First Year Seminar
Dec 4th, 2008
How is Slavery Justified?
Enlightenment thinkers tried to search for a way to understand the world on a base of reason. They advocated the independent thinking of human beings without being constrained by the church and previous authorities. They pursued the freedom and inherent rights for each and every human being and tried to stand up against tyranny and totalitarianism. However, at the same time, religious belief, political concern and social perceptions made them acquiesce in the existence of slavery with little opposition.
Many enlightenment thinkers were quite aware of the slave trade at that time. Locke held shares in two major slave trade companies at that time. Descartes also was involved in slave business in French colonies (Davis 47). Given their involvement with colonial policies, commercial ventures of slave trade, it is clear that many enlightenment thinkers knew as much or more than anyone in Europe about the colonies, the slave trade and slavery. They knew the inhumane condition in which the slaves in Europe and its colonies were enduring. These rational thinkers could have many reasons to argue about the legitimacy of this institution, but many of them chose not to oppose it. What are the reasons for it? To answer the question, first we need to define what slavery is. Slavery is the systematic exploitation of labor. As a social-economic system, slavery is a legal or informal institution under which a person is compelled to work for another. Slaves are held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase, or birth, and are deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to receive compensation (such as wages) in return for their labor. This institution of exploitation is an outright violation of the inherent rights of human beings.
Of the reasons that justified slavery, Religion played a very important role. In the book of Genesis, chapter 9, Noah’s youngest son Ham saw the nakedness of his father and had him covered, by his brothers. Noah then cursed Ham to be a servant to his brothers forever, Genesis 9:25-26 "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers"(Genesis). As slavery is sanctioned by God, anyone who advocates abolishing slavery could be seen as against the will of the God. It provides a base for slavery advocates as a defense against abolitionists not only in ancient times, but also in modern history. Though pioneers in the exploration of true knowledge of the world and enlightening human beings to see the world by themselves, Enlightenment thinkers were still constrained by religious, political and social concerns. They, as members of the society, could only go so far beyond some common understanding of their society as their perceptions of the world were largely based on these common understanding. In a society where religion had a substantial influence, biblical words had a significant impact on enlightenment thinkers’ perception of the world. In Locke’s The Second Treatise of Civil Government, he used God as the ultimate reason why human beings should have inherent rights such as the right of property, the right of choosing one’s government and the right to represent in one’s government. He thought that because God created human beings without preference, human beings should have equal rights. (Locke 26-39). Even in the Declaration of Independence, basic human rights were justified by God. The Bible created a controversial situation for many enlightenment thinkers. Religious belief prevented them from doubting the ultimate existence and authority of God. It provided them with foundations for their arguments. However, on the other hand, it approved the existence of slavery which was totally incompatible with their reason. Enlightenment thinkers also struggled with the tension between universalistic concepts such as human rights and the realities of cultural pluralism. The paradox of enlightenment thinking was that human dignity is understood to be rooted in the universal rule that be applied to every human being. Yet when people engage in cultural practices that are unfamiliar or disturbing to the European observers, they appear irrational and thus think the cultures were undeserving of recognition and respect. Cultural difference and racial distinction formed a barrier that prevented people in Europe from seeing African or Asian as the same beings as them. When the European explorers who often assumed that non-Western societies were necessarily primitive, arrived in America or Africa facing tremendously different civilizations, they perceived them as barbarians and uncivilized instead of appreciating cultural diversity. Many slave advocates at that time emphasized the distinction between black people and white people. Based on the difference between the two peoples, they asserted that black people were not human or at most sub-human. Then the same universal rule of human rights could not be applied to these people. This assumption that defined black people as non-human created a base for European people to denied basic rights of slaves. Slaves were treated like commodities, tools and animals. In Equiano’s book, he described the living situation of slaves when they were transported by a boat. Slaves were piled up like common goods and they did not have food provided during the journey. Unable to endure the inhumane living condition, many slaves even committed suicide by jumping into the ocean (39-43). However, as they were not regarded as human beings, all things could be justified. This mentality was similar to that of Nazi Germany when they were persecuting the Jewish people in early 20th century. German propaganda convinced German people that Jewish people were epidemics to the West society and it was obligate to eliminate the Jews. That’s the reason why in the movie Schindler's List, we saw the commander of the concentration camp calmly shooting Jewish workers in the camp without noticing he was committing murders. Political dynamics of European mother countries also played an important part in making