Thursday, October 13, 2016

From suicide to slavery

I've been thinking about an argument with this logical form:

  1. If suicide is permissible, then slavery is permissible.
  2. Slavery is not permissible.
  3. So, suicide is not permissible.
Of course, the most controversial premise is (1), though I could also imagine a defender of suicide denying (2) in the case of voluntary enslavement. One reason to accept (1) is something like this:
  1. If suicide is permissible, then we have ultimate authority over our own lives.
  2. If we have ultimate authority over our own lives, then it is permissible and valid for us to sell ourselves into slavery.
  3. If it is permissible and valid for us to sell ourselves into slavery, then slavery is permissible.
  4. So, if suicide is permissible, then slavery is permissible.
By "valid", I mean that the sale would actually work: that authority over our lives would be transferred to another. The notion of "ultimate authority" is rather foggy and I think (4) and (5) can be questioned. But I still think it's an argument worth developing, as all three premises (4)-(6) have some plausibility.

Another line of thought in favor of (1) is:

  1. If suicide is permissible, it is permissible and valid to deputize another to unconditionally kill one.
  2. If it is permissible and valid to deputize another to unconditionally kill one, it is permissible and valid to deputize another to kill one at will.
  3. If it is permissible and valid to deputize another to kill one at will, then it is permissible and valid to sell oneself into slavery.
  4. If it is permissible and valid to sell oneself into slavery, then slavery is permissible.
Here, valid deputization is a deputization that actually succeeds in giving the other the requisite authority. The thought behind (10) is that if one give life-and-death authority over oneself to another, one can a fortiori give the other kinds of authority that define the master-slave relationship.


Michael Gonzalez said...

I wonder if (5) is right, since it presumes that it is ever permissible that one person hold ultimate authority over another. Yes, if suicide is permissible, then one can GIVE UP ultimate authority, but that doesn't entail that anyone else is ever within their rights to ACCEPT it over someone else.

The second line of argument was stronger, in my opinion, though I still wonder if having the right to kill ONESELF entails that someone ELSE can ever have that right (even with your consent).

Basically, I think the disconnect in both lines of argument is not with whether one has the right to surrender a certain authority, but with whether anyone ever has the right to ACCEPT or HOLD that authority from them.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I would think that if it is permissible to kill oneself, (a) it is permissible to hire someone to kill one and (b) the one hired then permissibly uses that authorization. Some of this is included under my use of "valid".

Michael Gonzalez said...

Again, I just don't see how the one entails the other. If I have ultimate authority over my life and am permitted to give that up, that doesn't entail that anyone else has the right to accept it or hold it at any time. More argument would be needed to support the idea that such a transaction is valid.

It seems clear to me that the moral problem with slavery is two-fold. Those who oppose slavery not only think it is wrong to sell yourself (or another), but also think it is wrong to purchase or accept another as your property.

So, let's say I wanted to sell my cat to someone, but that person is not permitted to own a cat (say, their apartment doesn't allow pets or something). My right to sell does not entail your right to buy. They are separate issues, both of which would need to be permissible separately before the conjunction could be permissible, no?

Alexander R Pruss said...

You are never morally permitted to authorize someone to do something morally wrong, just as you are never morally permitted to command someone to do something morally wrong.

Moreover, if you are permitted to cause some effect, then it presumptively follows that you are permitted to hire someone to cause that effect and they are permitted to act on your behalf to cause that effect. (Only presumptively: e.g., exams.)

So we at least have presumptive evidence that if suicide is permissible, someone should be permitted to help you, and that if selling yourself into slavery is permissible, someone should be permitted to buy you.

entirelyuseless said...

I think people who support suicide and are against slavery will say that (5) is false and that one or more of 8,9, and 10 are false, and based on fairly plausible reasoning, namely that they support suicide precisely because they think that people intrinsically possess ultimate authority over their lives. Then (5) is false, according to them, because selling yourself into slavery is renouncing your authority over your life, and that is not permitted since your authority is intrinsic. One or more of the premises in the second argument would be false for similar reasons.

Alexander R Pruss said...

To the extent that I have full authority over my life, I should be able to will any logically coherent life plan for myself. But among the logically coherent life plans is this one: I will do whatever you want. No?

entirelyuseless said...

I think the people I am talking about would say it is legitimate to always do what someone else wants. But selling yourself into slavery means claiming that you are no longer permitted to do anything else, so not only adopting that life plan, but also renouncing the possibility of changing it.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Pruss: Your first statement is my exact point: If it is not morally permissible for a person to own you, then it is NOT morally permissible to sell yourself to another, even if relinquishing your life (as in suicide) is permissible. Your original argument was "if I can give myself up, then someone else can take me". I'm saying that that clearly requires an additional step, which is that it is morally permissible for someone to take you. You can give yourself up in suicide without involving that extra step, but not in slavery. It's a relevant difference.

