login about faq

Suppose it will cost you two hours and 200 dollars to save the life of a man you do not know. Should you do it?

asked Sep 29 '10 at 11:18

Cherman's gravatar image


edited Oct 07 '10 at 17:25

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

In the absence of any knowledge about the man I would save him. Men in general have the potential to be a value to me and are generally a value to society. To me, that potential is worth far more than 2 hours of my time and $200.00

answered Sep 29 '10 at 12:06

Martin%20Gasser's gravatar image

Martin Gasser ♦

So why don't you give money to all the people in Africa?

(Sep 29 '10 at 14:19) Cherman Cherman's gravatar image

Cherman, the two proposals are fundamentally different.
The original question implies that I can by direct and personal action save a man who is "dying in front of" me.

For you to then take my answer to that particular question and imply that I am being hypocritical in my answer if I don't spend all of my money and time (which in itself wouldn't be enough) trying to help men who are thousands of kilometers away is quite frankly nonsensical.

Greg is right, the lack of context makes this question a fools folly to answer definitively. Lesson learned.

(Sep 29 '10 at 16:11) Martin Gasser ♦ Martin%20Gasser's gravatar image

An Objectivist will immediately try to assess the context to know what to do: Is this my friend? Then of course I would take on significant risk and expense to save him. My spouse? No doubt, I could easily risk everything to save her! Someone who is an utter stranger? Well, given the absence of any specific knowledge of vice, I would still immediately jump in at some risk to myself: I recognize the gigantic value of living in a society with others who in fact enrich my life in myriad indirect ways as they pursue theirs (yay, humans!). Besides, I naturally empathize with anyone who falls victim to an accident that isn't their fault, and it is eminently practical to foster a culture where people are benevolent and will (non-sacrificially) lend a hand in an emergency. In contrast, if it were Hitler drowning in front of me, maybe I'd look for an anvil to offer him.

An important idea in Objectivism is that values are not intrinsic, existing apart from any valuer and any standard of value. You can see this yourself in how we don't just say "X is good," period, or "Y is bad," period -- rather, we say X is good for this, or Y is bad for that (sure, often the for-whatever is implicit, but it is nonetheless there). This applies to people as much as anything else, which is why the virtue of justice is so important: criminals are bad for us, friends are good for us, and recognizing the difference is a matter of life and death. Ultimately, it is the relationship to our lives that gives something value-significance, making it something we can meaningfully evaluate in the first place.

answered Sep 29 '10 at 13:14

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

edited Oct 05 '10 at 20:46


This is a good answer. The only thing I would add is that I would be much more emphatic regarding the moral necessity of helping such a person in cases where you have no reason to think he's vicious. For instance, I was very impressed by this answer by Leonard Peikoff to a similar question: http://www.peikoff.com/2008/12/22/is-there-a-moral-obligation-to-call-for-help-if-you-see-someone-in-a-car-accident-or-experiencing-a-heart-attack/.

(Sep 29 '10 at 14:54) Publius ♦ Publius's gravatar image

So if Hitler was drowning in front of you you would actually push him down? Are there hard boundaries in Objectivism? Is the section of the John Galt speech of "Not ask another man to live (or die) for me" violable if your value is great enough?

Is Justice a sufficient enough cause to aid in the death of another? The government can exact Justice because the victim delegates the responsibility to the third-party. If you are not a part of the government, are you authorize to murder another when not acting in self defense or the immediate defense of others?

(Dec 27 '11 at 12:32) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

Hi, Humbug. I didn't write that. As to your wider questions: why not post them as questions?

Thanks, Greg

(Dec 27 '11 at 12:51) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Hi Greg,

So that I have a better understanding of your intent: When you say that you would offer Hitler an anvil, I assume that you would give him the choice to refuse that anvil correct?

(Dec 31 '11 at 03:59) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

Context, context, context. IF we were actively at war with Hitler, then it would be appropriate to shoot him on sight, not just offer him an anvil. If, however, it were after the war, and he were merely considered a war criminal on the lam, then it wouldn't be right to dispense one's own justice. But I could understand fully simply walking away while he drowns. One might have a legal obligation to call for rescuers, but I don't think one would have a moral obligation. Manslaughter by neglect is a crime, but I'd say it's an excusable one in this case.

(Dec 31 '11 at 11:53) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

That's what I thought. Thanks!

(Jan 01 '12 at 00:00) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image
showing 2 of 6 show all

What are the chances that you will be in a situation whereby a man is dying in front of you. We do not live in lifeboat situations. If life on earth was nothing but emergency man would not be able to survive.

answered Sep 29 '10 at 16:40

Radical_for_Capitalism's gravatar image

Radical_for_Capitalism ♦

I don't see this as a "lifeboat" question in the bad sense, since it is not being presented as a starting point for ethical reasoning, nor does it set up a situation in which long-range planning is impossible. (An example of the latter would be if a terrorist orders you to choose which of his hostages dies next.)