enlightenment thinkers accept slavery. Slavery, at that time was of great importance to the maintenance and welfare not only to the colonies where slaves worked but also to their European mother countries (Major, Bell, Baldridge and Jackson, 7). As slaves provided a great amount of productivity, one country’s unilateral abolition of slavery would greatly reduce its national power and even threatened its own national security. As long as not all European countries could achieve a consensus to abolish slavery unanimously, no country would make the first step. Locke, for example, as a person involved in slave trade, thought that the practices of the Afro-American slave trade was so important to the national power of England that they should be maintained. When national interest had a conflict with individual’s interest, especially the interest of some black people who were inferior in many European eyes, national interest should prevail. This idea of community over individual and one community over others was an important factor that influenced the worldview of enlightenment thinkers. To preserve the interest of the white community, they needed to sacrifice the interest of the slaves. In addition, enlightenment thinkers and European people, at that time, had very little knowledge of the culture or facts about black people. The ignorance of culture of black people created a great space for speculation and rumors. Many European people were convinced that African people were barbarian and cannibals. (“Colonialism,” Stanford encyclopedia) This false perception reinforced people’s indifference towards slaves’ inhumane condition. If the freedom of the barbarian black people would cause people back in their countries to lose money in their pockets and suffer, it should not be allowed. In European thinkers’ agenda, priority was always to preserve their own community’s interest. That’s the reason why many enlightenment thinkers advocated abolitionism back in their own countries but slavery in colonies. Despite the influence of European society on enlightenment thinkers’ perception of the world, there might lay some arguments about enlightenment thinkers themselves. Did these rational thinkers ever notice the paradox of slavery? Did they really have a common understanding with the society that slavery was justifiable at that time and drift with the crowd? Or there were some incentives that motivated them to ignore the slave issue to focus on some issues they thought were more critical. Enlightenment thinkers, if they had some knowledge of the culture or customs of Americans or Africans, could easily notice that these people were not barbarians. They had civilizations and societies. The enlightenment thinkers could easily found that this assumption that these people were inferior to Europeans was very groundless and absurd. Some of the enlightenment thinkers very likely ignored the slavery issue in their works, not that they did not realize the falsehood of slavery, to focus themselves on something they thought more critical at that time. For example, when Locke was writing The Second Treatise of Civil Government, he was trying to remind European kings of human beings’, more specifically European white people’s inherent rights. If he put slavery as an important issue in his book, he would also lose support from many people who advocated slave trade. Then his priority—helping British people to gain control over governments and check the power of kings—would not be achieved. He would very likely ignore slavery issue in order to achieve other goals. So did other thinkers. Descartes was engaged in the search for a proper way for human perception of the world and Voltaire was busy with thinking about the chaotic situation in France where human rights were trampled by King, priests and landlords. They had their own agenda and their priorities. The human rights crises in Europe could suffice the reason why they had little opposition to slavery abroad. Behind all these reasons was human greed. The most basic purpose of slavery is to rid oneself of work and force the hideous labor upon someone else. Since the time of our more primitive era, societies have taken slaves from war and conquest, and forced them to do their workaday tasks. Slavery would free the slave owners from their work and bring great comfort. In a wide sense, slavery does not just refer to the institution of owning slaves. It refers to any kind of exploitation of labors without equal compensation and violations of human right. In the age of enlightenment thinkers, if one person wanted to gain great wealth, there was no better way than to exploit the labor of other people. If it was not for the hard toil of many peasants, how could the French king and his families occupy countless castles, palaces and lands? However the material wealth and rise of European countries was built on the colonist movement and slavery for centuries. The unspeakable exploitation and disparate compensation afforded the landowners throughout Europe a decent life while left millions of people dead and more dying in American plantations. Civilization was not just a marker of material improvement, but a normative judgment about the moral progress of society. With the spread of enlightenment self-criticism, the whole human society will be destined to realize the absurdity, evilness of slavery and the importance of human rights and equality among all peoples and all countries.
1. Diderot, Denis. Political Writings. Ed. Robert Wokler and John H. Mason. New York: Cambridge UP, 1992. 2. Locke, John. The Selected Political Writings of John Locke, Ed. Paul E. Sigmund. New York: Norton Paperbacks, 1999. 3. Equiano, Olaudiah. Narrative of the Life of Olaudiah Equiano. New York: Norton Paperbacks, 2000. 4. "Slavery." Wikipedia. .
5. Davis, Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1988) New York: Norton Paperbacks, 1999. 6. Major, Erica; Bell, London; Baldridge, Turkessa, and Jackson, Tene. The Purpose of Slavery. April 1999. University of Michigan. .
7. “colonialism.” Stanford Encyclopedia,