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Here's a situation:

You are starving to death in the woods, and you are lost, with no cell phone, yet you have plenty of cash in your pocket.

You encounter a locked cabin, well-maintained, yet nobody is home. You expect the cabin might contain food, a map, and even perhaps a telephone.

Is it moral for you to break into the cabin, with the full intention of paying for anything you take or damage?

Clearly, this would be violating someone's right to his property, but does your full commitment to make full restitution make it moral?

asked Jan 07 '12 at 10:44

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

edited Jan 07 '12 at 10:45

I don't think you are violating someone's right to his property in the situation you describe, at least not intentionally.

Clearly permission to use the property of another need not always be explicit. What if the cabin were owned by your best friend, but your best friend had never explicitly said that you were allowed to break in and feed yourself if you should find yourself starving in the woods?

The assumption being made is that the cabin owner would want you to do this. In the rare case that assumption turns out to be incorrect, there was an accidental rights violation.

(Jan 08 '12 at 07:33) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Is it a rights violation to break through a door to rescue a cat from a burning building, with every intention of returning the cat to his/her owner (assume the fire had not yet reached the area of the cat, so there was no significant risk to you, but that the fire likely would reach the cat by the time authorities could arrive)?

Interestingly, I once had a Libertarian argue with me that it was - that it is wrong to help out your neighbor in such a way without explicit permission. Personally I don't see how this could possibly be.

(Jan 08 '12 at 07:37) anthony anthony's gravatar image

What if the cabin owner were in his home, but he were unconscious? Then would you agree that it were not a rights violation to break in, eat his food (after all you are starving), use his map and telephone (to save both him and yourself)?

(Jan 08 '12 at 07:40) anthony anthony's gravatar image

The situation where one must violate the rights of another to survive is much less realistic. It is where you reach the cabin, and you find a note on the door saying "you may not break into the cabin and/or eat my food and/or use my phone under any circumstances, even if you are starving and will die if you do not do so".

(Jan 08 '12 at 07:44) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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I will let Ayn Rand answer this one.

Gerald Goodman: Miss Rand, then you would say that a person who was starving, and the only way he could acquire food was to take the food of a second party, then he would have no right, even though it meant his own life, to take the food.

Ayn Rand: Not in normal circumstances, but that question sometimes is asked about emergency situations. For instance, supposing you are washed ashore after a shipwreck, and there is a locked house which is not yours, but you're starving and you might die the next moment, and there is food in this house, what is your moral behavior? I would say again, this is an emergency situation, and please consult my article "The Ethics Of Emergencies" in The Virtue Of Selfishness for a fuller discussion of this subject. But to state the issue in brief, I would say that you would have the right to break in and eat the food that you need, and then when you reach the nearest policeman, admit what you have done, and undertake to repay the man when you are able to work. In other words, you may, in an emergency situation, save your life, but not as "of right." You would regard it as an emergency, and then, still recognizing the property right of the owner, you would restitute whatever you have taken, and that would be moral on both parts.

This is from an interview with Ayn Rand entitled "Morality, and Why Man Requires It". Ayn Rand, being an authority on Objectivism, knows whether this is consistent with Objectivism or not. The standard of rights is life. The principles of morality, including (property) rights, are there to help us achieve long-term human survival. Therefore, they are only applicable when long-term human survival is possible.

answered Jan 08 '12 at 06:28

Carl%20Svanberg's gravatar image

Carl Svanberg ♦

It is clear from the quote that Rand would not consider it to be immoral to take the food in an emergency. It is less clear to me that she thinks it would be the moral (as opposed to not immoral) to do so. On the one hand she does say "that would be moral on both parts," but on the other hand she says your action is "not as 'of right.'"

In answer to a similar question in her Ford Hall Forum lecture "Of Living Death" Rand first explains that morality does not apply in emergencies, and then says "whichever he chooses to do is in effect right....

(Jan 08 '12 at 13:57) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

...It can only be subjectively right, and in this sense, two men can make opposite choices." (emphasis added) This to me means that in emergencies you do what you have to do, but I think it is wrong to try to say you acted morally in so doing. The fact that you are saving your own life does not make the action moral---your life is the purpose of morality, but that is not the same thing as saying any action that preserves your life is ipso facto moral.

