Is slavery bad or immoral?

Video Version

Video Notes for slavery video: Hello, I believe slavery is immoral, but I know there are many fallacious arguments for why it is immoral. In this video, I will present some popular- but bad- arguments against slavery, as well as some good arguments. My hope is to not only deepen and clarify moral opinions on this issue, but to also shed light on the nature of moral reasoning itself. At the end of the video, I will explain why I think slavery is wrong.

To begin, let's define slavery as the buying and selling of human beings for forced and unpaid labor. While there are various types of slavery, I will focus mostly on this type.

Now, this type of slavery (i.e. owning human beings for forced labor) has occurred in most places and times. Most people think it is wrong, but what exactly makes it wrong? To find out, let's start by discussing why some bad arguments are bad.

  1. Slavery is ok because it is natural. Or, slavery is bad because it is unnatural.

The problem is these arguments have bad inferences; they commit the appeal to nature fallacy. Even if we assumed slavery is natural, it would not thereby be good. Even if we assumed it unnatural, it is not necessarily bad. Not all natural things are good and not all unnatural things are bad.  To think otherwise is to commit the appeal to nature fallacy. To better understand the appeal to nature fallacy, see my video called 22 Common Fallacies or the video called Evolution and Ethics.

As a sidenote, it is interesting that Charles Darwin speculated that slavery may be natural in some species, especially in ants. But Darwin and his family were strongly opposed to the human institution of slavery. In short, Darwin did not derive his morality from ants... or uncles… he did not commit the appeal to nature fallacy.

2. Slavery is ok because it has been practiced at all times and places. 

Again, one problem with this argument is the inference. Even if we assume it is true that all people have practiced it or thought it good, it is fallacious to thereby think it good.  This is the appeal to tradition fallacy and reflects a superficial understanding of moral reasoning. The fact that a group of people have always believed something to be true or good does not make it so. To think otherwise is to oversimplify moral reasoning.  

The other problem with this argument is the premise is false. In places where slavery existed, there have been intelligent and caring people who resisted it in both thought and action. If you look hard enough at the primary sources, you will find people opposing slavery in all cultures and times. In short, it is historically simplistic to argue most people have supported slavery and it is logically fallacious to argue that slavery should be considered good if most people thought it was good. 

Of course these criticisms also mean the following argument is fallacious: "we have always thought slavery bad, so it is.”

  1. Slavery is wrong because everyone nowadays thinks it is wrong. Or, slavery is wrong because my society says it is wrong.

Sadly, this is the best argument many people have nowadays, but this argument is based on a superficial understanding of moral reasoning. It is also the ad populum fallacy.  The fact that your society approves or disapproves of an action is not a good reason for your belief, it is merely a cause. Now, Argument 3 is sometimes associated with relativism, but intelligent relativists simply don't argue in this way. It is only a crude and superficial relativist who argues that all moral values come from culture alone. These superficial relativists ignore the role that biology, reasoning, intuition, empathy, and scientific facts play in morality. The more intelligent relativist, as we will see later, does not believe slavery is wrong simply because a society disapproves. Again, the fact that your society believes an action true or good does not make it so. Don't be afraid to think for yourself, as many abolitionists did.

Of course, this means the argument that "slavery is good because everyone thinks so" is also fallacious, an ad populum fallacy. 

  1. Slavery is wrong because it is just wrong. 

This argument is poor because it is the fallacy of circular reasoning. 

If someone is screaming and expressing emotion while saying it, it is still the fallacy of begging the question or circular reasoning... and may also be the fallacy of appealing to emotion.

Of course, the argument that "slavery is right because it is just right" is just as bad; it too is the fallacy of circular reasoning. 

  1. Slavery is legal, so it is ok. 

This argument confuses the legal and moral. If people are getting their morality from the law, then they are not thinking well. A moment's reflection should help them see that there are many acts they think are immoral but are legal (e.g. adultery, charging excessive interest rates), and many acts they think are moral but are illegal (e.g. harboring a fugitive). 

Of course, the modern argument that "slavery is illegal, so it is wrong" is poor for the same reasons. 

