Owning people: a dialogue

Bonald, you’re a terrible person for those comments you wrote on JMSmith’s post.  How can you not see that slavery is seriously wrong?  I mean wrong as in “intrinsically immoral”, not just “not ideal”.

Let me give you another example.  You’ve probably heard that, in very early Rome, the paterfamilias had the power of life and death over those in his household.  I’m not going to bother checking to see if that’s actually true, but let’s pretend it is, because it makes for a good example.  What do you think of this arrangement?

It is horrible, and for the same reason that slavery is horrible.  It treats people like private property rather than images of God.  Don’t tell me you’re going to be defending this barbarous practice now!  I assure you that this will not help your case for slavery!  Aren’t you glad that your father didn’t have the right to kill you when you were young?

Indeed, and I wish my mother had also lacked such a right, but you are jumping to conclusions.  I haven’t said anything to defend the father’s power of life and death.  I’m not going to defend it.  You are.

But I can see nothing good in the practice.  It was a great triumph for civilization and the Gospel when the basic rights of women and children were recognized.

“A triumph for civilization”–yes, it was that.  We’ll have more to say about that later.  Anyway, why do you object to a father killing those in his household?  Is it because you regard the killing of human beings as always wrong?

Perhaps you are accustomed to debating with fools, but no, you will not succeed in getting me to agree that something so simplistic represents my position.  I am neither a pacifist nor an opponent of the death penalty.  I know very well that the protection of the common good and the requirements of justice might together sometimes demand a man’s life.  However, just because a man should die does not mean that just anyone is authorized to kill him.  A private citizen may never do so, except in the gravest self-defense.  Only the state, acting as the guardian of the common good and the representative of God and the community’s moral consensus, has the authority to impose an execution.  Fathers–and elders of families in general–are owed piety, but they are still just private citizens.

Very good.  Now let me propose to you a thought experiment.  Suppose a thousand years in the future, the world (and all other inhabited regions of the solar system) is ruled by a single government of all humanity.  Individual sovereign countries have long ceased to exist, but they are still remembered as history.  Students reading about the world a millennium ago are shocked to learn that individual nations once took it upon themselves to impose the death penalty on their own citizens.  “How barbarous”, they cry, ” to think that national governments once had the power of life and death over their citizens!  How could anyone have thought it right to regard citizens as mere property of their governments, to be dispatched as their rulers saw fit.  Why, it was no better than slavery!”  Do you agree with these students?  If not, how do you answer them?

I would not agree with them.  I would say that they have misunderstood the relationship between sovereign territorial states and their citizens.  It is not a relationship of ownership–as we understand the ownership of inanimate objects–but of authority.  Claiming to own someone is an affront to his personhood, but claiming to have authority over him is not.  The former can only be a raw exercise of power.  The latter addresses a man at his highest level, his moral center, and can be an entirely respectful act.  It is all the difference between brandishing a whip and reminding a man of his duty.  In any case, I would point out to these students that their own situation is no different from ours.  They too are under the authority of their world government; one could just as well say that it has the “power of life and death” over them and that they are its “property”.

You are quite right.  Accountability must ultimately stop somewhere; there is always a sovereign.  There is, you see, a sort of law of conservation of power:  you may shift it away from one sector, but that only leaves it somewhere else.  Let us admit that there will always be some power over us that, if it chose, could abuse us terribly.

I don’t disagree, but, if I may anticipate where I think you are going with this, it does not follow that every such arrangement is equal.  It is certainly better to have such power vested in governments rather than fathers or slave masters.  If nothing else, governments are less likely to abuse their power, because they are distant.  They are less likely to be overcome with passion or to be themselves the aggrieved party.

They also lack patriarchal love and concern for their charges; a state has less to lose both emotionally and economically from killing a citizen than a father has from killing a son, so I’m not sure the case is so clear-cut.  But, regardless, this is merely a practical issue.  If we are down to debating that sort of thing, then you have abandoned the claim that a state monopoly on killing is a moral imperative, and are arguing only that it is practically advantageous.

I do believe that it is practically superior, but also that it is morally imperative.  Remember, my key objection was not that states are better equipped to handle killing in a just way (although they are); it was that only they have the authority to kill at all.

Yes!  Authority is the issue, the only real issue.  And it doesn’t have anything necessary to do with size.  A city-state in ancient Greece, for example, had the same rightly authority over its citizens as a modern state, wouldn’t you say?


