Morality questions (from a slave's point of view)

  1. If you are a slave, is it moral to kill your masters in order to escape?

  2. Is it moral to kill your masters even when escape is not possible? Does this depend on the reason (let’s say they consistently beat you and you do it to prevent future beatings, at least from that master vs. killing them out of revenge for making you a slave)?

  3. Is it moral to kill the master’s family, even if they did not directly contribute to your enslavement, in order to escape? (e.g. let’s say little Billy sees you and is about to cry out, meaning you’ll likely be caught, and the only way to stop him in time is to give him a nice kick in the throat that will likely kill him)
    OK, bad hypothetical on the last one, but you get the drift. And by “is it moral”, I am referring to your own personal moral values (and not those of Christianity or Bhuddism or whatever).

For #1, I’d say unequivocably yes. You are trying to regain your life, which someone has stolen from you. If the thief of your life does not relinquish it, you can take it from the thief by force.

For #2, I wouldn’t know what to say. Your killing the master wouldn’t accomplish anything useful. Yet they stole your life, and it is probably fair in the eyes of justice if you stole theirs. Don’t think it’s moral, though, since you’re not doing something that’s necessarily good for the world. However, if the master is a sadistic bastard that enjoys hurting people and will do so again, it is moral to spare future victims by killing him (and assuming you have no other options besides killing him). Also, if he treats you worse than the next master would (e.g. he tortures you every day), then murder would be moral, I think, since it would relieve somewhat the suffering of an innocent person (the slave), with the only harm done to the cause of the suffering.

For #3, I’m conflicted here. The family is part of the system keeping you enslaved; our hypothetical little Billy is one of your jailors. However, he is innocent of the initial crime, and it’s not like he really chose to be one of your slavers; he was just born into it. However, I think I would take the tact of a war reasoning here; when you bomb Hitler’s Germany, you’re going to harm innocents, and still be right in doing so. Here, the whole institution is evil, so killing Billy as a part of that institution in order to free one’s self would not be wrong (again, if you had no other option besides killing him).

Discuss, and flame away.

  1. Yes
  2. Yes, but why not wait until you can benefit from it. If you kill the master and cannot escape, surely you will be hanged immediately.
  3. I can’t fathom a situation where little Billy would have to be killed in order to escape. Could he not be knocked out or incapacitated?

One can also look at these questions as if he were ever taken as a hostage. Would I kill a little innocent boy if it meant being free again or being captured and tortured for trying to escape? Hard to say. Depends on so many things. Not the least of which is the actual innocence of the little boy. Though it might not necessarily be his fault for the way he is, if he’s an actual part of the holding party, then he’s free game in my book. Youth does not equal innocence. 9 year olds can easily be enemy combatants. I didn’t put them in that situation.

[advocatus diaboli]No in all cases. You are a slave presumably because it was an alternative to being killed. Having accepted slavery as the price of preserving your life, you are morally bound to uphold your end of the bargain. Welshing on it to the extent of escaping is understandable, but it doesn’t excuse you for crimes you commit in the act of escape.[/ad]

Interesting, I understand that Japanese PoWs in WW2 were the least inclined of all to attempt to escape; they held that, having once surrendered, they had no right to freedom. (Of course, getting them to surrender in the first place was something less than easy.)

What if a person is captured by overwhelming force as opposed to threat of force. What if they resisted and were taken away kicks and screaming the whole way. It is possible to be taken captive without ever having surrendered. You may have just been beaten. You lost that battle, but you don’t necessarily have to lose the war. If you never surrender, you’ve never accepted or agreed to anything. Therefore you still have the right to fight.

Only if you consider a deal made under threat of violence to be legally binding. If someone takes your watch after threatening you with a gun, is it now his watch? Is rape at knifepoint consentual sex?

Besides, even if you’re correct, how does it apply to people born as slaves?

Personally I hold no brief whatever for slavery, as I hope you understand, but as long as I’m in the mode…

[ad] Unless there is some God of Abstract Justice to whom you can successfully appeal, there is no inherent “right” to freedom. A nation may choose to assert as an axiom that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; but the thing with axioms is that they are not provable, nor are they intended to be. They may be noble axioms; I may agree with them passionately; but that is beside the point.

If you found a nation upon certain axioms and do what is necessary to uphold them, then all well and good. If our hypothetical slave-holding nation is not founded upon such axioms, then what is the basis for arguing the moral rights of the slave?

From a purely practical viewpoint it can be readily seen that arguing for a system of morals that grants the slave licence to seek his freedom by violent means, and that excuses even the murder of innocents in so doing, must necessarily have serious negative consequences. If I, as your owner, have a clearly respected understanding that you, my slave, will not escape or murder me while I am asleep, then I need not chain you or kennel you while I sleep. In the absence of such, I must make your chains heavier in my own interests. You may be iniquitously fettered by the demands of my society, which you perceive as unjust; you would perhaps find literal fetters of iron considerably more iniquitous. Similar considerations apply to the cruel and unusual punishments that must surely be insituted to deter slaves from violent escape, and the reprisals that are sure to follow when a slave takes improper advantage of the merciful liberty that was extended to him or her.

