Monument depicting chained slaves in a pit, located in Zanzibar

“Against the doctrine of Aristotle”: Hutcheson on slavery

On 1st August 1834 slavery was abolished in most of the British Empire, as the Slavery Abolition Act (1833) came into force. (It only applied in India after the 1843 Indian Slavery Act.)

There were many rationales used to support slavery. One common one was Aristotle’s theory of the “natural slave”. In the Politics, Aristotle said:
For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…

In other words, it was right that some people were slaves and others their masters. Such natural slaves were lacking certain qualities which would enable them to rule themselves. This justified “chattel” slavery, where the person and all their descendants were property in perpetuity.

This theory, though criticised by some, was widely accepted. Even those who did not accept it argued for slavery on other grounds. Locke, despite asserting that “every Man has a Property in his own person” (in his Second Treatise, §27), and calling slavery “vile and miserable” such that he cannot believe an Englishman would argue for it (Second Treatise, Introduction), justifies some forms of slavery. Locke defined slaves as (§85) “Captives taken in a just War […] by the Right of Nature subjected to the Absolute Dominion and Arbitrary Power of their Masters” and as such cut off from civil society. Moreover despite his theoretical requirement for a just war, in practice Locke tolerates chattel slavery. In Constitutions for Carolina Locke writes: “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over Negro slaves, of what opinion and Religion soever” (see Sypher, 1939 and a discussion on Locke’s attitude to slavery in the notes of the SEP article about him).

The view of slavery as “vile” slowly started to spread in the early 18th century. Steel portrayed slaves sympathetically in the Spectator, though he falls short of attacking the institution, unsurprisingly since he owned a plantation in the West Indies through his wife. Hans Sloane’s account of harsh punishments for slaves also had an effect. However here too we should not read too much into Sloane’s accounts: he also derived income from sugar plantations and says nothing to suggest chattel slavery should be abolished (see more here.)

Also writing in the early 18th century, Hutcheson’s theory of morality (following the lead of Shaftesbury) was based on the idea of a moral sense, which allowed us to approve of moral actions and disapprove of immoral ones. Moral actions are rooted in benevolence – a feeling of goodwill towards others. Unlike Locke (and like Hume), for Hutcheson emotion is our guide for moral behaviour, not reason.

Hutcheson was influenced by Gershom Carmichael, who lectured in the University of Glasgow when Hutcheson was a student there. In Supplements and Observations upon Samuel Pufendorf’s On the Duty of Man and Citizen according to the Law of Nature Carmichael argued against Pufendorf that no human can enslave another, “for men are not among the objects over which God has allowed the human race to enjoy dominion” (“Supplements”, p. 100) and against Grotius that “consent of nations” cannot justifying depriving “innocent citizens of their personal liberty” (“Supplements”, p. 101). It’s interesting to note that Carmichael reads Locke’s arguments as supporting Carmichael’s position. Hutcheson acknowledged his debt to Carmichael in his 1747 textbook, Philosophiae moralis institutio compendiaria (translated as “A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy”). This work is expanded on in Hutcheson’s System of Moral Philosophy (published in 1755 but written between 1735 and 1746).

In the System Hutcheson states that all people have the right to life, natural liberty and to make their own judgements based on the evidence that appears to them (Chapter V, pp. 293-6) along with other rights. He states that “these natural rights belong to all”. “These laws prohibit the greatest and wisest of mankind to inflict any misery on the meanest, or deprive them of any of their natural rights.” (Chapter V, p. 299). And he says explicitly, “[N]o endowments, natural or acquired, can give a perfect right to assume power over others, without their consent. This is intended against the doctrine of Aristotle, and some others of the ancients, ‘that some men are naturally slaves [‘…] The natural sense of justice and humanity abhors the thought.” (Chapter V, p. 301).

Hutcheson does allow some forms of servitude: a debtor or a criminal may have to forfeit their labour to repay their debt or amend for their crime (ie. indentured labour and forced labour). But “neither the criminal, […] much less the debtor, have lost any of the natural rights of mankind beside that one to their own labours.” They have a right to enough resources to support themselves, rights to make contracts and are justified in the use of force against those who would torture them, rape them or harm them in other ways (Vol II, Chapter III, PP. 201-202).

As for slavery through war, Hutcheson insists:

As to the notions of slavery which obtained among the Grecians and Romans, and other nations of old, they are horridly unjust. No damage done or crime committed can change a rational creature into a piece of goods void of all right, and incapable of acquiring any, or of receiving any injury from the proprietor.