Still, it is interesting how often people fallaciously appeal to the law. For example, many defenders of slavery in the 19th Century used the Dred Scott Decision to further support their moral claim that all blacks - not just slaves- should be considered property, not persons. And I have encountered many young people who argue the slavery is wrong simply because contemporary law says so, which I find this a bit frightening. The bottom line is law and morality are not identical. I hope you will develop reasoned moral opinions and use them to judge the law, not simply surrender your morality to the will of the majority or whoever happens to be making the law. In short, the morality or immorality of slavery cannot be justified by appealing to the law.

  1. Slaves are better off as slaves, so slavery is ok. 

This too is an interesting argument used in the 19th Century. Slaveowners argued slaves were better off because they did not have the skills to survive well in freedom. Some argued that slavery is better than death, so it is better to remain a slave. 

Of course, the problem with such arguments is they have things backwards. The fact that slaves have only two options of slavery or death does not justify the practice of slavery, rather it condemns the society that only presents two options. 

Also, notice the slaveowner is committing the appeal to force fallacy if he ever argued the slave must accept slavery as good or be killed. 

The other problem with argument 6 is the first premise is false, slaves were not- and are not- better off as slaves. Many slaves had skills or were smart enough to learn them. They were not naturally inferior, no matter what scientists of the time thought. When a group of people are denied opportunities, they will lack skills. It is backwards to argue they are denied opportunities BECAUSE they lack certain skills. And only a person who refuses to use their imagination or intellect would argue that slaves are better off as slaves. That is, it takes little imagination to imagine a better life for slaves. 

In short, there are two major problems with this argument: 1) they are not better off as slaves, and 2) if they are better off, then that is a condemnation of the society, not a justification of slavery. 

  1. The slaves were weaker and that's why they were enslaved. Slaves got what they deserved. 

There are at least two problems with the inference in this argument. First, it seems to be an appeal to nature fallacy since the argument is essentially "You are naturally a slave, so you should be a slave." Second, the person presenting this argument is using the principle of "might makes right." The problem here is most people, when pressed, don't really believe this principle. For example, they don't believe the father is justified in doing whatever he wants to his son simply because the father is stronger/mightier. You would probably object if I beat my son and locked him in a basement and then said, "What! What's the problem? Might makes right. Survival of the fittest, yeh!"

The other problem is the premise is dubious. That is, it is dubious whether they are weaker in an innate sense. If the slave were raised in the environment with the advantages of the slaveowner, it would often be the case that the slave is just as strong if not stronger. They are not innately weak, stupid or what have you, and yet many proslavery arguments appeal to some innate quality of slaves. 

Of course, there are other forms of slavery that do not appeal to race, ethnicity, or some form of innate intelligence... as when a soldier is captured in war and made a slave. In that case, the soldier may not be considered innately inferior, but he lost and is now a slave. Still, it doesn't follow that the slaveowner has the right to enslave him. If you think otherwise, it is because you believe "might makes right" and we have already seen the problems with that argument. In short, argument 7 is poor because slaves are not innately inferior and-even if they were- it is inconsistent for most to argue might makes right. 

Before proceeding, it is useful to pause and reflect on your own moral opinions. Are you using these same bad arguments on issues like abortion, animal welfare, genetic engineering, war, and so on? As we proceed, ask yourself whether the arguments you use on other moral issues can be used to justify slavery? Were your arguments used by slave owners?  If so, I recommend revisiting those arguments. 

At this point, I am going to introduce new arguments and give you a way to organize your arguments better. The organization will be based on the ethical principle students study in university level ethics classes.  The first principle is utilitarianism.

8. Utilitarianism

Utilitarians believe we should maximize the greatest happiness for the greatest number. That is, they believe the right act promotes the general welfare which is equated with total human happiness. Both slaveowners and abolitionists used utilitarian arguments. 

The slaveowners argued that freeing the slaves would have negative economic consequences. The job market would be flooded with free slaves and this would drive wages down. This is one reason why even many northerners were against freeing the slaves. They also argued freeing the slaves would lead to revolutions and bloodshed.  "They pointed to the mob's "rule of terror" during the French Revolution and argued for the continuation of the status quo, which was providing for affluence and stability for the slaveholding class and for all free people who enjoyed the bounty of the slave society" ( They argued that cotton, rice, and tobacco crops would no longer be profitable if the slaves were freed. They noted that the South had four million slaves and that the success of the norther economy was based on cheap cotton, and it was slavery that kept the cotton cheap. In short, the slaveowners had many powerful utilitarian arguments. If I only used utilitarian arguments, I might think slavery good at the time... or at least hesitate in my condemnation of slavery.

