Slavery Isn't Wrong

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Back of the Envelope has been blogging about Christianity and slavery. Part 1 sets up the series by asking what it is that makes slavery wrong without giving any answers yet. Part 2 looks at Christianity and slavery with respect to the biblical passages and some of the ensuing history of the church on this issue. I don't know if he plans any more or if this was all he intended to do, but he's already said enough to spur me on to record some of my thoughts. I agree with much of what he's said, but I take a more radical view. I don't think there's anything in principle wrong with slavery. In this post I'll explain why I think that, which will basically amount to explaining what I think slavery is. In my next post, I expect to look at what the biblical passages regarding slavery have to say and what I think the Christian's attitude toward slavery should be. [Update: this has turned into a series]

I've never really thought otherwise, but I don't think I'd ever explicitly put into words until Wink told me one time that he'd gotten in an argument with some other Christians about the issue, and they seemed to think he was uttering the utmost of heresies when he mentioned that he didn't think slavery was wrong in itself. After all, isn't slavery one of the most obvious examples people use to try to show that there must be some objective moral truths? It's one of the few moral beliefs in the orthodoxy of American moral thinking that no one dare challenge.

Donald asks what makes slavery wrong and why it's so offensive that everyone should recognize how horrific it is simply by thinking about it. I say that there's nothing that makes slavery itself wrong, nothing that should make people so horrified that they should think slavery itself is wrong. People are often rightly horrified about some of the practices of slavery that the world has seen. What's horrific about those cases is not the slavery itself, though. It's other factors.

Donald actually gives a hint of movement in the direction I'm thinking when he acknowledges that a serf's role in the socioeconomic system of the middle ages wasn't much better than that of a slave, and an indentured servant is a little more autonomous than that. I don't think that's the right way to look at it, but that's a good start. What's more accurate, I would say, is that there's a scale from those most enslaved to those least enslaved, and each case of enslavement is thus a matter of degree. I'm a slave to my employers. They don't have as much control over me as slaveowners in the 19th century U.S. South did, but they have enough control over me that it's not entirely inaccurate to describe me as a waged slave working under their authority and serving their needs. In exchange, they give me some money. 19th century U.S. plantation slaves didn't get money in exchange, but they did get food and shelter out of the deal. The conditions they lived under were terrible, but the difference between them and me is really only a matter of degree. It's a great degree of difference, but there's a whole continuum between the two cases.

It's also worth remembering that not all those who were called slaves in those times were in positions like that. Some of them were much more like what we call nannies today. They lived in nice homes. They were close friends with the families they worked for. They were cared for nicely. The only difference was that they had no ability to get up and leave if they wanted out of their job. That's a big difference, but it's only one difference, and when it comes to working conditions they often had it made. I'm sure some of the house slaves were abused, especially among those who had many slaves with just some in the house, but families who only owned one slave tended to be extremely close with their slaves, as if they were part of the family (at least in the South; northerners apparently rarely had such close relations with their slaves).

Now it's also worth mentioning that this continuum between absolute slave and absolute freedom, the extremes of which almost no one ever reaches, gets further complicated by the fact that most people have multiple masters. I have two employers myself. I'm beholden to them for specific things, and I have no freedom to violate the contracts I've signed with them. I also have a government that gives me obligations. When they call me for jury duty, I have to go. Otherwise I'd be violating a federal crime, and the country sherriff would come pick me up. Under a monarchy or in a totalitarian regime, this is stronger. The government truly is a sort of lord and master. A citizen under that government is a sort of slave. This is all too clear with serfdom, as Donald mentioned. It's only a matter of degree that less constricting systems are different.

