What’s striking about the antebellum South is that there’s an informal definition of “good” (at least among white men) as being “that which is pleasing to God.” What was pleasing to God was knowable, because “good” white people were rewarded–literally rewarded with financial success. One’s fortunes rose and fell based on whether one was pleasing or displeasing God. You can see a lot of this playing out in Gordon Belt’s book in reverse, where Confederate soldiers were admonished to stop sinning so much in the camps so that the Confederacy could get back to winning.
So, in a very simple way, when a slave-owner took the opportunity to fuck a slave–in spite of her protestations, crying, and traumatized behavior afterwards (clues we expect “good” people to recognize now as being evidence that they’ve done something “not good” to someone else)–and he remained wealthy, he understood it as God giving the okay to that kind of behavior. After all, if it was a problem, God would have punished him, probably with financial difficulties.
And as Bridgett pointed out in the comments the other day, “good” men who feared putting their wives through pregnancy often found other people to “have sex with.” This was seen as a loving choice.
White men got to equate “goodness” with prosperity.
Slaves were supposed to equate “goodness” with obedience. Possibly everyone in the South was supposed to equate “goodness” with obedience with slaves supposed to be being obedient to their masters the way that slave masters were obedient to God, and everyone knew when they were being good, because there was a tangible measure of it–masters got rich, slaves got to live.
The thing that strikes me hardest about this arrangement, though, is that, when slaves talked about who was a good master, they never talked about a master who was overwhelmingly financially successful. It’s always about how the master treated his slaves.
The definition most of us accept as the definition of goodness is the slave’s definition–that one’s goodness is measured by how little misery you spread to others.
(Importantly, though, even slaves with good masters, by their own reckoning, wanted to be free. You could have “good” masters, comparatively speaking, and still think slavery was not good.)
I was browsing through Nietzsche and Hegel trying to decide if this is what they observed and I don’t really think so.