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Why is slavery immoral?

May 1, 2015

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?

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From → Comment, Ethics, Slavery

7 Comments
  1. There are a few oversights in here, Rob.
    On the utilitarian approach to well-being, I’m sure Matt Dillahunty could explain this far better than me. However, if we were to have an agreed ethical system for maximising well-being with an implicit (or indeed, explicit) recognition of the equality of all individuals, then clearly slavery – understood as the ownership of a human being by another – breaks that ethical system. Even if all slave owners were benevolent, the rule of equality is broken because you have some individuals with more intrinsic freedoms than others. If someone was beholden to someone else by virtue of being owned – even if the owner never exercised any of their ownership rights, then you don’t have an egalitarian system. I would have thought this point was self-evident.

    Now, if you were to suggest some hypothetical ethical system in which disadvantaged people were financially supported by those well-off in society, you don’t necessarily have to have slavery. Indeed, say the constitution of that society not only recognised said economic support (and perhaps even made it a legal obligation), but also recognised the intrinsic freedoms of all individuals, then what you have clearly isn’t slavery. The word means, explicitly, ownership of people, and that implies inequality in basic freedoms and rights.

    On William Wilberforce, I have no doubt he was a wonderful Christian individual, and perhaps instrumental in the abolition of slavery. However, what I do doubt are the details of his motives. I suspect he was far more strongly motivated – overwhelmingly so, in fact – by the deaths, misery and other horrors of the slave trade. This is a crucial, basic point that is neglected with stunning ignorance by apologists who want to insist that somehow Christian biblical teachings lead to the conclusion that slavery is bad. Christian biblical teachings effectively endorse slavery. (And of course the OT actually contains instructions on how to do it properly.)
    Furthermore, if the biblical teachings somehow show that slavery is wrong, then why did it take 1800-years for this point to become obvious? If slavery really is wrong according to Christians, then why didn’t they lobby for its biblically-taught abolition from 35 AD onwards?
    Slavery wasn’t abolished because of biblical teachings. It was abolished in spite of them, and perhaps would have happened sooner if our enlightened cultures had jettisoned Christian dogma earlier in our collective history.

    Finally, one point on the natural, “absolute equality” of all people. Does the bible actually say this anywhere? Are there parts of bible that explicitly teach that God sees all people as naturally equal?
    If it’s there, I’d genuinely like to understand how Calvanist Christians can reconcile this apparent natural equality (assuming that it’s true) with the concept of the ‘Elect’. If some of us (in fact, the majority of all humans who have ever lived) are headed for eternal suffering in hell, for reasons which are, by and large, rather arbitrary (or at best poorly explained or inscrutable to nearly all of us), how can this look like “absolute equality and dignity” to anyone? If God truly saw all human beings as equal, then he’d ensure all souls would avoid eternal suffering once they left their earthly bodies, regardless of the opportunities they had to know and accept Jesus in life. (See comments on this point in previous post.) The concept of the Elect demonstrates that biblical equality of all people is a lie.

    • “If God saw all human being as equal” and if he respected their humanity, he would have made salvation available to all. But wait! He did. If you read Romans 1 carefully, you’ll find that all men everywhere and at every time in human history have a knowledge of God. That includes before Jesus and those who have lived since but have had no knowledge of Jesus. It is to that knowledge they will be accountable.

      But can one of those people be saved? Well, obviously they can. Abraham is called the father of faith. And what did he know? He knew nothing of Jesus. You could list all of the faithful in Hebrews 11 as well. They knew nothing of Jesus.
      So could a man or woman born into a pagan culture be saved? Even if we discount Abraham who was certainly born into a pagan culture, the answer is yes. The conditions are faith in God’s mercy and their actions – as in Romans 1 – that reveal their faith.

      The issue of the “Elect” is no as simple as you make it out to be. It has to do with God’s knowledge of our future. If I may co-opt Stephen Hawking’s “imaginary time,” God lives in that time that encompasses all of our linear time. He knows what we will do in our future because he is already there.

      That being so election is based on our actions not our actions on God’s election. Notice in Genesis 22:12 when God says to Abraham “now I know that you fear God” he is saying that he knows because what he sees Abraham do. Did God not know before? No. He did not. Yet because God lives in eternal or imaginary time he knows what Abraham does eternally.

