Degrees of Slavery and Degrees of Murder

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This is my fourth post in a series on the morality of slavery. In my previous post, I began responding to an argument that if slavery admits of the degrees I said it did in my first post then so will murder, rape, and genocide. The argument is intended to undermine my view by showing that it leads to the ridiculous conclusion that murder, rape, and genocide happen all the time and aren't really wrong when they do except in the extreme cases that we usually call murder, rape and genocide. I don't think my argument regarding slavery leads to that conclusion. The previous post simply makes the claim that moral absolutism about these moral categories is not completely uncontroversial to begin with. That doesn't really deal with the question about degrees of being in one of these categories, so I have to take up that question now.

For each of these moral categories, here are the possibilities:

(1) It's not like what I'm saying about slavery and doesn't admit of degrees.
(2) It admits of degrees but not in the same way that I'm saying slavery does.
(3) It is like slavery in its admitting of degrees.

I'll begin with murder and then deal with the other two in their own posts.

Murder could come to a matter of degree in two possible ways. It might be a matter of degree as to whether something counts as killing. Is it killing someone, for instance, to allow someone to die rather than to do some active motion that causes death? Is it killing to intend someone to die but not to have to lift a hand for it to happen? Is it killing to do something that results in death, but the death wasn't the goal of your action or even the means of achieving the goal (e.g. bombing a munitions factory and accidentally causing the death of a civilian)? These matters of degree might amount to a killing's being less bad (if indeed you count it as a killing in the lesser degrees), and it might amount to someone's being less blameworthy for doing it or even entirely innocent with respect to it. In that way, killing does admit of the same kinds of degrees I'm saying appear with slavery.

The problem is that murder is defined as wrongful killing, either morally or legally. Whether it's legal may turn out to be a matter of debate, but legal systems have ways of settling such questions, which leads to an all-or-nothing answer in the end. It will be declared to have been illegal or not. Therefore, legal murder doesn't admit of these degrees in the end, even though killing does. It was illegal, or it was not. Murder is therefore in category (1) when it comes to the legal sense of the term.

What about the moral sense? It's not too uncontroversial to say that wrongness comes in degrees. Some things are worse than others. When you get to things that are less wrong, and you keep going along the scale, you eventually get to things that simply aren't wrong. That seems to be the case with killing. This seems to me to lead to two possible views. One is that things can't be more or less murder. If it's murder, it's murder. If it's not, it's not. In that way, it's like most vague terms. If something is red, it's red. If it's not, it's not. Then there are borderline cases, and we don't say they're more or less red. We just don't believe them to be red or not red. That's in fact one way to take what I was saying about slavery, and it seems perfectly ok to say the same thing about murder. The difference is that whether something is murder will always line up with whether it's wrong, by definition, and I've already argued that that's not the case with slavery. If it always lines up, it won't be by definition. So I think we get (2) in this case, because the reason slavery admits of degrees isn't because we build 'wrongful' into the definition. [Update: At the same time, both seem to me to admit of greater and lesser degrees of wrongness, which is more like (3), even if whether it's wrong to begin with will not line up with what goes on with slavery.]

The other view is that murder does admit of degrees. Some things are more murder, and some things are less murder. Murder is thus like what people say about vagueness if they take there to be more than one truth value, with degrees of truth. I don't like this view of murder myself, but I don't think saying slavery is like this requires saying murder is like this. The reason is, again, that murder is like this on this view because wrongness is like this, and murder is defined in terms of wrongness. How much something defined in terms of wrongness depends on how wrong it is, on this view. That's not what's going on with what I said about slavery. So we get (2) again. [Update: So here we have something that's (2) in the sense of definitionally requiring wrongness, and as wrongness diminishes so does whether it's murder. Here, still, the result is like (3) in that the wrongness of murder decreases as it becomes less murder.]

[Update: After completing the posts on rape and genocide, I wanted to say one more thing about murder. As I worked through the responses, it occurred to me that I was framing my argument here a little wrongly. The argument against me says that my view on slavery requires a certain view on murder that's not correct. What this post shows is that murder admits of degrees but not in the same way slavery does. It's not clear from that that I've dodged the argument simply by saying murder admits of degrees or that the wrongness of murder admits of degrees. I have to show that murder's degrees are like slavery's, or I have to show that my reasons for thinking slavery admits of degrees won't lead to the same kind of thing with murder.

My argument about slavery is that enough elements of it admit of degrees to make lesser forms of it not as bad. The kinds of degree I discussed in this post are like that. It's irrelevant whether lesser degrees mean it's less true that it's murder or whether lesser degrees mean it's just less wrong murder. What counts is that there's a moral gradation from really bad murder to less bad murder or sort-of murder, and that's what I said about slavery. Therefore, it doesn't do to claim that my argument is wrong because it requires saying implausible things about murder. Those things aren't implausible and are in fact true. So this is (3) in the ways that count, even if it's like (2) in some ways that don't.]

4 Comments

It seems to me your debate of the question of murder is simplistic because of your definition, i.e., wrongful killing. If you were instead to define murder as private killling, i.e., killing done not as a soldier in wartime, but as a private citizen. then in that case there may be more shades to the ethical questions. But since you've defined murder as killing for unethical reasons there are no ethical shadings at play by definition.

Murder can't be private killing, though, because it isn't murder to kill in private in self-defense, to kill in private accidentally, etc. You can also murder as a public official or as a representative of the government. If even some capital punishment is immoral, then executions can be murder in the moral sense. If the military kills people without warrant, that seems to me also to be murder.

This isn't just how I've defined murder. This is how almost everyone thinks of it. It's a standard definition in philosophical analyses.

It seems to me that using the term "murder" is the problem with the question here. Reduce all questions of morality to their basics, is what I'm getting at.

Murder is unlawful killing. In which case, "killing" is the basic, and "unlawful" is the qualifier. If a qualifier is used, then conditions are placed on the basic moral question, which itself tends to prove the nonexistence of a moral absolute.

I thought it worth adding that our law builds an understanding into its language that murder comes in degrees. We call them first degree murder, second degree murder, and third degree murder. That didn't occur to me until a few days ago. I thought someone had left it in a comment, but I don't seem to be able to find which post that might have been in. Maybe it just occurred to me when reading a comment about something else.

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