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Bryan Caplan relates the following thought experiment
Suppose there are ten people on a desert island. One, named Able Abel, is extremely able. With a hard day’s work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island. Eight islanders are marginally able. With a hard day’s work, each can produce enough to feed one person. The last person, Hapless Harry, is extremely unable. Harry can’t produce any food at all.
1. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel’s surplus to support Harry?
2. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to support Harry?
3. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel’s surplus to raise everyone‘s standard of living above subsistence?
4. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to raise everyone‘s standard of living above subsistence?
How would most people answer these questions? It’s hard to say. It’s easy to feel sorry for the bottom nine. But #1 and #3 arguably turn Abel into a slave. And #2 and #4 clearly turn Abel into a slave. I suspect that plenty of non-libertarians would share these libertarian moral intuitions. At minimum, many would be conflicted.
One of the reasons I brought up slavery in my earlier posts on secular morality is that slavery presents a particularly tricky moral problem.
Modern folks have extremely strong moral intuitions against slavery. Yet, an absolute injunction against slavery in the most abstract sense runs head long against huge numbers of other intuitions that folks have about society.
Usually this problem is addressed by some degree of contortionism; suggesting that chattel slavery of the type practiced in antebellum South stands apart from say taxation or compulsory education or the requirement that people wear shirts and shoes in the grocery store.
Yet, the justification for this distinction typically rest on what sound like consequentialist grounds. For example, “Come on, you can’t really tell me that forcing someone to put on shirt before entering a store is the same thing as forcing them to work the cotton fields or be whipped.”
But note that now the implication is that chattel slavery is not bad because it is slavery. It is bad because something about it – presumably the human suffering involved – is fundamentally different than having to put on shirt.
What makes this issue even thornier is the fact that there was a time when slavery was commonplace. So, what makes us think that our dogmatic rejection of slavery is somehow more sound than the its acceptance in years past?
Now, you might say that you don’t really care. This is your moral intuition and you are sticking to it. However, are you bothered at all by the possibility that you could be in the position of the slave owner, holding on to this dogmatic belief all the while committing horrible wrongs?
What if taxation, for example, really is horrible but you just don’t see it?
So these are the concerns raised by a philosophy of “be excellent to one another” or “as long as I am a pluralist why do I have to be bothered to justify my beliefs.”
NOTE: Having to wear shirts in the grocery store is the law in many places not simply a stipulation of the owner of the store. It is a result of the coercive force of the state.
NOTE on NOTE: Apparently that it is the law is a myth. So, I would have to redo this example with another compulsive triviality.