And what about those peoples who we call tribal, for whom authority is determined by genealogy rather than geography.  Do their tribes not have the same authority as our states.

They certainly have the same responsibility to the common good, although the common good of a tribe rather than a country, so I don’t see how we can deny that they have the same authority.

And how far does this authority extend?  A legitimate authority can kill me.  Can it also compel my labor?

What do you mean?

Suppose we need to build a wall around the city to keep out invaders.  Can the ruler demand that people in his charge contribute to this project, either by working on it directly or by a contribution of money?

I am uneasy with the first option.  Just because the state is legitimate doesn’t mean it can order a free man who’s done nothing wrong to drop his own business and do manual labor for it.

Can it insist that he serve jury duty?


Can it draft him to fight its wars?

Yes.  All right, I withdraw the objection.  Rulers do have the authority to make a man work.

And to take his money?

That is just taxation, and everybody agrees that the state can do that.  Otherwise, governments couldn’t function at all.

All right.  So having someone who can order you around, even though you were born into the arrangement and never agreed to it, can be morally legitimate.

But you yourself agree that not every such arrangement is moral.  A kidnapper has no such rights over his victims, and I say that slavery is the moral equivalent of kidnapping.  You have interrogated me long enough.  Now I ask you:  how would you decide which subjection is legitimate and which isn’t?

I was hoping you would ask!  First, let us remember what authority is.  To paraphrase the beautiful Muslim saying, authority is the shadow of God on Earth.  It is a way of making God’s sovereignty present and tangible inside a community.  The ruler–father, chieftain, king–stands in place of God.  Although he is a mortal, sinful man, no better than any other and not pretending to be, his role carries in itself a meaning that transcends its holder.

But all of this just refers to the perspective and spiritual state of the subjects.  They see their ruler as God’s emissary, and therefore obedience is for them a meritorious act.  This does nothing to discriminate one arrangement from another.  Kidnapping victims could decide to see their captor as God’s anointed, but that would be silly.

Why would it be silly?  Because the whole arrangement in that case is the result of one will overpowering others.  The kidnapper cannot disappear into his role in the way a king can, because his “role” is defined by nothing but his own willfulness.  No, here then is the prerequisite for legitimate authority:  that it belongs fundamentally to an institution rather than a person.  The arrangement itself must be bigger than its participants.  A lord may legitimately “own” his serfs only because the feudal system of which he is a part in a sense “owns” him.  His role is not of his own making.

Why is that such a big deal?

Because authority is an instance of what I have called “suprapersonal signification“.  It involves taking meanings, in this case that obedience to the lord is obedience to God, that are already given–by nature or tradition–and personally appropriating them.  I have said before that this type of signification is absolutely indispensable to us, because adopting a universal role lifts us out of our own egos and gives to our acts a depth of meaning that we could not confer by the power of our unaided minds.  This, then, I would say, is the key distinction between authority and ownership, that the former is “bigger” than its participants.

What does any of this have to do with slavery?

It tells us that we must not judge other peoples by our own system of legitimacy.  According to Carle Zimmerman, the family has passed through three phases:  trustee, domestic, and atomistic.  In trustee family societies, the state is weak compared to the extended family.  Property primarily belongs to the family, and the current generation merely holds it in trust, passing it from ancestors to descendants.  I claim that to be “owned” by such a family is a qualitatively different thing than to be “owned” by individuals of a domestic or atomistic family.  It would be more like allegiance to a ruler, who would in turn have responsibilities to his servants.  Such an arrangement would be similar to feudalism, a potentially legitimate (if nonideal) form of public authority.  As the power of the state grows, and extended family ties wane, property becomes private for the first time, and as such no longer applies to people.  Slavery can only be legitimate, I say, if slaves can be given a good reason why it would be wrong (and not only dangerous) for them to run away.  When property comes to belong to individuals rather than just being entrusted to them, the prerequisite for having an authoritative relationship with ones servants is gone.  At this time, slavery becomes necessarily immoral given the new basic social structure.

2 Responses

  1. When property comes to belong to individuals rather than just being entrusted to them, the prerequisite for having an authoritative relationship with ones servants is gone. At this time, slavery becomes necessarily immoral given the new basic social structure.

    Bingo. Slavery is intrinsically immoral precisely because (and to the extent that) the modern conceptions of property and authority are broken.

  2. Hmm…wouldn’t this imply that slavery in medieval Europe was intrinsically immoral? Since families in the Middle Ages were domestic, and hence property was private?

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