Morality And Emergencies

Time Magazine has what it calls a morality quiz, putting forth several different scenarios and asking which course of action you’d take. The theme of each question is similar and they are all designed around the theme of when it is morally acceptable to sacrifice the life of another person.

If you’re at all interested, you can take the quiz yourself and then come back here.

The problem with the entire premise of the quiz is that it makes the mistaken assumption that the scenarios that it posits are examples of situations in which normal morality still applies, thus leading to the (incorrect I submit) conclusion that there are times when it is morally acceptable to sacrifice the life of a for the sake of others.

The proper way of looking at these emergency situations, though, is as precisely that emergencies. Ayn Rand made this point about the applicability of normal human morality to emergencies:

It is important to differentiate between the rules of conduct in an emergency situation and the rules of conduct in the normal conditions of human existence. This does not mean a double standard of morality: the standard and the basic principles remain the same, but their application to either case requires precise definitions.

An emergency is an unchosen, unexpected event, limited in time, that creates conditions under which human survival is impossible—such as a flood, an earthquake, a fire, a shipwreck. In an emergency situation, men’s primary goal is to combat the disaster, escape the danger and restore normal conditions (to reach dry land, to put out the fire, etc.).

By “normal” conditions I mean metaphysically normal, normal in the nature of things, and appropriate to human existence. Men can live on land, but not in water or in a raging fire. Since men are not omnipotent, it is metaphysically possible for unforeseeable disasters to strike them, in which case their only task is to return to those conditions under which their lives can continue. By its nature, an emergency situation is temporary; if it were to last, men would perish.

She expanded on this point in a radio interview in the 1960s:

Q: Miss Rand, a particular example has been brought to my attention, involving suicide, or apparent suicide, and it goes as follows. If Man B is placed in a situation where he is under a threat of death by Man A, and the threat is contingent on Man B killing Man C, what is the resolution of this situation philosophically? What are the moral explanations of the possible actions of Man B?

A: In a case of that kind, you cannot morally judge the action of Man B. Since he is under the threat of death, whatever he decides to do is right, because this is not the kind of moral situation in which men could exist. This is an emergency situation. Man B, in this case, is placed in a position where he cannot continue to exist. Therefore, what he does is up to him. If he refuses to obey, and dies, that is his moral privilege. If he prefers to obey, you could not blame him for the murder. The murderer is Man A. No exact, objective morality can be prescribed for an issue where a man’s life is endangered.

In other words, when life is in danger from some external force, it simply doesn’t make sense to judge a man’s actions by a moral code — and it makes even less sense to come up with a moral code that makes suicide the only moral choice.

  • Aristomedes

    Regarding the “suicide” scenario, would it not be the most moral choice for B to eliminate A, if a.)B has reason to believe he perhaps can escape death himself by doing so, and b.)B believes that C is not as morally culpable as A? (Note that the death of A is not necessarily the only means of elimination.) Perhaps condition b.) is not needed for this moral calculation. Any thoughts?

  • Ergo

    I address this same issue on this post here. Hope you don’t mind me posting the link.

    I take a step further and discusss the implications that a person’s moral code in routine life has on his behavior in the face of ethical emergencies.

  • Mark

    Another shortcoming of this is of course the fact that you can’t honestly say you know what you’d do in a situation like they give. There’s always too many variables to make a worthwhile hypothetical and the existence of an emergency will likely place you into a mode where instincts take over. So you can say you would do one thing, but you really don’t know how you’d react if you were actually in that position.

  • Ragnar_Rahl

    Regarding Aristomedes comment, I think classing the situation as an emergency assumes it is not possible for man B to kill man A. If it is killing man A is fine and dandy, he threatened to kill you, but it’s not an emergency since death threats from someone you can reliably kill without them killing you at any time do not constitute a situation in which it is impossible for you to live.