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?
I will let Ayn Rand answer this one.
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 Svanberg ♦
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 Paquette ♦
Two relevant quotes from Ayn Rand:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.