Front Page Titles (by Subject) Liberty, Slavery, and Utilitarianism - Literature of Liberty, July/September 1979, vol. 2, No. 3
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Liberty, Slavery, and Utilitarianism - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, July/September 1979, vol. 2, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Liberty, Slavery, and Utilitarianism
“What Is Wrong with Slavery?” Philosophy and Public Affairs 8 (Winter 1979): 103–121.
Questions about liberty and its opposite, slavery, raise important issues in moral philosophy. Specifically, utilitarianism has often been criticized on the grounds that it might lead us to conclude that slavery was justifiable. Since everyone knows that slavery is in fact wrong, anti-utilitarians believe that this criticism refutes utilitarianism.
In reply, the method of appealing to people's rights used in the anti-utilitarian criticism is a poor one. The objection appeals to a supposed right not to be enslaved; but claims to rights, unless supported by a general theory, rest only upon particular individuals' intuitions. As such they are in essence arbitrary. If slavery is wrong, this must be shown by demonstrating that it produces more harm than good, i.e., that it is unacceptable on utilitarian grounds.
To settle the question of the harmfulness of slavery, we must first define what constitutes slavery. Two features are relevant: first, slavery is a particular status in society; and second, it rests upon a particular relation to a master. Slavery should be distinguished from serfdom, imprisonment, and military service.
In most cases; slavery will be prohibited on utilitarian grounds, since it clearly harms the slaves. Anti-utilitarians claim, however, that in some cases this would not be so. For example, suppose the welfare of a large number of people depended upon the existence of a small class of slaves. Might not the happiness of the larger number outweigh the onerous consequences to the slaves?
Utilitarians have available two sorts of reply. Moral principles are supposed to apply to cases likely to occur in practice. Thus, our usual principle that slavery is wrong may not fit odd cases, such as the one suggested by the example. Although in this example slavery is morally right, this need not cause us to abandon our usual principle, since people in society would be unable to operate with a complex principle having the form “slavery is wrong—except in cases a, b, c, etc.” People need an easily remembered maxim, and the side that slavery is always wrong best meets the need.
In addition, it is unlikely that, in the example allegedly justifying slavery, all of the consequences have been taken into account. Slavery has damaging psychological effects on both slave and master. When these are taken into consideration, the only instances in which slavery is likely to be justified on utilitarian grounds are those in which it is a necessary means to prevent social chaos.