And, frankly, being the slave, you are in no position to dictate terms as to what is and is not moral. If your society did not like the terms that mine has imposed upon you, it ought to have done a better job of protecting you. It did not, and you must take the consequences. This may or may not extend to the children of slaves to the nth generation. If you did not wish to father slaves, you ought not to have become one; or you ought not to have bred.

As long as we are having a civil discussion about a non-inflammatory topic such as slavery, I would prefer not to muddy the waters by dragging in rape. If we must, though, then I refer you to the rhetorical question above concerning the God of Abstract Justice. Our definition of what is and is not rape is what we are prepared to agree that it is, and work to uphold. It is possible to argue that any consent, whether obtained by threat of deadly force or not, invalidates a charge of rape. We may very well find this iniquitous - that, at bottom, a woman (or man, for that matter) might have to choose between death or violation - and I might cheer you to the echo for crying out on such a cruel standard. The point is that it is not written into the laws of the universe that this must be so. [/ad]

::takes off the mask and looks in the mirror, rather relieved to be rid of it, at least for now::

Purely as a matter of morality, a slave may kill his master at any time.

Slavery is, IMHO, inherently immoral. While holding you in durance vile, your master, his flunkies and even his family have no right to expect moral behavior of you. I personally would try to escape at the earliest opportunity without killing anybody (and, if it were during the Civil War, would promptly enlist in the U.S. Colored Troops to help bring freedom to other slaves). But if, under the circumstances, there was absolutely no way to escape without killing my master, his overseer or even his young child, then I would reluctantly kill, and get the hell out of there as soon as possible.

Tough questions, though.

I have no qualms at all with the murder of anyone complicit in my enslavement. Of course, when I envision slavery, I’m thinking chattel slavery…I understand various systems of slavery are more and less harsh on the slave.
To that end:

  1. yes
  2. yes
  3. assuming the master’s family benefits from my enslavement, they are also my masters, and deserve the same. I’d never intentionally harm a child, but I doubt that I’d balk were i in a situation as described in the OP- because then it’s my life against someone else’s. So, a reluctant yes.

Also bear in mind, I conceive of slavery as an indefinite commitment; if it were a situation where I were indentured for a period due to POW status, debt, etc. and I saw a clear end to it, I’d likely persevere, assuming conditions were not terrible. Mostly this is because if the enslavers see slaves as more trouble than they are worth, they are more likely to execute POWs than to keep them as slaves for the duration of the war. That’s not a decision I feel comfortable making for others.

I was about to ask about this. I agree with the points made above about African slaves in the US, but what about other forms of involuntary confinement? If I’m wrongfully convicted of a crime, have I the moral right to murder a guard to escape? What if I’m justly convicted, but my sentence and the conditions are disproportionate with my crime? For example, if I shoplifted, got twenty years, and was frequently beaten? Hell, is freedom so precious that one is always justified in killing to preserve it, even if one is justly sentenced?

I have to disagree with the majority. If I am a slave I am the victim of an unspeakable wrong. I have the right to attempt an escape. However, my status as a victim does not entitle me to commit a crime against my master. Crimes against criminals are still crimes. Thus I would limit my escape attempts to those in which nobody else suffers as a result of my actions. If that takes longer, so be it. I’d rather wait a few more years for my freedom than to always live with blood on my hands.

How about a situation that happened frequently in Roman times. An ambitious young Greek in an economic backwater would sell himself into slavery hoping to become a pedagogue or bureacrat of some sort, accumulate enough money to buy his freedom and retire? Happened all the time. Would it be moral for such a slave to kill his master?

I agree that most slaves in the Roman empire weren’t voluntary slaves but rather capitives taken by military force. But surely the morality of resisting slavery doesn’t rest on the fact of slavery, but rather that said slavery is enforced by threats of physical violence up to and including death. If someone threatens to kill you unless you work for free, then it is simple self defense to kill that person first. But in circumstances where there is no threat of violence, if you entered into a slave contract voluntarily, then deadly force would not be moral.

Or take another example. Suppose you were a slave in modern day america…someone captures you and forces you to work for them. However, in modern day America that slavery is illegal. All you have to do is escape and you are freed from slavery. You have the same right to self defense that anyone else does, but your right to self defense is not dependent on the fact that you are a slave, but rather that you are under the immanent threat of physical violence. If your master falls asleep and you have an opportunity to escape without killing your master you would be commiting a crime if you killed them, just like everyone else who is confronted with deadly force but has an opportunity to withdraw.

