Like Button

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

An Ethical Dialog

This is not a statement. This is a question. I will offer it as a statement, but the hope is that you can dialog on the topic. I am not actually taking this position. I'm offering it for you to consider, think through, explain, comprehend, even deny.

There is very little in the world of ethics, it seems, that we can agree on. One side thinks homosexual behavior is obviously immoral and the other can't figure out why they would even think such a thing. Everyone used to understand that sex outside of marriage is wrong but those who still think so are very few. On the other hand, we are mostly agreed that killing human beings is wrong. Well, don't push that too far. Is it wrong to kill in war? Is it wrong to execute someone for a crime? No, no, murder is wrong. Yes, but some people define war as murder.

Slavery! Oh, yes, there's one we can all agree on. That's one that's fairly universal. Well, in the developed countries. Slavery is still considered moral in some less civilized societies. But let's just stick with the civilized societies. We all know by now, although we obviously didn't 150 years ago, that slavery is bad, immoral, wrong. Indeed, so convinced are we that it becomes an Achilles heel for Christians trying to defend the Bible. "Oh, yeah?" the skeptic will say, "Well, the Bible defends slavery. How about that?" And those who believe the Bible is God's breathed Word are now in trouble, trying to slip out from that one any way they can.

So here's the question. Why is it immoral? Let's think about it. "Slavery" is defined in various ways in the dictionary. One entry says, "the state or condition of being a slave." Oh, come on, dictionary! That's not helpful! Another says, "a civil relationship whereby one person has absolute power over another and controls his life, liberty, and fortune." Okay, now, hold on a minute. While perhaps "absolute power" isn't there, an employer seems to have a lot of power over employees. And certainly parents come close to "absolute power" over their kids' life, liberty, and fortune. And that's not a bad thing. There should be something more, I think. So typically a slave is "a person who is the property of and wholly subject to another; a bond servant." Property. That's a key element. So, it is fundamentally wrong to own another person as property.

I would hope that the phrase that followed that definition caught your attention: "Bond servant". Interesting, isn't it? Because Paul repeatedly referred to himself as "the bond servant of Christ" or something very close. And he meant it in a good way. We are indeed owned by God, held under His absolute power. He is indeed the one who controls life, liberty, and fortune. So there is a slavery that is not bad. And that just begs the question. Why is slavery immoral?

So let's lay out the common answers. 1) "Obviously it's wrong because owning a person is wrong." Why? 2) "It leaves them open to mistreatment and abuse." Absolutely true. But, what if it didn't? I mean, what if the law required that slaves be well-treated and properly cared for? What if they had legal protections? We can all agree that abusing people (anytime) is wrong. I think we can also agree that abuse does not only occur in slavery and that being a slave does not guarantee abuse. 3) "It is dehumanizing to be owned." I'm not at all sure what that means. 4) "No one should lose their freedom. Freedom is a human right." I don't think that one will hold up, will it? I mean, aren't prisoners under the absolute power of the State who has complete control over their life, liberty, and fortune? Apparently it's not the case that "freedom is a human right".

Okay, I know, too long. Enough. I've made my point. Let's all agree that mistreating another human being is wrong. Eliminate that from the question. Assuming that the argument is that "slavery is moral if the slave is well-treated", on what would you base a denial? We all agree that slavery is wrong, but why is it wrong?


Dan said...

Perspective will help. You might want to dispense with the racial component. In modern American, and perhaps Western Society, there are assumptions that go along with the discussion, namely that slavery is whites, enslaving blacks. This racial component brings emotions in that cloud thinking, I think. And there is also the reality that most people who read this only understands life through a lens of free-market capitalism and the never before experienced prosperity it has brought to the average person. The fact is, for the average person throughout time, this prosperity is an anomaly. I think one must escape this perspective to get a clear understanding of slavery and therefore be able to answer the question.

That all said, my answer would be that slavery, at least the kind that I envision, is theft. It is the theft of, perhaps a man's will, but definitely his time.

I have more to say on this.

Stan said...

I await your "more to say".

