Dissecting the Ethics of Slavery and Rights

If you’re in the mood to stir up controversy among your friends or coworkers, take an informal, two-question poll: first ask, “Is slavery wrong?” The unanimous answer you will receive is, “Of course!” Next, ask a follow up question, in your most earnest voice: “Why is it wrong?” Watch as your respondents hem and haw for a few moments (don’t rescue them!) and then conclude with something like, “’Cause it just is.”

Self-evident unanimous truths are ripe for ethical analysis. By investigating a seemingly simple and obvious ethical question, “What’s so bad about slavery?” we can excavate a portion of the lost political ethics upon which democracy rests.

Broad brush ethics is easy. It is easy to tell tropical from arctic temperatures, and it is easy to spot pristine justice and sordid injustice. But what is just or unjust begins, like a great fortune or a great debt, with pennies before it becomes millions. If we do more than pretend to stand for what is true and good and just, we must cultivate the discipline of discerning the criteria that separate one from another, the ethical from the unethical, thesis from antithesis. At first blush, we might assume that, in order to spot fine-grained ethical distinctions, we must zoom in close to the matter at hand. But we would be mistaken. No matter how close I get to a rainbow, I cannot pinpoint the transition from violet to purple.

Upon close inspection—I mean electron microscope close inspection—the precise demarcation between true and false, good and evil, just and unjust is fuzzy like the quivering path of an electron. In conventional terms, we describe this level of ethics as fraught with proliferated shades of practical grey between the abstract ideals of pitch black and snow white.

So, though it may seem counterintuitive to conduct a close inspection of ethics with a telescope rather than a microscope, that is what I propose we do. One of the most efficient ways to isolate the variables within an ethical question is to ask a really obvious question, a question upon which there is strong consensus. Not a hard ethical question, a super-easy ethical question: “What’s so bad about slavery?”

Chattel slavery in America was, fundamentally, an economic solution to a technical problem. In order to maximize the produce of an agrarian economy in pre-industrial America, planters needed cheap labor to work their expansive plantations. If, like George Washington, you had 3,200 acres of cultivated farmland to manage, slaves were the most economical and efficient solution to the problem of farming at scale. Rather than paying a living wage—or any wage at all—to their bondsmen, planters bought and sold African slaves as chattel, or personal property.

Our first generalizable ethical insight gleaned from reflecting upon slavery: humans are not personal property.

Because of race, gender, youth, crime, debt, or misfortune, freemen have been made bondsmen (de facto and de jure) throughout human history. Dating back to Ancient Greece and Rome, citizens (participants in the political life of a state) were defined by their ownership of property. To be a citizen was to be an owner or stockholder in the state; those who did not own property were, at best, tenants and, at worst, themselves property. The more property a citizen owned, the more influence that citizen wielded upon the affairs of the state. As long as other humans could be categorized as property, then, the system rewarded with political clout those whose diversified investment portfolio included an accumulation of human property. In the early American republic, this principle was instantiated in the three-fifths clause, whereby one slave counted as 60% of a person for the purpose of apportionment, giving greater per capita political representation to those who owned other humans.

But while the early Constitution was reinforcing the institution of slavery, the Declaration continued to cripple its foundations. While the paradoxical Thomas Jefferson penned the following words, it was as if they had lain half-dormant for over a half-century until Abraham Lincoln quickened them for a broader purpose:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

Our second generalizable insight: all humans are born property owners and meet, therefore, the fundamental qualification of citizenship.

To paraphrase Jefferson, all humans, upon the occasion of their birth, received from God the right to exist, the right to live in freedom, and the right to pursue a better and fuller life. These rights, the title and deed to humanity, constitute the ownership of personal property. The purpose of government, then, is to protect these rights, to make sure that no one takes away another person’s breath, independence, or opportunity. Lincoln recognized that American government had failed to fulfill its essential purpose for countless men, women, and children. Moreover, the very people whom government had failed were the fount of the government’s legitimacy (“of the people, by the people, for the people”). Here, in an epochal shift of political philosophy, we see that rights proceed from humanity and that human rights precede civil rights.

A third and final generalizable insight: if every human possesses a set of basic rights, then oppressors will seek, by all means possible, to disqualify the oppressed from the ranks of humanity.

The dehumanizing of a particular group of people is a prerequisite for rampant injustice or discrimination. At the extremes, to dehumanize is to strip one or more people of their essential identity as humans, to describe them as soulless beasts or as something beneath or qualitatively different than “us.” The horrors of genocide and ethnic cleansing are the systematic culmination of years of dehumanizing rhetorical fulmination against an entire race of people. More subtle in its guise is the dehumanizing impulse we indulge when we treat others as anything less than fully human, fully created in God’s image. We dehumanize when we elide the essential variegation of human character and refer to persons as one-dimensional consumers, illegals, liberals, Marxists, tea baggers, Arabs, welfare moms, hipsters, Jews, homosexuals, rednecks, talking heads, values voters, etc. The labels are not themselves the danger; the danger is in the toxic tendency to substitute the narrow false identity for the broad true identity and to treat others accordingly.

It may seem that we’ve landed far afield from the original question of this essay, “What’s so bad about slavery?” In fact, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the question or of any definitive answer. But my intent in this piece was not to provide a comprehensive ethical taxonomy of that particular question. What I hope I have accomplished is a much more diminutive goal: a basic demonstration of a particular method of ethical analysis. When we carefully dissect easy questions, we may discover hard truths.

About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.


  1. […] intellectual property (patents, trademarks, copyrights) and civil or human rights, as I discussed in an earlier essay. Because government exists to protect the entirety of citizens’ interests, including economic […]

  2. […] war, a reunited country embraced its ideological heritage that “all men are created equal” and outlawed the institution of chattel slavery, even though freeing slaves risked destroying the nation’s pre-industrial agrarian […]