(Jan 08 '12 at 14:06) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Eric Maughan:

  1. Ayn Rand says, explicitly, in the quote I gave that it would be moral, not merely "not immoral".
  2. The context for the answer you are quoting, is different: here we are dealing with an emergency situation caused by the initiation of force. Morality ends where the gun begins.
  3. In the very answer you quote Rand makes the same point I made: morality is derived from (normal) life in a free society, not from emergency situations or "life" in a dictatorship. That's one reason morality doesn't apply under force.
(Jan 08 '12 at 15:48) Carl Svanberg ♦ Carl%20Svanberg's gravatar image
  1. Remember that property rights are derived from the right to life. Life (in a free society) is the standard of rights. So when you confront an emergency situation where (long-term) survival is impossible, then property rights don't apply. It doesn't make sense to say that morality demands that you commit suicide, instead of stealing a car when confronting an emergency situation (such as a flood), if that's necessary for you to get out of there in one piece.

There is more to be said, but I will stop here. It's a relatively complicated issue.

(Jan 08 '12 at 15:56) Carl Svanberg ♦ Carl%20Svanberg's gravatar image

I specifically pointed out that Rand explicitly said it "would be moral." I also pointed out other explicit words, from the same quotation and others, that indicate some ambiguity on the point (e.g. "In other words, you may, in an emergency situation, save your life, but not as 'of right.'"---if morality demands it, then why is it not of right?). Her answers were off-the-cuff, and I am simply not convinced on this point.

And of course morality does not demand one commit suicide in such circumstances---my comments do not suggest this. Morality has nothing to say, pro or con on the action.

(Jan 08 '12 at 21:36) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

As for dismissing the "Of Living Death" quote, it is true that she begins by talking about situations involving force (i.e., living in a dictatorship), but she specifically says that the same applies to life-boat situations (where no force is involved). She says:

"nobody can prescribe what is appropriate for a man to do if his own life is at stake ... no moral rule can be prescribed for those situations by anyone ... when a man is under threat of destruction, through no fault of his own, morality does not pertain to those situations and whichever he chooses to do is in effect right..."

(Jan 08 '12 at 21:42) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Furthermore, the very first thing Rand said in her answer that you quoted is "Not in Normal circumstances." Remember that she is talking about a starving man whose only hope is to steal food. She says that even a starving man has no right to steal. The exception is emergencies, which she then goes on to talk about. Note that merely being on the verge of death is not enough to constitute an emergency. Further, her condemnation of a man taking an action that would preserve his life supports my argument that not every life preserving action is ipso facto moral.

(Jan 08 '12 at 21:56) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

She says "I would say that you would have the right to break in and eat the food that you need, and then when you reach the nearest policeman, admit what you have done, and undertake to repay the man when you are able to work". Then she says "you may, in an emergency situation, save your life, but not as 'of right.'" [emphasis mine]

Can someone reconcile the contradiction? It seems to me either this is a misquote, or she misspoke.

(Jan 09 '12 at 00:06) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Eric Maughan: I don't know how you read, because it's pretty clear that the reason you should enter the house and steal is precisely because you're about to die of starvation. But yeah, we're talking about emergencies, not normal situations. In normal situations, poverty, illnesses and ignorance are not emergency situations which would allow you to steal anything. These problems you can always deal with in normal life, conducive to long-term human survival, without ever having to violate other's rights or ever thinking about it. I will add more later.

(Jan 09 '12 at 00:37) Carl Svanberg ♦ Carl%20Svanberg's gravatar image


No need to get personal Carl. I think your points are all very well made, and I think your answer to the question is a good one. I just disagree on this one point. Clearly you and others disagree with me on this.


That is part of the point I am trying to make. I think it is just her speaking off-the-cuff, and like anyone it is possible she used her words a little less precisely in such a situation than she would when writing.

(Jan 09 '12 at 09:30) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

I wonder if the John Galt Oath should be changed to:

I swear by my Life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for the sake of mine....except in EMERGENCIES.

(Jan 09 '12 at 11:28) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image
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Ayn Rand said: "There are no conflicts of interests among rational men."

