Chapter Seven: Paternalism -- Selling Oneself into Slavery

Chin Liew Ten, Professor of Philosophy, National University of Singapore

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Chapter 7, part 3, of the author's Mill on Liberty, which Clarendon Press published in 1980. It has been included in the Victorian Web with the kind permission of the author and of the Clarendon Press, which retains copyright.

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decorative initial 'W' he consistency of Mill's rejection of strong paternalism is called into question when he refuses to allow a person voluntarily to sell himself into slavery. Mill's argument is worth quoting:

"By selling himself for a slave, he abdicates his liberty; he foregoes any future use of it beyond that single act. He therefore defeats, in his own case, the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself.... The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom to be allowed to alienate his freedom" (p. 158).

Mill's argument is unclear. He allows us to give up part of our freedom, as we constantly do when we enter into contracts. Nor is it the case that in any transaction that involves giving up some of our freedom, the freedom that we gain must be greater than the freedom that we lose. For freedom is not the only valuable end, and sometimes a net loss of freedom, [117/118] voluntarily contracted, is more than made up by a gain in, other benefits like income and material comforts. Mill has said nothing to indicate that he would prohibit such exchanges of freedom for other goods. Indeed in discussing the Mormon institution of polygamy, he explicitly argues against intervention even though the principle of liberty is violated: "far from being coutenanced by the principle of liberty, it is a direct, infraction of that principle, being a mere riveting of the chains, of one half of the community, and an emancipation of the other from reciprocity of obligation towards them." (p. 148) Intervention is not justified because the marriage is voluntary since many women "prefer being one of several wives to not being a wife at all". So slavery is different, not because it involves a sacrifice of freedom, but because the freedom is given up completely and permanently.

We can imagine a situation in which a person has voluntarily sold himself into perpetual slavery. After a few years he greatly detests his condition and very much regrets having sold himself as a slave. His health suffers from the demanding work required of him, and he now refuses to obey the slaveholder any longer. The slave-holder invokes the law. Sanctions will be used to enforce the terms of the contract. The law thereby not merely permits, but also uses sanctions to support, the slave-holder's harming of the slave. Now this example seems to fall between cases of self-harming conduct and cases of conduct harmful to others. The example is not a clear case of the harm done by one person to another with his full consent. For in these cases when A harms B, B consents to the harm and does not withdraw his consent at the time the harm is inflicted. But perpetual slavery is also not a clear case of conduct which harms others in the sense which allow state to interfere. In the clear cases, one person harms another who has at no time consented to be harmed.

It is possible that Mill wishes to treat at least some cases in which one person harms another in conformity with earlier contractual agreement, but against the person's present wishes, as conduct causing harm to others against their will and therefore as conduct coming within the legitimate scope of legal intervention. If this is the case, then interfering in such contracts is not a paternalistic act but one designed [118/119] to prevent harm to others. Since the prevention of harm to others is not a sufficient condition for intervention one has to balance the advantages and disadvantages of interfering against those of not doing so. In the case of perpetual slavery, the harm done to a subsequently unwilling person is very grave, and there will be sufficient reason for not recognizing the slavery contract. But if there is a "slavery" contract, renewable at frequent intervals, and imposing limits to what may be required of the slave without his existing consent, this should be enforceable; for a discussion of the distinguishing features of slavery, see R. M. Hare, "Slavery". For although the individual would still be giving up his freedom, the contract will not be radically different from other freedom-limiting contracts, and at regular intervals he has the option of ceasing to be a slave. It is also important to note that the argument I have suggested on Mill's behalf does not prohibit a person from voluntarily becoming a lifelong slave of another person. But it supports the refusal to give legal recognition to contracts for perpetual slavery.


Hare, H. L. A. "What is wrong with Slavery" Philosophy and Public Affairs, 8 (1979).

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Last modified 22 April 2001