Something I Wish I’d Asked

It is now nearly three years since I retired from teaching after a half-century or so in the trade.  People sometimes ask me if I miss it.  Yes, in a way.  Teaching college students is a great privilege.  I mean, where else can you find a captive audience that listens to you when you drone on for an hour or more?  Your spouse won’t do that, or your children, or your best friends.  Maybe your priest-confessor will do so, but only if you have a long and very interesting list of sins.

And besides, they pay you for your droning.

But I must admit that there is much to be said for retirement – especially if you like to stay up late at night and sleep late in the morning, and like to have plenty of time for reading and writing, and like to take (pre-COVID) trips with your wife in Europe and America.

Every so often, however, I wish to be back in a classroom for a day or two, especially when I happen to think of a question I should have asked my students but never got around to.

I thought of one of those questions the other day, a question I wish I had posed to my moral philosophy class.  It’s not a practical or realistic question, but it opens up theoretical vistas.

It is this: “Does one have a right to sell oneself into slavery?”

Let’s suppose you’re a thirty-year-old man, recently divorced, and your ex-wife has sole custody of your two children, and you have little in the way of visiting rights. Let’s say you’re also a faithful Catholic, and so you won’t be marrying again as long as your ex-wife remains alive.  You’re very concerned that your children have a supply of money sufficient to allow them to grow up in a good neighborhood, attend good schools, and get them through a good college.  But you have nothing better than a low-paying job.

And let’s further imagine that one day, while you’re at a bar drowning your sorrows in many pints of beer (plus a few bowls of peanuts), you happen to run into an eccentric (very eccentric) billionaire.  You tell him the sad story of your life.  He is touched.  He says he’ll give a large amount of money to your ex-wife and kids if you will be so good as to sell yourself to him as a lifetime slave.  As his slave you will do anything he commands, no matter how difficult or how unappetizing – except that he will not command you to do anything that goes against your conscience.

You commence negotiations.  “How much will you give them?” you ask.

“Ten million dollars.”

“No, fifteen million.”

“Done.”  You shake hands on it.  And the next day you sign a written contract.

My question is: Do you have a right to do this?  Of course you don’t have a legal right to do it, and no American court will enforce such a contract.  But do you have a moral right?


According to a theory that may be called “moral liberalism” you do have such a right.  This is the strongly pro-liberty theory according to which we have a moral right to do anything we like – provided it does no harm to others.  It is the theory that has been used for the past half-century or so to justify such moral innovations as the rightness of abortion, of homosexuality, of same-sex marriage, of transgenderism, of doing recreational drugs, and of voluntary euthanasia.  It is the theory that “liberal” or “progressive” people have in mind when they justify moral innovations by asking (rhetorically), “How does this hurt you?  Even if it hurts the person or persons doing it (which it only rarely does), how does it hurt anybody else?”

At the beginning of each semester, I used to discover that almost all of my students (including the Catholic ones) believed in the theory of moral liberalism.  I would spend much of the remainder of the semester trying to talk them out of the theory.  I’m not sure I was very successful.

In any case, if you believe you are morally free to do anything you like provided you don’t “harm others,” I don’t see why you shouldn’t feel free to sell yourself into slavery.

But this is absurd.  We all know – don’t we? – that nobody has a right to sell himself into slavery, even for a very high price, and even if the payment goes to a very good cause.  There must be something wrong with a theory (moral liberalism) that would justify such a sale.

My hypothetical was about slavery, but it could have been about cannibalism.  Do I have a moral right to sell or give my body (my still-alive body) to a cannibal for his dining pleasure?  A consistent moral liberal would have to answer, Yes.  Another absurdity.  Further evidence that the theory of moral liberalism is a bad theory.

Or my hypothetical could have been about gladiator fights to the death.  Or about a novel religion that practices human sacrifice (assuming that the sacrificial victim is an adult volunteer who is of sound mind).

Moral liberalism is a foolish and dangerous theory.  Yet it is probably the prevailing moral theory in America today, and it is certainly the prevailing theory among young persons.

Do I fear that we’ll soon see an outbreak of slavery, cannibalism, gladiator fights, or human sacrifice?  No, I don’t.  But not so long ago I didn’t fear that we’d have an outbreak of abortion, same-sex marriage, or transgenderism.  I thought such things were so absurd that only a few very bad or very foolish people would endorse them.  How wrong I was.  Mainstream America now endorses them.  And so does our new president.

Today you and I are, thanks to moral liberalism, thought to be very bad or very foolish if we don’t endorse such absurdities.


*Image: The Palermo Triumph of Death by an unknown artist, c. 1446 [Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Sicily]

David Carlin

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.