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Voluntary Slavery: A Liberal Problematic

23 March 2014

Cross-posted from The Molinist. Come read The Molinist at its new home.
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The years following 1551 presented Castilian (part of modern day Spain) and Portugese intellectuals with a crisis. The Valladolid Controversy, a debate in Valladolid, Castile, between Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda over the ensalvement of the ‘Indians,’ indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, was won by the anti-slavery side. Though de las Cases did not achieve his ultimate goal, the end of Castilian military conquest in the ‘New World,’ he did win an intellectual and moral victory over the encomienda system, the precurssor of the plantion in which many thousands were enslaved, even in territories where this was theoretically illegal (Peru and New Spain).

De las Casas’ victory over Sepúlveda was part of the disenthronement of the concept of natural slavery, the idea, inherited from Aristotle, that certain persons are naturally unable to govern themselves for their own good (in Aristotelian teleology, toward their own end, or telos) and are thus better off in enslavement to someone who can. In it’s original context, natural slavery served to justify both the enslavement by Greeks of European ‘barbarians,’ who were seen as both culturally inferior and temperamentally predisposed toward physicality over intellect, and the ‘political slavery’ of ‘Asiatics’ or Persians, who were seen as naturally servile and predisposed to intellect over physicaly. In an early modern context, natural slavery, which regained its intellectual currency, despite the Roman Catholic Church’s unequivocal condemnation of slavery, through its Aristotelian pedigree, was the justification employed for the enslavement of the indigenous populations of the Americas. Casting these populations as barbarous, cannibals, and pagans in need of both saving and civilising, European colonial powers like Castile cast themselves as benefactors to their enslaved labourers. Natural slavery’s most erudite opponent was likely Francisco de Vitoria, founder of the School of Salamanca. In his De indis, his influential work on the colonisation and conversion of the New World, Vitoria addressed the encomienda system. Though he did not challenge Aristotle’s fundamental proposition that some classes of humans would be better served by enslavement than by freedom (heaving forfend that he should disagree with Aristotle) he argued that the indigenous populations of the Americas were not such humans. He even questioned whether people who fell into this theoretically valid category existed in the real world. In so doing he posed a challenge to the burgeoning, slave-dependent colonial empires of Europe.

This challenge would be answered by Jesuit theologians and philosophers Luis de Molina and Francisco Suárez. Unlike Vitoria, Molina and Suárez adopted the Gersonian, rather than the Thomistic, model of right, and this gave them leave to propose a different justification for slavery. The Thomistic model which informed Vitoria’s thought was an entirely objective theory of right. Right was an objective category of the universe, no distinct from ‘just.’ In this model an individual cannot have a right to a thing but it can be right that the individual have that thing. In the Gersonian model, rights are more subjective; they possesses their rights just as they possess their physical property. For Molina and Suárez, voluntary slavery was the natural consequence of the Gersonian theory of right. If an individual possessed their freedom in the same manner as any physical property, then surely that individual was at liberty to alienate that liberty in trade or sale. This theory was and is known as voluntary slavery…

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