It is generally affirmed among those with a modern western temperament, which I clearly share, that slavery is simply and strictly wrong. As Abraham Lincoln memorably said “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” However, are there any circumstances in which slavery is justified? Consider the following scenario: suppose that in war time where two armies confront each other, one side clearly wins a definitive victory against the other and is left with a choice of either killing all of the soldiers of the opposing defeated army, or else subjugating them, taking away their freedoms and, in essence, enslaving them. It isn’t so clear where our moral intuitions lie in such a case, but it is clear that we have a hard time being absolutists in the face of such a hypothetical scenario. Maybe ‘slavery’ is open for discussion in such rare circumstances; maybe the better thing for the victorious side to do is to enslave the soldiers of the other side, rather than kill them all.
Moreover, having considered prisoners of war, what of prisoners in general? By any definition of slavery I can think of, those criminals who are in jail in Canada or the United States are subjected to a form of slavery (they are forced into their situation of subjugation against their will, the power over them is absolute, and in the U.S. they don’t even have the right to vote). Thus Angela Davis writes:
The 13th Amendment, when it abolished slavery, did so except for convicts. Through the prison system, the vestiges of slavery have persisted.
~Slavery and Prison
Maybe there are ways of differentiating ‘slavery’ from imprisonment – what would they be? I suppose one might say that the institution of prison is one which does not allow anyone to have despotic power over the one subjugated. However, how much power can one have over another before it qualifies as despotic, and must one really have ‘that’ much power over another before it becomes slavery? Somebody may adopt a different strategy and say that slavery has the connotation that the person being enslaved is enslaved through no fault of their own. I’m not sure that’s right in fact, but regardless we can pretend that’s right for the moment. However, is it always the case that an enemy combatant is guilty of some crime? By what standard? Surely not by an international standard, since there is no such thing (or hasn’t been for most of the wars in the course of history). By what standard then? By the standard of the victorious nation? That can’t be right either, since the victors are not always the just (might does not make right). Not only does the term slavery insinuate nothing at all about culpability, but even if it did, if it were always and everywhere wrong, then nothing would allow us to justify taking enemy soldiers as prisoners of war. Note that they can’t be said to be culpable for ‘fighting’ us, since they may not be responsible for the situation in which they find themselves, as when a man (or woman) is drafted in wartime. Moreover, even in the case that in some war the unjust side should win, and the soldiers subjugated to them don’t in any way deserve to be subjugated, the unjust army would be justified in taking prisoners of war. It seems to follow that under the right conditions we can justify subjugation indifferentiable from slavery.
Some have suggested that the difference between being a slave and being a prisoner is merely a matter of psychology, so that some slaves in the ancient world were prisoners, and some prisoners today are slaves. This is superficial at best though, and a distinction without a moral difference at worst. Some have tried to use this distinction to distinguish slavery from employment (here), and Nozick famously argued that even taxation is a form of slavery! The consequences of this thought process seem wild, but such arguments raise serious questions about how we define slavery, and whether we really are able to distinguish it from other phenomena as something any instance of which is unconscionable.
Perhaps the difference lies in the ideal that a slave is reckoned as a piece of property; but against this consider that a state or nation will often fail to hand a criminal foreigner over to her nation on the grounds that she is ‘their prisoner’, as though they own her. It may be suggested that one can do whatever one wants with one’s property, and we might hereby locate a difference between a prisoner of the state, and a slave. Perhaps a prisoner could never have certain rights taken from them, such as the right not to be tortured for fun. However, if we define slavery as being in a state where, potentially, one can be tortured for the amusement of the master then it seems we make slavery always and everywhere wrong, but for the ‘wrong’ reasons (namely, because of torture rather than because of ‘slavery’ per se). Moreover, that seems like a gerrymandered definition of slavery, engineered to suit our sensibilities rather than take the problem at hand seriously. Would we really say that slave-owners who were subject to laws forbidding the torture of their ‘slaves’ weren’t really slave-owners, or that they didn’t really have ‘slaves’? I doubt it.
