Is Paying Taxes As Morally Weighty as Murder?

A while ago I wrote about a person who chose to join the military without giving any real thought to the morality of taking life. I said that they were a bad person. We all pay taxes. Taxes fund the military. Most of us don’t seriously consider whether we should be paying tax. Are we just as bad as the amoral reservist?
I’d say we are bad but not quite as bad for a few reasons:

  1. Taxes are coercive. Voluntary military service is not.
  2. Paying taxes probably contributes less to killing than military service
  3. Paying taxes is more causally distant than working in the military
  4. Taxes have other net-positive effects

The coercion argument is simple. The choice to pay tax is not a free one. Not paying taxes means either:

  • Spending your life in prison
  • Having no taxable income
  • Lying

The first two are serious costs, serious enough to qualify as coercive, and the third is unlikely to work in the long run. If a choice is not free, you are less accountable for it in proportion to how unfree you are. (Or so run most peoples intuitions). Hence the free choice to join the reserves is more morally culpable than the coerced choice to pay tax.

The second reason is an empirical question and so a lot more murky. Assuming a median income, does paying tax contribute more to wartime killing the military carries out than joining directly? Maybe yes. Maybe no.

  • The marginal value of your labour is greater than the value of your tax donation
    • But not if you are only marginally better than the person who would have gotten your place
      • But the (UK) military has a manpower shortage

Also, this kind of pure consequentialism isn’t something I or most people accept. Being a death camp guard during WW2 but using your salary to donate to effective charities which save more lives than you take probably wouldn’t work as a defence in court and I’m not sure it’s a defensible moral position either. The outcome isn’t all that matters.

As for the third reason, causal distance, it’s dumb but true. Right or wrong, our intuitions say that we are less morally accountable for acts which we are moral causally distant from. Not sure if that’s a good practical moral norm to have, although life seems pretty unworkable without it. Not sure it’s actually a pure moral value either. Maybe it’s just something we use to make consequentialism tractable given our limited real world computing power. Still.

Taxes being good for other reasons also isn’t an easy win. Yes taxes are good for other reasons. So is war if it stops dictators. So is joining even the most unjust, genocidal wars if you can make them slightly less bad by replacing a worse person. Again it’s just not clear how far we should be consequentialist vs deontological here. The death camp guard murder offsetting objection still applies.

In conclusion, ethics is hard and anyone who says otherwise is lying or stupid or probably both. More seriously, I think paying taxes is a moral decision and one that most of us should put a lot more weight on than we currently do. The fact that something is normal is not an excuse. Still, carrying a gun and killing seems much more morally weighty. I’m not sure why but I think it’s mostly because of the casual distance.

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