Another thing worth noticing is that the institutions that are more commonly called slavery vary greatly. Donald mentions the differences between penalties for slaves running away in different system. In the American system, it was common to maim the slave's foot to prevent further running. In the Torah system, a slave who was wounded when chased after running away had to be set free! What the Bible calls slavery was often the bankruptcy in that socioeconomic system (though there were other reasons people became slaves). Indeed, in these cases one would voluntarily become a slave to pay off one's debts. American slavery began with kidnapping, most commonly of whole tribes by other African tribes, who then sold them to Europeans (and occasionally, though nowhere near as often, by Europeans rounding them up, as popular movies try to pretend things usually went). In most systems of slavery, there were a few ways out, though it was never easy. That was never the case in the American system unless the master felt merciful and set them free. The Torah system required the release of slaves every seventh year, with all debts forgiven. So there's a wide range of cases even of the practices that have been called slavery, never mind the ones that I'm arguing are also only different from those cases by matters of degree.

Now given that slavery is something that can be administered to different degrees, since it's really just the amount of control someone has over someone else and the amount of autonomy that second person therefore lacks, it shouldn't be so hard to see why I think slavery isn't in principle wrong. Whether it's wrong depends on what other features you tack on to the control over someone who therefore has a lack of autonomy. I don't think it's wrong in principle to own someone and demand their service in specific ways, because that sort of thing happens all the time. The practices we call

Update: Somehow I failed to mention one of the most important things. It's not that I didn't think of it. It's just that in the construction of this post it didn't come up at any particualar point, and in my rush to finish within the time I had I didn't mention it at all. One of the worst aspects of one of the worst kinds of slavery ever was the racially-based element in American slavery. The thought that a whole race of people is somehow deserving of servitude while no one else is or that a whole race of people has a right to enslave anyone they want out of another whole race is pretty disgusting.

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Parableman on Slavery from Back of the Envelope on February 28, 2005 3:35 PM

A bit after the fact, but Jeremy Pierce of Parableman has taken up my challenge to say what's wrong with slavery by arguing that there's ... Read More


Jeremy, I can not disagree with anything you are saying. Yours is the only logical expose of this issue I have seen. The tendency since the issue is so emotionally charged to not address the facts. I am about to retire from the military. For over 20 years I have served. I am proud of my service. Should one who serves the public or a corperation be ashamed, I think not. But you are right, the degree of control is what is the issue that is different from what we call slavery.

I have noticed more and more stories in the news about human trafficing. It is often done by ruthless people, the same types of people who sell drugs and weapons illegally. It makes me sad.

In the Bible, Joseph was a slave but more powerful than everyone except pharaoh. Serving is not necessarily more or less power, it is more or less freedom though. But I'm wondering how much freedom a minimum wage worker has who lives in an appartment in the big city has. There is not a lot of opportunity for movement but if he quits at anytime it is not a big deal. When a professional ball player signs a multimillion dollar contract how much freedom of career does he have to change careers? Perhaps he an bring out the team of lawyers and win but he has to bring out the team of lawyers.

The military example is great. I hadn't thought of that. Good point also about Joseph. I've had three major periods of thinking through this issue (not counting what I've been doing in the process of writing these two posts), and the most recent one was spurred on by a sermon on Ephesians 6 last fall. That sermon drew attention to Daniel and Joseph, who were both slaves but also the second-most powerful person in their respective empires.

The other thing the case of Daniel raises is that the people of Judah were slaves not just in the Babylonian exile. The nation, when restored, were slaves of Medo-Persian, then Greece and Rome. Different times during these periods of slavery had more or less of the conditions that make slavery a matter of degree. Also, the difference between the better Persian masters and the Nebuchadnezzar is a lot like the difference between a good and a bad master in the case of individual slaves. Still, the Persian king was the master, and what his decrees were law, indeed unchangeable law.

It actually began before the destruction of Jerusalem. I believe it was Manasseh who first sold the nation into slavery by agreeing to pay tribute to Assyria, which means Hezekiah would have been the last king of Judah who was truly king for his whole reign. Even godly Josiah was a slave to the empire.

Maybe I should look through my sermon notes from that sermon and see if there were any other important things I forgot to mention.

