A Philosopher's Blog

Slavery: Consequences & Status

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 19, 2017

While there is a multitude of moral theories, two of the big dogs of ethics are utilitarianism and deontology. John Stuart Mill presents the paradigm of utilitarian ethics: the morality of an action is dependent on the happiness and unhappiness it creates for the morally relevant beings. Moral status, for this sort of utilitarian, is defined in terms of the being’s capacity to experience happiness and unhappiness. Beings count to the degree they can experience these states. Obviously, a being that could not experience either would not count—except to the degree that what happened to it affected beings that could experience happiness and unhappiness. Of course, even a being that has moral status merely gets included in the utilitarian calculation. As such, all beings are means to the ends—namely maximizing happiness and minimizing unhappiness.

Kant, the paradigm deontologist, rejects the utilitarian approach.  Instead, he contends that ethics is a matter of following the correct moral rules. He also contends that rational beings are ends and are not to be treated merely as means to ends. For Kant, the possible moral statuses of a being are binary: rational beings have status as ends, non-rational beings are mere objects and are thus means. As would be expected, these moral theories present two rather different approaches to the ethics of slavery.

For the classic utilitarian, the ethics of slavery would be assessed in terms of the happiness and unhappiness generated by the activities of slavery. On the face of it, an assessment of slavery would seem to result in the conclusion that slavery is morally wrong. After all, slavery typically involve considerable unhappiness on the part of the enslaved. This unhappiness is not only a matter of the usual abuse and exploitation that a slave suffers, but also the general damage to happiness that would tend to arise from being regarded as property rather than a person. While the slave owners are clearly better off than the slaves, the practice of slavery is often harmful to the happiness of the slave owners. As such, the harms of slavery would seem to make it immoral on utilitarian grounds.

It is important to note that for the utilitarian the immorality of slavery is a contingent matter: if enslaving people creates more unhappiness than happiness, then it is wrong. However, if enslaving people were to create more happiness than unhappiness, then it would be morally acceptable. The obvious reply to this is to argue that slavery, by its very nature, would always create more unhappiness than happiness. As such, while the evil of slavery is contingent, it would always turn out to be wrong.

Another interesting counter is to put the burden of proof on those who would claim that such slavery would be wrong. That is, they would need to show that a happy system of slavery was morally wrong. On the face of it, showing that something that created more good than bad is still bad would be challenging. However, there are numerous intuition arguments that aim to do just that. The usual approach is to present a scenario that generates more happiness than unhappiness, but intuitively seems to be wrong—or at least makes one feel morally queasy about the matter. Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is often used in this role. There are also other options, such as arguing within the context of another moral theory. For example, a natural rights theory that included a right to liberty could be used to argue that slavery is wrong because it violates rights—even if happened to be a happy slavery.

A utilitarian can also “bite the bullet” and argue that even if such a happy enslavement might seem intuitively wrong to our sensibilities, this is a mere prejudice on our part—most likely fueled by examples the unhappy slaveries that pervade history. While utilitarian moral theory can obviously be applied to the ethics of slavery, it is not the only word on the matter. As such, I now turn to the Kantian approach.

As noted above, Kant divides reality into two distinct classes of beings. Rational beings exist as ends and to use them solely as means would be, for Kant, morally wrong. Non-rational beings, which includes non-human animals, are mere objects. Interestingly, as I have noted in past essays, Kant does argue that animals should be treated well because treating them badly can incline humans to treat other humans badly. This, I have argued elsewhere, gives animals an ersatz moral status.

On the face of it, under Kant’s theory the very nature of slavery would make it immoral. If persons are rational beings (and rational beings are persons) and that slavery treats slaves as objects, then slavery would be wrong. First, it would involve treating a rational being solely as a means. After all, it seems difficult to imagine that enslaving a person is consistent with treating them as an end rather than as a means. Second, it would also seem to involve a willful category error by treating a rational being (which is not an object) as an object. Slavery would thus be fundamentally incoherent because it purports that non-objects are objects.

Since Kantian ethics do not focus on happiness and unhappiness, even a deliriously happy system of slavery would still be wrong for Kant. Kant does, of course, get criticized because his system relegates non-rational beings into the realm of objects, thus lumping together squirrels and stones, apes and asphalt, tapirs and twigs and so on. As such, if non-rational beings could be enslaved, then this would not matter morally (unless doing so impacted rational beings in negative ways). The easy and obvious reply to this concern is to argue that non-rational beings could not be enslaved because slavery is when people are taken to be property and non-rational beings are not people.

It is, of course, possible to have an account of what it is to be a person that extends personhood beyond rational beings. For example, opponents of abortion often contend that the zygote is a person despite its obvious lack of rationality. Fortunately, it would be easy enough to create a modification of Kant’s theory in which what matters is being a person (however defined) rather than being a rational being.

