Ethics of Emergencies

One of Ayn Rand's essay's is particular interesting. It's in the Virtue of Selfishness, and it's called the Ethics of Emergencies. The title describes how some people base their ethical principles on emergency situations. The classic example is the "lifeboat" scenario. There's a few variants, but essentially the story is that you're stuck on a lifeboat with some other people, and there's not enough water for everyone to survive the trip to shore. In order to live, you have to sacrifice someone else.

The lesson of the scenario is that you have to choose between your life and the life of another person. There is a fundamental disharmony of interests, and it's kill or be killed. Which means in life, you're either a murderer, you are a victim, or you can sacrifice your life for other people.

What happens next is that this scenario is taken to be some kind of proof of moral principles. You're expected to learn the lesson of the conflict, and decide on a method of conduct that conforms to it. Will you choose to be a murderer? Or will you voluntarily sacrifice yourself for the greater good? These are your options.

The problem is that these ethics-derived-from-emergencies are anti-contextual. It's just not true that there is a disharmony of interests. We don't have to choose between killing and dying in day to day life. We don't have to choose between sacrificing ourselves to others or others to ourselves. So abstracting general principles from these situations is a really bad idea. The principles are based on such a radically alien context that they're not relevant at all.

By trying to use these situations as a representation of real life, it actually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you accept that life is full of conflicts of interest, you'll act accordingly and create conflicts where there are none. You'll seek to sacrifice yourself where no sacrifice is necessary, or you'll trample on the interests of others thinking it's either you or them.

Rand described an emergency as a kind of situation where human life is not possible. That isn't to say you won't survive an emergency. It means that if life were like that normally, it would be impossible. You may survive the lifeboat scenario, but only because you remove yourself from the emergency situation at some point. When you reach the shore and find food, water, and hospitalization, the emergency is over. But during the emergency, lives are in danger.

Rand's article acts as a warning against taking emergency situations too seriously. They're all dangerous and necessarily short-lived. The goal isn't to figure out how best to survive emergencies, but to figure out how to avoid them, or if you get into them, end them quickly. Your behavior in emergency situations is going to be different from your day to day events, precisely because the context is so different.

For instance, you might not give money to someone who's poor and unemployed because it's not an emergency situation. They have the choice to change their situation, and the results are a predictable outcome of their actions. You can't really take responsibility for someone else's life. But in the case of an emergency situation, like the recent tsunami disaster, the context is very different. The disaster affected everyone, and wasn't a foreseeable event to avoid. It's natural that people would evaluate the two kinds of situations in entirely different ways. Sending help to the tsunami victims is completely different from sacrificing for someone who won't bother living his own life.

You'll notice that modern ethical theories often rely on emergency situations. We've had discussions on SOLO where altruists try to defend their theories by saying "What if there's a baby drowning in a lake, and you're late for a business meeting!". This is central to the altruistic view. They come from the perspective that life is a constant emergency, and only an ethics of emergencies can see us through. For them, the world is a hostile place where human life is always teetering on the edge, and only by sacrificing for one another can we possibly make it!

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