We’ve done so well, so we musn’t stop now: An ethical & political homily on Peter Abelard

In the high medieval ages, the philosopher Peter Abelard- who in many ways is considered quite modern in his outlook- discusses the case of a slave being attacked by his owner. Knowing that he will die otherwise, the slave strikes out with a sword, killing his master.

There is no equivocation in Abelard that the slave’s master was acting wrongly.  Nor is there any question that the slave is driven by their circumstances to do what they do. Nonetheless Abelard maintains that the slave has committed an incredibly grave sin- a sin worthy of damnation in the next life, and capital punishment in this life- in choosing to kill his master, even though the only other alternative was death. Temperance required him to accept death.

It’s tempting to discuss this case from the point of view of Singer’s concept of an expanding circle of moral concern- yet it does not quite fit here. There is no doubt in Peter Abelard’s mind that the servant is fully possessed of human dignity, and moral bearing, just as much as his master. It’s just that, because he’s a slave, morality requires him to die, rather than to kill his master.

You, dear reader, almost certainly do not share Abelard’s view. In fact I imagine most of you would go further and say that even if the slave’s master did not threaten his life, the slave would have a right to kill him if it were necessary for his escape.

Whatever our failings, and they are many, and whatever the harsh realities of our world, this is enormous moral progress. Don’t ever listen to anyone who tells you society can’t fundamentally change, it has fundamentally changed over and over again, and it will continue to do so. Moral and political progress are real.:

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
-Urusula K. Le Guin

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