Thus, utilitarian ethical theories leave open the possibility that slavery could be morally acceptable while under a Kantian account slavery would always seem to be morally wrong.


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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on July 19, 2017 at 8:16 am

    If we had photos of you from every stage of life, from conception to old age, we would see you as a zygote, a child, a young man, a mature man, and old man. You would look very different in each of these photos, but they would all be photos of the same person: You. Your constant reference to “zygote” as though a zygote is some sort of inhuman entity is sophistry. You were once a zygote, and so was I. In fact, every person alive right now was once the size of the period at the end of this sentence. According to your DNA that zygote was everything you are now, including your rationality, because you were nurtured and allowed to continue growing to maturity. Abortion kills people before they can grow to maturity. If a zygote was found in the rubble of the World Trade Center it would be analyzed and declared to be human because of its human DNA. The last time I checked, humans are people. Please stop being a science denier and a sophist when it comes to abortion. You’re smarter than that. Thanks. 😃

  2. DH said, on July 19, 2017 at 11:26 am

    A utilitarian argument has to employ the “greater good” principle, because what might cause the happiness of one might cause the misery of another – and thus an assessment has to be made. Is one person’s happiness more important than another’s? Is there some kind of scale wherein say, it’s OK for an African American to suffer because the happiness of his white counterpart is more important?

    While I would imagine that some, or even many in America before 1865 may have believed this, I don’t think it is a valid utilitarian argument. Numbers, however, figure into Utilitarianism a little differently. Utilitarians would argue that the suffering of a small number of people is moral if it leads to the happiness of a large number.

    The Utilitarian view of slavery is not based on the misery of the slaves, or even the imagined “deliriously happy” system of slavery. It was justified in the 19th century because of “King Cotton”. The invention of the Cotton Gin allowed for the processing of far more of the plant than had ever been done before; the economy of the South was built and dependent upon the ability to pick enough cotton to feed these gins, to trade enough fiber to England and other manufacturing countries to provide for a robust system of trade. Slavery was seen as an economic necessity – the suffering of a few (actually, just under 4 million, or 12% of the population) to support the economic health and well being of the many.

    Politically, slavery figured into our Westward expansion as well – slavery in territories such as Kansas was hotly debated because of the need for more and more land on which to grow cotton, a crop which used huge amounts of land resources and required that vast amounts of land lay fallow in alternate seasons, making it difficult for plantation owners (and the domino-economies of the southern states, the manufacturing states in the North, and international trade for the benefit of the entire US) to keep up with demand. Compromise on the issue of slavery was, and always had been, utilitarian in nature. While it is easy to blame racism for this, I think racism was a convenient excuse for slavery, an easy correlation but not a causation. All one needs to do to support this argument is to look at the economic history of Europe and Asia, which at various times employed the slavery (or indentured servitude or other means) of all sorts of persons for the perceived greater good of the many.

    To the extent that we believe that the United States as it exists today is mostly a good and moral place, that the “pursuit of happiness” is a worthwhile and increasingly achievable goal for 350 million free people, and to the extent that we can make the historically accurate observation that, in large part, the United States was “built on the backs of slaves”, I would argue that in a strict Utilitarian analysis, slavery was a moral institution.

    I feel as though I need to offer a disclaimer here – that I am opposed to slavery in all its forms for a host of reasons on all sorts of levels – my critique here is simply that of a Utilitarian argument, and my belief that you did not take it far enough in your own analysis.

  3. TJB said, on July 19, 2017 at 11:52 am

    It is impossible to measure happiness, or to weigh one person’s happiness against another’s unhappiness.

    It sounds all rational and scientific, but it is nonsense.

  4. TJB said, on July 19, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    If you can’t measure it, you can’t add it, subtract it, or balance it. You can’t do math on something you can’t quantify.

    • DH said, on July 19, 2017 at 1:37 pm

      I think that’s why it comes down to numbers – “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”. You can’t measure the misery of slaves, only assume (probably correctly) that they are as a group miserable. If the misery of 4 million people serves to provide the happiness of 31 million, well, then the utilitarians would call that moral.

      • TJB said, on July 19, 2017 at 2:22 pm

        Bentham: “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”

        It is something like a sum of happiness over people, not just the number of people made happy.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 19, 2017 at 4:56 pm

          That is one thing utilitarians debate: how do you measure the happiness? For example, is it better to have 9 not very happy people and one super happy person, or 10 sort of happy people?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 19, 2017 at 4:46 pm

      You can pretend like you are.

      • DH said, on July 20, 2017 at 6:47 pm

        What is the context of this comment? “You can pretend like you are” … you who? are what?

  5. WTP said, on July 19, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    The interesting thing about Utilitarians is how few of them do anything useful themselves.

