April 22, 2014

Why is slavery wrong?

A question was posted by b_b on hubski.com recently under the title “An interesting question.”  In the post, the question was expressed:

“I think it's not really going out on a limb to say that the overwhelming majority of reasonable people oppose slavery in this day and age. But, the question made me realize that I'm not sure I'd ever been asked why slavery is bad, but rather, I've always taken it as axiomatic that slavery is morally abhorrent.”

I think it would be fair to paraphrase the question simply as:

     Why is slavery wrong?

I arrived late to the discussion (as usual) and only left a passing remark.  It really is an interesting question though, and quite worth a serious look.  Let’s start with a nice succinct definition of slavery – or at least of the sense in which I will use the term here.

     Slavery is the legitimized institutional practice of holding human beings as property, without recognized rights or legal standing of their own.

While perhaps not perfect, this definition does two immediately useful things.  First, it shears off any muddy arguments about softer forms of influence or coercion.  If the laws of your society recognize that you are an autonomous human being that cannot be legally owned by someone else, then you are not a slave.  Second, it limits our discussion to what a society recognizes as legitimate – and excludes conditions that authorities would punish were they brought to light.  A person locked in some sociopath’s basement may be no better off than a slave, but that person is only a slave so long as his or her condition goes undiscovered.

The first answer I would propose to the question, the introspective one, is entirely uninspiring and unsympathetic.

     I believe slavery is wrong because, as a child, my parents, teachers, and the television taught me it is wrong.

Nasty and banal as this answer sounds, it is not trivial.  I am well aware that if I had been born into an English family in Barbados in the 18th century, a west African family at about the same time, or a Roman family at any point in Rome’s history, I would have almost certainly had a different set of moral standards.  It might be nice to think that my humane instincts would have forced me to find slavery abhorrent, but the plain fact is that most of the people in the groups I have just mentioned accepted it as a legitimate, acceptable institution.  It is important to understand that when we get asked important moral questions we naturally tend to regurgitate the values that our environment has imparted to us.  We want these values to be absolute, but in fact they rarely are.  In case you’re getting nervous already, I do not intend to advocate a moral relativist position regarding slavery.  Systems of social organization have consequences, so it is incorrect to say they are all equal – that one is no better than any other.  All I am saying is that it’s fruitless to congratulate ourselves for absorbing values we were almost certain to absorb.

One line of examination we could pursue, while not really a moral assessment, is to consider slavery from a Darwinian perspective.  By this I don’t mean to cast the slaves themselves as losers in an evolutionary struggle, but rather to ask whether or not slavery does some fatal damage to a society which supports it.  After all, if the institution of slavery couldn’t pass such a Darwinian test, one would have as close to an absolute reason for discarding it as one can expect to get out of nature.  Imagine, as a thought experiment, a society with a moral system that didn’t censure theft or murder in any way.  It is immediately obvious that such a society would not flourish, its members being constantly preoccupied with the security of their property and persons.  Sadly, the historical record shows that slave holding societies have often flourished – provided, of course, that one does not consider the welfare of the slaves themselves to matter in the assessment.  Rome prospered and endured for hundreds of years, as did many other slave holding societies.  The only society that I am aware of that collapsed because it supported slavery was the French colony of Saint-Domingue – which, following a successful slave rebellion, was renamed Haiti.  Again, this is by no means an argument that slavery is good – it is only an argument that slavery is not abhorred by nature.  Nature, it has often been observed, is not noted for compassion.

Again skipping over moral arguments, there is at least one good practical argument against the institution of slavery in modern times.  It has simply been rendered unprofitable by technology.  One big diesel-powered harvester can do the work of dozens, maybe hundreds, of agricultural slaves.  Further, the diesel-powered harvester does not plot to kill the farmer as it lies quietly in its shed at night.  House slaves have been replaced by many labor-saving gadgets run by cheap electric motors.  Why would one want slaves to beat the rugs when one could buy a Hoover – or even a robotic Roomba?  Even in poor societies, the worst of the heavy lifting is now done by uncomplaining mechanical servants.  While human sex trafficking does not meet my technical definition of slavery, it is notable that it accounts for a large fraction of the truly forced labor still performed in the world.  This is one of the few areas that has not been adequately mechanized – though I have no doubt that the Japanese robotics industry is trying.

Asking why anything is wrong, of course, is to ask a moral question.  Even allowing that human beings are very plastic in the kind of things they can consider good or evil, it is still true that some moral systems are innately more stable than others.  Moral systems that are internally coherent are more stable than moral systems that are riddled with contradictions.  It is important to consider that the great majority of people alive today believe, more-or-less deeply, in either some notion of freedom or some notion of equality.  They believe in these ideals not merely as abstractions, but as real conditions, however vaguely understood, that they desire for themselves.  Tolerating the institution of slavery threatens to make either of these ideals incoherent.  Freedom, in the simple sense of being free to act according to one’s own desires, is utterly nullified by slavery.  The essence of slavery is to be the property of someone else – an instrument rather than an autonomous human being.  Equality, too, is made ridiculous by the institution of slavery.  Even the sense of equality that the left and right can generally agree on – equality before the law – is rendered empty when one group of people are not even considered legal persons.

When neither the ideals of freedom nor equality are very general in a society, slavery is not so morally objectionable.  Most people, throughout history, have accepted the particular niches that their circumstances made for them.  The circumstances of a slave were a bit worse than average – but without a vague but powerful idea that everyone should, on the one hand, be free, or, on the other hand, be equal, the fate of the slave was just that – fate. Roman slaves, it should be pointed out, where not recognizable by race or ethnicity.  The Romans didn’t need the notion that someone was inherently less than a person to justify depriving that unlucky individual of autonomy.  It was only after the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality became widespread that would-be slaveholders needed a racial inferiority argument to avoid the troublesome moral incoherence.  Such an argument is adequately sustainable when the slaves are field hands – whom the slave holder only interacted with remotely – but rather fell apart with house slaves – whose humanity the slave holder could not help but constantly observe.  If one could not sustain the idea that slaves were not persons, then one had to reject the idea that personhood carried with it any rights.

While I think that the twin ideals of freedom and equality are largely incompatible with each other, neither is compatible with slavery.  You can only not think slavery is abhorrent if you are capable of thinking in some pre-Enlightenment way, or if you are bereft of moral sentiment altogether.

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