You have an obligation to retreat from deadly force, you can only match deadly force with deadly force if you have no opportunity to retreat. The same obligation applies to slaves.

Many people would say that such a person would not be a slave, since they were paid, and since they could leave. It would be more of an indentured servitude kind of thing, or even just “having a crappy job.” To me, the word “slave” implies “property,” and it’s because of this that I don’t think it’s wrong for a slave (in the American forced or born into slavery/no payment/no escape or buy out possible) to kill their master. If you don’t have the rights of a human, you are not expected to act as one. Respect of life is a two-way street–if you’re not fulfilling your part of the moral bargain I’m not under any obligation to fulfill mine. If someone treats you like an animal (or object), then there’s nothing wrong with acting like one including killing (or grossly malfunctioning), unless you’re trying to impress your captors by being “noble.” And I’ve never heard of a slaveholder releasing his slaves because “they’re such great people.” They don’t free animals for being domesticated.

I’m really kinda surprised that American slaves didn’t organize a mass revolt. The ones on large plantations could have easily slaughtered their captors in the night and organized a mass coup, along the lines of the French Revolution. I guess Stockholm Syndrome (as well as the inability to form bonds among fellow slaves caused by family and friend splitting and communication problems caused by lack of the written word) counts for a lot.

They did.

Given your name, is it wise to so stipulate?

Yes, but those were only organized among slaves living in a particular town or ship. With effective mass communication and the ability to organize (two things denied slaves) a revolt on a mass scale involving slaves from every Southern state could have been organized. It would have worked even better if the slaves could have enlisted troops and resources from the outside, such as from poor whites (who should have been the natural allies of the slaves, but did not align with them due to their own lack of education and insight, which was also engineered by the rich landowners). But this is all part of a fantasy alternate history scenario, unfortunately.

In that case, I don’t think it is justified to kill, since the captor wouldn’t necessarily know that the accused was innocent, so they wouldn’t know they were committing an injustice. As for the Les Miz scenario, that’s a tough one. I don’t think killing the guard is justified in that case either, though it might be if the guard was being unnecessarily cruel and knew for himself that it was not justified given the scope or kind of crime. Basically, if the captor/guard knows that what they’re doing is wrong and does it anyway, that should be the deciding factor in whether or not it is ethical to react with force. Of course, it is hard to have that kind of insight into other people outside of the classic slavery situation (which everyone should know is wrong; if you can’t realize that owning humans is unethical then you deserve to be killed for that).

But you are positing the inherent “rights” of nations. Not only that, you are arguing that nations are sentient — that they “choose” and “assert”.

Perhaps because, bad though slavery was, most slaves were not treated as inhumanely as is generally believed, and a great many of them were actually content with their lot in life.

Wrong. You are assuming that the slave owner (or the slave establishment) has some sort of legitimate right to take your life or otherwise inflict violence on you. If you believe they do not (and I can’t imagine a situation where they would) then it is a form of extortion and you are under no moral obligation to uphold a bargain to extortionists beyond what is necessary to ensure your safety.

  1. If you are a slave, is it moral to kill your masters in order to escape?

Yes…kill Whitey
2) Is it moral to kill your masters even when escape is not possible? Does this depend on the reason (let’s say they consistently beat you and you do it to prevent future beatings, at least from that master vs. killing them out of revenge for making you a slave)?

Yes…kill Whitey…however as a practical matter you will still be a slave and will likely have to suffer the consequences of killing your master…which will be severe.
3) Is it moral to kill the master’s family, even if they did not directly contribute to your enslavement, in order to escape? (e.g. let’s say little Billy sees you and is about to cry out, meaning you’ll likely be caught, and the only way to stop him in time is to give him a nice kick in the throat that will likely kill him)

Yes…kill little Whitey…if they are hindering your escape they are implicitly contributing to your enslavement. Whether you do this or not is something you will need to decide. Can you live with being free but having killed a child? Should you risk another oportunity?

I would say what’s morally wrong is to kill your masters or other people if you can escape without bloodshed. But it might be nice to kill me some of them white devils before I go.

I’d rather have a horrible life and be free (to move around, to associate with others of my choosing, to own property) than be treated like a queen but be “owned” by another person. I think most slaves probably felt the same, as it’s a very human feeling; any slave who claimed to be “content” probably had some major Stockholm Syndrome going on. It is not a part of human nature to be happy as someone else’s property.

I think that’s too broad a generalization. It is conceivable that there are some people who, for whatever reason, want to be owned by someone else. Perhaps they are hopelessly smitten with adoration. Perhaps they have low self-esteem. Perhaps it is a sexual kink. Perhaps they feel a debt. Perhaps their arrangement benefits their children or other loved one in some way.