Perhaps the difference is that prisoners are merely detained, while slaves are ‘put to work’ so to speak. However, if a master does not command his slave to do anything for him for an indefinite or extended period of time, is he not still his slave and always at his disposal in that capacity? Moreover, often prisoners are put to work against their will for unequal wages (to say the least). Thus the distinction is blurred until no sense can be made of it. What avenue do we have left? I’m not sure I see one. Thus, the conclusion seems to be that the axiom that ‘slavery is wrong per se‘ isn’t above reproach.
John Locke argues that the only condition in which slavery might be justified is if one man tries to enslave another (unjustly) and we enslave him. He has, by trying to take the life, liberties or property of another, and thus infringing on their rights, forfeited his right of being regarded as a rational person, and instead has likened himself to a lion or a snake, or some other such animal. Thus, it is not unjustified for us to enslave him, (i.e., to imprison him, assert our total command over him and do with him as we see fit, including killing him via capital punishment). This seems to be the Lockean justification for slavery/prison. As I pointed out in a previous post, Locke has a definition of slavery precise enough even to exclude most of the instances of Old Testament ‘slavery’ (since he wants to call that drudgery), yet when it comes to convicts of the commonwealth, it seems that they can be justifiably taken as the slaves of the commonwealth. Locke seems to be giving simultaneously a justification for both ‘slavery’ and ‘prison’.
Before I bring this thought to a close and put a bow on this discussion, so to speak, I feel compelled to say something as an aside about the way this might relate to Christian apologetics. I note that I wrap up in this way to register some concerns I have with this issue, and though they arouse a great deal of emotional antimony, I feel compelled to note the following in the spirit of intellectual honesty. On the one hand, neither I nor any reasonable person (or reasonable modern person) wants to condone, much less promote, slavery. On the other hand I do believe in the truth of the Christian worldview, and there may be a challenge here to my modernist sensibilities in some sense. Clearly the Bible doesn’t explicitly condone or promote slavery, but there are laws in the Torah which are intended to regulate slavery. Those laws, when compared with other ancient near eastern customs and practices surrounding slavery clearly aim in some sense towards the betterment of the social conditions under which slaves live their lives. There is clearly a sense in which the Christian rightly argues that, social conditions being what they were, the only practicable justice possible, even if it fell short of purely ‘ideal’ justice (which would be utopic), was one which i) greatly improved the social conditions of slaves, and ii) provided principles which set a trajectory towards, and provided the impetus for, the abolition of slavery as a social institution and political reality. We should not forget that where the liberation theologians go right is precisely at this point: that even today we have not managed to create a human society in which there has been no institutionalization of evil, but even so the Gospel gives us the resources for, and acts as the catalyst for, the kind of social reform and progress envisioned by the Christian ideal. I don’t want to go too far in step with the liberation theologian (at some point I think they step off the cliff of the kerygma of Christian faith), but I do want to acknowledge what truth I find in their theology. Now, bearing all these apologetic points in mind, it seems to me that given that the Torah regulates slavery, it obviously assumes that slavery is a politically ‘tolerable’ institution under certain non-ideal conditions. If slavery were truly morally intolerable, then it is not possible that God had any morally sufficient reason for tolerating the institution (which, if God inspired scripture, he did). As conditions change, so do the practicable imperatives of justice. What cannot practicably be changed given a set of conditions, however, cannot be an imperative of justice (since an ‘ought’ always implies a ‘can’). So, what I seem to be committed to saying, if I am a Christian, is that there may be non-ideal social conditions which make the institution of slavery a politically tolerable institution; one which, if it cannot be abolished, can at least be regulated to some beneficent effect. So then, as a Christian, I find that I cannot strictly and dogmatically say that slavery is morally unconscionable and politically intolerable in any and all non-ideal circumstances. However, as I tried to demonstrate by intellectual exploration in this post, I think even the secular humanist is not able to strictly and dogmatically say that slavery is morally unconscionable and politically intolerable in any and all non-ideal circumstances. It just seems that that claim cannot be cashed out, as it were, regardless of how emotionally attached to it both the secular humanist and the Christian happen to be. Two things follow from this, it seems. First, the secular humanist gains no ‘moral’ advantage over the Christian by pointing out that the Bible tolerates slavery, and second, no moral argument against the truth of Christianity can be purchased from the fact that the Bible regulates slavery, or prescribes regulative norms for slavery under non-ideal conditions.