Of course, the abolitionists also used utilitarian arguments. They argued slavery leads to less total happiness than a free society. They argued a free society is more stable in the long run because there is less repression and therefore less revolution and bloodshed. Furthermore, they argued that freeing the slaves could actually, in the long run, increase the number of businesses and improve the quality of jobs over time. In short, both sides used economic and utilitarian arguments to bolster their views. And, yes, people continue to do this today on issues like immigration, war, and even abortion.

One problem with these utilitarian arguments is that nobody really knows the future very well. Will freeing the slaves increase or decrease the economic power of the U.S. in the long run? Whatever you believe, you could find an economist with a complex argument to bolster it.

Of course, utilitarians will protest. They will distinguish between act and rule utilitarianism, and first and second order utilitarianism. But the fact is that most people used utilitarian arguments both for and against slavery and other injustices, and it's not often clear which arguments are better. In short, there seems more to morality than economics or the utilitarian concern with maximizing the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Again, the problem, in this case, is that utilitarianism alone fails to condemn or prohibit slavery. Both sides then want something stronger than utilitarian arguments and so the debate shifts to the deontological. 

9. Deontological Ethics

Deontological arguments often arise in your conscience when you think of duties, rights, and fairness. Utilitarians may argue these ideas are based on utilitarianism, but that is an abstract debate I will not enter since this video is about the reasons why the common person should or should not enslave other human beings. 

Most deontologists argue that slavery is wrong because it violates a person's rights. They believe everyone has a right to life and to choose how they will live within the rules of society. Deontologists believe it is wrong to treat people merely as objects and tools, to treat people merely as a means to end. 

So, slavery is wrong because it violates rights, fairness, and justice. It does not matter if slavery has good or bad economic consequences, it is wrong period. It does not matter if slavery promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number, it is wrong because it violates the rights of one human being. This, I think, is one of the stronger arguments the practical person has against slavery. 

But slaveowners have replies. They may argue against the idea of rights. After all, you cannot see a right like you can see a chair or a tree. Rights are simply fictions we create and can, therefore, destroy. I will address this interesting reply later, it is a reply that begins a metaethical discussion.

For now, I will simply say that most slaveowners argued in a different way. They claimed to respect rights and the dignity of humanity, but they still defended slavery. One way they did this is by arguing that the slave races were inferior and therefore not fully human. Indeed, many slaveholders used the argument that african americans were biologically inferior to their masters. "During the 1800s, this argument was taken quite seriously, even in scientific circles" (USHistory.Org). Since slaves weren't fully human, they did not have rights. This should give you pause whenever you try to base an ethical argument solely on a scientific claim, as we shall see shortly.

Another way they argued for slavery while still giving lip service to rights was by appealing to religion, which is an approach often associated with rights, fairness, and justice (i.e. deontological ethics). So, let's turn to religion.

10. Religious Arguments

 Both sides used religious arguments, and the same is true today on the major moral issues. Let's first examine the religious arguments in support of slavery. 

Slaveowners noted that Abraham had slaves. The Ten Commandments say we shouldn't covet our neighbor's "manservant." Jesus never spoke out against slavery even though it was widespread at the time. Slaveowners also appealed to those sections of the Bible that spoke about how to treat your slaves.  In short, slaveowners argued the bible regulated slavery, it did not prohibit it. Check out the link in the description below to explore the primary sources.  If you examine them, I think you will be surprised at how clever the proslavery arguments were, regardless of whether they appeal to religion. 

Of course, abolitionists used religion to argue against slavery. If you read the autiobiography of Frederick Douglas, you will find that he is quite religious and used belief in God to argue against slavery. He also condemned the religious slaveowner as hypocritical and "not truly christian." Indeed, it seems most abolitionists in the 19th Century were religious and used their religious beliefs to argue against slavery and other forms of injustice. Later in the 20th Century, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. also appealed to religious ideals. These religious leaders believed we are all children of God and that every life is infinitely valuable. Many were not biblical literalists or fundamentalists because they did not derive their morality from the words of the bible alone, but also appealed to their god-given conscience, intuition, empathy, and ability to reason. They argued every human being has dignity and rights and should be respected. That is, they used their religious values to bolster their moral beliefs in rights, justice, fairness, the infinite value of each person, and other deontological notions.

