It is widely agreed upon that slavery and forced labour are unethical. However, consider the following situation:

A group of explorers, returning home from a tropical island, brings a boat full of captured natives to their homeland to sell as slaves. However, to cushion the moral repercussions of slavery, they use their brainwashing-machines to alter the structures of their captives' brains so that they then are able derive pleasure from manual labour. They then sell the perfectly willing "slaves" off to potential buyers.

Is this ethical?

In a purely utilitarian sense, it seems so. Pleasure is maximized both for the slaves and for the slave-owners.

In a Kantian sense, it seems so as well, at least until one considers his second and third formulations. If we apply Kant's "universalization rule" from his first formulation, we see that a world in which everybody enjoys manual labour is clearly a very productive one. However, when we take into account Kant's "use a person not simply as a means, but as an end in his/herself", we run into a few problems. It seems indeterminate - after the brainwashing, the "slaves" are perfectly willing, and in fact wish to do manual labour, but it also seems that they have been used.

One could also argue that it is unethical because the lack of consent for the brainwashing "dehumanizes" the captives.

If it cannot be argued to be "ethical", is it more so than if they had simply enslaved the natives without brainwashing them? Or is it less so, since they may have destroyed an essential part of their humanity in the process of brainwashing?

2 Answers 2


I totally disagree with your evaluation of this from a Kantian point of view. The principle value in Kant is autonomy, that is, allowing the individual to express itself as an end, to find its own purpose. Changing the person removes their autonomy, unless they choose the change for themselves for a good reason. (The freedom involved is not primarily about pleasure or willingness, it is much more about purpose.)

Would the natives, of their own free will and logic, choose to have the fruits of their labor go to some buyer and not to their own families and cultures, who raised them? This would be irresponsible: abandoning your potential parental and filial obligations, just because it is pleasant to do so, is not universalizable. Some of the people dependent upon you may be children or the elderly who have no other recourse. They would not choose to be deprived of your help.

The case is less clear in the utilitarian case. But you are at least omitting a major downside from your computations. Again, what of the culture from which all this labor has been stolen? Why don't they figure in the calculations? Surely taking away a working member from a subsistence economy causes serious deprivation. Far more is lost there than would be gained by adding several times as much slave labor to an already technologically sophisticated culture.


The term 'brainwashing' is a bit too polarizing. Let us consider an alternative view:

A group of businessmen discover people living in a remote area, with high mortality, searching for food and shelter every day to survive. The businessmen offer to set up a factory, with regular jobs and a regular income, enough to insure that the people working in that factory can keep their family supported for the foreseeable future, instead of worrying every day if they can find enough food to keep their family alive through tomorrow.

By western standards, that factory may have 'sweatshop' conditions. By the native standards, it's a whole lot better than what they had before. Instead of working 12 hours a day scavenging and maybe being able to keep their family alive for one more day, they're now working 12 hours a day and definitely keeping their family alive for more than one day. And they know they will be able to do that tomorrow, next week, next year.

So a human rights group sees this, and says - you are exploiting those people, because you are not providing the same benefits that a person in an advanced society has. The businessmen find that if they do that, they can no longer make enough money to keep the factory open (shipping and maintenance costs are higher in the remote area), so under pressure, they just shut the factory down. And the natives go back to scratching every day just to maybe get by.

Who benefited by the actions of the human rights group? Not the natives.

The judgment should be relative to the context in which the 'exploited' people are currently living.

As a more farfetched example: I might be offered a bit role in a movie at, say, $20k for two weeks work. By Hollywood standards, compared to the typical actor, that might be considered exploitation. I wouldn't consider it as such. I would see it as a two week vacation with one heck of a bonus.

And as a contrary example, consider a convicted felon in the US. Their job opportunities are very limited due to their record, and they often work in situations that would be considered exploitation for an average person. Problem is, the supply and demand situation keeps them in such jobs - there are enough people that don't have a police record seeking the good jobs, to take a chance on someone who does.

No one 'chooses' to be exploited. They choose (if they can) the best path they have available, given their abilities, to provide for themselves and their family. There is some merit to the argument that taking advantage of the depressed (by our standards) living conditions of people could be considered exploitation, but if it isn't better than what those people can get elsewhere, then advantage probably can't be taken.

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