Freedom is slavery

These comparisons are sometimes made as arguments in favor of the former in each pair being forcibly prevented:

  • Selling equity in yourself is like slavery
  • Allowing organ selling is like stealing organs
  • Choosing genetic characteristics of your children is like eugenics
  • Languages dying out is like genocide
  • Selling babies is like slavery, or is like stealing babies and selling them
  • Sweatshops are like slavery
  • Euthenasia is like murder
  • Prostitution is like rape
  • Globalization is like colonialism
  • Any more to add?

The general pattern:

Freely chosen X is like X coerced. And as X coerced is bad, we should prevent X (coercively if need be).

Why is this error prevalent? I suspect it stems from assuming value to be in goods or activities, rather than in the minds of their beholders. Consent is important because it separates those who value something enough to do it and those who don’t. Without the idea that people value things different amounts, consent seems just another nice thing to have, but not functional. If most people wouldn’t make a choice unless forced, then that choice is bad, then others making it should be stopped.

Bought kidneys look like stolen kidneys; can you spot the difference?

Bought kidneys look like stolen kidneys; can you spot the difference?

I wonder if this is related to the misunderstanding that trade must be exploitative, because employers gain and the gain must come from somewhere. This also appears to stem from overlooking the possibility that people place different values on the same things, so extra value can be created by exchange.

This is related.

19 responses to “Freedom is slavery

  1. I think that the ‘error’ stems from two possible assumptions 1) that nobody could willingly choose to do X, therefore there must be a form of coercion occurring somewhere even if we can’t detect it or 2) there is no coercion, but the choice is being made in the context of such a paucity of options that it is still morally offensive.

    Whether you can believe the first viewpoint depends on your beliefs about freedom and agency. A Marxist might believe that individuals are conditioned by situation and ideology (‘false consciousness’) to make choices that are against their own interests, and that might justify our preventing those choices. This sounds easy to disagree with, but there are hypotheticals which can make this view seem more reasonable. Imagine a person raised by a cult to believe that by committing suicide on their 21st birthday they will be transported to an eternal paradise. Would we not be justified in intervening to liberate this person from their indoctrination? And if we would be justified in that case, can we be sure that our doctrine is any better? Many people believe in a set of causal relationships (work hard -> earn money -> live happily) which don’t always turn out perfectly. If you believe in pervasive cognitive biases in humans, you might believe that we’re often ‘coerced’ into acting against our interests by others with a better understanding of psychology than ourselves.

    The second argument does not rely on the notion of unfreedom or false consciousness. Despite initially appearing to be more reasonable, it’s actually a lot harder to sustain. Working in a sweatshop is certainly worse than working as a median employee in the US, Europe or Japan. But it is the best available option to the person doing it. Unless we are making concrete proposals to offer better alternatives, it’s morally wrong for us to stop that person doing what they think is best for themselves. And if we are going to offer better alternatives, then we have no need to coercively prevent the current behaviour!

    Nevertheless, an important consideration is the fact that there are a finite number of available options in any situation. The situation of globalisation creates options, but it denies others. We might imagine that if Western companies were denied access to African or Asian markets, African and Asian commerce would develop in a different manner that better serves the needs of the population there. The argument is not that people should choose differently (or be forced to) but that they should be given an option that is presently denied to them (the denial might not be an active political choice, but might be a consequence of the options presently being selected). The argument becomes somewhat circular at this point, as changing options (e.g. abandoning capitalism) might entail coercing some people, and I’m not sure that we can have a reasonable discussion about coercion without agreeing what would constitute coercion, and being forced to accept a definition of coercion might itself be seen as coercive. This is why I try to avoid these debates, albeit unsuccessfully.

    • I agree that consent isn’t a magical boundary between good and evil. It’s a handy heuristic for separating people who think they will benefit from doing something from those who don’t. There are certainly cases where one should ignore it. However most of the cases I list do not suggest that people are less capable of making decisions than usual. There are good reasons sane people would want to do any of them.

      If Western companies were denied access to African markets, commerce there might develop in a manner that serves the population worse too. Do you have reason to think it would go one way or the other?

