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Johan Olsthoorn

Johan Olsthoorn

NIAS Theme Group Fellow

Project title

Natural Rights and Penal Slavery within Enlightenment Political Theory

Research question

Early modern philosophers declared humans to be born free and equal, endowed with natural rights to life and liberty. Yet many of them - from Grotius to Kant - nonetheless defended the legitimacy of penally enslaving criminals. What explains this paradox? This project studies Enlightenment theories of penal slavery to reconstruct what conceptions of natural rights and human dignity underpin them.

Project description

Our NIAS Theme Group examines in what ways political theories of involuntary servitude were developed with an eye on domestic issues, within Europe (1600-1850). (Early-)modern political ideologies of involuntary servitude are predominantly studied within the context of New World slavery. For good reason: during this period, institutions of human bondage became even more widespread, brutal, and racialized through the rise of the horrific transatlantic slave trade and colonial plantation systems. Yet ideas of involuntary servitude had much wider currency within philosophical theories at the time, well beyond colonial contexts. This Theme Group will study how philosophical theorizations of slavery, servitude, and subjection figured in the development of modern political theories on (1) domestic colonialism; (2) subordination within the family; (3) conceptions of sovereignty and the state; and (4) natural rights, human dignity, and penal enslavement.

During my NIAS fellowship, I will study how Enlightenment conceptualizations of natural rights and human dignity affected and reflected thinking on penal subjection. Juxtaposing a theory of penal slavery that applies primarily domestically with one decrying colonial injustices, I will study two philosophers defending the moral permissibility of enslaving criminals: the Black abolitionist Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (c.1757-c.1791) and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). My research hypothesis is that Enlightenment conceptions of natural rights and human dignity were, in several ways, conceptually suited to justify forms of penal slavery.

Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery [1787/1791] has been called “radical even by abolitionist standards”. Paradoxically, despite nominally advocating the “total abolition of slavery”, in this book Cugoano justifies penal slavery in principle: “every free community might keep slaves, or criminal prisoners in bondage”, even buying and selling these people, provided such “criminal slavery and bondage [is] according to the nature of their crimes” (1999: 58-59). Kant likewise maintained that criminals “in convict or prison labor” may permissibly be “reduced to the status of a slave [Sklavenstand] for a certain time, or permanently” (1996: 474). For Kant, it seems, human dignity is forfeitable. Grave wrongdoing can rightfully make one “the property of another, who is accordingly not merely his master but also his owner and can therefore alienate him as a thing [and] use him as he pleases” (1996: 471). Which conceptual features rendered their Enlightenment conceptions of natural rights and human dignity compatible with penal slavery?

Selected publications

J. Olsthoorn and L. van Apeldoorn. 2022. “This man is my property”: slavery and political absolutism in Locke and the classical social contract tradition’, European Journal of Political Theory 21, no. 2: 253-275  doi.org/10.1177/1474885120911309  Open Access

J. Olsthoorn. 2019. ‘Self-ownership and despotism: Locke on property in the person, divine dominium of human life, and rights-forfeiture’, Social Philosophy and Policy 36, no. 2: 242-263 doi.org/10.1017/S0265052519000438  Open Access

J. Olsthoorn. 2019. ‘Grotius on natural law and supererogation’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 57, no.  3: 443-469  doi.org/10.1353/hph.2019.0054

J. Olsthoorn. 2018. ‘Grotius and the early modern tradition’ in The Cambridge Handbook of the Just War, ed. Larry May. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 33-56 doi.org/10.1017/9781316591307.004

J. Olsthoorn. 2021. ‘Leviathan Inc.: Hobbes on the nature and person of the commonwealth’, History of European Ideas 47, no. 1: 17-32  doi.org/10.1080/01916599.2020.1779466  Open Access 

More about myself

I’m a tenured assistant professor in political theory (UD1) at the University of Amsterdam, Dept. of Political Science, and an affiliated researcher in the Justice and Migration project at RIPPLE. Between 2009 and 2021, I worked at KU Leuven, Institute of Philosophy, funded by PhD and postdoctoral fellowships of the Research Foundation (FWO)-Flanders. In 2014, KU Leuven awarded me a PhD in philosophy (summa cum laude); I also hold degrees in philosophy (BA, MA), history (BA, MA), and political science (BA) from Leiden University.