An Opposition to the Abolition: Utilitarianism and Slavery

One of the most common objections to Utilitarianism is the idea that it endorses slavery. It is widely accepted that slavery is inherently wrong. If a moral theory endorses slavery, how can that theory be a plausible theory, let alone one that anyone would wish to adopt as their own? In this paper I will delineate the moral theory of Utilitarianism and will then proceed to investigate the argument behind the objection of slavery endorsement. Furthermore, this essay will conclude whether or not the slavery argument holds ground or is convincing as a true objection to utilitarianism.

It is first necessary to demarcate what utilitarianism is exactly. Utilitarianism is the moral theory that posits one is to act only on those actions with the highest utility, in an effort to maximize utility. Within the theory, the term “utility” mainly means happiness, which can be defined as pleasure in the absence of pain. Nothing else matters when attempting to evaluate an actions moral worth, other than which action will augment utility to the fullest.

The slavery objection is discussed and combated by R.M. Hare in his article “What is Wrong with Slavery.” It is said that because utilitarianism can within “certain circumstances condone or even commend slavery” it follows that the theory is objectionable (Hare 104). The argument rests upon the idea that there could be a situation where one could see the enslaving of people as maximizing utility, i.e. the work of the enslaved profiting the slave-owner and, in turn, profiting the many who buy the slave-owner’s product, etc. Therefore, how can a moral theory in some way condone the enslaving of people? How is it that a moral theory that apparently advocates for pleasure in the absence of pain, get away with possibly endorsing an institution which is the ultimate form of oppression, subjugation, and humiliation? Within these questions lay the roots and teeth of the very slavery objection at hand.

Hare develops his own example in which slavery maximizes the aggregate of utility. In this example, “Juba” is a former Spanish colony and is now being led by a slave who served under the now fled white colonists. This slave leader took political control of the island of Juba and he “retained the institution of slavery,” but attempted to fix “its evils” (Hare 112). In this slave leader’s endeavor to correct the institution of slavery on the island, he split up the plantations and made them accountable to the state, gave slaves the right to better working conditions, guaranteed the wages from the colonial concession and more, and also outlawed “cruel punishment” (Hare 113). The island did well and “the slaves in it enjoyed a life far preferable in every way to that of the inhabitants of the neighboring island of Camaica” (Hare 113). Camaica’s people went slightly overboard after the white colonists left and grabbed a bunch of land. They went through political turmoil and ended up with “a population explosion … [which]… led to widespread starvation and misery” (Hare 113). The Camaican’s tried immigrating to Juba, but were stopped by a coastguard comprised of slaves.

Hare begins his argument in favor of utilitarianism by stating that there are two ways a utilitarian can respond to this objection; one way is to be able to object to facts and the other is to not be able to object to facts. Hare concedes that without the ability to combat the facts of an example, such as the one given, though he does deem it and most examples of the same nature “fantastic,” utilitarians must, in this case, condone the slavery. In this case, it is a must for the utilitarian to state that utility is being maximized by slavery. However, Hare moves on to flush out the second way a utilitarian can answer the objection, for which he advocates more heavily.

The “second horn of the dilemma,” or second way to respond for the utilitarian, is to be able to question facts about the example. Hare begins by critiquing “factual speculations” about the example that later, he deems “more superficial than [he] can be content with” (Hare 119). These points include how Hare does “not believe that … a system of slavery could be made to run so smoothly” (Hare 119). He would “expect the system to deteriorate very rapidly” (Hare 119). Hare continues on points like why this seemingly amazing leader could not have done more good and maximized more utility had he done away with slavery. Also, if he gave the slaves some rights, why would this leader not give them more rights, “such as the right to change residences and jobs” (Hare 119)?

Though these points seem like simple empirical gripes, they do seem to carry some weight with them, in the sense that they are legitimate questions that should be addressed by those who object to utilitarianism. However, I do feel as though Hare would have gotten further with these tiny objections if he posited his own proposals of how to better the example. For instance, Hare could have given examples of what other avenues this slave leader could have taken to better his island, other than slavery, which he objects to.

Continuing on, Hare then arrives at his main counter to the objection; that being that “the most fundamental point is one about the human nature of the slave which makes ownership by another more intolerable for him than for, say, a horse (Hare 120). Here Hare delves into how ownership of a human differs so extremely than that of an animal. Animals fail to have the ability to look ahead; they are only capable of “Pavlovian conditioning” and “Skinnerian reinforcement” (Hare 120). Whereas, humans can be the subjects of terror, i.e. threats, where “other kind of property are immune” (Hare 120). Threats on a dog or horse Hare designates as “valueless,” they will not understand, nor remember the threat. Hare asserts a small bit of absolutist theory in the sense that it is human nature to enable power to corrupt. Those who maintain the master position in the master-slave relationship will inevitably “exploit those over whom they have absolute power” (Hare 119). Utilitarians, as per Hare, need to be able “to show that [slavery] is wrong by showing, through a study of history and other factual observations, that slavery does have the effects (namely the productions of misery) which make it wrong” (Hare 118). Hare concludes with, “the wrongness of slavery, like the wrongness of anything else, has to be shown through world as it actually is” (Hare 121). Therefore, rather than appeal to the common conception that slavery is wrong, Hare appealed to empirical data about how the world is historically. It is this that Hare purports to be the way utilitarians must attempt to “ascertain what will actually be the result of adopting certain principles” (Hare 121).

I find Hare’s argument convincing on some levels and wanting on others. Firstly, Hare seemed to object to the mere objection itself. A circumstance in which slavery could yield more utility than harm it inflicts on the slaves is an intuitively difficult circumstance to attempt to conceptualize. Thus, the objection itself is weak. If the objection itself is seemingly unfathomable, than the objection might be in and of itself weak. Objections should pose plausible and granted arguments against the assertions of a given theory for them to overcome or falter on.

Secondly, Hare seems to posit that if utilitarians can go back through history and prove that every time slavery emerged it ultimately promoted negative effects, i.e. “misery,” than utilitarians can escape the condoning of slavery via the fact that though it maximizes utility at first, in the long-run, it will fail and produce misery. This argument I find plausible. However, I do dislike the empirical method of argument. But, with that being said, even with the lack of determinacy and the lack of the ability to utilize utilitarianism, this method of appealing to historical happenings of the same actions garners more weight than simply imagining what action would maximize the most utility on any given action.

Works Cited

Hare, R.M. “What is Wrong with Slavery.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 8.2 (1979): 103-21. JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2009. <;.

Timmons, Mark. Conduct and Character Readings in Moral Theory. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2005

Timmons, Mark. Moral Theory. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, Inc., 2002. Print.. Print.


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