.
(Original article pub date: 11/29/13 (FB); 12/3/13 (EthicalVeganism))