In earlier times (in fact, in early America), there were "indentured servants", certainly a form of slavery. These people either contracted themselves or were contracted by their parents to serve as slaves for someone for a period of time in exchange for ... something. In America it was often passage and lodging to America to get established here. Sometimes it was to pay off debts. It was voluntary and contractual ... and it was slavery. Wouldn't that put a crimp in the concept of slavery being theft?

David said...

I don't think that slavery is inherently immoral, just like technology isn't immoral or moral. The abuse of slavery is certainly wrong. But if person X can work for person A for Y years to pay off a debt, and as long person A doesn't mistreat person X, you know follows the rules that perhaps the Bible puts forth about slavery, then what is immoral about that? Going out and hunting for slaves as a source of cheap labor is certainly wrong. But as with anything else that is either good or amoral, it can be abused to become bad.

Stan said...

Brave position to take, David. (I had the conversation with Jonathan, which spawned the post. "You're going to blog about this, aren't you?" Yeah, I am.)

David said...

While it it the least popular idea, I think it is the most consistent when view from Scripture and history.

Marshall Art said...

Imagine a person with little in the way of ambition aside from living as long as possible. He isn't necessarily lazy, but doesn't find much reason to do anything without being prodded or forced. He might pretty much live a life of poverty if left to his own devices, but finds that being told what to do in return for food, clothing and shelter is an easy way to get through life. He could be taken as a slave and find it isn't such a bad deal for him.

I would submit that most people concede a difference between being a slave and and indentured servant. While the latter might be forced, it isn't necessarily the case and even if one is, it is usually until a debt is paid off.

But a slave in the minds of most people is one who is forced into servitude without his consent. Thus, due to this forced aspect, it would be difficult to say that the slave is not abused. If he has no choice in his circumstances, if he is made to do what he might not want to do, then it is abusive to force him. Even the hypothetical person I first mentioned at the start of my comment is only keen on the idea "so far". If he at some point down the line wishes to have a life of his own, he could not if he were truly enslaved.

Dan Trabue said...

"I don't think slavery is inherently immoral."


Marshall Art said...

Dan does not seem to possess the vaunted liberal notion of "nuance" as evidenced by his knee-jerk reaction. If we again choose to define slavery as forced captivity of one person by another (or one people by another), we ares still not dealing with something that is inherently immoral as by that definition we must also include imprisonment. Law-breakers lose their freedom and are made to work (to some extent), and some are held for life. Is this immoral? We distinguish between slavery and imprisonment, but is there much difference to the one imprisoned or enslaved? We can look still further to treatment and if the treatment of either is "humane", it is only loss of freedom that is in question.

Stan said...

Thanks, Dan Trabue. "Wow" is helpful. Oh, wait, no, it's not. The question is "Is it immoral and, if so, why?" That's kind of the purpose of "An Ethical Dialog". You know, when one side gives the reasons why X is so and the other side gives the reasons why it's not.

Stan said...

Marshall Art,

The concept of the indentured servant is the primary concept of slavery in the Old Testament. They served off their debts and were released by law every 7 years. The Bible called them "slaves".

But it would seem as if your point is that forced servitude is wrong. I think most would concur. However, I don't think anyone is deeply concerned about forced servitude in places like prison, so ...?

Dan Trabue said...

Sorry, Stan, I didn't really intend for that to be posted, I am just dismayed about the unwillingness to call slavery immoral.

I guess IF one is ONLY talking about willing indentured servitude and whether or not that is immoral, MAYBE you might make a case. For most people, I'd wager, indentured servitude is not what we're talking about when we talk about slavery. It is the forced servitude against another's will, being owned by someone, that is what is obviously immoral.

As to the oft-repeated claim of biblical slavery primarily being indentured servitude, as I've pointed out before, that is ONE type of slavery in the Bible, but hardly the only type. I'd say the vast majority of slavery mentioned in the OT is of the forced slavery - literal ownership by another, unjust taking of liberty by another - that is talked about. Israel's slavery in Egypt, for instance. Israel's capture of other nations to make them slaves, for instance. Israel's capture of women to force them into sexual slavery (ie, forced marriage), for instance.

