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Choice and Slavery

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Involuntary Servitude by Degrees

Throughout history, slavery has been a sad reality of life for much of the population. In fact, it is only relatively recently that slavery has been thought of as the exception rather than the rule. Today, thankfully, slavery is illegal in nearly every part of the world. And yet, it continues in a number of different forms, both legal and illegal.

Most people consider slavery, or forced servitude to be one of the worst evils practiced by mankind. Yet, the only thing that differentiates the practice from legitimate employment is choice. When we have a job, it is a relationship we choose to participate in. But a slave doesn’t get any say in the matter.

Thankfully, the practice has become so unpopular in modern culture that virtually no one will admit to supporting it. And yet, as we will show, nearly everyone engages in it by degrees whether small or large.

In order to justify that bold claim, it is important to first define what we mean by the term “slavery” To do so, we will explore a related term: “ownership.”

In a legitimate working relationship, there is a boss and an employee. The employee has to do what his boss tells him, but only to a point, and only if he wants to continue the working relationship. Clearly the boss does not own the employee. Rather, the employee owns himself and he submits his labors voluntarily because he values the pay he will receive in return.

When we own a thing, it means we control it more completely. For example, if you own a car:

  • You can drive it,
  • you can sell it,
  • you can decide how it will be used.
  • You can lock it in a garage, or
  • you can take it apart and make it into something else.

When we own something, not only do we get to enjoy its benefits, but we also have the power to determine its future.

What makes slavery so repugnant is how the master owns, or at least acts like he owns, the slave. Can one human being really own another? Hopefully, you don’t think so.

In english we have three other significant words, related to what we think we own or control:

  1. Rights
  2. Entitlements
  3. Privileges

Rights seem to be something very basic and fundamental to our existence as free beings. In modern culture, we are beginning to declare more and more things as rights. So it is important to understand what they are, and are not.

The American founders believed rights are limited to just a few basic things all mankind should be free to enjoy, regardless of what any other person may, or may not assert. In this sense, rights are clearly something pertaining to what we “own” even though others may be constantly engaged in trying to take them away from us.

Entitlements also denote things that belong to us, but this word implies a slightly different meaning. The presence of the root-word “title” indicates we are the owners or the “holder of title.” The possible difference is, an entitlement might be something we own as a result of the agreements or promises of other people. This is the definition we will use for purposes of this discussion.

For example, you probably don’t have a right to a car, but you may have a title to one. So you are entitled to control and operate your own car because you hold its title. By consequence of law, you are declared to be its owner because of the way you obtained it.

Privileges seem to denote things you would not naturally own or otherwise be entitled to. But by the grace of some other person, you are still allowed to enjoy them anyway. You don’t have a right to a car, and maybe you don’t own one. But someone might let you drive their car anyway. If so, it is a privilege to you, and it can be given or taken away at any time, based on the will of the owner.

So each of us enjoys some degree of rights, entitlements and privileges. Hopefully, our rights are the same ones everyone else enjoys (or ought to). But our entitlements, and certainly our privileges are likely to vary greatly.

As we enjoy our rights, most of us recognize there are certain obligations and responsibilities that go along with them. For example, if we want to be free to pursue our own happiness, we need to avoid activities what would curtail that same freedom for others. If we want to enjoy the property and services we are entitled to, we should, in turn, respect the private property of others.

It was asserted earlier that most people participate, perhaps without realizing it, in slavery by degrees. As it turns out, our individual opinions about what we have a right or entitlement to, may affect the level to which we engage in the practice. These opinions might collectively be characterized as your Faith or your ethics.

You see, we share this planet with a huge diversity of other organisms, human and otherwise. Some are more intelligent and some are less so. Some are more like us and others are very different.

For each ethical viewpoint, you can arrange all those different organisms in a hierarchy. Let us put the ones most familiar or similar at the top, and those most foreign or hostile we will put closer to the bottom. Once so organized, you can generally identify a spot on the graph we will call the “subordination point.”