The upfront knowledge of a specific amount of time and money is artificial, however.

(Sep 29 '10 at 18:58) Andrew Dalton ♦ Andrew%20Dalton's gravatar image

Though it is artificial. there is no need to evade the fact that our philosophy does guide us in EVERY situation. Action must be taken. How should we be guided? Martin's statement: "To me, that potential is worth far more than 2 hours of my time and $200.00." is evading reality. The value of his time and money depends upon external alternatives. If any of his loved ones are in danger during those 2 particular hours..you see where I'm going with this. This approach may seem argumentative but most people would attack our morality for not helping regardless. I want concrete conceptual defense.

(Feb 27 '11 at 09:05) dreadrocksean dreadrocksean's gravatar image

Humans are social animals. We have an evolutionary (including pre-human) past. An emotional response, like "empathy" -- which would be a driving factor motivating us to help a member of our species "dying in front of us" -- is complex, but involves us understanding (on subconscious levels) our own mortality and nature as the intelligent animals we are. Anyone who has experienced "life or death" circumstances playing out in front of them -- assuming they live with a generally healthy psyche -- would probably not describe their choice of action as being any "calculated rational response."

(Feb 27 '11 at 10:16) Joe Egan Joe%20Egan's gravatar image
showing 2 of 3 show all

It depends on the nature of the man, the nature of the two hours, and the nature of the 200 dollars.

If those specific two hours are terribly important to me, in that if I lost them I'd lose a crucial opportunity to improve my life (say I'd miss a business meeting which meant the future of my career), then that would weigh against saving the man.

If those 200 dollars are my last 200 dollars, and I need them in order to eat for the next week while searching for a job, then that would weigh against saving the man.

Since it is stipulated he is a man I do not know, I cannot weigh his identity as distinct from any other man. I must only presume he is an average man who might or might not appreciate me saving his life. Perhaps I could make a new friend. Perhaps he'd pay me back for my money or my time. Perhaps he would not.

On the positive side, depending on who I am, perhaps spending those 2 hours and 200 dollars to save a man's life would make me feel proud, not just for helping, but for having the means to help. That feeling might be worth my money and time if I am rich enough.

The basic principle is, would helping the man be a sacrifice to me? Would I end up better off, or worse off, for saving him? Depending on my situation, and who I am, it could go either way.

Regardless, though, given the non-trivial cost to me in saving him, it certainly should not be legally obligatory that I do so.

answered Sep 29 '10 at 17:05

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

I very much relate with this. To me, somewhere along the way in my 20 years of life I have been conditioned to take pleasure and pride in helping others. As a result of this, many of the sacrifices of this scenario would have to be weighed against both the guilt of inaction and also the emotional joy and rewards that helping would provide me.

This is, to me, quite frightening; for I can see my motivation for helping to depend greatly on what I get out of it. I know that had I not been conditioned to take joy in helping, I could easily see leaving them to die being the more appealing choice.

(Jul 23 '11 at 01:18) Benjamin Kingstone Faria Benjamin%20Kingstone%20Faria's gravatar image

The basic principle is: concern yourself with the actual benefits of an action. The benefit to be had from helping a stranger is spiritual. It's an act of creating the kind of world you would like to live in. Plus you could make a friend, plus you make one more person less suspicious of strangers.

Guilt and pride are emotions which result from your subconscious beliefs about how to act. Those beliefs can be mistaken, so I'd caution against doing something just for the emotional kick. Know what's right, and do it, regardless of how it feels. Emotions can lead you astray.

(Jul 23 '11 at 16:39) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

I answered this question in a recent edition of my Rationally Selfish Webcast.  An audio recording of my response is available as a podcast here: NoodleCast #62: Live Rationally Selfish Webcast. The discussion of this question runs from 47:23 to 1:00:20. 

My basic view is that we have no moral obligation to help others simply in virtue of their need. However, a person who would refuse to offer assistance in case of an emergency -- when to do so would not be a sacrifice -- displays frightening and dangerous ignorance of the value of other people.

answered Feb 24 '11 at 17:50

Diana%20Hsieh's gravatar image

Diana Hsieh ♦

edited Mar 02 '11 at 00:32

Follow this question

By Email:

Once you sign in you will be able to subscribe for any updates here



Answers and Comments

Share This Page:



Asked: Sep 29 '10 at 11:18

Seen: 4,187 times

Last updated: Jan 01 '12 at 00:00