I still think the indentured servitude spoken of in other places in the Bible - someone being so desperately poor that they sell their children to service to others to pay off that debt - is not a moral slavery, either. Maybe, MAYBE, one could suggest that an adult being so poor that they decide for themselves, "I will work for this person until I can pay off the debt..." is possibly not immoral, although the forced nature of the situation and the possibility that there were unjust circumstances leading to the bond servitude make it questionable. But I don't think that indentured servitude is what most people think of as slavery and so, anyone who would suggest that being a BOND SERVANT might not be immoral ought to be clear that that is what they're speaking of, not "slavery" itself, which is a whole other thing.

THAT is what I was saying "wow," to.

Stan said...

I'm sorry, Dan, I didn't see any "please don't post this" disclaimers or I would have honored your wishes.

I do find it disappointing that one who is constantly questioning the longstanding, historical understanding of Scripture is dismayed about the willingness to discuss modern morality and its basis (which was simply the point of the exercise).

But, look, since it is, in your view, unthinkable that anything resembling slavery is anything but immoral, and since the only possible conclusion is that God failed as a just God by allowing and regulating slavery at all rather than outlawing it (say, as He did with homosexual behavior), I suppose I shouldn't be too disappointed.

David said...

You would think that if slavery in any form was immoral, that Jesus and the New Testament writers would have told slave owners to release their slaves. Instead we are given instructions as both slave owner and slaves in how they should act.

Stan said...

That, indeed, David, is what made me ask the question.

Dan Trabue said...

That is, in my opinion, the problem with the way you all approach the Bible: What I call the Rule Book Approach to Bible study. IF you find a line that sounds like a rule and you think or tradition holds that that rule is a good rule, then you think that is a command from God.

Other rules (like the quite specific: Don't Work on the Sabbath, or instances of allowing polygamy), you write off as not applicable to today. There is no consistency as to which rules you find universal, not that I've seen thus far, nothing beyond, "I think it is universal, therefore it is..."

"Jesus never condemned the slavery of his day, therefore it is universally not necessarily a sin..."

BUT when it comes to polygamy never being condemned, you DO condemn it as not a universally moral good thing.

The thing is, the Bible is not a holy rule book. It is a book of truths and we might glean some rules/standards out of those truths, but the Bible never makes a claim to be a hard and fast rule book. In fact, those who take it that way are condemned by Jesus (the Pharisees taking an OT rule and making it hard and fast, Jesus condemns them for it, for instance).

Thus, JUST BECAUSE polygamy and slavery and forced marriages and wholesale slaughter happen in the Bible, does NOT mean that we need to say, "Well, these are acceptable at least some of the time..." We can acknowledge that the Bible was written at a particular time and place and there were cultural norms of the day (polygamy and slavery being two notable ones) that aren't condemned. That does not mean that they aren't wrong today.

A point which you seem to agree with on polygamy but not with slavery. You lack consistency, my brothers.

Regardless of that inconsistency, we CAN condemn unjust (ie, I'm not talking about imprisoning convicts) forced slavery, can we at least go that far in agreement? Any biblical hermeneutic that so ties you up that you couldn't agree to that would be an obviously immoral hermeneutic.

Stan said...

Rule Book Approach? I was asking a question. You indicated it was radically stupid to ask the question. And mine is a "Rule Book Approach."

I don't disregard anything that the Bible tells me to do. (I'm not saying I obey perfectly. I'm saying I agree with what the Bible says is right and wrong.) When Scripture says that Jesus declared all foods as clean, I assume that He meant it. When Paul says not to allow judgment for observation of Sabbaths, I assume he meant it. I do not make the argument that polygamy is a universal evil. I make a biblical case against it, and you won't find a biblical argument for it. But, unlike slavery, you will not find commands in Scripture that encourage polygamy. You will find passing references that don't regulate it at all. Not the same thing.

And still you won't answer the question or offer a reasoned response. Even with your superior understanding of Scripture and your far more reasonable outlook on the Bible and on life in general, you won't offer a reason that you hold that slavery is unjust, that polygamy is evil, or that arranged marriages are wrong. Apparently, then, you have your own rulebook that does not offer any rationale for its rules but assumes universal morality without any given basis. All I asked for was a basis. You give me arguments about how my view is wrong. My view -- the one where I asked for reasoned responses -- is wrong.