I dont know why the "one difference" should not constitute a different category, and not some degrees. Its really difficult to explain whats wrong with your argument( it seems an equivocation) because there is no absolute line to declare what and is not slavery, therefore, you can reintepret any EVENT as an instance of it by reference to degrees. For example, I might say children are enslaved by the parents until they reach adulthood, where they are then enslaved by corporations, till they're 60 where they're enslaved by old folks home(they get food and shelter) since all these things limit your freedom in some degree. In effect, I think the concept of slavery becomes meaningless if defined as oscillating between several degrees where any human action can be interpreted as an instance of it. Normally, when people say they're "slaves" to corporate interests, they do not mean it in a literal sense but to figuratively convey the lack of freedom they feel. I think this is where this argument stems from, and its a mistake because, it is the purpoted difference between actual slavery and the situation that give the phrase its force.

In any case, I think the real answer to this question is the amount of freedom people think they ought to have and exercise. That is, what amount of freedom are we justified? For example, it seems you're assuming that "slavery" to employers is accepted as "ethical right" so that you can just point to this as a degree along the line, and people will grant the argument because being 'enslaved' to employers isnt so bad, is it?". But not everyone thinks being "enslaved" to their employers is an ethically acceptable situation. Never mind, that the practical neccesity of this does not neccesarily make the practice "right" so there's still issues here. And why, I say, you might have to make a case for the level of autonomy ethically acceptable for human beings..for example, why is it acceptable that we're "slaves" to our employers? Practical?

...interesting topic by the way. I'm in the uncomfortable position of implcitly agreeing but not convinced of the argument put forth.

And the miliatry example, is again, not so simple. I'm not particulary a fan of the military, and we know how alot of people feel for the draft. In any case, willingly joining the miliatry for whatever reason, and in the process helping your country to me is not "slavery" in any sense. You accept a level of restrictions, and requirement in order to be in the military. Yes, in this case, it is practical to give up some level of autonomy for an "ideal" of some sort. And maybe I've touched on something here--it seems, willingly giving up some personal freedom, and allowing others to dictate to you, is in of itself something that should be considered before we call these situations slavery since slavery( or the degree we think is bad) normally involves being forced or born into--it is not an acceptance of duties, or some such thing--your entrance into it is by force not decision, or practical appraisal. But, of course, that can be intepreted in "degrees" which is my worry here--we're losing site of what we think is slavery when it is simply read as being degrees of one continium of subjugation.

An equivocation is when you're using the same word in two different senses but not acknowledging that they're different senses. I'm acknowledging that they're different senses, but they're different senses with the same core idea of control over someone who therefore has a lower amount of autonomy.

If the concept of slavery becomes meaningless as I've used it, then so too does the concept of control and the concept of autonomy. Both of those clearly admit of the degrees I've said they do. Why is a concept meaningless if it admits of degress? My thesis is that the degree of control others have over you is not miniscule. It's real. The degree our autonomy is limited by others is quite a lot. It's nothing compared to the cases we have typically called slavery. What I'm saying is that the key components of slavery are exactly the things that exist in these other social relations to a much lesser degree. I'm not sure how that makes the idea of slavery meaningless. What it seems to me to do is to clarify its meaning.

I'm not sure I endorsed the amount of control or lack of autonomy we have in most of our social relations. I'm just saying that those are relatively uncontroversial compared to the paradigm cases of slavery. Yet they seem to have the same factors of control and lack of autonomy. So it's not the core concepts involved with slavery that most people think are wrong. It's the degree that they're present. If so, then slavery isn't intrinsically wrong. The only way it would be is if you define slavery as whatever degree of control and lack of autonomy would be wrong, but I don't think historical usage would allow that. It would have to be self-contradictory to say that slavery isn't wrong if that were so, and it just doesn't seem that way to me, not the way it's self-contradictory to say that murder isn't wrong, because murder just is wrongful killing. I'm going to post on this tomorrow in more detail.

You say "slavery( or the degree we think is bad) normally involves being forced or born into" as your argument that military service is not slavery. At best, that statement would support the claim that military service is not wrongful slavery. That doesn't help establish that it isn't any sort of slavery, though.

