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Utilitarian View of Slavery

Utilitarian View of Slavery


John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism theory of the normative ethics advanced that the morality of an action is determined by the maximization of its utility that entirely involves reducing pain and maximizing happiness. In this way, an ethical or the course of action which is morally right is the one which maximizes happiness and reducing suffering at the same time. The fundamental axiom of utilitarianism, as described by John Stuart Mill in his principle of greatest happiness, is that the greatest number of beneficiaries of the greatest good directly translates into the measure of wrong and right.

Utilitarianism is wholly based on the utility principle which states that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Mill 7). Happiness is used in this context to refer to the intended pleasure oblivious of any form of pain. On the flipside, unhappiness denotes pain and privation of pleasure. According to John Stuart Mill, “pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends” (7). The consequential form of theory which is embedded on the outcomes of an action remains the most persuasive and powerful approach to the wider branch of normative branch.

The moral theory places higher values on mental as opposed to bodily pleasures as manifest in its principle of utility. “The quality of pleasure is what makes one form of pleasure more valuable than another” (Mill 9). Mill’s standard of separating higher and lower ends forms the basic principle of logic in his utilitarian theory. The distinction between the lower and higher ends makes it clear that not all forms of pleasure are equal; some are more important and urgent than others. 

Utilitarianism View of Slavery

Slavery s regarded as one of the most serious moral wrong of the 19th Century not only in the United States of America but in all other parts of the world where the widely perceived social vice was ever practiced. Prior to its abolition is the last quarter of the 19th Century and earlier on in the United States and the European continent respectively, the morality of slavery attracted the greatest of debates in the public and academic circles. The proponents supported perpetuation of slavery because of the economic gains both the slave owners and states reaped from the slaves’ forced labor. On the other side, the naysayers called for the abolition of slavery because it was a gross violation to the basic human rights as deeply entrenched in the Federal Constitution of the United States.

For the period preceding 1860, the utilitarianism theory of the normative ethics would deem slavery morally right in the United States of America. This follows the principle that slavery was recognized as a legal institution and the agricultural-based American economy relied squarely on the slaves for labor in its expansive cotton, coffee and sugar cane plantations. As described by the American historian Professor Nary Gash, “the populations of black and clored slaves in the United States formed the mantra of an economic gem upon which the American economy thrived to become the world leading” (113).

Taking into consideration that the slaves were the minority in the American mainstream society while the free while white population constituted the majority, the social practice of slavery could be regarded as morally right because it brought happiness to the greatest number of people in the American society. Going by the United States Census of 1860, the population of slaves working in the United States stood at four million amounting to eight percentage of the American population.  This is an implication that only 8% of the American population was subjected to miserable living conditions as was the norm with slavery in the American society. Nonetheless, the suffering or pain of the minority was overridden by the supposed benefits that slavery brought to the 92% of the entire American population. The free white Americans derived much happiness from the forced labor of the minority slaves because they felt superior, entitled to get a bigger share of economic returns accrued from slavery.

“Slavery as a legal institution did help America generate a lot of wealth during this period, most of which the State relied on to fund its administrative costs as well as run its expansive agenda beyond its boundaries” (Nash 117). Had it not for the slavery, the United States of America would not have realized most of its historical achievements- political and economical achievements alike. Based on the fact that the wider United States benefitted from slavery way back from 1776 after getting its independence from Great Britain, utilitarianism principle of the greatest happiness would have advocated for the continuation of slavery. The perpetuation of slavery by the U.S. government could be as an economic strategy that works with the minority to generate enough wealth for the enjoyment by the majority in the mainstream society.

Consequences of abolishing Slavery in the U.S.

On the other hand, if the slaves were to be freed in the American civil society, their lives were going to change tremendously like never before. They were entitled to enjoy the privileges just like free American citizens and be relieved from hard work and other forms of harsh treatments. Most importantly, the once confined populations were granted freedom to move in different states of the Federal United States at will, intermingle with the rest and work at their discretion as opposed to the past forced labor under dehumanizing environments. Generally speaking, all the slaves would become happier in the American society of which they became integrated part.

Giving freedom and liberty to the slaves translates into a significant reduction in the sum total of happiness since the mainstream American society which constitutes 92% would be bound to suffer for the sake of minority’s happiness. They would be forced to undergo the untold misery of doing hard work on their farms, perform all the menial work they once regarded degrading, forfeit all the economic benefits they accrued from slavery and most critically suffer reduced ego as welll as compromised personality in the mainstream society. On the larger scale, abolition of slavery in the United States during the period preceding 1860 would have immensely impeded the country’s economic growth by a larger margin.

In as much as Mill recognized the principle of Liberty in his version of Utilitarianism so as to inform law and social policies, all the rights granted to humans such as free speech and women suffrage are all underwritten by the principle of utility. Consequently, the concept of liberty in regard to the provision of fundamental human rights is out of place under the utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, in the context of slavery, could not safeguard slaves against violation of their human rights in the American society because of the prevailing principle of utility. Considering the greatest utility value the American society attached to the social and economic practices related to slavery, utilitarianism would be inclined towards perpetuating slavery regardless of the violation of slaves’ basic human rights.

Does utilitarian theory apply to Slavery?

I think Mill’s moral theory of Utilitarianism does not apply to the whole issue of slavery in the United States of America owing to its inherent inability to give the right answer to what is morally right or wrong. The incompatibility of utilitarianism with any sort of inalienable rights of the slaves has been singled out as its biggest shortcoming. Utilitarianism operates on the principle of sum of utilities that necessitates trading off an individual’s happiness freely for another person. Put in another way, utilitarianism accepts an imposition of misery on the minority (the numerical few) provided that the action will result into an increment in the sum of happiness.

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Secondly, I am deeply convicted that utilitarianism cannot rule out the practice of slavery unacceptable because it relies on the majority’s pleasures, most of which are immeasurable and largely out of tune with the indefeasible rights. Therefore it cannot apply in the case of slavery in itself as a standard measure to determine whether the socio-economic practice slavery is morally right or wrong. This is because the whole idea of grounding the moral theory of utilitarianism on the likes and dislikes of the majority rather than universally acceptable reasons and criterion in place to determine why certain slavery is wrong or right. At the bottom line, utilitarianism does not apply in determining the morality of slavery in the United States.


Mill’s Utilitarianism theory of the normative ethics stipulates that morality of an action is determined by the maximization of its utility i.e. reducing pain and maximizing happiness. According to the Mill’s moral theory, slavery is morally right and ought to be continued because it maximizes happiness of the 92% of the American population at the expense of the minority slaves. The social practice is further perpetuated by the Utilitarian notion that the intellectual quality of pleasure is of higher value compared to the lower end form of the bodily pleasure of the slaves. 

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