Organisms above the subordination point, we consider more or less, as equals—able to enjoy our same rights and entitlements. But below the subordination point, we feel we can rightly use those organisms, without their choice or consent, and solely for our own benefit.

Here is a simplified example:

Subordination Point

The person holding this ethical view respects all other human beings equally. But animals and plants are there to serve him however he may see fit. He can own them, eat them, kill them, and otherwise use them for his benefit or pleasure.

Different people will have different ways of organizing this hierarchy. And they may have many more levels or sub-divisions with varying levels of detail. But for every set of ethics, it is possible to find a subordination point.

These differences describe, to a great degree, what we consider to be moral and immoral. It is a part of your individual belief system, or your Faith.

As a further example, most people consider organisms of other species to be something that can rightly be owned. If you have a pet, you probably think you own it. There would likely be a clear distinction in your mind about the status of that pet compared to other human beings who may also live you your household. While you may have no particular moral objection to buying or selling the pet, the thought of buying or selling one of your children will likely trigger powerful ethical alarms.

In reality, the subordination point does not always form a clear dividing line. Instead, it may be more of a fuzzy zone. For example, someone might feel just fine about eating a cow, but would object to eating a dog or a monkey on moral grounds. Still, they might recognize, it is fine to buy and sell the dog and monkey—just not to eat them.

Furthermore, not everyone defines their own subordination point (or zone) solely on the basis of species—between humans and animals. For some people, many higher animals should be able to enjoy many of the same rights and entitlements as humans. Others evidently feel just fine about including certain human beings in their subordination zones.

Let us illustrate with some more examples:

Nearly everyone is familiar with the deplorable history of the African slave trade. Many people who considered themselves moral and even devoutly religious were willing to buy slaves and use them to promote their own livelihood. Some justified this by the rationale that people of African descent were not really human—not children of God in the same way as those who looked more like themselves. But likely, the real rationale had more to do with the economics behind slavery. It has always been more productive to do business using involuntary servants rather than having to pay market wages for labor by those who are free to choose whom they will work for.

Many cultures throughout history have attempted to delineate different rights for men and women. Women in western culture have fought long and hard to be able to vote, to hold political office, and to rise to positions of influence in business. Yet, even today some other cultures consider a woman to be virtually the property of her husband. Can it be right that one person has a right to the services of another person, solely by virtue of his gender?

Whether by tradition or by natural selection, people tend to identify themselves with groups of one kind or another. Various cultures have become organized into tribes or clans, relying on these groups for protection and a social structure to provide life sustaining food and shelter. Where such tribal affiliations have existed, often members found it acceptable to force competing tribes into involuntary service, or slavery. Again, this has been a much more efficient economic model for production than having to produce everything solely with the labors of your own people.

If you are accustomed to using other species for the provision of food and work, why not rely on other people too if you can get away with it? Absent laws to the contrary, there is really nothing to stop you except your own sense of ethics.

In more modern cultures, we still seem to feel an allegiance to our tribe. But that tribe might actually be a religion, a community, a race or a national heritage. Where these feelings are strong, and particularly when we feel threatened by a competing group, it can be an easy jump to rationalize feeding off the work and energy of a real or perceived enemy.

Perhaps the most popular form of involuntary human servitude in modern American culture occurs between the various social classes. We all have heard politicians try to drum up support by promising to raise taxes on “the other guy.” No one wants to have his own taxes raised. But for some reason, it seems to make us feel better if we think taxes will go up for “the rich” or for corporations, or for some other group we think we don’t belong to. Yet when government promises a benefit to one class, to be paid at the expense of another, this is nothing short of forced servitude. It is a form of institutionalized slavery by degrees.

Surely we feel a certain amount of “ownership” when it comes to our children. We deny our own children a degree of personal choice because we think they are not yet experienced enough to choose wisely for themselves. A large part of a child’s present and future depends solely upon the will of his parents. For the most part, this control is exerted out of love and concern for our young people. But we should still be cognizant of how and when they end up in our subordination zone.

