What Ethical Theories Were Used to Abolish Slavery?
29 SEP 2017
The enslavement of people without pay for life was a common practice globally until the 19th century. Unfortunately, it still exists in some forms. Luckily, most forms of slavery were abolished after England made it illegal throughout the British Empire in 1833 and the United States followed suit in 1863. While slavery was embedded in the culture and many people didn't have a problem with it, abolitionists used many ethical approaches to get rid of slavery.
1 Inherent Evil
Abolitionists argued that the practice of humans enslaving other humans constituted an inherent evil and led to many horrible practices. While this may seem obvious now, at the time people didn't think slavery in general was bad; however, the entrenched system led to brutal, inhuman treatment of slaves. Slaves were kidnapped from their home countries and many died on the ocean voyages. In bondage, slave owners and overseers could do whatever they wanted to slaves, including physical, emotional and sexual abuse. White slaveholders often used their female slaves for sex and sometimes fathered illegitimate children whom they would not claim.
A major ethical concept that led to the abolition of slavery was the notion -- revolutionary for the time -- that slaves were not property like cattle, but people. For centuries, many nonwhite peoples were viewed as inhuman and born to be slaves, not fit for equal treatment. Abolitionists vigorously argued that slaves were individual people who were capable of love, joy, pain, thoughts and desires for other than bonded labor. The concept of universal human rights, now widespread, was unheard of. This simple concept, finally put into law in 1948 by the United Nations, states that all people, no matter their skin color, religion, class or background, are entitled to equal treatment. Once non-slaves saw those enslaved as human beings like themselves, things started to change. Former slaves like Frederick Douglass began to express themselves politically in speeches and writing, proving that slaves and "the slave races" were, in fact, no different than the ruling whites. Douglass became one of the leaders of the abolitionist movement in the United States.
In so-called democracies like the United States, people were supposed to be afforded equal rights, but this did not include slaves. Abolitionists questioned the ethics of keeping humans in chains to toil for no wages when every man was supposed to have the right to freedom and liberty. The end of the 18th century experienced major revolts against entrenched governments in the form of the American and French Revolutions. France's 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man inspired the slave rebellion and revolution in the French colony of Saint Domingue, which became the independent island nation of Haiti. However, it was not until the next century that slaves in the British colonies and the United States were afforded the concept of "liberty, fraternity and equality" that defined these revolutions of personal freedom. Emancipation of slaves in the United States didn't occur until 1863.
Many major abolitionist groups were Christian, specifically evangelical Christians who believed that all humans were God's children. These abolitionist Christians viewed slavery as hypocritical and contrary to the Christian religion. They espoused the moral view that no one of God's children should own or control another, since all were equal in God's eyes. In predominantly Christian nations like the United States, this argument took some time to catch on due to entrenched racial prejudice and the perceived economic necessity of slavery for commerce. Using the teachings of Jesus as a basis for behavior didn't work with the plantation system of slavery. It took a civil war to end slavery.