  2. This seems to be pretty seriously question-begging, no? I mean, besides the fact that you’ve simply assumed the truth of some version of consent-theory (viz., that an action is moral if and only if it is doesn’t violate anyone’s autonomy). A utilitarian or a virtue ethicist will object that this isn’t the right way to think about morality at all. So it might well be that, given the morally relevant features, euthanasia really is like murder.

    But even just going on a purely consent-based account, some of your claims here still seem pretty radical. Locke, for instance, is all about individual freedom, but he thinks that some freedoms really are inalienable. So, for Locke, you simply can’t sell yourself into slavery. That’s not a crazy view. But that means that we have to think seriously about what the relevant features of slavery are, and we have to take seriously the notion that some other things might be relevantly similar to slavery.

    Or you might take the Kantian route, holding that you can’t treat yourself as a mere means any more than you can treat others as a mere means. That’s going to end up putting limits on what you can morally choose to do — even if the action does involve only you. (Prostitution is problematic on Kantian grounds, for instance.)

    Assuming the truth of a really radical reading of the Harm Principle and then arguing that everyone who doesn’t agree is just confused about what “value” means is kind of poor moral philosophy.

    • I don’t assume ‘consent theory’. I explained why consent is useful in anything vaguely utilitarian. I am not claiming anything about moral philosophy. I am drawing attention to a type of argument, and claiming it is flawed in that it uses something which is widely considered bad because it is forced upon people who don’t want it as a reason for preventing others choosing it. I’m not claiming here that any of these things should be allowed.

      • I think that I might have failed to be as clear as I’d hoped. My point is that this type of argument is bad if and only if we think that consent is the morally operative factor. If there’s some other wrong-making factor at work in the first half of each pair, then it might well be that that same wrong-making factor is at work in the second half of the pair in precisely the same way that it’s at work in the first half of the pair. Ergo, good analogy.

        Your claim that the argument is a bad one rests upon an assumption that choosing something is morally relevant. That, in turn, implies a commitment to some sort of consent theory.

        So, again, my point was not about whether or not you think these things should be allowed. It’s that the very claim that the two parts of each pair are disanalogous rests upon your assumption that the fact that one is chosen and the other isn’t is a morally relevant fact. My point is that it’s not at all obvious that that’s true. And if the consent part isn’t morally relevant, then your grounds for claiming the disanalogy evaporates.

        I’m really puzzled by your belief that you’re not claiming anything about moral philosophy. You’re making an argument that a certain normative claim is in error. That’s pretty fundamentally a claim about moral philosophy.

        • That makes sense now. I assume that coercion is a major relevant factor in condemning the right hand activities a) because other usual consenting variants are normally considered fine and b) because a major complaint about them is often directly the coercive part. e.g. The consenting version of slavery is a job, which most consider fine. When discussing the disgustingness of slavery terms like ‘against their will’ come up a lot. It may be that the people making these arguments despise slavery for other reasons, and would condemn labor too, but they are making these arguments to others in the hope of drawing the others’ disgust of slavery across. For most people the analogy shouldn’t hold.

          Are all normative claims moral philosophy? I would class something as a contribution to that field if it were more general and adding to serious theory, rather than commenting on lay misuse I guess.

  3. I suspect that in a lot of cases people are opposed to these things simply out of squeamishness, or disgust at a power imbalance, so they look to the nearest thing they can liken it to that seems bad and bolsters their disgust.

  4. First off, let’s note that in many cases women really are coerced into prostitution, so this may no be the best example for the posts point.

    Second, let me link to Eric Crampton’s excellent piece on Sweatshops.

  5. Ernie Bornheimer

    I’ve just recently started reading this blog, and my initial pleasure has now turned to disappointment.

    To paraphrase Chomsky:

    Imagine your friend is walking down the road, and is approached by a bandit who demands “Your money or your life! And you can make one phone call.” Your friend calls you for advice. Of course you advise your friend to part with her money, and you meet later and talk about the incident.

    It’s clear your friend was offered a “choice,” of a sort, and it’s clear what she should have chosen. Do you call that “freely chosen”? Of course not, because of the power differential inherent in the situation. And the same thing applies to most of the situations you list. Of course, the penalties are not always so severe, or so clear-cut, but they are there.

