16th Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Ivanescu

Ruxandra Ivanescu, University of Manchester.

The Impossibility of Contractual Enslavement


In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick famously argued that a libertarian system should allow the possibility for an agent to enslave themselves to another. Since libertarianism is grounded on the individual right to self-ownership, the theory seems well equipped to accommodate the idea of self-enslavement, as one could argue that ownership over one´s own person can be alienated, just as property titles over extra-personal objects by sale, gift, or abandonment.

Accession into slavery by contract, i.e. by transferring ownership from the self-owner to the slave-owner, is conceptually impossible because a slave cannot acquire duties to respect the transfer of ownership which made them a slave. The slave’s inability to be a duty-bearer rests on their rightlessness, i.e. the status of an entirely owned object. Since slaves have no moral domain of their own, rights of others (and the slaves’ correlatively held duties) cannot be enforced against slaves, in case of a rights violation. More specifically, it is impossible for those right-holders to choose to employ their powers of demanding enforcement/compensation from the alleged duty-breacher, given that there is nothing to extract from them that does not already belong to the slave-owner. The slave´s body, their labor, their arbitrary possessions are already within the slave-owner´s moral domain, which means that demanding compensation from a slave is impossible. Breaching a duty as a slave cannot be followed by the holder of the correlative right choosing to enforce that very duty. Duties of justice (that correlate to rights), however, are enforceable, hence the slave’s incapacity to hold them.

If the slave cannot become a duty-bearer as a result of the enslavement transfer, then the transfer – which is an exchange of rights and duties between transferor and recipient, cannot be said to have taken place.