Why is slavery immoral?
I have written a number of posts recently on slavery. This topic is popular amongst atheists and is a common point of criticism of the Bible and of Christianity. For example, I recently heard Matt Dillahunty speak about how he goes to slavery to show the immorality of the Bible and also as a tactic to weaken the believers faith.
Many atheists assert that slavery is ‘just wrong’. Now I tend to agree with that statement, but I want to ask a further and even more important question – why?
Why is slavery wrong? Why do we consider slavery immoral today?
It’s fine for Dillahunty and other atheists to assert that slavery is ‘just wrong’, but they need to be able to justify this in a robust and coherent way and I’m unconvinced that atheism offers the intellectual and moral framework to do this.
1. Is it because ‘it just is’?
We could start from a deontological ethical perspective and assert that slavery is ‘just wrong’. But the response to that statement is, but then who says? Who determines that it’s right or not? There is no justification here other than the one who has the most power. We are then left simply on the plane of men. As atheist Sartre writes:
“There can no longer be any good, a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that ‘the good’ exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men.”
Hence there can be no longer any condemnation of slavery a priori, because there is nowhere written that slavery is wrong.
Furthermore, most humans for most of history have regarded slavery as ‘normal’. Aristotle regarded slaves as natural based on rationality (and he had similar justifications for the inferiority of women). So it cannot be ‘self-evident’ that slavery is wrong, indeed one could justifiably alternatively assert, based on the history of humanity, that slavery is self-evidentially natural!
Hence, the atheist cannot justify the immorality of slavery from a pure deontological perspective – i.e. it is just wrong. There is no ethical ground for the atheist to stand on here. So how can an atheist who dispenses with an objective deontological moral framework condemn slavery as immoral?
2. Is it because it fails to maximise wellbeing?
Many atheists recognise the difficulty of justifying a deontological ethic and hence (like Dillahunty and Sam Harris) propose an alternative utilitarian ethical framework based on the wellbeing of conscious creatures. In this framework it could be argued that slavery diminishes wellbeing and hence can be regarded as immoral, or more correctly as being less conducive to human flourishing (as it’s unclear if there is ever an ‘immoral’ category in a utilitarian ethic, simply better or worse).
I’ve written extensively on the weaknesses of utilitarian ethics in my review of The Moral Landscape and it is far from clear that slavery could be regarded as immoral, or even as detrimental to human flourishing. Indeed, as the illustration of the Hunger Games demonstrates slavery could be justified for the overall peace, prosperity and flourishing of Panem (and particularly for the important people in the Capitol). Hence rather than condemning slavery, a utilitarian case could be mounted for slavery, which is further illustrated by Melania and her slaves (which I outlined here) In this situation a wealthy woman divested herself of 8,000 slaves who would then be free but destitute (they had a comfortable life as a slave), demonstrates that it’s far from clear that a utilitarian ethical framework would lead to the denunciation of slavery.
At best utilitarianism can only suggest that slavery is not conducive to flourishing (it cannot condemn it as ‘immoral’) at worst it could be used to justify slavery.
So at this point the atheist is left with a problem. Slavery appears to be wrong, yet there is no clear way for the atheist to justify its condemnation. Therefore why is slavery immoral?
3. Why do we consider slavery wrong today?
I wrote about why we consider slavery immoral in this post where I argue along with renowned sociologist Rodney Stark that,
‘Just as science arose only once, so, too, did effective moral opposition to slavery. Christian theology was essential to both’.
The principles underlying the condemnation of slavery revolve around the equality and dignity of all people. This was the primary motivational force of leading 18th Century abolitionist William Wilberforce who viewed all people as ‘made in the image of God’. God treats ALL equally. This is fundamentally opposed to Aristotle’s view that slavery is ‘natural’ and also stands in contradiction to atheism which cannot justify nor defend the equality of humanity. The seeds of slavery’s overthrow are here in Christian theology.
The primary reason today we accept that slavery is wrong and not ‘natural’ is because we have been influenced by a profoundly Christian view of the world. The Bible may not outline a six point plan to overthrow slavery but it plants the seeds of its demise by affirming that absolute equality and dignity of all people – slave or free. This was something that no other ideology ever did and explains why we today consider slavery immoral.
Interestingly, I wonder if Matt Dillahunty would accuse William Wilberforce of hypocrisy by advocating the overthrow of slavery? Or perhaps atheists like Dillahunty misunderstand the contours and trajectory of the biblical message which Wilberforce grasped?
Why does an atheist consider slavery immoral?
So, apart from Christian theology, why do atheists consider slavery immoral? And more crucially, how can this be justified?