Ethical Queries



Slavery exists. As far as we can tell, it has existed since pre-history, and it still exists now. Nobody really contends this. Most people denounce it. It has been officially banned by all countries. Article 4 of the Universal Human Rights condemns it. Slavery is abhorrent. Slavery is illegal. Slavery is unaccepted.

Or is it?

If one takes a closer look at the definition of slavery one learns that according to American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language [1] slavery is:

  • The condition in which one person is owned as property by another and is under the owner’s control, especially in involuntary servitude.

The Collins English Dictionary [2] says that slavery is:

  • The state or condition of being a slave; a civil relationship whereby one person has absolute power over another and controls his life, liberty and fortune.

Over the course of history slavery has been a principle that has risen and fallen with changing times. It has taken many different forms, and societies have often changed their acceptance of it. Upon doing a simple internet search, you can find multitudinous articles on slavery and the different forms it has taken, and still takes today. But essentially what it boils down to is that slavery is very much a living principle, changing with the times and the rise and fall of nations; its core components have been stretched and bent, and upon study, many variations in what counts as ownership, exactly how absolute the ownership is, and what is and isn't acceptable to enslave can be observed.


Modern slavery?

First of all, there is a need to address what exactly is meant by ‘modern slavery’ in the context of this blogpost. Let there be no mistake: slavery still very much exists in our times. But, as all countries and nations have officially abolished slavery, the practice has become illegal. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights underlines this. However, that doesn’t mean that slavery has vanished from existence.

According to “Religion & Ethics – Modern slavery: Modern forms of slavery” [3]:

Nowadays slavery doesn’t only come in the obvious form in which one person owns another person (which is traditionally called ‘chattel slavery’). Other practices that amount to slavery are:

  • Bonded labor or debt bondage
  • Serfdom
  • Other forms of forced labor (e.g. where passports are confiscated from migrant workers to keep them in bondage or where a worker is ‘kept in captivity’ as a domestic servant)
  • Child slavery
  • Marital and sexual slavery (forced marriage, selling and buying of individuals for marriage or sexual exploitation through the use or threat of force or other penalty)

But even today, even with Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there still isn't much clarity on what is and is not acceptable, or where we draw the line between who we can and cannot enslave. The problem is that the criteria will always be ephemeral. And so, apart from these illegal, and therefore socially unacceptable forms of slavery, this blogpost will purport that there are other, socially acceptable and accepted forms of slavery being practiced all over the world that hardly anyone condemns or finds abhorrent at all. In other words, there has been a societal ‘evolution’ of the concept of slavery, a cultural shift in definition to take away the perceived ‘evil’ of slavery and make it acceptable. In order to fully understand this, it is necessary to know why slavery exists at all. What is its purpose, its benefit?


Purpose of slavery

As mentioned, a concept such as slavery can easily adapt to new forms of society, according to the needs of said society. To identify the cultural replacement or ‘evolution’ of slavery, we must identify the purpose that slavery serves in a society. Comparing slavery to its modern accepted counterpart (i.e., that which now fulfils the aforementioned purpose) should reveal the similarities, or dissimilarities, and prove whether accepted slavery completely faded out of existence, or has merely changed its appearance.

To discover the purpose of slavery we first look at what purpose slaves commonly fulfil:

  • Labor: well-known examples are the Roman slaves, and in more recent times negro slaves.
  • Entertainment: think of Roman gladiators.
  • Human sacrifice: best known examples are Aztec and Mayan slaves, sacrificed in enormous public ceremonies.
  • Food: primitive cannibalistic societies used their slaves as a source of ritualistic nourishment.

Slaves were most commonly used for entertainment and/or labor. The treatment of slaves varies, ranging from being treated similarly to how livestock was treated, to being treated much like any other member of the society, bar the fact that they were owned by another (i.e. having the same set of rights as regular citizens). The key element that separates slaves from other laborers or entertainers, is that slaves are subject to the complete control of their masters. This leads to slaves requiring only the bare minimum in maintaining their functionality in terms of costs, whereas a free man could choose a more beneficial arrangement. Another important aspect of this ownership is that a slave would not be free to choose which activities they do or do not find acceptable to perform, meaning an owner could make their slaves perform activities that others would not. Apparently, slavery serves to force people to do undesirable activities, undesirable either due to the nature of the activity or to the (lack of) reward offered in exchange. To further prove this concept we need to look at the source of slaves. Commonly, slaves tend to be aliens to the host society. Societies rarely enslave what they consider to be their own people. It stands to reason therefore, that other societies, cultures, groups or races became a common source for slaves.

