No one really believes that slavery is intrinsically immoral

The arguments that slavery per se is immoral are very weak, something one doesn’t notice only because no one is allowed to challenge them. They usually either prove too much and would condemn any authority or social organization (e.g. complaints about one person’s will being allowed to override another’s) or they object only to potential abuses of a slaveholder’s power, which were in fact illegal in many slave societies, and in any case are insufficient to demonstrate the immorality of the institution itself. Some arguments confuse the morality of holding slaves with that of enslaving free persons without cause (as if there is no moral distinction between stealing someone’s property and that person being poor). The most popular one simply asserts that slaveowners don’t “recognize the full humanity” of their slaves, whatever that means. It might be more convincing if the abolitionists could show us where slaveowning societies (Roman, Arab, South American, whatever) explicitly claimed that their slaves were not human, but some other nonsentient species.

Of all these arguments, the argument from abuse carries the most weight with me, even though logically it cannot be used to condemn slavery per se. It does put together a good case that slavery is morally hazardous and so other arrangements of social organization are usually to be preferred.

You could say that my skepticism makes me a moral monster, but in fact no one really believes slavery is always immoral. Consider that it has been practiced in most times in most places. Africans have held Africans as slaves. Arabs have held Africans and Whites as slaves. Whites have held Whites and Africans as slaves. (Jared Taylor has a nice post on the permutations.) And yet no one–not one of our most fervid abolitionists–ever, ever, ever objects in the slightest way to any of these except the White-African one. Thus, people’s objection is clearly not to slavery per se, but to Whites holding Blacks as slaves in particular. (Even Blacks selling Blacks to Whites is only immoral at the buyer’s end.) Whites are not held to be morally inferior to Blacks because of American slavery; rather, American slavery is objected to because of the logically prior moral inferiority of Whites to Blacks! Consider a comparison. When Pope Gregory the Great forbid Jews from owning Christian slaves, was that an anti-slavery measure, or an anti-Jewish measure?

So, really, when I say that the arguments that slavery is intrinsically immoral are weak, I’m not challenging a position everybody else believes; I’m attacking a position nobody else believes.

17 Responses

  1. The coof lockdowns, and mandatory vaxxes are slavery, so clearly the people supporting them aren’t really against slavery. Now, however, I actually DO believe slavery is intrinsically immoral, but my reasoning would appall all the virtue signalers; its immoraliry is more due to the effect on your descendants when the slaves eventually get free. If a group is so repugnant that you want to enslave them, then why not just kill them, because slaves can get free eventually and destroy society, but dead men can’t. Upon that basis, slavery is evil because its the worse form of stupidity: leaving your descendants to have to deal with rabid released animals.

  2. If we strip away all the questions of cruelty, a slave is simply someone who has lost all right to his own labor, and who therefore cannot pass this right down to his children. A miserable state, to be sure, but the abolitionists never explained why this sort of destitution is intolerable and others are not. I would ask them if a man could sell himself into slavery, since this seems to have been origin of much slavery in the Middle East. If I can liquidate my goods and chattel to settle my debts, why can’t I sell my claim on all the labor that remains in my life? And then why can’t the man who buys my labor sell it as well? When I sign a contract, I sell the right to a portion of my labor? If that is not wrong, why would it be wrong to sell the right to all of it.

    Enslavement by capture is more problematic, but by all accounts least problematic in the African case. When the Barbary pirates descended on the coasts of Italy, Italians were not (to my knowledge) mounting similar raids on the Barbary coast. But the African who was enslaved by capture was very likely implicated in the capture and enslavement of other Africans. If a man is made a slave in the same way he has made other men slaves, he doesn’t have firm grounds for complaint.

    I expect that many modern people would sell themselves into slavery on the right conditions. If the risk of rigorous chastisement was low, and the guarantee of lifelong food, housing and medicine were ironclad, I expect there would be many takers. Indeed I expect modern slavery might be quite cushy, might even include vacations and weekends off. I’m sure that you have noticed that most tenured academics are in a state that amounts to cushy slavery. Most of them cannot quit and cannot move. They get to buy their own food and clothing, and the quarters are normally quite comfortable, but they have pretty well sold their labor for life.

  3. Another thing you sometimes see is arguments against chattel slavery being taken to be arguments against slavery per se. Obviously this is related to your point about abuses, since “perfect” chattel slavery doesn’t recognize the existence of abuses since it sees the slave as entirely subject to his owner’s will so that abuses don’t exist, by definition.

    I was searching around on the web on this point, and it is interesting to note that people describe chattel slavery as being slavery in which the slave is owned like other property. Of course, it’s the Anglo-American tradition in which non-human property is chattel property. You don’t have to believe that “I own this orange” means I can do whatever I want with this orange. It’s “I chattel-own this orange” which means I can do anything I want with this orange.

