Friday, 24 February 2006

Cue Card Libertarianism - Emergencies

University ethics classes and late-night bull sessions are replete with discussions of hypothetical and unikely moral dilemmas. Whose responsibility is an abandoned baby in the woods? Should I dive into a turbulent river to save a dying woman? What should I do if I my boat sinks and I wash up on a desert island only to stumble across a locked but well-stocked hut -- can I break in and use the food and shelter? What if there are two if us in a lifeboat but only food for one? What if (for a dose of humour) we're a brain in a vat driving a runaway trolley down a rail line with with only two forks with five people standing on one and nine on the other but... Etc. Etc. Ad nauseum.

You get the picture. Bogus dilemmas and fantastic situations discussed as if such things are the whole of ethics. They're not. One is invited to draw the conclusion from these discussions that life is as contingent as these situations describe; that general principles are useless for living; that life is simply a succession of emergencies and lifeboat situations with which we're presented and from which we need to somehow extricate ourselves. It isn't. If it were -- if life was just a series of emergencies -- then for a start we wouldn't have the concept of 'emergency' to describe such out-of-the-ordinary situations; and nor would we be able to function or to plan ahead.

Generally, the number-one task that faces us in emergencies is to get the hell out of them with ourselves and our loved ones intact -- there's not much in that on which to found a system of ethics. As Ayn Rand says in her article 'The Ethics of Emergencies,' "The fact is that men do not live in lifeboats-and that a lifeboat is not the place on which to base one's metaphysics."

If normal daily life was truly as contingent as the moral dilemmas suggest, then we'd be justified in declaring like Job that the universe is against us and devising moral principles or any system of ethics for such a universe would be pointless, since any crisis could emerge at any moment to knock our principles into a cocked hat.

If we did that we'd be foolish. Moral dilemmas are not the basis on which to build and establish any system of ethics -- they may help us to understand the context within our ethics work successfully, or to perhaps to discover the hierarchical structure of our ethical system, but they are not the place from which to begin devising such a system. A proper ethics looks at goals or values, and the long-range actions and virtues needed to achieve them. Lifeboat situations and the short-term actions needed to deal with them form only a very small subset of such a science.

This is part of a continuing series explaining the concepts and terms used by libertarians, originally published in The Free Radical in 1993. The 'Introduction' to the series is here. The series as it develops can be found here.

TAGS: Cue Card Libertarianism, Libertarianism, Ethics, Objectivism, Philosophy


  1. We've a Universe of challange to cope with by the instrument of our philosophy. A Universe, I say. It is no mere summer holiday in peace time or well-supplied wintering season for which we must prepare ourselves but a Universe!

    Predicate your philosophy on a Universe of peace and calm without factoring in hell and chaos? These are the times that test and prove philosophy, they tell you your wisdom is fit for a Universe and not some calm spot therein!

    My philosophy is made to last, not to be surrendered in times of accident and emergency. I'm ready for peace AND I'm ready for war. My principles last longer than the next emergency and all the emergencies yet to come. It is only because it is a Universe of Reason that makes such a philosophy possible, desirable, necesssary.

    And you fair-weather philosophers who confine your scope to the best of times would call my philosophy contingent!? Fuck off with that!

  2. Ethical though experiments aren't intended to show that "life is as contingent as these situations describe;" etc etc -- they're exactly what they say they are: experiments testing out an ethical theory, in the same way that scientists conduct experiments to test scientific theories.

    Consider Newtonian mechanics, which are perfectly suitable for describing the everyday world. However, when you go to the extreme cases (objects that are either extremely small or extremely big) you find that the theory isn't fully adequate. Technically this means that the theory is wrong, but in practice Newtonian mechanics are used all the time, except in those extreme cases.

    Applying this to ethics, it's very easy to come up with a nice general principle that works fine in everyday life (e.g. "don't kill people"), but when you examine the extreme cases it becomes less clear (e.g. what if they're trying to kill me? What if they're trying to kill someone else? What if I think they're going to try to kill me?) The reason why non-everyday cases get a lot of time in ethics is because they're the interesting ones to study, not because anyone thinks that they're representative of real life.


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