In short, the primary sources show that both sides used religion in the 19th Century. From this perspective, appealing to religious authorities is not logically persuasive, and most religious arguments appealed to authority. If you are religious, it seems to me the best question to ask is, "Why does God think slavery is right or wrong?" When this question is asked, the intelligent religious person will give reasons for their beliefs, not simply appeals to authority. This then leads to all the other arguments we are exploring in this video.  In short, I do not believe religious appeals to authority should be considered a good argument in moral debates... and even intelligent religious people agree on this point. I think it is fair to appeal to empathy and rights and other matters that may be bolstered by some forms of religion and hindered by other forms of religion, but simple appeals to religious authority are weak for many reasons.

Before addressing the next argument, it is useful to think about how the nature of moral reasoning hasn't changed much. On all major moral issues, people still appeal to religion and science in sloppy and fallacious ways to defend their views. People still use utilitarianism to rationalize their moral intuitions, and people still appeal to rights without having a clear meaning of rights.  Ok, let's look at the next ethical theory.

11. Ethical egoism

 Ethical egoism is the idea that the right act is the one that is in your self-interest. So, is slavery in your self-interest?

Well, it seems obvious that slaveowners will argue that enslaving a minority is in their self-interest. The slaveowners need not do the work themselves and this gives them more time to sit on the porch to read and tell stories... or to do philosophy, science or what have you.

Of course, the abolitionist has replies. First, they can argue morality is not solely based on self-interest. That is, there is a problem with the inference in argument 10 because some acts are wrong even if they are in your self-interest (egoism). Perhaps, the best experiences in life arise when we stop exclusively pursuing our own self-interests to truly consider and care for the interests of another human being? For now, I will simply say that self-love is a virtue, but it is not the only virtue. That is, self-interest alone cannot justify slavery because not all of your morality is based on self-interest. To better understand the weaknesses of ethical egoism, watch my video called "ethical egoism lecture."

However, let's say you are an ethical egoist and you choose to always act self-interestedly. If that is the case, you have a reply to my objection. But the abolitionist could still question the premise of argument 10, the idea that slavery is in the self-interest of the slaveowner. Although there seems to be material benefits to owning slaves, abolitionists argued that owning slaves narrowed one's vision and hardened the heart. This is beautifully described in the autobiography of Frederick Douglas, which I highly recommend. He described how a woman new to the South was empathetic at first, but she eventually hardened her heart to the suffering of slaves. She slowly started to see the slaves as inferior and deserving of their position. When a slave suffered, she rationalized it by appealing to religion, utilitarianism, relativism, the culture of the south, or what have you. Her heart hardened, her vision narrowed, and she became disconnected from the best experiences in life... those that involve deep love, connection, and empathy to other human and sentient beings. In short, it is not in your self-interest to miss out on the experiences of deep love and connection, and so owning slaves cannot be in your self-interest. 

If you could truly see what is in your self-interest and break free from the cold, invisible chains that bind you, you would never want to own a slave. 

Of course, I am aware that such arguments don't usually work on slaveowners or those who practice some other act that they think is in their self-interest, but isn't. The same is true today. We have all made choices that force us to see the world narrowly and decrease our empathy.  We then cherry pick and focus on "truths" while ignoring other truths. But, in our best moments, we can see clearly and make good decisions. We can see that it is in our self-interest to sometimes not seek our self-interest. It is in our self-interest to sometimes die to the self. It is in our self-interest to sometimes enjoy the now instead of letting our mind create tension in it's anxiety about the future and regretfulness about the past. It is in our self-interest to avoid slavery.

The bottom line is both sides use egoistic arguments, and I'll leave it to you to decide whether owning slaves can truly be in a slaveowners self-interest. I will also leave it to you as to whether you believe -or choose to believe- that morality is based on nothing but self-interest. In my opinion, these arguments are poor because morality is not about self-interest alone, morality begins when we start caring for the interests of others, and it also has something to do with the character traits of a person. Finally, I believe it is a simplistic, immature, or short sighted mind that believes it is self-interested to own slaves. 

12. Scientific Arguments

Many intelligent scientists, anthropologists, biologists, and historians used science to argue slaves are not fully human, so it is ok to enslave them.

