Why is Slavery Wrong? A Kantian Theory Perspective (Theory of Justice)


Why is Slavery Wrong? A Kantian Theory Perspective (Theory of Justice)

Every human being is entitled to a sense of freedom and an autonomous will. Slavery is wrong since it limits the extent of the human free will. Slaves in a way lose their rights to their owners. In a sense, they end up being treated more like properties than human beings. Kant, in his moral philosophy outlines what he depicts as the wrongness of slavery. In acquiring a slave one must enter into a contract that outlines the terms and conditions of the agreement.  Kantian theory of justice alludes to the loss of one’s legal rights immediately after signing the slavery contract. A “slave” cedes his legal rights to the owner. The theory of justice as described by Kant proves the wrongness of slavery.

Theory of Justice

The theory of justice supersedes other theories in that it looks into the external notions in addition to the innate motives of one’s action. As Kant believes, “an action from duty has its moral worth not in the aim that is supposed to be attained by it, but rather in the maxim in accordance with which it is resolved upon;’’[1]Slavery acts as a restriction of the rights possessed by individuals. In the theory of Justice, freedom is described as an innate quality that all human beings possess. In virtue of reason, human beings are autonomous moral agents. Thus, acting on all actions should be guided by moral principles.  Kant believes,” The freedom of choice outlines human responsibility through ensuring that the free will does not in any way curtail the freedom of others.”[2] In as much as one can take in another human being as a slave, the person would be curtailing the universal rights of the individual. As Kant outlines, ‘I will concede that most of our actions are in conformity with duty.”[3]It is the duty of every individual to exercise their rights of freedom while observing the rights of other individuals. Slaves loss their legal rights to their employers. The external actions are motivated and regulated by the contractual agreement with their bosses. Slavery denies the freedom of autonomous agents and moral actions. The moral duties of a slave are not individual rather are based on the external obligations as per contractual agreement.

Kantian perspective to actions of individuals is that it serves as a means to an end;” the practical necessity of a possible action as a means to attain something else which one wills”[4]. Slave owners acquire rational agents to get to their ends and serve as happiness achieving tools. Thus, slavery morally becomes wrong. Rational agents should only perform duties that serve to their individual ends. Human beings should only consent to actions that are advocating their autonomous will. No slave in their natural state would consent to being a subject to another person’s will. Slavery is itself a coercion of a person’s freedom and turning them into tools of achieving innate desires.

 Slavery is unacceptable since it creates inequalities among human beings that are naturally created as equal. A slave automatically resigns his free will to his master and cannot act in autonomous ways. Slaves cannot live their lives as they wish as this would be detrimental to the expectations of their masters.   An individual desiring to have an off-day is limited to the permission that the master would give. Ultimately, the freedom that the slave master enjoys restrains another autonomous agent from enjoying their freedom. Slavery serves in denying individuals of their natural rights to live as autonomous beings.

Kant describes individual as autonomous beings with moral worth. The wrongness of slavery comes in the reduction of the self-worth of the individual taken into slavery. The moment a slave enters into a contractual agreement with the owner, the slaves rights as a person cedes to the slave owner. Self- will and actions that could have previously been undertaken are restricted. A legal agreement turns a person into a tool to achieve an end.  Thus, slavery goes against the rule of humanity that brings about the concept of people as rational beings. It demeans the advantages that a rational being should enjoy in a society.

Among the theories presented in the categorical imperative of the moral laws, the theory of justice is superior in many ways as already outlined in the previous paragraphs. Also, the theory of justice does not offer any kind of alternatives. All the provisions made within the law are absolute.  The universal laws ensure that all individuals are esteemed as equal moral agent. The freedom of will and choice is applicable to all individuals regardless of their state as free men or slaves. As Kant believes,” Freedom must be presupposed as a quality of the will of all rational beings.”[5]

Kant brings a different perspective to the moral laws in attribution to the type of action committed rather than the consequences of the action. As such a person taking in a slave might have a goodwill of improving the life of a person. However, the means of improving the individual’s life through making them a slave makes the choice of action wrong.  A slave-master’s choice about details of the slave’s life such as working hours, choice of food, and even clothing is wrong in itself. It serves in limiting the individual freedom of the slave in exercising their free will. Kant portrays an ideal world where universal laws are administered to all moral agents.

 The wrongness of slavery, thus, in Kantian perspective is mainly through the reduction of the status of an autonomous moral agent into a tool. A slave serves as a means to an end. The end usually comprises of satisfying the needs and desires of their master. The act of slavery denies human beings the ability to live life as they wish. The theory of justice clearly outlines that all universal beings should exercise freedom within the limits of the other person’s freedom.  Slavery becomes a hindrance to the universality of human freedom. Therefore, despite the positive outcome that it might have on an individual’s life, the choice of to make one a slave or to become a slave is wrong in itself.


Kant, Immanuel, and Jerome B. Schneewind. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Yale University Press, 2002.

Pogge, Thomas W. “Kant’s theory of justice.” Kant-Studien 79, no. 1-4 (1988): 407-433.

[1]  Kant, Immanuel, and Jerome B. Schneewind. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Yale University Press, 2002.34

[2] Pogge, 410

[3]  Kant and Jerome , 42

[4]  Ibid, 50

[5]  Ibid, 83

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