To prove her wrong, people often bring up emergency situations, where survival pits man against man in a struggle where one must sacrifice for the other to survive. Where reason really is limited, due to extenuating circumstances, and where survival is a zero-sum game.

What is morality for, however?

Morality is for guiding an individual's actions when he has time to think over his options, and perhaps discover new options.

In an emergency situation, you have, essentially, two options: to act, or to die.

An emergency situation is precisely the kind of situation where concerning yourself with morality is stupid, because the result is usually some kind of dilemma. Instead, you should fight for your life, get out of the emergency, and then figure out how to clean up the mess, materially and spiritually.

If, while fighting for your life, you hurt someone, then, it would be immoral not to provide restitution and repair. But during the emergency is not the time to consider whom you might be hurting if you have no choice. Morality concerns situations where you have a choice.

Where you have no choice, morality does not enter.

Yes, "you have no choice" is somewhat figurative, in that you can always choose to die (or live), but note that the choice to live is pre-moral. Morality arises only as a result of the choice to live.

So, the choice to violate another man's rights in an emergency is neither moral nor immoral -- it's just necessary.

answered Jan 08 '12 at 15:54

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

I really like this answer. There's only one thing I would ask: does this have any political implications, and if so, what are they? For example, should a man who breaks into somebody else's house in order to avoid starving be punished? Or should there be some kind of "emergency" defense?

(Jan 08 '12 at 18:20) FCH FCH's gravatar image

Such arguments are precisely why it is important to be clear about what is or is not an emergency. It is all too common for statists of all stripes to seek to justify their violations of rights on the ground of "necessity."

(Jan 08 '12 at 21:51) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Is this answered colored purple for anyone else? If so, what does it mean?

(Jan 10 '12 at 01:08) Rick ♦ Rick's gravatar image

Purple? What? No..it's your imagination. JK. I think it's because the answerer is also the questioner.

(Jan 10 '12 at 01:40) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

Yeah. I was wondering about the color. Kind of periwinkle.

(Jan 12 '12 at 14:40) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image
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Two relevant quotes from Ayn Rand:

Life or death is man’s only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course.

The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.

If the choice is to either break in to someone's home to get food, or to die, then obviously breaking in is the correct and moral choice. Morality guides you to life.

The promise of restitution doesn't affect the morality of the decision to break in, but actually making restitution is the moral thing to do afterwards (whether you make a promise or not is immaterial).

answered Jan 08 '12 at 01:36

Rick's gravatar image

Rick ♦

edited Jan 09 '12 at 00:08

Just a quibble: I said "commitment" to provide restitution. This implies the future action of restitution. Promise is a much weaker term, and it is essentially social. Promises are immaterial. A personal commitment (meaning the choice to provide restitution) is not.

(Jan 09 '12 at 11:36) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

Good point.

(Jan 10 '12 at 01:10) Rick ♦ Rick's gravatar image

I would like to elaborate on my previous answer. I am afraid that we've run into a situation where people get more focused on the exact wording, than on reality. So, for a change, let's look at reality. Let's consider three situations:

A volcano erupts. The lava flowing down the street. It's heading straight for your home. If you stay, you will die. You have to get the hell out of there. You don't have a car. You will not be able to outrun the lava. What do you do? You see the neighbors car. You could stay around, hoping that the owner will get there in time and that he's willing to give you a ride. The thing is you are facing an emergency situation. You can't wait. You have to act and you have to act now to survive. So what do you do? Do you avoid stealing the car, because you want to respect the owners property right, even if it means certain death for you? Is morality, according to Objectivism, a suicide pact?

There's a shipwreck. You swim for your life, until you see an island in the distance. But when you are close enough, you read a sign on the island saying: "Private property. Stay out!" Will you then say: "Ouch! Oh, well, I guess it's my time to go, since I have to respect private property". So Objectivism demands that you commit suicide out of respect for property rights? Again, are rights a suicide pact?

You "live" in a dictatorship. You can't help but to notice all the vicious crimes carried out by the government. Do you speak up as a matter of integrity, honesty and justice, even though you will now guarantee yourself a ticket straight to a concentration camp? Do you really think that it makes sense to say that morality, and rights, applies in situations such as these? Does this approach sound consistent with Objectivism? No. Morality ends where the gun begins.