You're right to point out that whether you're forced into something admits of degrees. Consent also does. I'm planning to build on both those points in my next post.

I don't understand why control and autonomy become meaningless without equivocating --i.e defining any instnce of "control" or restrictions on actions as "slavery." Why this particular concept becomes meaningless, when it admits of the degrees you've put forth is that everything is subsumed under it, and prime facie, cases where the notion should not be applied is. For instance, your jury duty example. Yes, people are threatened with fines but how many are prosecuted and how strigent it is? How about those that do it because of deontological considerations--i.e it is the right thing to do, therefore, I do it, not solely because fines are threatened. Why intepret this as a form of "slavery"? Or traffic laws? Some people generally care for the well being of others and will follow the "rules" out of an ethical principle, not because of threats or fines--or more likely, because of it makes practical sense. Since, its control we're taking about, and these are regulated areas of human life, do you consider that "slavery" to whatever degree? Further, I still think you're missing out on the force associated with slavery--you've takne one thing that is manifest in every aspect of society--control--how can we live without some form of either self or societal regulation? donwgrading the notion of "force" in the process. For example, why not "wrongful control" as the distinguishing factor? And the debate then, would hinge on what level of social control is accpetable as ethically right--but I concede that this itself can be done in "degrees"---it just doesnt really seem to capture all that is meant by "slavery."

Or here is a problem case---what is the relationship between a person's own autonomy and his "controllers." For example, I think, it'd be considered "wrong" to enslave the mentally ill. But why? Presumably, there level of autonomy is not equal to normally functioning humans so why does it seem so wrong to "enslave" them to degrees higher than "normal"? That is, it might not mater much to those who can't discern their situation, so why not? What is at work here?

Why someone is motivated to do something is irrelevant to whether the law allows them to do it. It's a simple fact that they're not legally free to do otherwise. Many people who do it don't do it simply for that reason, but that's irrelevant to whether they're legally free.

If slavery is wrongful control (and the very meaning of the term implies that), then you still have to admit that many things count as slavery that don't normally get called that. I gave some examples of wrongful control in the post. One would be if I told my class they needed to pay me to get good grades. Is that slavery? If the examples I'm giving of very weak forms of slavery don't count as slavery, that shouldn't either. Yet it's wrongful control. I believe the lottery to be abuse of the poor and desperate. It's a sort of control, because it ropes people in and gives them some small hope to get them to keep buying tickets. It's thus at least a very small amount of coercion. The same would be true of a situation in which people were allowed to sell their organs, which was rightly rejected by the U.S. Congress because it's too easily affected by unintentional coercion. Those cases seem obviously wrongful, and they involve control. I don't think you want to admit that they're slavery unless you want to agree with me that the other cases I mentioned are also a very small degree of slavery.

I thought you were saying it's wrong to enslave anyone. Do you mean that it's more wrong to enslave the mentally ill than it is to enslave others? I would have thought that it was less wrong to enslave someone who really isn't able to exert the kind of control necessarily for autonomous decisions in one's best interests. Not every mental illness has that effect, but those seem to be the ones you're talking about. I'm not talking about outright enslavement to the degree that American slaves were forced into slavery, but greater degrees of control, but we allow a degree of slavery in these cases up to the point of permanent lack of autonomy with a guardian making all their legal decisions, controlling their money, forcing medication, in some cases requiring institutionalization, etc. Isn't that more morally justified with mental illness than otherwise?

Two questions:

1)Is any form of "control" a form of slavery? Why?

2? Are "moral laws" or prescriptions forms of slavery? Why?

The answer to 2 is yes. We are obligated to follow them, and we don't have any right whatsoever to do otherwise. If we did, it wouldn't be a moral law. Paul even insists on this when he discusses the Hebrew Torah, so this is not a new idea with me. He quite plainly says that Jews had been enslaved to the Torah and are now freed with the coming of Messiah to be enslaved to him instead, which is the subject of my second post on this matter.