    So (for example), I would agree with you that prostitutes should be allowed to ply their trade unhindered. But if you stop there, then your analysis is as flawed as telling your friend to give up her money and ignoring the situation that prompted her to do so. And that generalizes to most of the other examples you provide.

    The social conditions that influence people to make these sorts of horrible decisions were created by humans and can be changed by human effort. They are not laws of nature.

    There is nothing wrong with telling your friend to give up her money, as there’s nothing wrong with advocating for decriminalizing prostitution. But to ignore the context in either case is misleading and, in my opinion, shameful.

    Or have I missed something?

    • I think you misunderstand me. I’m not making an entire argument for or against any of these things. I imagine we agree on the undesirability of many of the surrounding situations. I’m criticizing a type of argument often used.

      But perhaps you are saying that there is not a clear cut difference between choice and no choice? I agree that a specific choice is somewhere on a spectrum from indifference to one option clearly being better. But when we speak of preventing slavery we mean stopping people from taking away all other choices. When we speak of preventing sweatshop labor we mean stopping people giving an extra choice.

  6. I have more to add:

    Donating money or organs is like having them stolen.
    Volunteering is like slavery.
    Making love is like prostitution.
    Vasectomies are like eugenics.

  7. Pingback: Interesting links « ersatz copy

  8. I think CEOs and the uber wealthy get a lot of these.
    If you don’t give to the poor you cause starvation.
    If you don’t pay your workers enough you are keeping them in poverty.
    Outsourcing is like stealing 40k from thousands of hard-working Americans.

    People probably allow this kind of shaky logic because it originates as a metaphor. They see one similarity between free X and coerced X and that establishes a relationship. Then they see more realtionships between the two and soon they can’t distinguish between the two. That’s why I think people should try to think of more problems in algebraic terms. X(free choice)does not equal X(coercion) but X(free choice)minus X(coercion) equals people choosing to abstain. There is my proof for why Freedom kicks butt. It may seem silly but it helps me think, especially when a metaphor I am using gets me in trouble.

  9. The arguments that you’re criticizing are often not secular. Religious arguments for prohibition often assume a sort of divine third-party effect: “You’re body is a temple” assumes that someone, i.e. God or a higher power, values your body more than you do.

    I like your list, and I agree that people should be challenged when they fallaciously use examples of coerced activities as examples against consensual exchange. However, people in the free-trade debate tend to neglect the importance of the rule of law in guaranteeing that everyone involved in a contract gains from it. Unions are looked down upon by many free-traders, but the right to form one is a vital component of economic liberty.

  10. I am a bit with Ernie. I love the research posts, but this makes it seem like you are spending too much time thinking about bad arguments made by campus protesters.

    It’s also a bit distressing the way you slip in the term ‘error.’ Actually, it turns out that most of the items on the left side are indeed *like* the items on the right, in many respects. Of course, they are different in other respects. But as previous commenters have noted, sometimes the similarities are very important, especially when people don’t have many options to exercise.

    Also, a minor quibble: isn’t euthanasia like murder (mercifully killing another person), rather than suicide? Someone who kills themselves to avoid painful last minutes of life is simply committing suicide. I wouldn’t call that euthanasia. Can we ‘mercy kill’ ourselves?

    • How much is too much time? Most arguments are bad arguments made by normal people. I’m interested in what makes people makes such arguments and disagree so much. If you realise that this post is armchair psychology, not philosophy it might make more sense.

      Even when a person doesn’t have many options, the coercive act is analogous to not offering them more options, rather than to allowing the option they have, as I explained in the link at the end of the post.

      Euthenasia has in common with murder the person who does the deed, and in common with suicide that the person dying wants to. You are probably true that there are many who find the first commonality the important one.

  11. It depends upon what freedom means, which is a philosophically fuzzy issue. People working in sweatshops usually aren’t doing it by choice, they’re usually doing it because the alternative is that they and/or their family will starve. If your range of choices consists only of a couple of options, one of which is to starve, then this doesn’t leave much scope for a free decision.

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