The reason we need moral principles is because we need to know how to achieve long-term human survival. But this presupposes there is a long-term to consider. Thus, morality doesn't apply when long-term human survival is impossible. Rights don't apply for the same reason.

All principles are contextual, both in their logical validation and application. You don't induce moral principles by observing people melting away in lava, or drowning, or slowly dying in a dictatorship. No, moral principles are induced in the context of normal life, in a (semi-)free country, where people can pursue their own values, in a nonsacrificial manner. (In fact, you can normally expect to enter win-win relationships.) Moral principles are, in other words, induced where people can be rational, honest and just without running into trouble. For the same reason they are only valid and applicable in that context. (To say that moral principles are contextual doesn't mean that they are in any way "relative". No, they are absolute - but it's the context that makes them absolute.)

There are two types of emergency situations. There are metaphysical emergencies and (what I call) everyday emergencies. A metaphysical emergency is a situation where long-term human survival is impossible. Some examples: an earthquake, a flood, a fire, a shipwreck, a concentration camp, a war zone, a lifeboat, etc. An everyday emergency is a situation which takes place under conditions where long-term human survival is possible. Some examples: a serious injury, a serious illness, a robbery, etc. (Observe that emergencies can be created by man or caused by nature.)

Morality, for obvious reasons, doesn't apply in metaphysical emergencies. But it does apply in "everyday" emergencies. So does rights. That's why one can argue, as Rand did, that in an emergency you should break into the house and steal some food. You were right to do this. But once the emergency is over, you have to realize that while this was an emergency for you, it wasn't an emergency for the owner of the house you ransacked for food. That's why you have to be willing to restitute the owner and/or face possible legal consequences. (But most normal people would not charge you. They would sympathize with you. Especially, if you restitute them.)

When we have to act under force or, more generally, in a lifeboat-situation, why does Ayn Rand say that whatever you do, it is right "subjectively"? Because there is no way to really prove, objectively, what you should do. Morality says that you should be selfish, but what would that mean in a lifeboat-situation? Normally it's not selfish to murder the other innocent guy to save yourself. But still, you have to do it. So, is it right or is it wrong? Who can tell and on what grounds? How could one prove it? You may have to murder this guy to survive - but can you live with that decision? If you can't life with it, then I don't know how anybody can prove you made the wrong choice by, in effect, committing suicide. If you can live with it, then, again, I don't know how one could prove you made the wrong decision, since you had to do it to survive.

answered Jan 09 '12 at 09:25

Carl%20Svanberg's gravatar image

Carl Svanberg ♦

edited Jan 09 '12 at 23:52

Years ago in the Alaskan wilderness, people used to leave caches of food in small shelters in anticipation of snowstorms. Any wayfarer could enter one of these shelters, survive from from the storm with the food stored therein. The penalty was death however, if you failed to restock the food afterward and were discovered to have done so. The reason being, that by failing to restock the food, you were in essence depriving another of their life.

Given your scenario, being a situation of emergency, rather than a normal and proper state of existence, your commitment to make full restitution, providing you act on it, should be considered in the light of the emergency, rendering it absolutely moral.

answered Jan 07 '12 at 12:17

dream_weaver's gravatar image

dream_weaver ♦

edited Jan 10 '12 at 22:53

Who defines what is an emergency and what is not? If the actor is the one who determines it, then can I consider it an emergency that I was born without a college fund, demand that I be given a loan with the full commitment to pay it back later after I get a good job? My concern is the door is open to subjectivism with this answer.

(Jan 07 '12 at 15:23) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

In this case the emergency referenced was clearly defined as "starving to death in the woods, lost, with no cell phone." This forum is Objectivist Answers. If you are interested in what Objectivism constitutes as an emergency, catastrophie or calamity, please consider posting it as a separate question. Depending on the answer, I may edit mine response to link to it as a suppliment.

(Jan 07 '12 at 17:55) dream_weaver ♦ dream_weaver's gravatar image

Humbug, one may "demand" a loan as much as one wishes. The lender will only provide the loan if the lender believes the collateral is of sufficient value to justify the loan. Certainly, there is a degree of subjectivity in many discussions of ethics. That is probably at the root of differences of opinion even among persons of similar philosophy. In my own view, breaking into the cabin to save my life is an illegal and immoral action justified by the imminence of my death. Atoning that immorality through restitution will not change the immorality but will help make amends.

