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Hello, I consider myself an Objectivist but I can't seem to make an answer for a question that I've asked myself recently.

If I were to give the following hypothetical scenario, what would an Objectivist recommend.

A new very contagious lethal disease was discovered in a city with millions of people. The CDC predicts that it can spread to the whole country and become pandemic within a matter of days. Various groups within government recommends the eradication (nuking, or whatever) of the city and its nearby vicinity. Millions of people, including the uninfected, would die.


asked Oct 21 '11 at 05:26

RyanAmparo's gravatar image


edited Oct 21 '11 at 10:34

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

The hypothetical is an ethics-of-emergencies-type question (i.e. a life-boat question), which a morality-for-living-on-Earth is not designed to answer (see The Ethics of Emergencies in The Virtue of Selfishness). If, however, you are not actually interested in an emergency-type situation and instead merely meant to ask about what the proper role of the government is in preventing the spread of communicable diseases in realistic every-day-life situations, then objectivist morality can provide some guidance to you.

First, you might be interested in this answer by Leonard Peikoff about the propriety of the government using force against diseased individuals to quarantine them.

In short, a disease carrying person is physically threatening persons around them, and therefore it is proper for the government to use force against the infected person to protect the rights of the uninfected persons. Thus we might, for example, quarantine infected persons.

The principle of Justice would require that the force used by the government against the infected person not exceed what is necessary to protect individuals' rights--that the force be proportional to the threat of the disease. For example, while it might be proper to quarantine you in a certain situation, it would very likely not be proper to kill you. Furthermore, many diseases are so commonplace and benign no government intervention is necessary--the harm done is too negligible (e.g. the common cold).

Violating the rights of some uninfected persons in an attempt to protect the rights of other uninfected persons would not be necessary in the realistic every-day-life situations, and would not be proper (so no nukes--sorry). This is the same as with the protection of other rights--we would not allow a police officer to deliberately shoot an innocent person simply because he could stop a criminal from violating someone's rights with the same bullet. (However, we do accept the fact that there is some small risk of harm to innocents inherent in police action to protect rights, but that is a far cry from sanctioning deliberate harm to innocents. Similarly, the small risk to innocents inevitable when combating disease spreading (e.g. a small probability of a false-positive on a test leading to unwarranted quarantine) is different than deliberately sacrificing some disease free persons in order to save others.)

If it ever were necessary (not just easier, but necessary) to violate the rights of some disease free individuals in order to protect the rights of others, then we would have entered the ethics-of-emergencies realm, and the right thing to do would not be clear. My belief then is that you just have to go by the numbers--save as many as possible--but this does not come from objectivist morality, because morality does not apply in life-boat situations.

answered Oct 24 '11 at 18:51

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

The first question to ask about a scenario such as the questioner describes is: what is it? I.e., is it reality, or is it fiction? And if it is fiction, i.e., art, is it good art or bad art?

In this particular case, the scenario pertains more to fiction than to reality. In real life, pathogens are not that virulent. They may, indeed, be rapidly fatal after infection, but those kinds of pathogens are not likely to be as highly contagious as the scenario describes. Any pathogen that spreads rapidly and is quickly fatal will quickly wipe itself out by killing off its hosts. To be a more serious threat, the pathogen needs to have a longer "gestation period" during which an infected individual is infectious to others while not yet afflicted with crippling symptoms himself. That, in turn, gives everyone more time to deal with it, and raises the question of what triggers the transition from asymptomatic infection to full-blown symptoms leading to death.

As art, the scenario described is only a setting, a starting point. The quality of the art that flows from it will depend on the further choices that the artist makes about who the characters will be and what they will do. Will they be heroes who live in the threatened city and rebel against the government's claims that the city needs to be wiped out? Will they overthrow the government? Will they study the pathogen and perhaps discover additional properties of it which they can exploit to reduce the threat that it poses to humans? Will it turn out that some people have a natural immunity to it, so that by natural selection over time, those who are less affected gradually become a larger percentage of the population?

Or will the artist decide that the story should end with the city being exterminated after all? In that case, if the artist is consistent, he will probably want the story to continue with a new outbreak of the pathogen in another city, and that city, too, will have to be exterminated. Gradually, over time, all of man's puny efforts to rescue part of the population turn out to be doomed to failure because the pathogen is simply too powerful. Man's fickle rational faculty is no match for it. Or will the artist have the rebels win, the city survive long enough to be wiped out anyway by the pathogen, and the pathogen will then spread relentlessly until it wipes out the whole human species entirely (to the cheers of "greens" everywhere), with the pathogen as "hero"?

Whether or not Objectivist ideas would have any applicability within an artificual universe will depend on how the artist decides to have the story unfold. In real life, man has the capacity to be efficacious. What degree of efficacy, if any, would be possible in a fictional universe conceived by an artist? That depends on the artist's philosophical premises and the nature of the universe he depicts.

answered Oct 22 '11 at 21:45

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

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Asked: Oct 21 '11 at 05:26

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Last updated: Oct 24 '11 at 18:51