    Zippy Catholic used to sometimes rant about this, as I recall.

  4. Right, and then if someone says that that’s what he means by slavery, I can point out that most historical examples of slavery were not actually slavery at all, since it was not true that Christians, Muslims, or even Roman pagans were officially allowed to do anything they wanted to their slaves.

  5. I once asked a liberal friend to explain why slavery was wrong as an idea-game/exercise. He is a very smart guy who went to oxford. He completely floundered. Best I got was “I wouldn’t want anyone to make me a slave.” and “it’s just obviously gross and wrong.”

  6. JMSmith, I am thinking how your point works with the condemnation of usury. Charging usury is a sin because it is selling/buying what does not exist. The usurious note is a promise to pay in the future, no matter what the circumstances. This is immoral to extract for profit from someone because this promise is not the kind of promise that can be morally kept. There are circumstances where the usuree cannot repay the debt or the interest on a debt morally, say because his children are starving.
    There is a parallel with buying a slave. A promise to provide all one’s future labor to a master is not a “real” thing that can be bought and sold, because it is an open ended possibility having a definite figure put on it. Zippy made the point that the laborer is not paid for his time but for fulfilling a task, creating a product, bringing about a certain state of affairs, etc.
    In some sense, slavery must be for the “good” of the slave. The financialization of slavery seems to make this muddy in the same way that usury muddies charitable lending.
    I then think it’s possible this kind of slavery is intrinsically immoral, and perhaps slavery by capture outside war as well.

  7. The Romans certainly considered slavery to be contrary to Natural Law.

    Justinian says in the Institutes (534 AD) “But the law of nations is common to the whole human race; for nations have settled certain things for themselves as occasion and the necessities of human life required. For instance, wars arose, and then followed captivity and slavery, which are contrary to the law of nature; for by the law of nature all men from the beginning were born free. The law of nations again is the source of almost all contracts; for instance, sale, hire, partnership, deposit, loan for consumption, and very many others. [Ius autem gentium omni humano generi commune est. nam usu exigente et humanis necessitatibus gentes humanae quaedam sibi constituerunt: bella etenim orta sunt et captivitates secutae et servitutes, quae sunt iuri naturali contrariae (iure enim naturali ab initio omnes homines liberi nascebantur); ex hoc iure gentium et omnes paene contractus introducti sunt, ut emptio venditio, locatio conductio, societas, depositum, mutuum, et alii innumerabiles.] (Inst 1. 2.)

    In the Digest he cites the great Classical jurist, Ulpian (170-228 AD) who, speaking of manumission, says “This takes its origin from the Law of Nations; since, according to natural law all persons were born free, and manumission was not known, as slavery itself was unknown; but after slavery was admitted by the Law of Nations, the benefit of manumission followed, and while men were designated by one name by nature, there arose three different kinds under the Law of Nations, that is to say freemen, and, in distinction to them, slaves, and as a third class, freedmen, or those who had ceased to be slaves.” [ quae res a iure gentium originem sumpsit, utpote cum iure naturali omnes liberi nascerentur nec esset nota manumissio, cum servitus esset incognita: sed posteaquam iure gentium servitus invasit, secutum est beneficium manumissionis. et cum uno naturali nomine homines appellaremur, iure gentium tria genera esse coeperunt: liberi et his contrarium servi et tertium genus liberti, id est hi qui desierant esse servi.] (D 1. 1. 4. Ulpianus 1 inst.)

  8. JMSmith wrote, “When I sign a contract, I sell the right to a portion of my labor? If that is not wrong, why would it be wrong to sell the right to all of it.”

    Because the sale would be illusory. Whatever a slave acquires belongs to his owner, because he belongs to his owner. At the moment of sale, the price would belong to the owner. Moreover, any terms of the contract would be unenforceable, because a slave cannot raise an action.

  9. If people really believed that slavery is intrinsically immoral, then there would be no (or very little) income taxes.

  10. Back to the future. A “straight” line around Einstein’s infinite/finite universe. The straightforward idea that no one really believes that slavery “per se” is intrinsically immoral.

    Great comments; forced vaccines, voluntary enslavement vs capture-and-trade in chains, the natural rights of oranges and the “intrinsic” immorality of home mortgages and non-charitable loans.

    Very entertaining.

  11. David @ I’m afraid I never read Zippy Catholic’s argument against usury, although I’ve often seen it mentioned. My understanding is that usury exploits desperation and does not simply demand compensation for opportunity costs and risks when money is loaned. It something like “price gouging,” except with the commodity is money and individual men are gouged. Here is an analogy. If the drug store recognized that I came to buy ibuprofen because I had a terrible headache, and therefore charged by 10 times what it would have charged me if I was simply buying ibuprofen to restock the medicine cabinet.

