Moral Absolutism About Murder, Rape, Genocide, and Slavery

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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.


The human race is of one genetically significant group, therefore to commit genocide is to destroy the entire human race. (I understand that is NOT the definition.) What I'm really getting at is that the whole idea of genocide starts with racism and hate. When we start inventing new names for old sins we often start a new rhetoric that may lead us down some strange paths. I am not entirely comfortable with the public dialogue on genocide because of some of the underlying assumptions, one being that biology plays such a significant role in our ethinic make up. It is a factor, but over time, an ethnic group may transition from one ethnic characteristic to another and then one genetic group may stay stable but its member leave the culture of their fore bearers. Jewish people from Europe, or Ashkenazi, are ethnically Jewish but genetically, appear more European than Semitic. Jewish people who are from the Middle East, Mizrahi, appear more Middle Eastern. Ethiopian Jews are Jews but yet have very different characteristics than their Ashkenazi brothers. All the while studies have been done to prove that they all are genetically linked. The children of the Romans may occupy the same geographic area but they are not Romans culturally.

In the Balkans there is a lot of discussion about the difference of the different groups. Serbs, Bosniacs, and Croatians are genetically and linguistically pretty much the same. But they claim a great degree of difference because of the disdain they have for one another. By the way, Bosniac is a new word to describe Yugoslave Muslims since they had no ethnic word for themselves. They had to create a race in order to define the mass slaughter in terms of genocide.

I agree with thsi sentiment which is why this topic is uncomfortable to me, but it came a a point when I was thinking about it myself, and that explains my participation. Particulary, deontological concerns. For example, I brought up the case that if we enslaved the mentally ill, that would seem an instance of great evil...but instead, keeping in line with the general argument,Parableman emphasized the lack of autonomy of the mentally ill and their institutionalization cited as an instance of slavery. Thus, we have justified "slavery" since, what can be interpreted as protecting the mentally disabled is really a degree along a line of slavery. I neglected to response to this, and will hereafter, simply because I'm not even going to go there.

These are the type of things that always bring up deontological worries--The North, for example, in many cases refused to engage Soutern intellectual about the the merits of slavery, the assumption being it was so morally depraved that it didnt not warrant debate. The problem with philosophical analysis is that then the worry is how to balance, what seems to me a justifiable case of making a topic of limits, against dogmatism.

Why does a group need to be identified purely in terms of characteristics that are genetically significant for the group to be morally significant? Why aren't socially significant factors important? If a whole group, identified in terms of characteristics that aren't genetically significant in any way, is abused in awful ways and forced to be segregated according to whether they have those characteristics, those features will have genetic normality among that group, and the moral status of the group is still important. With ethnic groups in our current time, we have even more than that. We have the history of American slavery, for instance, and this was based fully on African origin, which at the time identified people in extremely clear-cut ways.

They had to create a race in order to define the mass slaughter in terms of genocide.

Either that or they identified a socially significant group and defined the genocide in terms of that group. That sounds much more reasonable to me than the view that socially significant identifications are not morally significant.

I'm not disputing deontological considerations. I'm disputing whether they fall in the same places as you put them (in some cases) and whether your terms for describing ones we agree on are right (in other cases).

As far as I've been able to tell, the best so-called defenders of slavery in the South weren't really defending it but were just saying that the best way to deal with it was to allow a slower process of allowing states to remove it over time, something they pretty much were already in the process of doing. It's even possible that most of the racial problems we have today are due to the way slavery was ended rather than the fact that slavery happened.


I think you and I are in agreement. The mass slaughter in Bosnia was against a socially identifiable group. It was Muslims who were for the most part not fanatical or particularly pious. (Later many became much more pious in their Islam. But that is another discussion.) Biology became a big factor in defining national boundaries but unnecessarily so. One of the top political offices was held by a biology major and she used biological arguements and rhetoric to justify much of what was going on. I am in agreement that what was happening was a slaughter of a socially definable group. The groups would say that nationally, linguistically and racially they are seperate. I'm saying their imposing a biological variable unnecessarily so was/is a part of their hate rhetoric.

Genocide can be something other than focused on biology but the term does come from biology.

I would perfer that when we define our ethics that we not invent words to describe something that is event driven. I beleive what happens in genocide to be morally wrong, as all mass murder and systemic evil are. But given two cases where thousands are killed, one being genocide and the other being unsystematic killing of arbitrary people, the numbers being equal, they are both mass murder, I'm not sure I can see how random killing on a whim is more morally acceptable than a planned murder.

I would look to the 10 Commandments to find a moral code. I think there might be a tendency to create new laws which eventually will in our moral conscenceousness superceed the Law of God. While there are new ethical issues arising all the time, if we have a solid foundation we can actually develop a moral compass for a society. With moral issues redefined in new and ever creative terms, todays moral issues change as often as the Billboard magazines top 40 listing. Perhaps I have digressed a little from the original topic.

