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...
Cited: 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,
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