Following a class discussion of Augustine's position on slavery, a student in my Ancient Political Theory class made the claim that slavery was essentially good and necessary for the United States. When I began to think about all the ways to refute this claim, I came across another question: "Can slavery be morally justified?"

No, it can't be morally justified. Frankly, that's all that really need be said. Indeed, I must say I find asking the question today in a serious way to itself be morally unjustifiable. It suggests a kind of negligence with regard to learning about the moral accomplishments of our civilzation, or perhaps a debasement of our moral fiber. I suppose it's like asking whether genocide can be justified or whether torture and secret detention without review, trial, or warrant can be justified (!). So, to be charitable, I must conclude that you're really not asking this question in a serious way but, rather, as a kind of intellectual exercise. Briefly, then, let me suggest why slavery can't be justified by some of the central ethical frameworks philosophers have developed: 1. Virtue ethics. Slavery (as it was practiced in North America and the Carribean by Europeans--Roman slavery might have a slightly different inflection here) can't be justified since it inhibits development of the excellences and...

In upholding the concept of "race," do we make racism possible?

Yes, I think we do--generally speaking. For this reason, one of the purposes of philosophical interrogation of the concept of "race" must be to undermine it. In my teaching I try to do this where possible, and in ordinary conversation I have been experimenting with either trying to avoid racial terms altogether or using "lighter-skinned" and "darker-skinned" as descriptive terms. These terms, unlike "black" or "white" are comparative and suggest gradations and continuity (which I think accurate to the biological facts of the matter). Ethnic terms like "African" are useful, too, but don't quite bear the same force of inclusion and continuity. Nevertheless, I don't think their use terribly pernicious, except when their use is exceptional. That is, using ethnic rather than racial terms may sometimes still serve to "other," separate, subordinate, etc. when members of other groups are not desgnated with ethnic terms. There are situations, however, where using the concept of race can serve morally...

Is "largest" and "smallest" only a result of comparison, or is there a single largest thing and single smallest thing that actually exist? Sorry in advance if this gets more scientific than philosophic.

I am not a physicist, so I cannot state definitively the results that natural science has achieved with regard to this question. I can say conceptually that "largest" and smallest conceptually both define limits and are comparative--unlike "larger" and "smaller," which are comparative but don't require limits. It's also important to define "thing" (which here is rather vague), since 'largest' and 'smallest' are context-dependent. One might speak of the largest material object in spatial dimensions, the object with the largest mass, the largest jury award in a civil suit, the largest amount of memory in a single computer, the largest brawl on record, the largest number ever counted. I can also speak a bit more cogently out of 18th-century debates about whether or not material things or space are divisible ad infinitum or not ,as well as whether the universe is infinite or not. Some, like Kant, have held that reason can't determine answers to questions like this; this question is what he calls an...

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