(Jan 08 '12 at 10:59) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image
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Reality is an absolute, existence is an absolute, a speck of dust is an absolute and so is a human life. Whether you live or die is an absolute. Whether you have a piece of bread or not, is an absolute. Whether you eat your bread or see it vanish into a looter’s stomach, is an absolute.


Just as, in epistemology, the cult of uncertainty is a revolt against reason—so, in ethics, the cult of moral grayness is a revolt against moral values. Both are a revolt against the absolutism of reality. Source

One can assume that Ayn Rand believes in the absoluteness of morality.

I've just re-read the Ethics of Emergencies in VOS. I do not draw the conclusion that emergencies somehow make morality go away. The problem with a moral code created from ethical dilemmas is that it opens the door to "appeal to emotion" fallacy. Not that morality doesn't matter even in an emergency. I can do a little bit of that by modifying the question above from breaking into an unoccupied cabin to shooting someone to gain access to medicine that is urgently needed for yourself. The situation is different but only with respect to scale, not type. Both are violation of rights. The only time you can shoot someone is if they gave you the disease in the first place but that's not what we're talking about here.

The purpose of morality is to help man live a happy life on earth. This means that man needs to avoid doing things that violate morality. If one allow oneself to fall into an emergency situation and then violates another man's rights, one cannot claim that the violation is moral or even amoral. The action is immoral. Does that mean that one stands there outside the cabin and die? Probably not. Go ahead. Break into the cabin and take the food. However, accept that one has committed an act of immorality (even if one pays for the food) and then don't make the same mistake again by allowing oneself to fall into an emergency situation. If one claim that the breaking and entering is moral because it is an emergency, then one learns nothing from the situation and is likely to commit the same error again in the future.

answered Jan 07 '12 at 18:30

Humbug's gravatar image


edited Jan 07 '12 at 22:47

"I can do a little bit of that by modifying the question above from breaking into an unoccupied cabin to shooting someone to gain access to medicine that is urgently needed for yourself. The situation is different but only with respect to scale, not type."

The former is not an emergency situation, unless your death without such medicine is imminent. It also is different because the cabin owner presumably would want you to take his food, whereas the person being shot presumably does not want to be shot.

(Jan 08 '12 at 07:57) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"accept that one has committed an act of immorality"

I can't. Permission to use someone else's property need not always be explicit.

If it did, you wouldn't even be able to access this website, to get to the terms of service, where the permission is (perhaps) made (somewhat) explicit. (Actually, I can't find a TOS - all I can find is "anybody can ask and Objectivists can answer questions about Objectivism and its application, Ayn Rand, etc.", which I suppose is explicit enough. But I had to use someone else's property without explicit permission to get to that page in the first place.)

(Jan 08 '12 at 08:11) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Yes, but you cannot simply claim that permission is implicit any time you want it to be. The default rule is that permission is denied. It is only implicit when the context clearly indicates this. For example, a restaurant is being open for business clearly gives implicit permission for people to enter the building. A hungry bum cannot claim the same implicit permission to take a meal from the restaurant without paying. Furthermore, John's question clearly stated that the cabin was locked. How much more explicit can one be about not giving permission for people to enter?

(Jan 08 '12 at 08:32) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

"Furthermore, John's question clearly stated that the cabin was locked. How much more explicit can one be about not giving permission for people to enter?"

Not giving permission to someone even if he's dying and has no other choice which allows him to live? (Also, in this hypothetical we're assuming the starving man in question is myself, not a hungry bum but an honest, intelligent, rational person who is very much willing and able to pay for any damages several times over.)

(Jan 08 '12 at 23:08) anthony anthony's gravatar image

As I said above, maybe if they had sign on the door which said "you may not break into the cabin and/or eat my food and/or use my phone under any circumstances, even if you are starving and will die if you do not do so". Short of something like that, and barring a situation where the food is not in short supply, I'd go on the assumption that the owner would be okay with this.