Some people further distinguish between children who are still in the womb, as opposed to those who have already been born. According to this belief, unborn children are just an extension of the mother’s body—in essence, private property which can be disposed of at the owner’s pleasure. Strangely, this practice is often referred to “pro-choice.” Perhaps it should be called “pro-mother’s-choice” as it doesn’t appear very choice-friendly from the child’s point of view.

In an interesting quirk of modern culture, things change radically in the instant the baby is passes out of the mother’s womb. After that moment, it seems society will move heaven and earth to protect the rights of the child, including removing the child from the care of its parents if they are deemed to be somehow unfit.

In some other cultures, this perceived right of parents to terminate the lives of their children extends beyond birth. Some Muslim cultures believe a father is justified in killing his own daughter if she shames the family by engaging in pre-marital sexual relations. This shows by practice that children are considered completely subordinate to the will of their parents, even into adulthood.

These examples show various ways in which people feel justified in the subordination of others. In each case, there are groups or classes of people we tend to treat as equals, and others we don’t mind treating as inferior when it suits our needs.

It should be noted, there are some people whose subordination point is right between “Me” and “everyone else.” We call these people “sociopaths.“ They will exploit anyone for any selfish purpose without remorse. They can rape and rob without guilt or pain of conscience. They just take what they want without any concern for the will or choice of their victims.

Most people, thankfully, do have respect the feelings of others. Most of us don’t consciously seek to enslave our fellow beings. We just press along through life trying to survive the best we can. When we do try to live at the expense of others, it usually happens in more subtle ways—ways in which it is easier to ignore the fact there is really another person being affected as a result of our actions.

This more subtle form of subordination occurs when we seek to claim an entitlement that hasn’t been voluntarily granted to us. For example, it is pretty easy to agree upon the basic rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But what about some of the more recent notions of rights like health care, education, and a job?

Do you have a right to free health care? Do you have a right to free education? How about a job, a house or a car? Or, what about the most basic human need, food? Sometimes it seems reasonable that all these things should be our right.

This is where it is important to remember the principle of choice. Principles are those things that remind us to do what is right when what is wrong seems right. And while things like education and health care are really good things that we all want and need, they are not rights.

Rights are funning things. As we mentioned, they come with responsibilities. So if we really have a right to pursue our own happiness in the way we want, this implies a responsibility to allow other people to do the same thing. A thing cannot be a right if that thing requires the effort of another human being to produce. This is why things like food, medical care and a job can never be an unalienable right. To declare them a right for one person, dooms another person somewhere else to the task of fulfilling that right.

If I have a right to free healthcare, there is a doctor somewhere subordinate to my need. And if he is to be compensated for his work on my behalf, then someone else will necessarily become the slave who will have to provide that work.

So you may rightly be entitled to the services of certain other people. But unless they have agreed to the arrangement voluntarily, it is nothing more than a form of slavery by degrees. It doesn’t matter if the promiser of that entitlement is the third party we call government or a slave broker kidnapping Africans from their village in the dead of night. It is still a difference only of degree and not of fundamental type.

So where is the correct spot to put the subordination point? Who and what can we morally and ethically subordinate? Are you justified in holding a horse captive in order that he will pull your plow? Are you justified in holding a person as your servant so he will do work you otherwise would have to do yourself?

Your answer depends on your own personal Faith. This will define your ethics—your morality. If you believe in God, and you believe all people are of equal status as children of that God, you probably need to place the subordination point on the basis of species. In other words, you need to treat other humans as free beings—peers who have their own right to choose as they will. Would you be willing to enslave your own brothers and sisters?

Maybe you believe in a God, but in your mind, He has put people of other races, genders, tribes or cultures on earth to be your servants. You may then think of yourself as God’s chosen—somehow superior to the others. So maybe you don’t have a particular ethical problem asserting your own will over those other people without regard to their own choice in the matter. While you may well have a right to that belief, it is also clear that the people you intend to subordinate also have a right to resist you, even to the point of violence, if necessary to protect themselves from your attempts at enslavement. This approach is the kind of tribalism that has existed through much of the world and throughout most of our history.