So I would ask, which of the 10 Commandments does slavery violate.

1. It can make a master place himself first as God.
2. None come to mind.
3. None come to mind.
4. None come to mind. Perhaps if the master make the slave work on the Sabbath.
5. Perhaps this is violated when a master requires the loyalty that a father and mother require but have not the affection for the subject.
6. Slaves are not to be murdered though sometimes they have been.
7. Often those who are enslaved are abused sexually. This is a clear violation of the seventh commandment.
8. I would argue that particularly in the American form of slavery, slaves were robbed of dignity, property, and their rights.
9. I would also argue that when a slave has no voice, how can there be justic. When one is wrong because of status in life, not truth of the words, that is a violation of the ninth commandment.
10. It would be easy to argue in general terms that the 10th commandment was violated by those who practiced the American form of slavery. But this commandment points much more to the heart.

But everything I just talked about is not the essence of what slavery is, but merely the trimmings that may or may not accompany it.

Skipping around at the different posts I see Jeremy that you don't see morality's best expression in law. I agree. I beleive the purpose of the law is not an end of itself. Of course the discussion has to be that it is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. But in a more earthly issue, virtue is a much higher morality than law. But a child is taught "don't". Virtue is better but a starting point is the law. And in terms of public discourse, I hope I am never given a traffic ticket for unvirtuous driving, show me clearly what I did or did not do according to the law.

I've been following this discussion of yours (followed a link at Dean's World to the Story Carnival to your site originally) for a couple of days now, and this post has prompted me to respond.

I believe there is no such thing as a moral absolute, including your discussion on slavery, or specifically your mention of rape and murder in this post. If any of these were moral absolutes, there would be no circumstance imaginable where rape or murder could be justified for the greater good. And as you have already pointed out, that is simply not the case.

"The good of the many outweighs the good of the few...or the one."

Walking up to a man on the street and shooting him may be wrong (as well as illegal), but if that same man were attempting to crawl through your window and you shot him, most would consider it moral, and it would be legal as self-defense. It is not the act of killing that makes the difference, but the intent behind the killing. This idea makes the morality of the act based on intent, not the actual act itself.

Slavery is considered wrong because the vast majority of slaves in our history were treated inhumanely. In other words, the intent of the slave owner was immoral, not necessarily slavery itself. Some slaves were owned by moral families and were, in fact, worse off after emancipation because they lost their homes and were unable to make a living for themselves. They may have been free, but given the choice would have elected to remain slaves.

I agree with you that the basic premise of slavery is not in and of itself immoral. It is the intent of those practicing it that makes the difference. This can be said of anything in life.

What is your point? No matter how much you prove your position from the Bible, hardly anyone will accept it.
What you call rape, the taking of a girl or woman against her will, is authorized by the Bible in certain circumstances. "If you see a beautiful woman among the captives, and you desire her for yourself..." He opinion of the matter is not requested, nor her consent. After the prescribed preliminaries, she is taken, either submissively or by force.
In a number of the sieges, the Israelites were authorized to slaughter all the men able to bear arms and all the women who were not virgins, and to keep the virgin girls for themselves. This we today would call rape but in those circumstances the LORD had given the girls to the Israelites as slaves and sex subjects. Their opinions and consent, once again, were not requested.
In other sieges, the men were slain and the girls and women, irregardless of their state of virginity/chastity, kept for sex slaves and concubines.

Then, polygamy (polygyny - polyandry is not treated in the Bible) is permitted and regulated. In the matter of the levirate obligation, it did not matter whether the surviving brother already had a wife. He was required to take his brother's widow as a wife/concubine. And, the widow's opinion and consent were not asked. She was taken and bred, by force if necessary to accomplish the objective of raising up children to the deceased brother's name.
Nathan the prophet declared that God had given David the wives (inclusive term literally meaning "women" - both wives proper and concubines) of his predecessor, king Saul. And, God said via Nathan, if they had not been enough God would have given him more.
The LORD is pictured as the husband of two "wives" - Aholah and Aholibah, figuring Israel and Judah (or Judah and Israel?), both of whom He calls to return to Him after their dalliance with other gods.
Then, Jesus pictured Himself as a bridegroom preparing to marry ten virgins (otherwise what is the significance of emphasizing that they were virgins?). Five proved unfit. He apparently married the other five.
Jesus is also pictured as the husband both of the entire church ("bride of Christ") in the singular, and of each Christian believer individually, giving Him perhaps many millions of "wives".
It is true that these are figures, but the temporal example used to illustrate a spirtiual principle must itself be valid or the illustration fails.