The "presumptive" bit has TWO hidden steps (both of which would require some argument): from suicide to assisted suicide (it seems clear that it is often morally different to do something to yourself vs. having someone else do it to you) and then from assisted suicide to slave ownership (even if it were ok to help me achieve suicide that doesn't mean you are permitted to own me... there are extra steps in the reasoning that are being left out, it seems).

Alexander R Pruss said...

How often is it that there is a moral difference between having someone else do something to one and doing it oneself? I can think of three families of cases where there is such a difference: games, examinations, and sex. In the first two families, that's due to contingent social practices. And sex is, I think, often an outlier in ethics.

Alexander R Pruss said...

At least one can say this: to the extent that one cannot transfer one's authority over oneself, one's authority over oneself is limited. But if it's limited, it seems a little unlikely that it would be perfectly calibrated so that one has enough of it to allow suicide but not enough to allow self-sale.

steve said...

"You are never morally permitted to authorize someone to do something morally wrong, just as you are never morally permitted to command someone to do something morally wrong."

Alex, I think that's prima facie true. But I don't know if you're appealing to natural law or Catholic ethics.

Let's consider a possible exception. Say a middle-aged man is a terrorist leader. Say his 20-something son has followed in his father's footsteps.

Say a counterterrorism unit doesn't know the location of the leader. However, the unit is able to plant a remote control bomb on the leader's son (unbeknownst to the son). When the son visits his father in the hideout, the unit will detonate the bomb.

I assume it's morally permissible for the counterterrorist unit to kill the terrorist leader as well as his adult son, who's a willing accomplice.

It would not be morally permissible for the son to knowingly commit patricide. Agreed?

Yet it seems morally permissible for someone (the terrorist unit) to cause the son to do something morally impermissible. Agree or disagree?

Alexander R Pruss said...

No, it would be wrong to intentionally cause the son to commit parricide if this instance of parricide is wrong. But this instance might not be wrong. He may have a duty to engage in a lethal attack on his father to defend the innocent.

Michael Gonzalez said...

I don't see it as a "limit" or a matter of having a certain "amount" of authority. If suicide is morally permissible, then I have the ultimate amount of authority over myself. It doesn't get any higher than that. Whether someone can participate in my suicide or take over authority of my life (as in slavery) is just completely orthogonal to that. It has to do with what is morally permissible for THEM; not for me. For me, if suicide goes, anything goes; but that doesn't mean that they are permitted to own me or help me die.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I see the coherence of this position. I guess I've always taken it for granted that if suicide is permissible, then someone can be successfully authorized to kill one. (The case of physician assisted suicide is a case apart, because physicians have special professional duties that, I think, are incompatible with killing.) But I don't really have an argument for this conditional.

Two further thoughts.

1. Suppose Elbonia is fighting a just war against Ruritania. Then shouldn't Elbonia be able to hire Swiss (say) mercenaries to fight against Ruritania, with all the authorization that Elbonians have to kill Ruritanians transferring to the Swiss? I guess it's not *completely* clear, though. I could imagine someone saying: The Elbonians have a right to fight the Ruritanians but the Swiss do not. Yet if the Elbonians' cause is just, why can't they authorize the Swiss to act for them?

2. When we are incapable of making decisions for ourselves, say by reason of immaturity or intellectual disability, the decision-making authority transfers to others, even in matters of life and death. Those others then have something very much like the kind of authority over our bodies that we have over ourselves.

Michael Gonzalez said...

It is indeed a tricky subject. In case (1), it seems that people do have the right to hire others to fight for them, and the only remaining question is whether a group has the right to fight because they were hired to do so (perhaps only if it is to defend the helpless or some other such justification?)...

For case (2) it does appear that there is a class of people incapable of caring for themselves, and then there is not only permission but indeed OBLIGATION for others to care for them and make important decisions for them.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Though in the case of (2), notice that one sometimes validly designate ahead of time who the person making the decisions will be, and even hire them for that purposes.

Michael Gonzalez said...

True. But doesn't it still require not only the right to make that call, but also the concomitant right to take over the decisions of someone incapable of doing so at that time? Right-to-give needs to meet up with right-to-receive.

Jo F said...

I don't see why one expression of an assumed right to ultimate autonomy cannot stand for itself as an exception of other expressions of ultimate autonomy (such as selling oneself into slavery). While I agree that allowing suicide involves permitting the right to ultimate autonomy in one case, I don't see why this should entail that every expression of ultimate autonomy would be permitted--especially since one would not derive the permission for suicide from an assumed right to ultimate autonomy but rather they would appeal to our sense of compassion towards an individual and their being best equipped to evaluate their own circumstances and determine whether or not they can endure living any longer. (I am only considering cases of assisted suicide).

Thanks for the interesting post! I hope my comments make some sense.