Thanks for playing. Sorry to hear your approach is so bereft of reason.

Dan said...

There's more than one way to create a slave. I wrote on this a couple of years ago here.

Marshall Art said...


In regards to your last response to me, I was trying to establish terms. What most would find immoral about slavery is the forced nature of the type of slavery that takes away one's liberty without one's consent to do so. These days, that is really the only form of slavery that comes to the mind of most people, and not the various forms of indentured servitude of the Bible up to even the 17th or 18th century or so. That form suggests some level of contract between the master and "slave" that isn't present in the form of slavery that comes to most people's minds; such as the black slave of America's past.

So, I then spoke to the notion of humane treatment, which can take place in both the master/slave relationship and that of an imprisoned felon, both of which involves loss of liberty to slave and prisoner.

What's left is that the prisoner's loss of liberty is justified by law for the prisoner having broken a law that carried that sentence. Thus, it is moral.

Now we have only that type of slave that had no debt to repay, no choice in his captivity and his complete loss of liberty for the sole purpose of providing inexpensive labor for the master. Regardless of the treatment of this slave, and ever regardless of his own potential to prefer his situation, the mere fact that his preference is irrelevant to his status would make the situation immoral as it is still oppression of one person, unjustly, by another.

That's where I was heading.

As an aside, I saw an article not too long ago that made the case that the Bible does speak against slavery that I found compelling. Up until then, I withheld my own position as to the morality of slavery due to no specific teaching in Scripture. I wish I could remember where I saw it. I do know that I have not heard the author's argument made before, and I don't recall that it even matches what I put forth above. If I find it, I'll present it somehow.

Stan said...


I would be interested in that other article you saw. I hope perhaps you can find that again and share it with me. I understand, of course, if you can't.

It strikes me that "inhumane treatment" is the key problem, the major difficulty. It was the problem that Paul addressed repeatedly, urging masters to be kind to their servants. If people are well-treated, the moral question seems to almost entirely go away.

It is my suspicion that the remaining issue is the loss of liberty. It is also my suspicion that this is a largely cultural problem. That is, we Americans have so long been assured that our absolute freedom is a divine right that we don't realize and have forgotten that it has not always been thus. Serving a master, whether as a slave or just as a serf or a peasant or such, was the norm for a lot longer than our massive freedom was the norm. Incomprehensible to us, no doubt, but not to them.

I would absolutely agree that hunting down people for the purpose of enslaving them for cheap labor is wrong. I would absolutely agree that mistreating anyone -- slave, servant, spouse, employee -- is wrong. But despite the complaints to the contrary, I see neither of these in biblical slavery. There were those who submitted themselves to (temporary) slavery for paying off debts or for protection. And there were those who, as a consequence of war (not fought for gaining slaves), were taken as slaves. The understanding I have of these slaves was that it served a two-fold purpose. For the slave (the vanquished foe), it sustained their lives. There was always the option of killing opponents, and the option to give them a home and a job was the other. For the nation of Israel, the slave (the enemy of the state) was subdued. They were kept in check, not allowed to continue hostilities with the nation, removed from the conflict. They were, then, well-treated prisoners of war, so to speak.

I will repeat, then, that I believe that all modern slavery is likely in the immoral category because it is either instituted for the purpose of cheap labor or it includes mistreatment or both. Nor am I at all sure that humans, sinners at heart, are capable of properly managing a slave system otherwise. As such, it would seem to me that slavery, because of human failings, is wrong. But I'm not at all sure that slavery, as practiced in the Bible, is fundamentally immoral at its bottom line. Not sure. Still not making a solid statement.

Stan said...

Dan, isn't it interesting that the Left is absolutely opposed to slavery in all forms ... except when you point out that inordinate taxation (and the taxation about which you wrote) is a form of slavery.

Dan said...

Yes I know. And WOW, they think it's moral.

Dan said...

Here's the companion piece I did with that last one pointing out modern day slavery, complete with the thuggery.