What's wrong with slavery?

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algebe's picture
What's wrong with slavery?

I just received an assignment from a client about the U.K. Modern Slavery Act, which requires companies trading in the U.K. to ensure there's no slavery or human trafficking in their supply chains.

This got me wondering about the whole question of slavery. People have been enslaved throughout history in most cultures, and it still goes on. Yet we all agree that it's wrong to buy and sell people. What's the source of our moral outrage? It's certainly not the Bible. Slavery is accepted and encouraged in many books of the Bible. Abraham had slaves, including a sex slave who bore him a son called Ishmael. St. Paul returned an escaped slave to his "owner." I'm not sure what the Koran says about slavery, but Muslims have certainly been major slavers.

So if religion provides no moral basis for condemning slavery, what about economics? Early economists in the 18th and 19th century condemned slavery as economically inefficient. A slave is likely to be a poor worker. He will never be a consumer. And slavery also takes away the incentive to modernize and mechanize by turning people into farm machinery. This view caused Thomas Carlyle to call economics the "dismal science" in an essay defending slavery in the West Indies. He actually claimed that conditions on Atlantic slaving vessels were not all that bad.

So where do I stand as an atheist? I want my children and grandchildren to have opportunities, dreams, adventures. I would be outraged if anyone tried to limit their potential or claim ownership over them. My sense of empathy reminds me that everyone is someone's child or grandchild, so I feel sorrow when I hear about people who were denied all the good things I want for my family. That is why I find slavery morally repugant.

What do others think?

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CyberLN's picture
I think slavery manifests

I think slavery manifests itself in many ways, forms, and to a multitude of degrees. Is a spouse expected to cook and clean a slave? Is a child expected to work in support of a family a slave? Were my kids, when growing up, slaves because they were made to do chores without 'pay'?

I'm not sure where the line is. I know when it is all the way to one side. But where it starts, I just don't know.

Good question...a lot to think about.

algebe's picture
On another level, I guess we

On another level, I guess we're all slaves to the government until "tax freedom day" each year. The penalties for "slaves" who run away from that particular master are quite dire. I really resent the tax exemption that religions enjoy simply for having an imaginary friend.

algebe's picture

"Were my kids, when growing up, slaves because they were made to do chores without 'pay'? "

I would class that kind of unpaid work as a political donation to the Santa Claus party.

CyberLN's picture
I also charged them 'mommy

I also charged them 'mommy tax' on their Halloween candy!

mislam's picture


"Is a spouse expected to cook and clean a slave?"

I'm sure I read that differently from what you intended, lol. I don't think it's in the job description.

CyberLN's picture
Oh my, that's funny....I know

Oh my, that's funny....I know no spouses who have ever cleaned, then cooked, any slaves.

chimp3's picture
Algebe: Empathy is good

Algebe: Empathy is good enough as an antislavery rationale.

algebe's picture
Yes. I think that in slavery,

Yes. I think that in slavery, as in war, you need to short out the empathy circuit by demonizing and dehumanizing the people you want to enslave or kill. Christian slavers used the "curse of Ham" (or curse of Canaan) to justify enslaving Africans, who were somehow believed to have been descended from Noah's grandson. Dark skin was supposed to be a mark of that curse.

Find something evil in the world, and in most cases you'll discover a religious link somewhere.

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