Nothing, he says, can justify this practice. The very most permissible is a parallel with the case of the criminal above – where labour is required as punishment, in compensation for damage or as payment of a debt. “Now perpetual slavery cannot be justly inflicted on the generality of the subjects of a state which engaged in the most injurious wars on either of these accounts” (ibid, p. 204). Even where a country started an unjust war, the rulers must take the blame – the vast majority have little power over the decision. Equally, the vast majority will not have caused any damage.

The enslaving of children for life, including those born to chattel slaves, is manifestly wrong. Hutcheson shoots down arguments that the child owes a debt to the captor because all captives could have been killed: “At this rate, one would be obliged to become a slave to any powerful pirate or robber who had spared his life, or any generous man who rescued him” (ibid, p. 210).

This argument is also given earlier in the book, (Vol II, Chapter 14, pp. 83-84) in answer to those who argue that children purchased owe their lives to the purchasers, so rightly are their property+. (Sypher suggests that this section demonstrates Hutcheson’s awareness of African slavery in the colonies, and is a direct refutation of arguments for it.) Hutcheson argues that, no matter how dreadful the lot of the captives could be, at the very most the purchaser is entitled to is his money back (ie the child would be an indentured labourer rather than a chattel slave). As soon as the value of their labour exceeds the money spent on them, they have every right to be free. (And, in accordance with the later chapter, they should have all their other rights in the meantime.) Hutcheson remarks,

Strange, that in any nation where a sense of liberty prevails, where the Christian religion is professed, custom and high prospects of gain can so stupefy the consciences of men, and all sense of natural justice, that they can hear such computations made about the value of their fellow-men, and their liberty, without abhorrence and indignation!

a short account of that part of Africa

Two years after Hutcheson’s death, Montesquieu argued against slavery in The Spirit of the Laws (1748) while Voltaire depicted a maimed slave in his 1759 Candide. In 1760, the Scottish jurist George Wallace argued that slavery was “against nature” in his System of the Principles of the Law of Scotland. Anthony Benezet cited Hutcheson, Montesquieu and Wallace in his tracts against slavery in the United States, listing Hutcheson and Wallace on the cover of A short account of that part of Africa inhabited by the negroes (1762).

Seventy-eight years after the publication of The System of Moral Sentiments, as the culmination of a growing abolitionist movement in Britain led by William Wilberforce and others, slaves were freed in the British Empire. The 1772 decision in R v Knowles, ex parte Somersett was widely understood (inaccurately) as freeing slaves in England. By 1792 the House of Commons had voted for “gradual” abolition, outlawing the African slave trade in 1807. Freedom of existing slaves was only achieved with the payment of £20 million from public funds in compensation to slave owners, in the Slavery Abolition Act (1833) which received Royal Assent in 28 August 1833.

In France, the legislature abolished slavery throughout the French Republic on 4th February 1794. However it was re-established in West Indies in 1802, with the slave trade abolished a second time in 1815 and slavery itself in the French colonies in 1848.

Monument depicting chained slaves in a pit, located in Zanzibar Featured Image: Monument to slaves, Christ Church, Zanzibar. (c) Tim Brauhn/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Sources and further reading

Francis Hutcheson (1755), System of Moral Philosophy, published in three volumes. (Vol 1, Vol II)

Wylie Sypher (1939), Hutcheson and the “Classical” Theory of Slavery, The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 263-280. (JSTOR)

Anthony Benezet (1762) A short account of that part of Africa inhabited by the negroes

Helen Thomas “Romanticism and Slave Narratives: Transatlantic Testimonies” Chapter One: The English Slave Trade and Abolitionism

Gershom Carmichael (1724) “Supplements and Observations upon Samuel Pufendorf’s On the Duty of Man and Citizen according to the Law of Nature, composed for the use of students in the Universities, by Gershom Carmichael, Professor of Philosophy in the University of Glasgow” (2nd edition in “Natural Rights on the Threshold of the Scottish Enlightenment: The Writings of Gershom Carmichael”, Library of Liberty PDF)

‘No Blood Drops on the Sugar,’ (Slugger O’Toole) an address by historian Philip Orr about how the citizens of Belfast resisted the city’s further incorporation into the slave trade, given as part of the Four Corners Festival 2015. Francis Hutcheson is one of the names cited.

On the difference between indentured labour and chattel slavery: Liam Hogan (2014) The Myth of “Irish Slaves” in the Colonies

Scroll to Top