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What is a concise way to state WHY Objectivsm prevents the initiation of force, even at the risk of your own peril?

Say you are trapped on an island, alone. The familiar analogy states that you take steps to ensure your own survival by seeking food, shelter, and water.

Now assume that there is only enough resources to support a single person on this island. If someone else arrives on the island and ties you to a tree to prevent you from using up the limited resources on yourself they have initiated force against you and you are free to retaliate with force (assuming you manage to untie yourself).

What if this second person does not tie you up, though? It would be two of you competing for the resources of one. How does Objectivism justify that it is wrong to initiate force when without it neither of you will survive?

asked Sep 19 '12 at 13:02

hylysly's gravatar image


edited Sep 19 '12 at 13:21

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

(I've simplified your headline to remove [a layer of] the "complex question" characteristic.)

(Sep 19 '12 at 13:24) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

It's always nice to know that there is a length of rope around in this limited resource scenerio. Let me guess, fishing from this particular place in the ocean is prohibited by PETA? And only one 8 oz cup of water is provided every day?

(Sep 21 '12 at 12:06) dream_weaver ♦ dream_weaver's gravatar image

heh, good point dw. That said, apparently there have been actual lifeboat situations of this sort: For example there's http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R_v_Dudley_and_Stephens (where survival meant not just initiating force, but actually killing and eating someone without their permission)

Rand did talk briefly about these "lifeboat scenarios", in "The Ethics of Emergencies". I'm not sure what she'd recommend we do with poor Dudley and Stephens.

(Sep 21 '12 at 12:59) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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The typical "lifeboat" type of thought problem pertains to conduct of a person who is himself facing a dire emergency. Does his necessity to survive entitle him to use the property of another if he finds it? Does it entitle him to kill another person if he is strong enough to do so and to prevail? Etc.

As another Answer points out, Ayn Rand's key observation is that "lifeboat situations" are not the metaphysical norm and cannot be used as the context from which to formulate principles of moral action in normal conditions. This does not necessarily mean, however, that Objectivism endorses a principle of "anything goes, survival of the fittest in combat, law of the jungle, etc." in real-life emergencies. To the extent that emergencies occasionally arise in real life, it must be remembered that the issue of how the victims conduct themselves depends greatly on whether or not they are ever rescued. If they never return to normal life, then there will never be a process of judging their behavior after the emergency is ended, since the emergency effectively never ends in such a case. What makes "lifeboat problems" most difficult to resolve is the possibility of eventual rescue, i.e, an eventual end to the emergency, followed by retrospective moral judgment of how the parties who were involved in the emergency conducted themselves in response to it, and how they supposedly should have acted, by some moral standard that is applied after-the-fact when the emergency is over.

I have seen knowledgeable Objectivists argue that a person who is in a personally life-threatening emergency is perfectly morally entitled to utilize unattended property of another person to save his own life if necessary, on condition that he admit to having done it and make restitution for his use of the property as soon as the emergency is over and he returns to normal conditions of living.

I have not seen discussion of the morally proper course if the owner of the property is present and resists having it used by someone who is in an emergency and needs the property to save his own life.

Nor have I seen a serious discussion of what happens when more than one person is facing a life-threatening emergency, and one or more of them are sure to die because there aren't enough life-saving resources for everyone. My own inclination would be to side with the common law principle that "necessity" does not justify murder. As I see it, if someone really is going to die before the others can be rescued, then the determination of who will die should be left entirely to natural causes. Whoever is physically weakest or most ill or most severely injured already, etc., would be most likely to die first. Note that this approach presupposes (a) the possibiity of eventual rescue of at least one survivor, and (b) uneven rates of death, i.e., some will die sooner than others if nature simply runs it course. If one murders another, however, there is no way ever to make restitution for it.

(Regarding being stranded on an island, real-life strandings tend to involve islands that actually have plenty of natural resources, more than adequate for multiple survivors if they conduct themselves peacefully and productively. They will all need to work the land and not try to loot each other. If the island is a desert, then we're probably back to the impossible "lifeboat" scenario again, discussed above, although one is likely to have a far greater chance of surviving on dry land than in the ocean, and even a desert island in the middle of the ocean would still allow access to the ocean and to the many forms of living organisms that normally can be found in and around an ocean. Islands also normally receive rainfall, which can be trapped in freshwater pools.)

answered Sep 23 '12 at 04:29

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

Objectivism does not prevent the initiation of force, it simply identifies it as an evil act.

The ethics of Objectivism are derived from the normal conditions of human existence. Under normal conditions of human existence most men live on continents or inhabitable islands which are large enough to allow the normal conditions of human existence.

Being trapped on an island alone already identifies that you are not referring to normal conditions of human existence. Instead of having the benefit of the division of labor available from social cooperation, one would have to provide for their own needs from the material resources available. If the material resources are not available, or the individual trapped on the island cannot discover a means of satisfying their need of water and food, the outcome is predictable.

On an island where the resources have been sufficient to sustain the needs of one via their productive ability and another individual arrives, now you have two people who both need to take the actions necessary to ensure their survival. If either or both of them fail in this effort, the outcome should still be obvious.

answered Sep 22 '12 at 11:23

dream_weaver's gravatar image

dream_weaver ♦

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Asked: Sep 19 '12 at 13:02

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Last updated: Sep 23 '12 at 04:29