Assuming it's slavery to control something that's not a person (is my computer my slave? is my guitar?), then the answer might well be yes. If control (on the positive side) and lack of autonomy (on the negative side) are always going to go hand in hand, then I might not see any problem with putting it that way. Those seem to me to be the essential elements of slavery, and something that has them in smaller quantities is thus very weakly a form of slavery. In all this, not one commenter has suggested any other factor necessary for slavery that seems correct to me, and if something besides these is required for it to count as a kind of slavery, I'm not sure what that would be.


I have to ask; is it related to Moses, Byzantian art form or a browser of days gone by.

We can either define words for ourselves or we can accept the definition provided by others. Often in academic circles people create technical definitions to ensure clarity. I would say Jeremy is well qualified to practice the art of creating definitions, given his academic credintials and rigors places on himself. If we are looking to say what the proper definition of slavery is then we have to go to some authoritative source, like definitions used by social scientists, historians, anthropologiests. I don't think these folks have a literature on this generally speaking. The African-american studies realm probably does not deal with a definition of slavery but rather describes how it was pracaticed in the pasted, which is of course sad part of human history.

If you have one definition and Jeremy has another, the only thing to do is compare the two. I see you have some issues but could you give your one sentance definition to slavery?

A preliminary defintion maybe the forced subjection of a group or individual, in which the indivudal or group is owned by another group.

Problem with this, and your arguments is that you simply reinterpret what "own" means and show that we are "owned" in different ways by corporations, or whatever else, and then reason from that, that slavery therefore is not wrong. Again, which is why my first question is important. You must have some distinction between "control" and "slavery" or everything is slavery--and I think, making it meaningless.

Still, this leaves out certain characteristics of slavery: the domination of the invididual or group by another individual or group( characteized by the power relations) in which, it is possible to jeopardize at will the enslaved group. For example, police, nor corporations are legally allowed at will to procecute or swindle people where in slavery, at the whim of a master the life of s slave can be decided. In effect, a major chararacteristic, I think, is the making of the slave into an object, and instrument--a thing to work rather than granting them them a level of human dignity we presuppose should be accorded to all. What do you have to say, about some [Christian arguments that are against slavery? which normally focus on the dignity of human beings?]

Porblem again here, is that you seem to simply reinterpret domination, power, or any of these things to so they can all be "slavery" so why not call everything slavery? It just seems we're conflating things here. And I disagree about moral laws being enslavement sincd if you were not granted a choice in the matter, it appears useless. Moral goodness is often characterized by the individual choosing to overcome what are thought bad influences to act in accordance with a prescriptive rule. What do you think about people that think it is the highest from of freedom to act in accordance with moral law? Further, I dont see why being obligated to follow moral rules makes it a form of slavery--it is the oughtness of of morality that makes it so uniquely valuable. It is wrong to act without morals because of the presumption that "goodness" is the highest state of affairs not because we have no "right" to do otherwise since, if the ability to disregard moral law was not present, how could one value it? Why should doing the "right" thing be a form of slavery rather than an exercise of the utmost freedom?

It's not that everything is slavery. It's that everything with control is some degree of slavery. I still don't see how it's meaningless. Maybe you mean that the distinction between slavery and mere control is meaningless, but that's just begging the question against a view that defines slavery in terms of control. Slavery itself isn't meaningless unless control is meaningless if slavery is defined in terms of control.

The possibility of jeopardizing the enslaved group is there with God. That doesn't necessarily add anything immoral, therefore. The same is true of domination.

I don't think the other points in that second paragraph apply to what I'm saying. My thesis is that it isn't slavery itself that's intrinsically wrong but other things that often go along with slavery. One of them is the ability for a master to do absolutely anything at all to a slave without consequence from the law. I'm not defending absolute slavery. You need absolute control to have that, and no case of slavery in history has absolutely no restrictions. I think there would have to be very important restrictions, but some classic examples of slavery had them, e.g. the slavery of ancient Israel.

