While slavery is still practiced, there is a consensus that it is evil. While apologists for slavery are relatively few, there remains the question as to why slavery is evil. This essay is aimed and considering this matter.
It is certainly tempting to define the wrongness of slavery in terms of the exploitation and abuse suffered by those who are enslaved. While such abuse and exploitation are clearly wrong, they do not actually explain the wrongness of slavery itself. This is because abuse and exploitation can exist apart from slavery, thus showing that these are not sufficient conditions for slavery. That is, being abused and exploited does not entail that one is a slave. Examples of such abuse and exploitation are abundant. To illustrate, workers are routinely exploited around the world and countless people suffer abuse in relationships from the very people who should be kind to them.
Abuse and exploitation are also not necessary conditions of slavery. That is, a person who is not abused or exploited can be enslaved. As noted in an earlier essay, there have been slaves who have enjoyed considerable power and status—sometimes considerably above that of free subjects of historical empires. Despite their status and power, such slavery is still rightfully regarded as wrong. As such, it is not the abuse or exploitation that makes slavery wrong.
This is not to say that abuse and exploitation do not matter. Far from it; they compound the basic evil of slavery and make the bad even worse. Slavery is also obviously strongly connected to abuse and exploitation—the belief that enslaved people are property makes it easy for others to justify and get away with such abuse and exploitation. While free people are abused or exploited, they typically enjoy far greater protection than the enslaved. So, while the abuse and exploitation matter a great deal, it is slavery that serves as a prime enabler of mistreatment. This does contribute to the wrongness of slavery.
What makes slavery morally wrong, then, is the fact that it is the ownership of people and thus is perceived as transforming them into objects that can be owned. The claim of ownership over another person is the denial of their personhood and all that goes with it. For those with liberal Lockean inclinations, this denial of personhood is a denial of the basic rights to life, liberty and property. Since a slave is supposed to be property, their life belongs to the owner. Hence, slaveowners generally see themselves as having the right to kill or harm their slaves as they wish. I do not, of course, deny that slaves are sometimes protected by laws, but that is certainly little consolation. Slavery does, after all, admit of degrees. But, every form of slavery must assume that the owner has ownership over the life of the slave and can use compulsion to maintain slavery.
Slavery, by its very nature, is a violation of a person’s liberty. They are denied the freedom of choice and thus denied agency. As the owner sees it, they have the right to make decisions for their property such as what work they do, who they have sex with, and what faith they might follow. This is not to say that slaves do not have some freedoms or that free people are completely free. It is, however, to say that the freedoms of slaves are very limited and often restricted to very minor decisions. As noted above, slavery does admit of degrees—some favored or high-status slaves might enjoy considerable liberty. For example, a Mamluk ruler might enjoy far greater liberty than a non-slave in their empire. It can be objected that such a slave would be a slave in name only—after all, a person of such status and power would be far better off than most other people despite being a slave. The challenge to those who argue that slavery is inherently wrong is to show that such an exalted slave is still wronged by their slavery. One approach is to appeal to the intuition that however exalted, the slave is still a slave. That is, regarded as property rather than a free person and this is inherently wrong.
Being regarded as property, slaves often cannot own property of their own. After all, being owned entails that their owner owns what they own. There are, of course, exceptions to this—sometimes slaves are paid for their work and can even eventually buy themselves out of slavery. While this does show, once again, that there are diverse types of slavery, the idea that a person should need to buy themselves seems to be absurd on the face of it.
Thus, while slavery does enable a multitude of evils, the core evil of slavery is the belief that a person can be owned as an object.