Slave sources can be roughly divided as follows:

  • Captives: if for whatever reason, war broke out between societies, inevitably enemies were made captive. These captives were not a part of the host society. But captives need to be maintained, and left as prisoners, they offer no added value to the host society, and instead put a drain on resources. Slavery was the best solution to keep cost for their upkeep to a minimum with the added bonus that you could make them perform all sorts of undesirable labour. Slaves resourced from captives rarely regained their freedom.
  • Crime: crime was another source of slaves. Instead of putting criminals into prisons, where they were a constant strain on resources, criminals would be sentenced to slavery. This type of slavery was rarely permanent. An example are the indentured prisoners sent from Great Britain to the penal colonies. (Servile penitude)
  • Debt: in the past, a form of slavery was used as a means for a person to pay off a debt they were otherwise unable to. In Aztec culture for example, an individual could sell himself into slavery and perform menial tasks for his “owner” until his debt was settled. In the same way, in the 1700s, the English had so-called “bondsmen”, also individuals that could were sent out from debtor's prisons to work for a set amount of time in the colonies in order to settle monetary deficiencies.
  • Breeding: the state of slavery was often hereditary. Humans being humans, it was inevitable that slaves had offspring. These children would inherit their parents’ slave status. Being a cheap labour source, this was quite convenient to their owners, and oftentimes lead to breeding slaves as an easy way of acquiring more.

The origin of slaves tend to have one thing in common: People that are enslaved are undesirable to the society that enslaves them. They are enemy prisoners, criminals etc. Ironically, due to the fact that the host societies’ undesirable labor is now performed by slaves, slavery itself then becomes desirable (and by extension, the slaves themselves are desirable) their original status is counteracted, and serves as an excuse for the continuation of slavery in another form. Slaves in essence became an economic asset. As societies are not perpetually in a state of war, armed conflict is not a sustainable resource for slaves. As an economic commodity, it sometimes became necessary to actively hunt for individuals from other cultures, societies and races; in addition, it became economically desirable to purposefully breed slaves. It would therefore seem that slavery is a negative concept. But the argument can be made that to a society it has a surprisingly positive purpose: Slavery forces undesirable individuals into obedience and servitude; the positive influence of their labours on society is beneficial not only to society itself as a whole, but in some cases also on the undesirable individuals as it gives them a renewed sense of purpose and accomplishment. (However, any benefits to the individual can be thoroughly negated by inhumane treatment of said individual.)


Accepted slavery

Upon reflection, the above statement that slavery can have positive purposes and effects, it becomes clear that we do not need to look far to see how this concept exists in modern society. In fact, some forms of slavery can even be constitutionally condoned, as is the case with the United States Constitution. Surprisingly, the Thirteenth Amendment, which is designed to abolish slavery and involuntary servitude, makes an exception when it is used as punishment for crime! So, while Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has made it illegal to enslave, the 13th of the United States Constitution states slavery as punishment is a legal option. Now, of course American courts are not actually sentencing criminals into slavery. However, it is common practice in quite a few American Correctional Facilities to use inmate labor. Officially, inmates are given ‘the choice’ of performing labor, but when confronted with the perceived choice of performing labor, inmates are easily coerced to do so by giving them the alternative of longer sentences and/or reduced privileges. These are but a few among many other means of getting inmates to work.

While prison labor and its inherent controversies aren’t particularly new, loopholes are found for every law that seeks to prevent it. A relatively recent example of this is a duo of laws passed in 1930s: the "Hayes-Cooper and Ashurst-Sumner” acts [4], which outlawed the sale of prisoner-made goods in America. This led to inmates making products for government agencies. In 1979 the "Justice System Improvement Act"[5] allowed prisoner-made goods to be sold, provided the labor was non-competitive and the inmates were paid prevailing (minimum) wages. Which brings us to the present, where the prisoner-made goods are now shipped overseas, enabling a loophole in the system that allows prisons to avoid paying an inmate said wages. So here you can see that the industry constantly changes in order to meet a demand for cheap labor: labor cheap to a point where no man would be found to voluntarily choose to perform said labor under these conditions. In short, American society seems to condone, and even to promote slavery, or rather involuntary servitude of prison inmates. Here we see how an unethical principle such as slavery is shifting and changing to suit cultural changes. So-called ‘acceptable’ modern slavery can be found in the place where it is most easily excused. After all, prisoners can easily be claimed to ‘deserve’ it, or 'it teaches prisoners a useful skill', or ‘they owe a debt to society’. Simply put, these prison inmates are the undesirables of our age, and therefore it is completely acceptable for society to force them to perform labor.



  • Slavery is made acceptable by the enslaved being undesirable, either for the sake of punishment or rehabilitation.
  • In a society, there is labor that is deemed undesirable to perform. This leads to a demand for ‘undesirables’ as laborers, and as such there is a demand for slavery.
  • There are people undesirable to a society, therefore there is an opportunity to enslave.

When desire meets opportunity and is accepted, the outcome is inevitable. A ‘legal’ form of slavery is definitely present in modern society, albeit in a subtly altered form that makes it acceptable. It is clear that slavery is prevalently present in modern society and has managed to escape much of the taboo surrounding its core concept. Slavery seems to be a concept that will always be present in human society. The degree to which it is accepted, and for how long, changes constantly, and as a result so does the system that supports it.


Do you want to share your view in this subject? Click here and let me know...



[1] Fifth Edition, copyright © 2011

[2]Complete and Unabridged version, copyright ©1991, 1994,1998, 2000, 2003

[3] BBC. January 30, 2007. Retrieved February 8, 2015





What is Man? < Next Query > Aliens, the New Gods?