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What is the moral thing to do when you're forced to do something evil? For example, if one is forced to kill or give away whereabouts of innocent person, under the threat of death?

My reasoning is that even when you're forced to initiate force against someone, it still violates the other persons rights, so the moral thing to do would be to get yourself killed. But that would imply placing the rights of others above my own, so where's the line? What about giving away information though, especially if one knows that the other person is going to be killed?

I'd like to point out that this kind of stuff happens all the time in certain parts of the world and from time to time escalates (e.g. wwii). Thus, it would be nice to have some thoughts on the matter ahead of time.

asked Dec 05 '12 at 19:07

wwwwk's gravatar image


A silent surrender is irrational and immoral.

Recall Ayn Rand's lesson on the sanction of the victim. The lesson implies a crucial advantage that the Victim has to a situation like the example you described. The rational and moral typically has a stronger, quicker, and flexible mind than the irrational and immoral man who initiates force.

When faced with this sort of threat, one must be creative and resourceful. Does he stand a chance at fighting the gunman himself? Can he lie to trick the gunman? If an innocent person's life is at stake, can you get protection to him in time?

(May 16 '13 at 19:53) Cspeciale Cspeciale's gravatar image

But to accept suicide as your only option is immoral. Even if you alone cannot do anything to stop him, you must make a desperate attempt if only to show to yourself and any spectators that this is a man who you think does not deserve to move a step further.

(May 16 '13 at 19:53) Cspeciale Cspeciale's gravatar image

The only reasonable course of action is to not comply, whatever the consequence. If you are threatened by the use of force there are two basic choices: to comply (surrender) or to not comply (answer by the use force).

(May 16 '13 at 21:04) Juan Diego dAnconia Juan%20Diego%20dAnconia's gravatar image

Although I find it quite disturbing, I have to admit, that in such a case when you have a gun to your head forcing you to do something bad, the only answer of a philosophy of life such as Objectivism is to die. Isn't the right thing to do to value your own life above everything else? Galt may have considered suicide but in that scenario the person in danger is Dagny, who he loves. What, then, in the case of someone you frankly don't care about and who's well being shouldn't matter to you at all?

(May 16 '13 at 21:09) Juan Diego dAnconia Juan%20Diego%20dAnconia's gravatar image

In the film version of The Fountainhead, Wynand tells Dominique Francon that, if he had to choose between being a ruler or among the ruled, he would rather rule. Dominique responded that she'd rather do neither.

(Jun 03 '13 at 11:26) Collin1 Collin1's gravatar image
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This is merely the classic "lifeboat situation" with a different venire (the essence of all these scenarios is that you are placed in a situation where you are faced with two unavoidable options--either die (or face serious threat) or kill (or take some other action that would be evil under normal circumstances). There are innumerable variants of this situation, but the answer to all of them is the same: morality simply does not apply to such situations, and either choice would be neither moral nor immoral.

You can read more about these situations in "The Ethics of Emergencies" in The Virtue of Selfishness. Ayn Rand also discusses these situations in the Q&A period after her Ford Hall Forum lecture entitled Of Living Death (available here as an MP3 for $0.99). Granted, her answer there is "off the cuff" so to speak, so there could be some errors or misspeaking, but the general thrust of the answer seems right to me and is consistent with what she says in her written essay referenced above. In the Q&A Ayn Rand says that morality simply does not apply in emergency situations (and she specifically mentions the lifeboat as one such situation). She explains:

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... It can only be subjectively right, and in this sense, two men can make opposite choices."

Thus, I must disagree with both Cspeciale and Juan Diego dAnconia to the extent that they imply that it would be immoral to either comply with the thugs demands or to accept death. (Cspeciale says "But to accept suicide as your only option is immoral" while Juan Diego dAnconia says "in such a case ... the only answer of a philosophy of life such as Objectivism is to die"). Such a choice is outside the scope of morality---morality simply has nothing to say about what you should do. As Rand says, either choice would be "in effect" right, but only "subjectively" right. The reason for this is outlined by Ideas for Life in his answer, and is discussed in greater detail in the above referenced materials.

Calling the choice "immoral" implies that it is wrong as judged from a standard of morality, i.e., that it goes against what the moral code dictates. If the choice is outside the scope of morality then it cannot go against morality's dictates, and thus cannot be "immoral". Instead, it is "amoral", meaning "outside scope of morality; not concerned with or amenable to moral judgments" (Encarta Dictionary). Note that the choice is not "moral" either for the same reason. (Note that the forgoing is not contradicted by Rand referring to both choices loosely as being "right", because she qualifies this usage with the words "in effect" and "subjectively" which clearly indicate she is using the term colloquially to mean merely "not wrong" and it is clear from the context that she certainly is not implying that the choice is moral from the standpoint of an objective moral code (she just got done saying morality does not apply, after all)).

