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The utilitarian argument for slavery

April 2, 2015

Utilitarian ethicists like Sam Harris propose that questions of morality are essentially about the maximisation of ‘well-being’ of conscious creatures. This is where the “good” is ‘that which supports well-being’ and ‘values’ are the ‘set of attitudes, choices and behaviors that potentially affect our well-being’. Hence the ethical response in any thing situation is to maximise ‘well-being’.

I’ve written an extensive series of posts engaging the arguments of Sam Harris and his moral landscape utilitarian framework here. This kind of ethical framework has proved to be very popular with many atheist thinkers including Richard Dawkins, Matt Dillahunty and others.

Interestingly these same atheist thinkers also propose that slavery is clearly and objectively wrong – slavery fails to maximise the well-being of conscious creatures. I’ve written part of a response to that when I engaged the Hunger Games with Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape theory. I was stimulated to think about this recently with the recent visit to Australia by the Unholy Trinity where Matt Dillahunty used slavery as a clear example of failed biblical morality.

Yet history reveals that this assessment of slavery is too simple – particularly when adopting a utilitarian ethical framework.

I recently stumbled across the story of Melania, a Roman noblewoman who lived in Augustine’s day (4th to 5th Century). She tried to divest herself of 8.000 slaves so that she could go into the ascetic life with nothing. Yet this became a shock to her devoted staff whose own way of life was entirely tied to her estates. The impact of divesting so many slaves at once is analogous to a potential socio-economic crisis now when a major employer closes the factory.

In the ancient world where there was no such thing as social security and hence once Melania divested herself of her slaves, these people would have been impoverished. They would have been free but destitute. Hence Melania’s decision had profound social and economic implications for her slaves. Whilst her slaves remained enslaved (a situation they seemed quite content with) they were provided for.

So is slavery clearly and objectively wrong in this case?

It’s very difficult to determine and the situation is complex. This example does demonstrate that slavery did actually serve as a quasi-social security function at one point in human history.

In this situation it seems clear that the utilitarian, attempting to maximise overall well-being, would propose that Melania keep her slaves and avoid the ascetic life. Utilitarianism would make a clear argument for slavery.

The example of Melania demonstrates that the whole slavery question is more complex than sometimes our simplistic analyses provide. Greater nuance and reflection is required.

N.B. The Greek life of Melania is edited with French translation by D.Gorce (Paris 1962). The story of Melania was brought to my attention by renowned historian Prof. Edwin Judge.

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  1. Why is slavery immoral? | Atheist Forum

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