Finally, you may not believe in a God at all. You might believe mankind and the environment he inhabits evolved without any divine intervention. We are all just organisms, evolved by chance. We are here fighting for our own survival in a world where life and it’s sustaining energy are difficult to come by. The strong among us prey upon the weak, consuming them or otherwise using them for personal benefit and gain.

If so, what set of principles might you apply to figure out where the subordination point should go? For you, there are probably only two logically consistent points. The first is just under yourself: It is Me versus all other living organisms. The strong have a right to prey upon the weak. Whatever I can get away with is justified.

The second is at the bottom, under all living things. In other words, no organism has a right to subordinate any other, regardless of its particular DNA encoding. All living things are equal and cannot rightly take from one another.

If anyone holds this view, he is an aberration of evolution and will not live long. Unfortunately, we all need to consume living things in order to survive. So we are reduced back to the former position where your own individual needs are all that really matter. You can use other people for whatever you want and in whatever ways you can get away with. The only consequences are the ones you may bring upon yourself.

If you don’t believe in God, you probably (and rightly) object to this characterization. After all, Atheists can be moral too, right? But then what is the basis for that morality? Do you find it wrong to enslave other humans simply because they are sentient or intelligent? Do you favor equal rights for dolphins and monkeys on the same basis? Or do they get some rights, but not quite as many because they are really not quite as smart as we are?

It quickly becomes apparent that this approach is merely discrimination on the basis of intellectual development or strength. In other words, the smart can rule over the dumb. Under this doctrine, one might regard the horse more than the cow, the whale more than the jellyfish, and so on. It is really no different from the belief that the strong can rule over the weak.

We can illustrate the folly of this approach with a simple thought experiment: What would your “moral compass” tell you if you could genetically engineer an organism which had the body of a human but the mind of a cow? Would you then be entitled to enslave that organism?

As we have noted, different people have different beliefs about where the subordination point should rightly be. It can be very problematic for one person to assert his point of view upon everyone else. After all, if we are all equal, which one of us has a right to assert our way of believing over his peers?

So over time, we have tended to segregate ourselves into different communities or societies where we can live under a set of beliefs that are mutually compatible. For example, it is probably not a great idea for a Christian man to live among a group of orthodox Muslims who believe he must convert to a belief in Allah or be killed. It also doesn’t work very well for a thief to live in a society where everyone else respects the right to hold private property.

There are places in the world where the tenets of orthodox Islam are enforced by law. If you want to live according to those principles, you can go to one of those places.

There is also a place in the world where it is recognized that people have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of their own happiness. We call this place the United States of America. Within these United States, there is a place where people go to live when they are unwilling to honor the rights of their fellow citizens. We call it prison.

In recent decades, the American culture has undergone a subtle change. Many in America now think it is a place where everyone should be welcome, regardless of their culture, beliefs or ethics. They think we should never judge another person’s beliefs or practices, no matter how different from our own. Some believe America is a place where no particular set of beliefs can be favored or sponsored by government. This doctrine is called the ”separation of church and state.”

But there is no such principle expressed in our founding documents. In fact, the United States was founded on the fact that it is God, not government, who grants to mankind the basic rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is because God is our common father that we are all equal and have a moral responsibility to each other’s freedom of choice. The American founders did not want the new nation to adopt or establish a single state religion, such as the Catholic, Lutheran, or Baptist church. Clearly there were a variety of such organized religions active in the country at the time of the founding. And the Constitution assured all, they would be free to continue to worship according to their consciences and their established practices.

But in spite of the fact that America was not to adopt a single state religion, this does not mean the country did not advocate an official Faith, or a particular set of moral beliefs. Specifically, we are organized under the principle that there is a God, and he is the father of all mankind. He has granted to each of us certain unalienable rights. And so sacred are those endowments from God, that no government of man has the power to take them away, regardless of what laws it may attempt to enact.

