Throughout time many philosophers have pondered over the question if slavery is wrong or not. To us, the answer seems obvious; of course it is. The reason we would give is that it is wrong for one person to own another. Although this idea seems fairly simple once you glance over it, if you actually sit and think about it, it is hard to answer why it is wrong to own another person. Two great philosophers, Aristotle and Augustine, both say that slavery is justified and acceptable. Kant, on the other hand, proves them wrong using reason and his idea of the Categorical Imperative.
Let us start with the earliest of these philosophers, Aristotle. Aristotle lived from 384 to 322 B. C. E. He spent most of his life in Athens, Greece. One important thing to remember as we study Aristotle’s view is that slavery was common and prevalent during his time, in fact he himself owned slaves. Although Aristotle supported slavery, he had mixed feelings about the subject. First and foremost, he did not consider slaves to be people. He felt that they were only capable of serving their masters and not the state or the monarch.
He said that slaves are nothing more than “animate tools that were essential for society and culture (Pg. 85). ” One of his reasons for justifying slavery is the idea of superiors over inferiors. He points out that this idea is found everywhere, for example man over animals. When such a difference between two things exists it is to the advantage to both that one should rule over the other. Aristotle held that some people are slaves “by nature”. For these people, he feels that it is better for them that they be subjected to masters.
He even thought that there was a biological difference between man and slave. This thought can easily be disregarded since modern studies proved that the composition of man is the same throughout. Now we will study how Aristotle somewhat contradicts himself. First, Aristotle said that some people are slaves “by nature” and also insisted that some slaves are “by nature” free. For those who were undeservedly enslaved, he declines to call them slaves at all. Let us look at who would be considered a free slave in Aristotle’s eyes. “Slavery by mere right of conquest in war is not to be approved. ” (Politics Pg. 41)
By this he means that people who are captured during a war are not naturally slaves and are put in that position unnaturally. Superior power does not always mean superior excellence. Also, the child of a natural slave is not always a slave by nature. Aristotle does not really give a clear definition as to who qualifies to be a slave. If it is not the child of a slave, or prisoners of war, then it is possible that the master could also be a slave and the slave could be the master. Since the interest of the master and slave are the same, the master should not abuse his authority, and instead be a friend to his slave.
He should not merely command, but reason with him. Finally, Aristotle believed that it was best to free one’s slave upon one’s death, as he himself did in his own will. Aristotle’s main argument for slavery is the idea of superiority. This is similar to our modern day idea of leaders and followers, but to a greater extent. Not all people can be leaders, for, to have leaders you must have followers. Augustine, like Aristotle, also felt that slavery was justified. He gives us a more religious reason as to why slavery was appropriate.
He lived from 354 to 430 A. D. Augustine was a very religious man and illustrates this in his ideas regarding ethics and morality. Since he was such a holy man, we would expect him to take a stance against slavery. This is not so. Augustine’s views on slavery, unacceptable to us, reflect his ethical pessimism. “Slavery is a punishment willed by God himself. ” (Pg. 85) He feels it is God’s punishment on humankind for the sin of Adam. Augustine did admit that slavery was an evil, however, he saw no reason why the relation between master and slave should be changed.
Indeed, it would be a proper punishment for human sinfulness if all humans shared in their pain. However, he did call for the “freeing of the spirit”(Pg. 85) of the individual slave, but never for the abolition of slavery. He stated that they should obey their masters with “fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as unto Christ. ”(Pg. 85). He expects the slaves to suffer for man’s sin. The Christian religion also expected everyone, rich or poor, masters or slaves, to think of each other as brothers, since they all call onto God as “our Father.
Augustine’s main argument is that God called for slavery as punishment for Adam’s sin. Aristotle and Augustine put up a good argument as to why slavery is legitimate. Aristotle brings us the idea of superiority. Augustine says that God wanted slavery. These reasons given probably would have worked if the philosopher’s were not so undecided about their conclusions. You see, Aristotle is saying ” yes but no. ” Augustine is saying that slavery is valid ” just because. ” First of all we must realize that they both lived during times when slavery was allowed.
I am sure that Aristotle could not picture a world without slavery, for, the man himself owned a few slaves. One reason he gives for slavery is the concept of superiority. He points out that this is found elsewhere, like in the comparison of man over animal. If this were true then he would be comparing slaves to animals. Obviously there is no comparison because although slaves could not attain happiness and virtue, according to Aristotle, they still had the ability to reason, which animals do not have. Another thing that Aristotle does not do is give a good definition of what a slave “by nature” really is.
He does explain how “by nature” some slaves are free though. He says that the child of a natural slave is not necessarily a slave by nature. But if there is a biological difference between slaves and non-slaves then this difference should have been passed on from parent to child. He also stated that the master should not abuse his authority and even become friends with the slave. If this were so, then why would someone enslave a friend? Instead this person should pay his friend a wage for working for him. Augustine similarly has many flaws to his reasoning.
One question that comes up is: If God is punishing for Adam’s sin, then how come all his descendants are not suffering? There is no reason why slaves should suffer more than any other person. Also, if slavery were an evil (Pg. 85) then God would not want it because then he would be proclaiming evil instead of good. Augustine also called for the “freeing of the spirit” of the individual slave. This is impossible because how can the spirit be free while the person’s body is not. The only way this is possible is through death. Now that the idea of slavery being right has been disproved, we must prove why slavery is wrong.
To do this we turn to Kant. Kant was born on April 22, 1724, nearly one thousand five hundred years after Augustine. Kant believed that we could attain a morally good will by subjecting our will to reason. Since reason is a part of ourselves that is “pure”, or lacking any prejudice, he thought it was a reliable source of moral guidance free of all special interests. To show that slavery is wrong, we must first understand what a good will is. A good will is simply something that is good in itself, and not because of what it performs what its effects are.
Using this notion of good will, Kant formulated what is called the Categorical Imperative. This is a test of maxims, or rules. If the rule is capable of being a universal law, the act described is morally permissible. If it is not capable of being a universal law, then it is not morally permissible. It says, “act only according to that maxim (or rule) through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. ”(Kant Pg. 320) This means that you should act only on those rules that you could be willing for everyone to act on.
We must all aim first at being a good person as an individual, because a person of good will cannot help also willing a morally just world. To see if this works for slavery we must imagine a world, in which everyone had slaves, even the slaves themselves. Such a world is not rational and so slavery is not morally permissible. Also the idea of slavery would not fit into the notion of a good will. For, if a person has a good will they would not want to own another person because they would know that it is morally wrong. If all people were morally good then the idea of slavery would not even be in existence.
So as you can see slavery is always and everywhere wrong. Aristotle and Augustine had many flaws in their reasoning as to why slavery would be just. Kant, on the other hand, gives us a sound rule, the Categorical Imperative, which binds us because we are rational. Aristotle and Augustine may have also felt that slavery was wrong, but since they lived in a world where slavery was prominent, it must have been hard for them to imagine a world without it. Kant helps us to see why slavery is morally wrong, for if we do not exhibit good will then our ethics would be just as licentious as slavery.