As an interesting aside, Rand said that she thinks that she would probably not kill the other person in such a scenario to save herself, but that she would do it in an instant without thought to save Frank (her husband). This is not altruism, but rather a high form of selfishness, as has been discussed elsewhere.

answered Jun 01 '13 at 08:24

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

edited Jun 01 '13 at 08:40

Then does this means John Q is amoral?

(Jun 02 '13 at 12:08) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

I presume you mean the character from the 2002 movie by that title? I have not seen the movie, but based on the synopsis on Wikipedia, I would say that the above discussion does not apply to the scenario of the movie. In particular, the above applies to emergency situations in which the only choices one has are to die or violate rights. John Q's situation does not fit for a number of reasons including (1) death is not imminent for John Q, (2) violating rights is not the only other option available to John Q, (3) sickness is a frequent and predictable experience in life and (...continued)

(Jun 09 '13 at 18:57) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

(...continuing) therefor one can and should prepare for such possibilities. It is important to note that not every situation in which one faces only unpleasant choices, and thus feels "coerced" to some degree, is a lifeboat situation. The key aspect of the emergency that renders morality moot is that it is a situation in which human survival by long-range moral principles is impossible. Human survival by long-range principles certainly appears to be possible in John Q's case, and thus the situation was not an emergency regardless of how sad or difficult his situation might be.

(Jun 09 '13 at 19:22) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Nice answer! I have to say it's very interesting that there is a scenario involving choices to which morality does not apply. Which sounds terrible at first, now I don't really know what to say since I have always believed that every actions necessitated a moral validation. What I would do would be do anything to save myself in such an emergency situation since my own life is my highest value, but then again I'm using my moral code to choose. Rand, then, accepts that if it's an emergency, anyone can do anything and it would not be right nor wrong? Isn't that like "all's fair in war"?

(Jun 24 '13 at 20:12) Juan Diego dAnconia Juan%20Diego%20dAnconia's gravatar image
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To reach an answer to this question, one can proceed in the same way that Objectivism proceeds in a normal context of human existence: begin by asking why man needs morality.

The reason man needs morality in a normal context is to live -- across the span of a lifetime -- which requires broad principles to serve as one's guide. What kind of abnormal context does the question imply? It explicitly hypothesizes living under physical force, or trying to. But social contexts built around physical force are usually capricious and unpredictable, since there is no rational justification for it and no way for a society to endure for long unless at least a small percentage of individuals are at least somewhat free to think and produce, and are induced to do so for the benefit of everyone else, despite the constant threat of physical force that may be unleashed against anyone at any time.

How can anyone live for long under such conditions? What possible code of morality could sustain human life under such conditions? There is no solution. If the society has not quite reached the stage of dictatorship and censorship, some form of strike may still be possible, as in Atlas Shrugged, and the moral course would be to go on strike. Escape may sometimes be possible, too, or dying while trying, as in We the Living and Anthem. There is also a relevant scene in Atlas Shrugged in Part III, Chapter VIII, in the subsection that begins, "From behind the rotted posts of what had once been...." Dagny visits Galt in his apartment, and he explains to her, among other things:

[When the looters arrive, you] must take their side, as fully, consistently, and loudly as your capacity for deception will permit. You must act as one of them. You must act as my worst enemy. If you do, I'll have a chance to come out of it alive...

Whatever they extort from people, they can extort it only through their victims' values -- and they have no value of mine to hold over my head, nothing to threaten me with. But if they get the slightest suspicion of what we are to each other, they will have you on a torture rack -- I mean, physical torture -- before my eyes, in less than a week. I am not going to wait for that. At the first mention of a threat to you, I will kill myself and stop them right there.

In real life, Ayn Rand, too, searched for a way to escape from her totalitarian home country, and she did escape. She did not wait passively for events to unfold somehow. She actively observed, thought and planned as best she could. There was no guarantee that she would succeed with her escape, and she almost didn't. But in the end she made it.

Ultimately, if conditions are unbearable and inescapable, there may be no reasonable course left, and some form of outright suicide may be one's only remaining means of protest, short of total surrender to a completely sub-human mode of functioning, utterly devoid of any semblance of human dignity and valuing.

answered Dec 06 '12 at 02:01

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

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Asked: Dec 05 '12 at 19:07

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Last updated: Jun 24 '13 at 20:12