(Jan 08 '12 at 23:11) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I think the context does clearly indicate this. Again, in the hypothetical I am the starving man. If the question is what a dishonest, unintelligent, irrational person should do in this situation...then it's a bad question, because a dishonest, unintelligent, irrational person isn't going to consider it.

(Jan 08 '12 at 23:25) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I'm not saying you shouldn't break in and get the food---I am saying that the reason it is not wrong is not because you have received implicit consent. My mentioning the bum was simply an analogy.

Implicit consent requires objective indications of consent, not mere suppositions about what a person would be okay with.

What if the owner had posted a sign saying "I do not consent to anyone entering my house and taking my food, even if they are starving and plan to pay me back"? Would breaking in then be immoral? Would you walk away and die?

(Jan 09 '12 at 09:40) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

I understand what you are saying. It is not what I am saying.

"What if the owner had posted a sign saying 'I do not consent to anyone entering my house and taking my food, even if they are starving and plan to pay me back'? Would breaking in then be immoral?" No, I think that's an example of a malevolent universe where typical considerations of morality do not apply.

(Jan 09 '12 at 19:50) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I think the cabin scenario presented in the original question is much more realistic, though. In fact, I think something similar happens quite often - house fires, car accidents, with entrapment, where property must be destroyed to save lives.

To say that morality does not apply in these common situations is to say that the million plus firefighters in the United States don't have to concern themselves with morality while on-duty.

(Jan 09 '12 at 20:00) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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I agree with dream_weaver that this is an ethics-of-emergencies question, but I disagree with the conclusion that the action is moral. I would say the action is amoral. Morality does not apply in emergencies, but this does not mean that all actions become moral---rather actions are neither moral nor immoral.

Furthermore, we do not know how you found yourself in this emergency. Are you an inexperienced hiker who foolishly set out with insufficient provisions and no map? If you caused the emergency, then your actions as a whole were immoral even if the specific action of taking the food is amoral.

As for whether it really is an emergency, it would be important to know whether you had other options for finding food, your state of health, the weather, etc.

answered Jan 07 '12 at 21:25

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

By saying that morality is inapplicable in emergency situations, and keeping in mind that ethics is a code of principles by which to guide one's actions, are you saying that in emergency situations, it is impossible to guide one's actions rationally...? If not, then there certainly is a right and a wrong thing to do, so morality is very much still applicable. It may just be that the conclusions of those same basic principles differ in such a situation.

(Jan 08 '12 at 12:29) FCH FCH's gravatar image

In an emergency, the rational thing to do is end the emergency. You certainly can use reason to make choices while trying to end the emergency. But moral principles arise from a context of the long-term survival of a man in the normal course of his life, and thus those principles would no longer apply. Some choices may be "right" or "wrong" in that they help or hinder your ending the emergency, but the standard for judging their rightness or wrongness is not the normal moral code.

(Jan 08 '12 at 13:50) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

What if the cabin is owned by a good friend of yours? Is it still amoral? Why or why not?

(Jan 08 '12 at 23:36) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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I would like to thank Carl Svanberg for providing the quote by Ayn Rand, although I would be interested to know where a transcript or recording of the interview can be obtained, and the date and circumstances of the interview.

I have long been aware of the Objectivist view that in a life-threatening emergency, one may make use of the property of another to preserve one's own life, provided that one makes restitution as soon as possible afterward. I have never seen any written explanation of it from Ayn Rand or other leading Objectivists, however (until now), not even in the VOS article (Chap. 3) that Ayn Rand mentions. Voluntarily giving one's own values to help another in an emergency is well covered in the VOS article, but not the idea of taking someone else's property and paying for it later.

Such cases actually do arise in practice. I particularly recall one such case in a law school textbook titled, Cases and Materials on Torts, by William L. Prosser and Young B. Smith (4th Edition, 1967). (I studied law briefly in college many decades ago, but decided to focus on a different career path more in line with my existing Bachelor's degree.) The case is Ploof v. Putnam, Supreme Court of Vermont, 1908 (81 Vt. 471, 71 A. 188). Putnam was the owner of an island in Lake Champlain, which included a private dock. Ploof was the owner of a sloop in which he, his wife and two children were traveling. A "sudden and violent tempest" arose, "whereby the sloop and property and persons therein were placed in great danger of destruction; that, to save these from destruction or injury, the plaintiff [Ploof] was compelled to, and did, moor the sloop to defendant's [Putnam's] dock." Putnam wasn't present, but his servant was, and the servant "unmoored the sloop, whereupon it was driven upon the shore by the tempest, without the plaintiff's fault; and that the sloop and its contents were thereby destroyed, and the plaintiff and his wife and children cast into the lake and upon the shore, receiving injuries."