In the 19th Century version of these arguments, the idea was that a group of people are like cattle because they lack intelligence or some other quality that endows humans with rights and dignity. Indeed, people still use versions of this argument today on issues like abortion, animal welfare, and euthanasia.  What I find most interesting about such arguments is how many scientists, anthropologists, and historians of the time used them. It seems to me that the highly educated in all times are mostly likely to be misled by ethical arguments that appeal to scientific facts. One way to avoid being misled is to study inferences, not simply scientific facts.

In the United States and England, scientists carefully noted differences among the races and speculated as to why some were powerful. This, of course, was an attempt to justify the forms of slavery based on race, not simply power. Some intellectuals appealed to social darwinism, and others to empirical studies that appeared to demonstrate the intellectual inferiority of some races. 

Of course, contemporary scientists and intellectuals don't believe these claims. We have better facts from which to draw inferences, but the best remedy for this type of thinking is not getting better scientific facts, but studying logic and improving the inferences we make from any particular scientific fact or hypothesis of the time. Study informal logic, formal logic, the socratic method, the scientific method and don't blindly accept authority or go with the majority. You are a human being and have everything you need to be complete at this moment. It's simply a matter of training your mind to operate efficiently without ignoring your being, the essence of what you are. 

Again, scientists and those who know a bit of science are still engaged in this sort of poor reasoning. And it's not simply a matter of having the facts wrong. The bottom line is you cannot logically derive an ought from an is alone, you cannot logically derive a value from a scientific fact alone. For example, if science one day proves that babies are born more empathetic than self-centered, that fact in no way implies that humans should be empathetic. And if science proves babies are born violent, that fact in no way proves we should be violent. Science, which gives us facts, cannot alone defend the moral practice of slavery, nor can it justify the moral abolition of slavery. 

However, science can inform morality. For example, if we think it good to minimize suffering, science can tell us which acts best do that. If one bases their proslavery views on the claim that other races are intellectual inferior, science can correct that claim in time. If 1910 Bob believes women should not vote because they are intellectually inferior, science can correct the claim that women are intellectually inferior and thereby possibly change Bob's moral opinion. So, science is important and it can inform ethics, but it cannot ground it. To explore this more, see my video entitled "evolution and ethics."

For now, think about contemporary moral issues that you base on science. Could you be committing the same sorts of fallacies? Also, are you sure the scientific facts are correct? Finally, do you deeply understand why we cannot logically derive an ought from an is alone, or a value from a scientific fact alone? If not, you may be misled by the reflexive respect you have for people wearing a white lab coat. 

13. Metaethical arguments: relativism, emotivism, and nihilism

This section may be a bit confusing, but it is, arguably, the most important to understand because many contemporary moral arguments often grind to a halt when people mention these arguments. In short, these arguments are a challenge to moral reasoning itself; they are not limited to the slavery issue.  

So, at this point in many moral debates, some people will say, "well, it's all relative, so there's really not much point in arguing." Others may say that morality is not objective; it is subjective and ungrounded, so slavery is not really wrong. They may add that values don't exist out there like tables, bodies, and atoms, so there is no moral truth. Still others add that moral opinions are neither true nor false, they are simply expressions of approval or disapproval. Words like postmodernism, emotivism, nihilism, relativism, and tolerance may be mentioned. When people say such things, they are starting a metaethical discussion. That is, the intense discussion on slavery or some other moral issue has caused them to reflect on the nature of morality itself. Metaethics is a more abstract second order form of moral reasoning, whereas we have been engaging in first order moral reasoning up to this point. Some philosophers spend their entire careers exploring metaethics. Wow!

So, what can be said? Is that the end of this discussion? If morality is fundamentally subjective or what have you, is all permitted? If morality is just a power struggle, should we avoid claims to truth and simply seek power? Are all moral opinions equal if some of these metaethical positions are true?

Well, I think the answer is no. These concerns appear important, but really shouldn't affect your views on normative moral issues like slavery. First, even if a person does not believe in objective values, they may choose to live from empathy, utilitarianism, Kantianism or some other code. You don't have to believe rights are real like tables and chairs in order to choose to live according to a doctrine of rights. And once you make this choice, certain truths follow. To clarify this point, consider the following analogy:

Let's say 99% of a caveman clan want to move a cart, so they invent wheels. First, Bob invents a triangular wheel, but it doesn't work well. Ogo invents a square wheel and it fails miserably. By the way, this is why nobody names their child Ogo anymore. Anyway, Sue then invents a circular wheel and it works great for the purpose of moving the cart. They experiment with other shapes, but the cavemen discover that the circular wheel works best. Notice they objectively discover the circular wheel works best, they do not create the truth that it works better than square wheels. 

