Morality of slavery and justifications used.

A response by Collounsbury in another thread re the varieties of slavery that have existed throughout history and a suggested reference work that surveys them made me wonder about the following.

Historically, has the justification for slavery used in the pre-civil war south, which IIRC centered mainly around the thesis that the blacks were essentially sub-human and thus not “people” with “human rights”, been duplicated elsewhere in history with respect to cultural rationalizations of slavery, or is it unique to that situation?

Aristotle does seem to raise the possibility that not every one who is enslaved “ought” to be enslaved, especially in cases of conquest in war.

The Nazis (and Germans in general) used the ‘sub-human’ justification with the Jews, except they considered them vermin that needed to be exterminated. While the slavery in the American south was (of course) wrong, at least they treated their slaves as valuable. Compared to the Nazis who literally worked the Jews to death, or just tried to get some work out of them before they were ‘exterminated’ (murdered).


I’m pretty sure that historically, slavery was not justified by racial superiority, but by the doctrine of “spoils to the victors” in war. The vanquished people were the victors’ to do with as they pleased.

One justification used in the South was that their slaves were better treated than the average worker in the North. They’d refer to the work force in the North at “wage slaves” and that things were no different there, just less hypocritical.

There was some superficial basis to this. If a southern slave were sick, the slave would be allowed some time to recover (as long as they didn’t suspect the slave was goofing off), while a northern factory worker would most likely be fired. A long illness – say, a broken leg – could be a death sentence for the Northern worker, but the slave – partially because he was property and thus too valuable to lose and too expensive to replace – would be given time to recover. Thus, the argument was that slavery was ultimately more humane than life for the Northern “wage slaves.”

As RealityChuck said, one justification that was commonly employed by the Southern states was by comparing the living conditions of their best-treated slaves with those of the worst-treated blue-collar workers in the industrialized North. While it may be said that in the early robber-baron days of the industrial revolution unskilled laborers enjoyed few rights, this was a situation that could (and would) be eventually remedied. Once workers realized that they could organize into unions, once the federal government stepped in and instituted labor laws, the problems in the North began to go away. However, as a Southern slave, you had no such possibilities; your quality of life was totally dependant on your “master”. The essential problem with the South’s argument was that they were ignoring the basic human desire to better one’s situation through one’s actions; while the problems in the North may have been many, they were surmountable. Even if a slave had every need provided for (and I seriously doubt this was often the case), they were still disenfranchised and relegated to the lowest rung of society. Call it the “Bread and Circuses” of the 19th century.