I wanted to address one argument that I've seen cropping up in a few of the comments on my posts so far in the slavery series and comments at Clayton Littlejohn's first contentless post and then in Clayton's own second post that contained a real argument. That argument is this. If slavery admits of degrees and is thus not intrinsically wrong at the lower extremes, then the same would apply to murder, rape, and genocide. My response to this will take two posts. In this one, I'm arguing for one thesis as a start to looking at my more specific addressing of the claim in question. That one thesis is this. Moral Absolutism About Murder, Rape, and Genocide is at least going to be controversial, once you consider some extreme cases, and in that will it will be similar to torture, another moral category that many people are absolutists about.
The argument against my position is this. If slavery isn't always wrong for the reasons I've given, then that will lead to allowing murder, rape, and genocide as not always wrong. But of course those things are always morally wrong, so my view on slavery must be incorrect. I'm not dealing with the more general question yet in this post. My point here is the basic one that it's not uncontroversial to claim an absolutist view on any of these moral categories, so I'm going to present some reasons some people might think these actions might be ok in certain extreme circumstances.
Philosophers have suggested exactly this sort of thing with many things, most notably torture in recent months. If it takes torturing an innocent person to save New York City from a nuke, many people think that's ok. Why might not the same be true of rape if it takes rape to perpetuate the human species when only two people are left after a holocaust, and one of them refuses to mate? I'm not endorsing this position, but some people might. Similarly, if genocide is the only way to stop a virus that will wipe out humanity, is it morally justified? What if the population of those infected includes every single aboriginal Australian? It would be genocide to kill them all for the sake of everyone else, but it might still be ok. Thus it's not going to be uncontroversial to claim an absolutist view about the immorality of rape and genocide.
I wouldn't say the same for murder, however, because murder is defined as wrongful killing. If it's wrongful in the moral sense, then murder is always wrong, but do my detractors really want to argue that slavery is by definition immoral, or is it merely the case that slavery will always turn out to be wrong? I would have expected the latter. If it turns out that murder is defined as legally wrongful killing, which is its definition in the legal context, then perhaps there are cases when murder is morally justified. The law might forbid cases of killing that have a moral backing. It would have to be a pretty extreme case, such as the ones I gave for rape and genocide, in order to overcome the moral consideration that it's best to follow the law even if it requires things not morally required, but I think that can happen, particularly in totalitarian regimes that make it illegal to kill someone who would otherwise wipe out the entire world's population due to megalomania. So either murder is not always wrong, or it's always wrong by definition, which I don't think is the claim with slavery.
One reason I don't think slavery could possibly mean something like "wrongful control over people and minimization of their autonomy" is that we can understand A but not B"
A: Slavery is not wrong.
B: Wrongful control over people and minimization of their autonomy is not wrong.
B makes absolutely not sense. Even if A is false, the sentence makes sense. That's why I just can't see how slavery could be wrongful by definition. My objectors might say you can pull the same trick with murder, but I think that's so because of the ambiguity in 'murder' between illegal killing and wrongful killing.
But none of this is the main point anyway. The claim I'm responding to isn't just that murder, rape, and genocide are always wrong. I'm not sure I endorse the claim that rape is ever ok, anyway. It's clear that some people might say the case I gave is sufficient to justify it, but many people won't even go that far. The same might be so for genocide. (This is further complicated by the fact that people may be unwittingly contributory toward their own genocide, and I wouldn't necessarily blame them for that, but I'll ignore that for the purposes of this post.) The main issue is whether these moral categories could possibly be like what I said is true of slavery. I said that there's a core conception of what slavery is, and that can exist in lesser degrees and still be a sort of lesser slavery. That opens up the possibility that slavery might be morally ok in certain contexts with those lesser degrees, and the example I'm defending is ancient Israel's form of slavery. See my second post linked above for that.
My fourth post will get to the issue of whether these other moral categories will have to admit of degrees in the same way that slavery does (on my view) and whether that's bad if they do turn out to admit of such degrees.