The other point in that second paragraph is similar. Slavery that makes the slave a mere object is wrong. I don't think ancient Israel did that. There were some privileges that others had that slaves didn't have, and I think monetary compensation to an owner for a slave's injury could be lower than monetary compensation for a family member, but basic human dignity of slaves was recognized in the Torah. Every single person was recognized to have the potential for being a worshiper of YHWH, and there was even a section of the temple courts for those who were not native Israelites and thus not God's people who could go to the temple itself, and this included many slaves. There were severe restrictions on what could be done to slaves, including the restriction that a slave injured running away had to be set free. There was the time limit with the maximum of seven years unless the slave preferred to stay on permanently. Their basic human dignity was indeed recognized. Yet historians commonly call it slavery. You don't need to think of employment as slavery to agree with this point. There are things that do seem to be uncontroversially slavery that yet do not seem to be anything like the kinds of things people often think slavery must be like by definition. That's why I don't think it must be like that by definition.

It's unclear what you mean by "not given a choice in the matter". You're given a choice whether to follow the law. You're not given a choice whether it is the law. I think we're slaves to the law of gravity in a way that we're not slaves to moral laws, but we're slaves to moral laws in a way that we're not slaves to things that are just good ideas.

I have mixed feelings about the idea of a moral law. I don't think it's the most helpful way to think about morality. Still, even if you want to talk that way, I do think, as every Christian should, that it's the highest form of freedom to be a slave to Christ. That was the main point of my second post. Christianity teaches this quite plainly. Therefore, the best kind of freedom goes along with the kinds of slavery that are good for us. Pointing that out as a conclusion I wouldn't welcome ignores that it was one of my main theses of the second post in this series.

Slavery, not wrong? Honestly I have no iidea what is passing through the void recesses of your brain. Are you completely ignorant of God's view of His children. How would you like it if someone halled you out of America, took you to some foreign land and forced you to work strenuously day and night. How about you think about this for a second and consider repenting for believing that rebelling against not only the declaration of independence but God Himself, the creator of the Universe

Evan, you've described a case of kidnapping and overworking someone. Those are both wrong. I said quite clearly that I don't think slavery is always right and that the paradigmatic practices of slavery we're familiar with were some of the most immoral things ever done to people. I said there are some cases when it might not be wrong, but pretending that I said anything beyond that is itself immoral (though nowhere near as bad as what was done on the Southern plantations in the U.S. through the institution of slavery).

You obviously didn't bother to read the post. If you decide to do so, let me know. Maybe then you can repent of your false accusation, though I can't figure out what specifically that false accusation is supposed to be. You didn't seem to finish that last sentence.

There is one important point that I think you've missed. This is approached in a comment to your other post on Slavery and Christianity, but it isn't generalized as it should have been.

Degree is not the only difference between the cases you've described. The more important distinction is between "slavery" (in the traditional view) and what I'll call "exchange". I am not "enslaved" in my relationship with my employer. I do work for them in exchange for money. I need that money; they need my work. (As an aside - by your argument, this makes them also to a degree enslaved by me.) You could make the argument that a plantation owner and his slave shared a similar relationship; the plantation owner provided food and lodging, while the slave performed needed work. You would probably say that, all other things being equal, these two relationships are fundamentally the same. But the key difference is that, if I decide I don't want to exchange my work for my employer's money anymore, I am perfectly free to stop (providing I am abiding by the terms of any contracts I have previously voluntarily signed). The plantation owner's slave did not have that right. If he left to try to find a different master to serve, he would likely be hunted down and punished in some way. This point is not a difference in degree, but in the fundamental nature of the relationship. Thus, one could define "slavery" as a relationship in which one or both parties are constrained against their will.

Your arguments are interesting and compelling, but also dangerous. By removing the element of choice, you introduce uncertainty into the decision of whether a specific candidate case of slavery is morally wrong. This opens the door to all sorts of justifications based on the argument of degrees; if all you have is a continuum, then where you draw the line between good and evil is completely arbitrary. You need the unequivocal element of voluntary participation to make the disinction.

Yes, an employer who has a contract with employees is to a much smaller degree enslaved by that contract.

