It’s an interesting question to think about. Not because I think there is any doubt whether it is bad. But because it is something that is so engrained in our heads that rarely do we question why the institution is horrendous. FEE posted this list giving ten reasons with which one could defend slavery; ten reasons a lot of people gave a couple hundred years ago to defend slavery. FEE uses it as a transition to why we shouldn’t have the state/taxes, but I’d rather take the conversation in another direction.
Slavery existed for the vast bulk of humanity’s existence. It still exists today in some places in the world. So how can such an evil thing – and it really is truly evil – have been such an integral part of society for so long? I think it’s best to partially understand it by looking from the perspective of someone who lives in a slavery-allowed society.
One can defend slavery on somewhat convincing utilitarian and consequentialist grounds. I’ll borrow a bit from that FEE list. Slaves wouldn’t be able to take care of themselves; whatever group is being enslaved is naturally destined to be slaves. If you live in a society where the ants have been enslaved by the grasshoppers as long as anyone can remember, it’d make sense to just assume that that’s the natural order. As Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator said,
“[T]here is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
If government is meant to maximize the aggregate utility of its people, slavery might not be such a bad idea. Imagine: a few people subjected to misery in order to give a lifetime of pleasure to lots of people. The slaves provide cheap labor in order to dramatically reduce labor costs, which in turn make all goods cheaper for everybody. As much as the utility of the slaves brings down the societal sum, the gain of utility to other people could theoretically far exceed this loss.
Furthermore, I am relatively convinced that if I had lived in a day of stable and institutionalized slavery, I would be convinced that its long-existence was a pretty good reason to keep it. Imagine living in a time when every society in the world at every time in history had slavery. It’d be hard to imagine life without it. Why not get rid of money, property, families, consensual sex, day/night while you’re at it?! Should we allow women the right to vote?!
I say these things not really to rationalize people who defended slavery. I discuss it just because I think it’s always important to truly examine why we believe the thing we do – even the ones we are so sure are true. I also want to point out that I think slavery is bad for society on utilitarian grounds, if that matters.