Now, does it matter that their purpose of moving the cart is not true like we believe scientific laws are true? Does it matter that deranged Adolf doesn't want a cart that moves well and so has a different subjective value? Does it matter that their purpose is subjective and does not exist like atoms or chairs? Of course not. Their purpose or value was to move the cart. That value is not objectively existing like the cart exists, but once they agree that they want to move the cart, they discover the objective truth that circular wheels work best for fulfilling the subjective value of moving the cart. In short, they can embrace subjectivism at a second order or metaethical level, while simultaneously embracing objectivism at a first order level. That is, their value is subjective, but circular wheels are still objectively better.

Now, let's start moving away from the analogy. Consider the many ways moral arguments can get confused because of metaethical concerns. Some people believe values are real, they are called moral realists. Some don't, and they are called moral antirealists. Some believe morality is founded on the subjective preferences of individuals, they are called subjectivists or emotivists. Some believe they are founded on the subjective preferences of groups, they are called ethical or cultural relativists. Some believe values are groundless, they are often called nihilists. But it really doesn't matter much. If you believe such things, all that matters is the code you choose to live by. If you value -or choose to value- moving the cart, then it follows that circular wheels are objectively better than square wheels. Indeed, mentioning metaethics in such debates is usually just as silly as arguing square wheels are just as good as circular wheels because our preference for moving the cart is metaethically subjective and ungrounded.

In Morality, if you choose empathy, you have common ground with those who believe we should be empathetic for some supposed objective reason. If you choose utilitarianism, you look for ways to maximize happiness just as the cavemen looked for the best wheels to move the cart. If I can show you that slavery does not promote the greatest happiness, then you will think slavery wrong.

Now let's talk about rights. Metaethically, some people believe rights are natural. Some believe they are God given. Some believe they are human creations designed to protect the most basic conditions needed for flourishing. But even if we disagree about the nature and ontological status of rights, we can all agree to choose to live by rights. We can agree that it is a violation of an innocent person's rights to torture and kill him.  Even if Bob believes God enforces rights in the afterlife and you don't, we can all agree to a list of rights.

In short, metaethical discussions and appeals to subjectivism, nihilism, or the groundless nature of moral claims are not as important as they seem to be at first. They do not support the claim that all things are permissible anymore than the subjectivity of wanting to move a cart supports the claim that all wheels are acceptable. If you choose to respect rights and/or promote happiness, then your metaethical views just aren't that important. One last time: mentioning metaethics in such debates is usually just as silly as arguing square wheels are just as good as circular wheels because our preference for moving the cart is metaethically subjective and ungrounded.

Indeed, the problem with most proslavery arguments is not that they deny rights in some metaethical way. The problem with the proslavery arguments in the U.S. was: 1) They asserted rights did not attach to intellectually inferior humans, and 2) the claimed african americans were intellectually inferior. In short, mentioning metaethics in such debates is usually just as silly as arguing square wheels are just as good as circular wheels because our preference for moving the cart is metaethically subjective and ungrounded. It is a red herring fallacy.

Before concluding this section, I'll add one more observation. Even if rights and values are metaethically grounded, that does not give me a powerful reason to obey them. Even if there is a transcendental anchor for morality in that moral values are real or grounded in God, that does not give me a great reason to be moral. If there are moral truths, they are not like scientific truths that I must obey. Moral truths would be truths I don't have to obey, so the question that remains is the same question the nihilist faces, "Why should I be good?" The same problem remains whether you believe in transcendental moral truths or not. The question is simply, "What kind of person do you want to be?" Who will you choose to be.

Ok, I hope that section was not too confusing. The next theory to consider is virtue theory. 

14. Virtue Ethics 

Virtue Ethics is an approach that focuses more on the type of person you should be rather than following moral rules as in utilitarianism, Kantianism, or egoism. A virtue approach focuses on the qualities of persons who flourish in life.