This doctrine of America is our founding principle, and at its essence, it is a denunciation of slavery. It is a way of expressing that human beings are never entitled to own each other—either in whole or in part. Rather they are, as a result of divine heritage, free to exercise their will and to pursue their futures as they see fit, as long as they do not deny those same freedoms to others. You may believe differently, but if you act on those beliefs, you may find yourself in prison.

The American culture was unique in its recognition of the God-given rights of the individual. It is true, a portion of the American people still believed this divine heritage did not apply equally to the black race. But the nation fought a bitter and bloody war to settle this issue in favor of the principle that all people are God’s children—not just the ones who “look like us.”

Today we are in danger of losing this unique American culture. The deterioration has come from several different directions.

As at all times in human history, business interests continually lobby government to enact laws and regulations to help them engage in monopolistic practices. It is always easier to do business if you can use the force of government to keep your competitors out of the way. As government buckles to this pressure, we see an ever-increasing number of regulations which result in fewer and fewer choices for citizens and consumers.

In addition, there is always pressure from people of one particular Faith or another to enact laws which attempts to modify behavior according to their own set of ethical beliefs. As an example, we might see laws against the consumption of alcohol or unusual sexual or marital practices. We might see laws prohibiting the teaching of religious principles in school. Or we might enact regulations forcing people to engage in trade or other relationships they might not otherwise choose voluntarily.

Finally, the political realities of a democratically elected government continually tempt elected leaders to grant new entitlements to their voting constituencies at the expense of those who tend to vote for the opposition party. We see continual battles to tax one sector of the society so it can subsidize another sector. Politicians often pit black against white, rich against poor, men against women—and all just for the sake of winning their next election. These sub-groups in our society continue to war against each other while resentments build and unity is destroyed.

All of these types of laws and regulation, particularly when enacted at the virtually inescapable level of federal power, violate the basic principles of the American founding that people should be free to pursue happiness in the way they think best. They engage us in a continual battle over who will be the slaves and who will be the masters, rather than helping us to relate to each other as peers—free people who respect each other’s right and ability to choose.

Then, what are we to do?

The solution starts by recognizing involuntary service for what it is: slavery. Each of us needs to first understand and admit our own tendencies to subordinate others for our own benefit and pleasure. Then we need to associate with others who also respect our God-given rights of liberty. We need to understand that not everyone in the world believes the way we do. Many will try to take advantage of us, stealing our lives, our energy, and our effort. So we will have to defend ourselves against this aggression.

The formation of a nation, with borders and standards is what protects us from predators on the outside. We need to diligently defend ourselves from those of other nations and other cultures who would seek to enslave us for their own maintenance and comfort. In spite of popular political teachings, we do not have to admit all immigrants who want to come here. Rather we should only admit those who believe in our national Faith and are willing to assimilate and assume our values. Even then, we are not obligated to admit everyone. We must first assure that we can preserve our own culture and freedoms to choose. Then, we can assimilate others who want to share that freedom—but only at a rate that will not threaten the continuation and survival of our own culture and beliefs.

Secondly, we have to recognize, there are those already here with us who refuse to honor our national Faith. There are many who would steal, rape, cheat and defraud. These people care only about themselves and are not willing to respect the rights of others. Such people should not be allowed to live freely within the borders of our nation. Let them choose go elsewhere in the world. Or if they do commit such crimes of aggression, let them go to prison where they cannot harm anyone else—at least until they can learn to respect the freedoms of others.

Finally, let us not pass more laws than we really need to—particularly at a federal level. We know different people have different opinions about how life can and should be lived. As long as people are willing to respect the rights of others, let us try to find a place and a way they can live their lives according to the dictates of their own consciences. Let us avoid the urge to punish and imprison people simply because they do things we don’t approve of. This is a big country and we have room for many different ways of thinking and believing. You just have to agree to some simple principles:

  • Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
  • And not just for yourself, but for everyone.