I would indeed make the argument that the plantation owner and slave had a similar relationship. The owner needed slaves to work the fields and was dependent on them, and the slaves were provided for in some ways in exchange for their work. You're right that the biggest difference is whether they have a right to stop, but as you acknowledge people bound by a contract also don't have that right to stop. So, you see, it is one element among many contributing to our concept of slavery. That one difference is a difference in kind, but it's one that other relationships also have. The fact that it's simply one factor among many is what makes my argument for me.

I don't think my argument at all requires an arbitrary decision about what's right and what's wrong. What it leads to is a continuum of how right and how wrong something could be. As something gets more bad, it eventually hits a threshold when it becomes wrong, and as it continues to get more bad it becomes more wrong from there on.

This doesn't at all need to be an arbitrary line. The line would be wherever the action is bad enough to be wrong. Some bad acts aren't wrong, and some are. As they get worse, eventually they hit a point where they're wrong.

This goes for lots of things. It's bad to harm my neighbor, right? This includes damaging my neighbor's lawn. But is it wrong to damage my neighbor's lawn in every case? I say no. If I pluck one blade of grass, that's such a small amount of damage that it alone doesn't make the action wrong. If I do it to enough blades of grass, then it is wrong. The fact that I can't figure out which blade of grass makes the difference doesn't mean there's an arbitrary line that anyone could set wherever they feel like it. You might just think that the action is wrong if it causes enough damage for anyone to notice (barring that I'm doing it for a higher purpose, anyway) but ok if it doesn't.

Those factors seem to me to have some kind of vagueness, but that's consistent with an objective fact about which actions are indeed wrong plain and simple. It's just that some of them aren't determinately wrong. That's no more a problem than something's being not determinately red or not determinately bald. Vagueness is a big problem in philosophy, but the fact that it crops up in moral discussions isn't a problem for whatever moral view is being discusses. Whatever answer is right about vagueness in general will then apply to the moral cases too.


The 13th Amendment prohibits what its authors called slavery, which was the institution they repealed. That institution is no longer legal. What that expression clearly means in its historical context is exactly what everyone has always taken it to mean.

But how does that prevent words from having extended senses or taking on weaker meanings in different contexts? Your conclusion simply doesn't follow from your premise. If we passed a law and banned sports, and in the context of the debate it was clear that we meant sports that require running around, would golf cease to be a sport? What about bowling? What about computer games that simulate basketball? Are those sports? Not in the full sense, one might argue. But banning the full-on sports doesn't necessarily mean banning anything that might be called sports in a lesser sense.

If we banned the teaching of philosophy in school for some (lack of a) reason, we might be banning formal philosophy, but would we be banning everything that might be called philosophy? People would still give reasons for what they do and question reasons others give. People would still be doing something that might be called philosophy, even though philosophy has been banned.

If we banned flat objects, we would still have objects that are flatter than others and thus relatively flat. If we banned large objects, we'd still have objects bigger than others and thus relatively large. If we banned red objects, we'd still have objects redder than others and thus relatively red. The point I'm making is that there are degrees of slavery. When you ban something that's a clear case of outright slavery, there will still be things that are like slavery to some degree and can be called slavery in an extended sense. That doesn't mean we're violating the 13th Amendment by employing people, but it does mean there are things in common with full-blown slavery in the most complete sense that are legal, and we can call them a kind of slavery in a linguistically legitimate way.

I'm not sure what this has to do with farm animals. Sheep are usually seen as those who follow along and accept what others tell them. I'm clearly offering a controversial view that's well against the grain. I would have thought that those defending the usual view, such as you, are more likely to be sheep.

I completely agree with your argument. Some form of slavery, in the most subtle sense, is bound to persist. Wage slavery is now the most common form, but at one time it was chattel slavery and serfdom. Chattel slavery and serfdom became less of a necessity because of the technological developments of the Industrial Revolution. The developments decreased the need for sheer massive manpower. I think that chattel slavery should remain illegal, but debt bondage/indentured servitude and penal slavery should be legalized.

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