    I’m not sure what you mean by buying and selling what does not exist. If I sign a contract to paint your house, I may very well die before the labor to complete the job exists. I buy and sell things that do not (yet) exist all the time.

    Michael @ I don’t see why the sale of all of my labor would be “illusory” if the sale of part of my labor is not. In the scenario I’ve given, I am selling all of my labor in order to settle my debts, and perhaps the labor of my offspring as well. I’ve been selling labor to settle debts my whole life long, and I hope this was not “illusory.” Once I’ve sold my labor, I suppose its purchaser can dispose of it as he pleases.

    If you wish to argue that there is a level of destitution below which no man can be morally permitted to go, you will have to specify and justify that level.

  12. @JMSmith The Catholic Church has a more precise meaning for usury, as charging interest beyond the principle on a loan for consumption. Selling what does not exist is how Aquinas explains the evil of usury because money is alienated from the borrower and then has rent charged for it, he is charged separately for the use and possession of money when these are not in reality seperable. To Buck, a non-personal-recourse home mortgage is not usury because a house is not consumed in the use of it.
    Pre-payment for work differs in that if the terms of the contract are not fulfilled, then the non-worker must return the wages or equivalent cash, if already spent, and any damages would have to be for real damage suffered by the employer due to the work not being fulfilled and not hypothetical costs.
    Private debt slavery seems problematic because using this understanding of usury, debt slavery as intrinsic to the terms of a contract is something beyond repayment of principal, thus usurious. “All of one’s remaining labor” is different from money, even if it can be traded for money.
    Non-repayment of debt is a contract violation and it is the sovereign who enforces the contract who is authorized to determine the penalty and the terms for repayment. Slavery might be a just punishment in that case.
    The life long contract in itself is different, but then one gets to the question of enforcing such a contract. It is not obvious that the punishment for breaking a life long contract must always justly be slavery, because the damage to the owner is not in actuality “all remaining labor in the slave” but the actual costs accrued and other real damage less the value of labor the worker performed. In which case, the life long contract is an “indeterminable” contract which are still around.

  13. Nice post. Prison labor and the draft show that defining slavery simply as “coerced labor” (probably many people’s instinctive definition) would prove too much if one is trying to show that it is immoral.

    James Chastek has an old post that sounds a similar theme:

    He makes the point that if we restrict our definition of slavery so as not to include slavery as punishment, that implies that slavery is not intrinsically immoral, since intrinsically immoral acts cannot be justly used as punishments in the first place.

    It’s perhaps worth noting that Aristotle defined a slave in the following way:

    To be a slave is to be treated purely instrumentally, not as deserving anything in one’s own right. The reason for treating a slave well, insofar as he is a slave, is always derived from the interests of the master…

    Which does sound intrinsically immoral. The flip side, however, is that a great many things that go by the name of slavery presumably wouldn’t qualify under this definition.

  14. A kind of slavery exists also where a person with lesser talents/means/energy binds himself to a person of greater talent/means/energy. The incursion on the greater person’s privacy and personal safety is tolerated for the labor that can be extracted from the lesser person.

  15. Because the sale would be illusory. Whatever a slave acquires belongs to his owner, because he belongs to his owner. At the moment of sale, the price would belong to the owner. Moreover, any terms of the contract would be unenforceable, because a slave cannot raise an action.

    This is a nice illustration of the point I made above.

  16. >he most popular one simply asserts that slaveowners don’t “recognize the full humanity” of their slaves, whatever that means. It might be more convincing if the abolitionists could show us where slaveowning societies (Roman, Arab, South American, whatever) explicitly claimed that their slaves were not human, but some other nonsentient species.

    I think it is philosophical, not biological humanity, a Kantian ends, not only means.

    No our issue is here that there are different versions of slavery. The Roman version with slaves having no rights. Here we can use Chesterton’s argument: if God given humans universal duties like do not kill, then humans also have a universal right to not be killed.

    But there are versions of slavery where they have rights, they are simply employees who may not quit. This can be defensible: if tenured professors cannot be fired, why are they allowed to quit? And admit it, enslaving (current generation) professors just sounds like a really cute idea :)))

    >Thus, people’s objection is clearly not to slavery per se, but to Whites holding Blacks as slaves in particular.

    No. There are efforts to stop human trafficking from Moldavia and Romania as well. There was much outrage about the Imperial Japanese comfort women. Though this might just be a case of “men should not enslave women”, they enslaved men too (forced labor) but this is not talked that much about.

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