Now, I would like to argue that virtue theory supports the idea that slave owners do not truly flourish. They lose the capability for empathy and they must narrow their vision so they don't fully experience the suffering of slaves. I think an argument like this can be made based on virtue theory. Notice there is something beautiful and good about a seed that receives water and sunlight and then blooms in its full flower nature. In a similar way, there is something good and beautiful in a human being who grows up in a culture that nourishes the seeds of empathy, love and concern for others instead of the seeds of bias, hatred, and fear of others.  A human child in this way has an opportunity to both become and experience the best humans are capable of... and this is good. And, of course, a person who owns slaves soon has a character and mind that cannot experience the best... and so slavery is wrong according to a virtue approach. 

However, Aristotle, one of the greatest virtue theorists, is known for his justification of one form of slavery. In the Politics, he writes, "That some should rule and others be ruled is not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule." Aristotle certainly believed some people were born to be slaves. He didn't necessarily believe this for selfish reasons, but he believed it... and more contemporaries believe this than you may imagine. Now, I don't want to get too deep into Aristotle, but simply make the point that you can use virtue theory to argue for or against slavery. This is largely because virtue theory does not really present principles, but admirable character traits.... and what we see as abhorrent character traits, slaveholders may see as virtuous.

Still, I think virtue theory presents the best questions to ask on any issue: "What kind of person do you want to be?" Who am I? At the end of your life, do you want to be the type of person who owned slaves? Most people will answer no... even if the wrongness of slavery cannot be proved. And so virtue theory has great motivational and psychological appeal even if it doesn't identify the principle or fact that clearly makes slavery immoral. 

  1. Existentialism

 Existentialists emphasize freedom. Most argue that you are free to make choices, so take responsibility for your life. Live authentically. Don't blame your culture, upbringing, environment, or genes. You have choice and are responsible for what you become.

Existentialism does not present a strong case for or against slavery, but it does present a framework that puts you in good mindset. As in virtue theory, the mindset leads to this question, "What type of person do you want to be?"

An existentialist may argue nothing can be proved or disproved when it comes to morality. You are free to choose your morality or lack thereof. What will you choose? Who will you choose to become? Who are you?

Again, these question are motivational. They are not proofs. As I reflect on them, I realize I don't want to be the type of person that owns slaves and then tries to justify it with bad facts and inferences. I don't want to be the type of person who owns slaves and then tries to rationalize it with relativistic, utilitarian, egoistic, or religious reasons. No, I will be the type of person who chooses love, empathy, rights... and not from a position of weakness as Nietzsche describes, but from a position of strength. Love doesn't have to come from resentment or weakness or what have you, you can choose love and you can choose to be grateful for this moment in which you are alive, but own nothing. Life is not about having, it is about being. Life is not about justifying, it is about being a certain kind of person. 


Ok, we explored several theories and many arguments for and against slavery. I could continue…. For example, I could use the framework of John Rawls Contract Theory to argue slavery is wrong because most people- when placed behind a veil of ignorance- would not choose to live in a slave society. That is, they wouldn’t choose it if they did not know whether they were destined to be slave or free in this society. But, I will stop now…. I think we have enough material at this point to make an informed decision. So, what are the best reasons against slavery?

First, I oppose slavery because it is based on bad science and economics. If the facts aren't bad, the inferences are fallacious. For example, the argument that african american slavery was justified because african americans are naturally inferior is based on a scientific claim that is false. And even if some group of people is born with lower intelligence (e.g. Down’s Syndrome), the inference that slavery is therefore justified is fallacious. Furthermore, even if slavery is natural in some ways, it does not logically follow it is good. In short, I reject proslavery arguments because they are based on false claims and fallacious inferences.

Second, I reject any argument that attempts to justify slavery with the claim that "might makes right." My reply is, no it doesn't make right. and I gave reasons why earlier in the video. 

Third, I oppose slavery because it violates rights. Notice this is a deontological notion. I am not sure if rights exist out there, but I choose to live according to the idea that people have rights. It then objetively follows that slavery is wrong.  Now, I may try to bolster this deontolgoical argument with utilitarian, relativistic, egoistic, or religious arguments, but I will not base my arguments on these secondary theories because the proslavery forces can also appeal to powerful utilitarian, relativistic, egoistic or religious arguments.

Finally, I oppose slavery because there is a deeper truth that can only be experienced, not scientifically proven. That truth is that each person is intrinsically valuable and the meaning of life is to arrive at this state of love.

The best in life is in being, not having… and slavery is based on having. In my being, there are deeper reasons to oppose slavery than the intellect can grasp, and it is from this state of being that I most clearly see the wrong of slavery. 

Paul Stearns, 2015