    This “greater good” principle, as noted above by DH and especially TJ is extremely subjective. And for anyone to say that they can judge the marginal general happiness of one group of people vs. another let alone pretend to know all the factors involved in creating that happiness requires a God-like arrogance. Of the many, innumerable attempts at quantifying the qualitative, happiness is certainly one of the most absurd to claim to understand except at the most extreme levels.

    One more general observation about Utilitarianism is how often it is promoted by those who favor socialist, and worse, policies. Yet if there is ONE instance where one can make a reasonable guess as to general utilitarian happiness it is by looking at the countries that people leave and to which countries the go to (or aspire to go to). Overwhelmingly, like some form of osmosis, people move from areas of higher socialism to areas of lower socialism, depending on how permeable the borders involved are. You would think that this would inform some Utilitarians. Yet it never has. Prolly never will. Full disclosure, I was watching Dr. Zhivago night before last. That movie always gets my knickers in a snit when I hear socialist utilitarians droning on about improving the general “good”.

  6. DH said, on July 19, 2017 at 1:34 pm

    Although this is off the main topic of slavery, you did bring up the issue of abortion, and AJMacDonald responded to it, so I think the subject is fair game for this discussion.

    It’s a little disingenuous to reduce such a complex issue to such a black and white view … “opponents of abortion often contend that the zygote is a person despite its obvious lack of rationality.” The term “rational” is conveniently fungible for the purpose of this argument, with a definition that can be stretched and molded to fit many points of view. Same with the term “person”. As I indicate below, the application of the test of “rationality” is a dangerous one – we have a significant population of mentally retarded and psychotic individuals in this country who are no more rational than a zygote – so either the underlying reasoning must be adapted or the laws expanded to allow for the “postpartum abortion” of these individuals as well.

    The signature US law on this issue does not use the term “Rational” at all, but rather, “Viable”. Before the first trimester, the law says, the state has no interest in the life of the zygote, fetus, child, or whatever you want to call it – and allows the decision to abort to be left to the mother and her doctor. Beyond the first trimester, however, based on the potential viability of the fetus to survive outside of the womb and its perceived ability to experience pain (and possibly pleasure), the state by law must take an interest. This interest is in protecting the “humanity” of the life within for all of the reasons Kant enumerated – albeit with a slightly different definition.

    One can apply a utilitarian analysis to this – by applying the State’s definition of “viability” and the “pleasure-pain” test in lieu of Kant’s “rationality” test, the law weighs the rights of the “person” in the womb against the convenience of the mother and/or the state – who may end up supporting this life. One very rational debate on this topic regards the moving of this first-trimester “line in the sand” from 24-26 weeks to an earlier 22 weeks, based on medical evidence of viability and the ability of the fetus to feel pain as early as 20 weeks. There have been many children born in advance of the 24-26 week cutoff, with the earliest being 21 weeks. (Her name is Amillia Taylor, and she is now 11 years old).

    On a a side note, having to do with critical thinking and accurate reporting, pro-abortion individuals, institutions like Planned Parenthood, and media instruments like the New York Times routinely refer to this as a “ban” on abortions after 22 weeks or earlier, when in reality it is merely a closer look, based on medical evidence, at the time at which the state would have an interest in the life.

    Of course, the pitchfork-and-torch wielding activists on both sides of this issue care little for critical thinking or rational thought. “At the heart of Kant’s moral philosophy is a conception of reason whose reach in practical affairs goes well beyond that of a Human ‘slave’ to the passions” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Kant’s Moral Philosophy”). Are these passionate protesters to be deemed irrational, and thus non-human?)

    Kant’s Categorical Imperative can be taken the other way as well – all hinging on the definition of “person” which, we have seen, is variable based on the convenience of the one who is using it. One major consideration in Kant’s moral theory as it regards “humanity” is that we are morally obligated to treat “persons” as ends in themselves, not as mere means to an end. Depending on where that “humanity” line is drawn, the termination of a pregnancy can easily be seen as immoral from a CI point of view – it is choosing to terminate a life as a means to an end (the convenience of the mother or the state or both), without regard or respect for the autonomy of that life. One also might argue that some women, in the expectation that additional children will result in increased Welfare payments, are doing the exact same thing.

    On the other hand, if we adopt a more strict view of the definition of “person”, say, that of Kant, we begin a trip down a slippery slope. If we use “rational” or “reason” as the arbiter of personhood, then what of the newborn? Clearly a newborn child is no more possessed of reasoning capabilities than he was mere hours before, simply by virtue of a short trip through a birth canal. And what of mentally retarded or psychotic individuals? Based on Kant’s rather limiting definition of “human”, it could at least be argued that to terminate the lives of these people would be morally acceptable.

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