The aversion to polygamy is not of Biblical origin but of Roman and Greek - pagan - origin. Most other nations, including the Israelites/Jews were polygamous to some degree (all polygamous societies are mostly monogamous - there aren't enough "extra" women to provide very many men with more than one wife even if they were limited strictly to two wives).
Rome wasn't really opposed to a man having several sex partners; just one wife (at a time). Having more than one wife at a time made inheritance and succession rather complicated. A man could have all the concubines he was able to have, just not to make more than one women his legal wife (kinda like nowadays?!).

Slavery is allowed. It is regulated. It is even in limited circumstances commanded: the slaves bought (or captured) of foreigners were to be held in slavery throughout their generations.
An Israelite woman bought as a concubine (it appears that Israelite women were not to be bought just as sex slaves) was to be kept, not sold to anyone but her own family, who might be able to redeem her. But foreign women (as men) were permanent slaves, and their posterity.

But is this going to make any difference now? You are not going to be permitted to buy any slaves in any culture in which you would want to live.

We are all slaves of the state, anyway. Every government on the face of the earth claims a prior lien on the labor of every individual a citizen or within its geographical jurisdiction. The only way you can avoid being enslaved is to dive dumpsters and live under a bridge, or otherwise have nothing to take away from you.

What's the point? One point is to correct misimpressions about what the Bible says. Another is to point out that certain criticisms not only misunderstand the biblical data but don't follow from the generally agreed upon moral views of contemporary moral thought. A third is simply that I think ethical issues are worth thinking through, not just for the sake of truth, which is reason enough, but also because what you think about ethical issues that don't face you immediately will still affect what you think about ethical issues that do face you.

As for my use of the Bible, I'm not sure what you're getting at. Christians should accept the Bible, and the statements I've made that Christians should accept what I'm saying on the basis of the Bible should do exactly what you say it won't do. Christians should pay attention to the Bible or else not bother to call themselves Christians. Since the only times I've relied on the Bible were when I was saying that Christians especially have reasons to accept what I'm saying, I'm not sure where you find a problem. My philosophical arguments haven't relied on the Bible except in a couple places as examples of degrees in slavery without assuming that any command in the Bible is correct. It's only the arguments I addressed to Christians that do that. So I'm left completely bewildered that you would find this strange. Using the Bible to convince Christians of something is not unusual. I'm not sure why you seem to think it is.

One more issue related to purpose. The following comment surprises me greatly:

But is this going to make any difference now? You are not going to be permitted to buy any slaves in any culture in which you would want to live.

I've said all along, many times and extremely clearly and plainly, that I haven't been defending anyone's owning of slaves today or in the U.S. ever. What I've been saying is that there are degrees of slavery, going from the more extreme versions like American slavery all the way to ordinary employment like a temporary adjunct contract with, graduate students for a pittance without benefits for teaching two courses. Why you then accuse me of wanting to own slaves myself is hard for me to fathom. It's completely at odds with everything I've said.

But then you amazingly say the following:

We are all slaves of the state, anyway. Every government on the face of the earth claims a prior lien on the labor of every individual a citizen or within its geographical jurisdiction. The only way you can avoid being enslaved is to dive dumpsters and live under a bridge, or otherwise have nothing to take away from you.

Well, if you want to make my point for me, that's fine with me. It just seems really strange to pretend that I'm not simply saying that when you're going to end your comment agreeing with me.

As for the other stuff, I don't think you have given me a comment worthy of a reponse. I will say a couple things, but I'm not going to bother to do what you should have done when you left the comment to begin with, and that's to indicate where these passages all are. That's the responsibility of the person making the argument from scripture. I'm not going to spend time trying to figure out exactly which part of the Torah you're getting all this from. Unless I can actually know where to look to see what it says exactly and see what the best scholars on those passages have to say, I'm not going to spend much time on this. If I can figure out quickly where some of it, I might give some response at some point, but I feel no obligation whatsoever to do your work for you, so I may not get to it. If you feel like actually doing the work to support your claims, then I will give them the serious attention such claims deserve. As it is, I'm not exactly going to jump on it.

I will say one obvious thing that I know enough about not to have to look up. The ten virgins in Jesus' parable were the wedding party. The bridegroom was not marrying them. He was marrying the bride. What you have to say about that makes absolutely no sense, given that.

I will also challenge you to give any real evidence that there are biblical allowances for taking sex slaves. I've read the entire Bible several times in several different translations. I've done a close study of over half of the Torah (including almost half of Exodus and all of Leviticus and Numbers). I've never seen this. I have seen stuff about saving people from the death sentence on inhabitants of the land by making them slaves instead or by marrying them. But sex slaves? I don't remember that in any of the translations I've read, and it wasn't discussed in any of the commentaries I've read.

Polygamy, slavery, genocide, and so on are issues worth discussing. If you want to do it intelligently (i.e. by telling me where you're getting these quotes so I can then go and look up the references and see what the best scholars have to say), then I will be happy to discuss them. If not, I may or may not get around to it.

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