Apr 082009

Right around the time of the CU Boulder “Think!” debate on Ayn Rand’s ethics between Onkar Ghate and Mike Huemer, I listened to a very interesting discussion of the obligation to offer minimal aid to a person in distress in one of Leonard Peikoff’s podcasts.

Kevin McAllister — of the blog Logical Disconnect — was kind enough to transcribe the question and answer for me. Here it is:

Episode 41: 10:25 – 11:37

Q: Am I morally obligated to call for help if I see someone in a car accident or experiencing a heart attack?

This is obviously from someone who does not know what the Objectivist view of selfishness is. Absolutely yes, you are morally obligated. If you have chosen to live in a society of human beings and your mode of survival depends on your trade with them then you have to value human life so far as it’s not guilty or criminal to your knowledge. In that case if you know no evil about a person and no sacrifice is involved then only a psychopath would turn away from such cases. And that would mean besides all the psychological things a direct contradiction of the value of human life. You can’t value your life and decide to live with others of your species and say, “They’re nothing to me, I don’t care if they live or die.” That’s self-contradiction.

Dr. Peikoff’s analysis is substantially Aristotelian, I think. (That’s a compliment, in this context: Aristotle’s moral psychology is superb.) It’s not a cost-benefit analysis: the point is not that the person might reward you with cash, that he might be a talented neurosurgeon who might someday save the life of your dear mother, that he might invent some widget that you’d like to buy, or whatnot. Rather, Dr. Peikoff focuses on the kinds of attitudes and dispositions toward other people required to live and live well among other men. That’s the right approach to these kinds of cases, I think.

Kevin also transcribed the relevant portion from another of Dr. Peikoff’s podcasts — one I’ve not yet heard — on the validity of “lifeboat” scenarios in ethics:

Episode 48: 12:30 – 15:48

Okay, do you know what a lifeboat question is? You know, what do you do when there [are] more people in the lifeboat then there is food and someone has to die, what does Objectivism say? And why those questions are completely illegitimate, because morality is for the circumstances when it is possible for men to coexist. If they can’t, then you can’t have any morality.

Now, this is a lifeboat question, which I normally wouldn’t answer but it’s from a high school student from another continent. So I’ll read it. This is a really… Okay I won’t comment, just listen.

He made this up, it’s not true: My wife is extremely sick she is my greatest value, but she will die in 24 hours if I do not acquire a certain medicine for her. I leave the house and go to the pharmacy and find out that the last bottle of medicine has been sold to the man in front of me. There is no other place I can get this medicine. By coincidence the man who purchased the medicine is walking home in front of me. I approach the man and explain to him my situation and request that he give me the medicine. However, he says no, as his wife is in the same situation as mine. He turns around and continues to walk away. I know that if I wanted to I could easily overpower this man and steal the medicine. Now my question is, what is the moral thing to do?

Now, I’d like to know some things about the realistic possibility of this example. For instance, she is only going to live for 24 hours. Who long did you know that? Who told you? And why did you wait? How many other pharmacies have you tried? How many websites? Did you try the manufacturer? I mean this whole thing, point after point, is a completely unreal situation. You are just setting up, two men, for no reason, with no plausibility, want the same thing desperately, should they kill each other? Without the faintest expectation… at least in the life boat, you know that they’re there you know and … but here, there is no reason at all. So, what you have to do, before you ask moral questions, is figure out are they realistic, and what should the characters in them have done, what could have done that would have eviscerated and wiped out the very possibility of the situation.

Notably, Objectivism does not oppose reasoning from lifeboat scenarios in ethics merely because a person is unlikely to ever encounter such circumstances in his lifetime. I’m very unlikely to ever be propositioned with large sums of money by a student seeking an undeserved grade, yet we can certainly say that my accepting that offer would be grossly immoral.

Rather, as can be seen from Dr. Peikoff’s remarks, the problem with “lifeboat ethics” is that the proposed scenarios are concocted so as to produce irresolvable conflicts between people. By various artificial constraints, they make life in society impossible. They preclude any rational solutions to the problem at hand. Is it then any wonder that the results are unseemly? Of course not.

The simple fact is that lifeboat scenarios do not reflect the most basic facts about human nature, namely our distinctively human methods of producing and trading the values required to sustain life. Consequently, moral principles cannot be applied to such scenarios, nor induced from them.

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