The court's ruling in this case lists various prior precedents involving the issue of "necessity" against what would otherwise be trespass. The opinion states, in part, "The doctrine of necessity applies with special force to the preservation of human life.... It is clear that an entry upon the land of another may be justified by necessity, and that the declaration before us discloses a necessity for mooring the sloop."

The Vermont Supreme Court ordered the case to go to trial, rather than be dismissed as not alleging a sufficient legal cause.

A note by the editors of the book poses a further question for law students: what if the owner of the sloop had used force against the land owner's servant to prevent the unmooring? Would the sloop owner be legally entitled to do that? (I don't know the answer.) Another editors' note also mentions a number of precedents in "cases where a traveler upon the public highway is held to be privileged to turn out to avoid an obstruction, and to pass over the abutting land."

I do not know if these principles of common law would be considered fully consistent with Objectivist philosophy, but it certainly appears that they probably would be.


For future reference, I would like to try to summarize the various issues and separate threads that this thread has spawned, without necessarily targeting any particular question, answer or comment. This is the kind of summary that might be of use to legal theorists, judges and legislators when actual emergency cases (like Ploof v. Putnam above) arise from time to time in real life and need to be dealt with in law.

The main Objectivist references are as follows:

[VOS] "The Ethics of Emergencies," Chapter 3 in VOS. The key excerpts are reprinted in The Ayn Rand Lexicon in the topic of "Emergencies."

[Goodman] Ayn Rand's interview with Gerald Goodman, transcribed above by Carl Svanberg. (Carl has not as yet provided a sufficient reference to allow independent verification of authenticity or accuracy of transcription, but the excerpt seems genuine, as far as I can discern.)

[ARA] Ayn Rand Answers, pp. 113-114, question about "kill or be killed" situations.

Ref [VOS] explains what Ayn Rand means by an "emergy situation," as distinguished from "normal conditions of human existence."

The various issues pertaining to "emergency situations" can be classified into the following categories.

Case 1: Person A (Pa) is in life-or-death distress (LDD) and encounters unattended property of Person B (Pb), which can save Pa's life. This is the case discussed in [Goodman].

Case 2: Pa is in LDD and finds attended property of Pb (who is not in LDD), and Pb expresses non-consent for Pa to use Pb's property.

Case 2a: Pa uses Pb's property anyway, and Pb does not attempt to use force to stop Pa.

Case 2b: Pb uses physical force against Pa to defend Pb's property, and Pa does not attempt to use physical force against Pb in response. This is the case described in Ploof v. Putnam.

Case 2c: Pb uses physical force against Pa to defend Pb's property, and Pa responds with physical force of his own directly against Pb. This case is not specifically discussed in any of the references, although it is mentioned in connection with Ploof v. Putnam.

Case 3: Pa is in LDD, and Pb (who is not in LDD) is nearby and able to help in some way (other than by allowing access to Pb's property). This case is discussed in [VOS]. Saving a drowning person would be an example.

Case 4: Pa and Pb are both in LDD, and only one of them can survive, and only if the other dies. This case is discussed in both [VOS] and [ARA]. [VOS] also points out that life in a dictatorship tends to reduce to this case, except that life in a dictatorship is not a temporary emergency, but more like a chronic emergency. In a non-dictatorship emergency situation, it's also hard to see how Pa and Pb would know with certainty that only one can survive, or that either of them would ultimately be able to survive and return to "normal conditions of human existence." Without such certainty, the more typical response would be for both to do their best to survive without trying to kill each other.

answered Jan 08 '12 at 21:24

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Ideas for Life ♦

edited Jan 14 '12 at 03:31

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Asked: Jan 07 '12 at 10:44

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Last updated: Jan 14 '12 at 03:31