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Slavery contracts

Guy and Doll have agreed that Guy will act as Doll directs, and that Doll is entitled to use force or punishment to get Guy to do as she directs if he ever demurs or falls short. Guy is aware that Doll will sometimes use him sexually and punish him for her pleasure; indeed, that is one reason why he chose to submit to her. As Doll is not entitled to violate any legitimate claims of third parties, she does not have the authority to direct Guy to do such things. Both Guy and Doll understand that. But they sometimes play a game in which Doll orders Guy to do such things, to provide Doll with a pretext for punishing Guy severely when he (rightly) refuses to carry out her orders.

Guy has contracted to be Doll’s slave. Such contracts are familiar from fiction and from history; and some people may have familiarity with them in contemporary life. Yet it has been common since the Enlightenment for philosophers to argue that such contracts are impossible. Recent philosophers have used the same arguments to claim that employment and professional armies are also impossible. If the philosophers are right, then we are deluded when we think that there are contractual slaves, employees, and professional soldiers; and people who think that they themselves are contracted slaves or slaveholders, or employers or employees, or professional soldiers, are similarly deluded. I have argued that the philosophers are mistaken.

Many philosophers, including Spinoza, claim that contractual slavery is impossible because a person cannot give to another person his power to control his own actions or decisions. However, Guy never attempted to give Doll his power to control his own actions or decisions. What he gave her was his right to direct his own actions. He thereby undertook the duty to act as she directs. Guy sometimes uses his own power over his decisions and actions to default on that duty so that he can incur Doll’s punishment for bad behaviour.

Montesquieu, Rousseau, perhaps Kant, and others, argue that, since the slave has no rights against the slaveholder, he has no contractual rights against her, so she has no contractual duties toward him, so there is no contract between them. Here is a counter-example to that argument. A courier and I agree that she will deliver my parcel for a specific payment. I make the payment in advance. I now have no contractual duties toward her, though she has the contractual duty to me to deliver my parcel. There is still a contract between us. If every contract requires a payment, the person who is to become the slaveholder must make the payment in advance, either to the person who is to become the slave (who must consume it before the contract begins or lose his claim to it) or to someone nominated by the person who is to become the slave.

Contractual slavery
‘Chained feet’, by PublicDomainPictures. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Rousseau, and perhaps Kant, argue that to give up one’s freedom is to give up one’s moral responsibility; so one who becomes a slave thereby becomes ineligible to bear any duties, including the duty to obey his slaveholder. That confuses two senses of ‘freedom,’ namely, the right to direct one’s own actions and one’s free will. When Doll gives Guy an order the execution of which would not infringe any legitimate claims of third parties, Guy has the duty to obey and in that sense is not free to do otherwise. But Guy still has the free will to do otherwise. He is morally responsible and may earn praise for doing his duty or blame for not doing it.

Rousseau contends that the right to direct one’s own actions is essential to human nature, so it is impossible for a human to be without it. But we all recognise that there are humans who do not have that right, at least not fully, such as young children, adults with a serious mental impairment, and incarcerated felons.

Recent philosophers, including Ernst Cassirer, John Rawls, and Randy Barnett have reaffirmed the faulty Enlightenment arguments against contractual slavery. Hillel Steiner, perhaps echoing Kant, maintains that because a slave is a piece of property he is a mere thing or an object; and a mere thing or object cannot be a party to a contract. However, slavery is essentially a relationship between persons: a mere thing, or even a living non-person such as a cat, cannot literally be a slave. Slaves differ from other persons in being owned; and they are in that respect analogous to those mere things that are owned. However, to be analogous to a mere thing is not to be a mere thing.

Featured image credit: ‘Hieroglyphs’, by pcdazero. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Laurence Solkin

    Surely slavery involves ownership in some form? in this example Doll cannot sell Guy and therefore. whilst she may have some immediate control over him, she does not have the capacity to transfer that control

  2. Charles

    If we identify a person to his or her ability to regulate his desires and emotions, Guy seems to be mainly the slave of an out of control cerebral reward center. His prefrontal cortex is leaving the way to the limbic system which craves submission.

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