      Since we live in linear time, that sounds like knowing in advance. But it is not to God. There is no “advance” for God.

      Theologically we define God’s omniscience as his knowing all things both actual and potential. But he does not know the actual until they actually happen. So speaking in linear time, God knew Abraham potentially would obey him, but he did not know in the actual until Abraham did.

      It is that which makes election not deterministic. You and every living person may yet turn toward God; he is not forcing you nor is he forbidding you by election. “Whosoever will” may come to God.

  2. I’m not a utilitarian although I do believe that what underpins any concept of morality is the aim of ameliorating the potential misery of the human condition. All morality must be general, so if you allow that slavery is an acceptable way of treating some, you must find some relevant way of distinguishing yourself from the “some” or accept that it would be equally acceptable for you to be enslaved. The idea that we might be made slaves will make us afraid for ourselves and our families and to avoid this worrying thought, we have agreed that slavery is not an acceptable way to treat anyone.

    That’s very much a thumbnail sketch. It’s not possible to set out a whole moral theory within the confines of a blog thread, but that’s about as clear as I can make it without it running to a five volume treatise.

    I can’t see what role God plays in this. Why is the theist any better off than the atheist? If it’s based on all people being equal,then why can’t an atheist view all people as equal every bit as much as a theist?

    Is slavery wrong just because God says so? That seems arbitrary. But if God had his reasons, then it’s the reasons which make it wrong, not God’s say so. And as Skept points out, he’s never said so very clearly. In fact, if anything he seems to have said the precise opposite. I am struggling to see how a book which specifically teaches that you can beat another human being to death without any penalty, just as long as it takes them more than 24 hours to die, is somehow preaching the equality of all humans.

  3. John permalink

    Who ‘s writting about all this silly god stuff LOLOLOLOL . THis is funny LOLOL

  4. I’m an atheist and i do believe that slavery is immoral because is something i do not want to be done to me or anyone, inflicts pain onto others and makes slave owners lazy and demanding.

    …The Jewish and Christian bible do makes slavery as a positive moral value, Fathers could sold their children, specially girls and also stealing in some cases specially little virgin girls from battles with other tribes that could be as sexual slaves are referenced as positive.

    Also slavery fosters lazynes in the slave owners, those are basically lazy people that want things that they can’t get by their own and they need others to do for them so instead of working hard for it they force others to do it, and lazyness is considered by most as an anti-value, even is one capital sin for most religions.

  5. Philip Wraight permalink

    SLAVERY!, in any form, is absolutely abhorrent!, nothing more needs to be said!!!.

  6. ftbond permalink

    Is it immoral for a cat to “own” a mouse? Even if it’s only for the brief period of time before the cat *eats* the mouse?

    If it’s not immoral for the cat to do so, then what precisely is the argument for saying it’s somehow immoral for a human to own a cow? Or, for that matter, for a human to own another human?

    The naturalist, the atheist, need to come to grips with this: If we are simply “creatures of nature”, then there can be no basis whatsoever for an “a priori” declaration that slavery is immoral.

    Human “feelings” notwithstanding – including those that say “well, I know I wouldn’t want to be a slave”. I’m sure the mouse, captured by the cat, would also say “well, I know I sure don’t like this”. But, that’s nature. That’s the way things work. Some eat, some get eaten. There’s no intrinsic “morality” to any of it. You can’t drag “morality” out of nature; the best you can do is admit to certain preferences. (I’m sure the mouse would prefer not to get eaten by the cat. This does not make the cat immoral for eating the mouse, though, does it?)

    It’s great that an atheist can throw the “slavery argument” out against an unsuspecting and uneducated Christian, but the fact of the matter is, all a Christian – or anyone, for that matter – has to do is say “show me where it’s written ‘in nature’ that slavery is wrong”. At least the God of the Hebrews put some real regulation on it (and, frankly, they’re much more restricting than what the typical atheist thinks, based on the reading of a few choice scriptures). And, at least, Jesus said “He (God) has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,… to set free the oppressed, and to declare the favorable year of our Lord” (which was a year of Jubilee, a time in which debts were to be negated, and slaves were to be freed).

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