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A Thought Experiment.

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Nyronus
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My friend proposed a thought experiment. This is a scenario used by psychologists to rate one's progression on the Kohlberg moral developmental scale. It simply goes like this;

Your spouse has an incredibly rare and painful disease. There is medicine that can cure it, but the only supplier of the medicine wants it for a price that it is physically impossible for you to pay. Your only options are to either to steal it or let your spouse die. What would you do and why?

I argued that I could not morally take something that someone had made from them by use of force. My friend revealed to me that the man who is selling you the medicine is using its uniqueness to capitalize on a monopoly and sell it for much more than its worth (I believe it was an eighty dollar value being sold for one thousand dollars). I told him that the man being a generally unpleasant person gave me no right to steal from him, and that I could possibly take legal action against him.

He then countered with the "need" card. I explained to him that "need" gave no right to ownership. He conceded the point, but then brought up an interesting point.

He said that, for him, he valued his pride and immediate freedom was less than that of the life of his spouse. So he would go to jail so that she could live. (There are complications to this, I know).

So, here is the question. Looking at it from that perspective, he is being selfish, but that does not change the fact that he is violating the rights of another human being. So then, all I have to ask, is the premise of giving up something he values less (some immediate freedom) for something more (the life and health of his spouse) morally valid, even if his act is not? I have my own answer to this question, but I am curious to see what you all think.

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If anything, I believe the ethics of emergencies would apply here. But I do have big problems with this scenario:

Your spouse has an incredibly rare and painful disease. There is medicine that can cure it, but the only supplier of the medicine wants it for a price that it is physically impossible for you to pay. Your only options are to either to steal it or let your spouse die. What would you do and why?

If your friend just put in "impossible" by itself I would understand, but what in the world does he mean by "physically impossible"?

Also, this medicine supplier apparently has the medical knowledge to create this medicine, but none of the wisdom of economics. He will probably be the first and last supplier of this medicine. He will most likely be his own destroyer because he's charging an extremely high price for an extremely rare disease, which will make his profits extra extremely rare, if he makes any profit at all. He would absolutely have to lower his prices, after seeing how surprisingly rare rich people with rare diseases are.

I say this scenario is invalid as it is almost impossible. Arbitrary metaphysics.

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Also, this medicine supplier apparently has the medical knowledge to create this medicine, but none of the wisdom of economics.
Right. And the people who dream up these scenarios have neither the ability to create anything nor the understanding of how free market operates. The answer might be best formed in the shape of question: Why would anyone put in the time, effort and investment into creating a product then price it out of reach of its target market?
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Your spouse has an incredibly rare and painful disease. There is medicine that can cure it, but the only supplier of the medicine wants it for a price that it is physically impossible for you to pay. Your only options are to either to steal it or let your spouse die. What would you do and why?

It's an old rhetorical trick, one which cannot possibly be taken seriously. I mean, are there no loans? No charity? Not even a pawn shop?

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It's an old rhetorical trick, one which cannot possibly be taken seriously. I mean, are there no loans? No charity? Not even a pawn shop?

Thats supposed to be the point. There was nothing I could do. Physically impossible. When I suggested that I just go get a loan, my friend explained that I couldn't get the money or medicine any other way than via theft. Trust me, I tried that.

Also, could anyone give a link to theses ethics of emergencies? I have heard them mentioned before.

As to the comment about the medical supplier's economic ability; the price of the medicine is rather small (1000) compared to the total price of medical expenses. In all honesty, the 80/1000 numbers were probably picked arbitrarily, most likely as a way to trick someone into rationalizing that the medical supplier can be robbed because he's being a prig. I thought the test was a little silly myself. I had my results judged wrong, mostly because I used the word "jail" and that means that I obviously believe in the supremacy of the law as a end in itself.

Edit: Very well, I actually went and looked up an interview of Ayn Rand on the issue of ethics, and she brought up the ethics of an emergency. So then, I have a new question, would my friend be morally right if he both stole the medicine selfishly, and then turned himself in and tried to work off his debt, either literally, or metaphorically in prison?

Edited by Nyronus
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Also, could anyone give a link to theses ethics of emergencies? I have heard them mentioned before.

After some reading, I see that this situation isn't truly an emergency and thus emergency ethics don't apply, but here's the lexicon link anyhow.

Also note that is isn't a certainty that this guy will be the only super-duper-special-rare medicine supplier. You can only put a copyright/patent on your style of implementation, not on a metaphysical truth such as a combination of chemicals to produce a certain drug.

Come to think of it, I just noticed a little gap of information in the situation. The rare disease is painful, but you never said how painful, which gives us an opening to fill something in. In my situation the woman's disease is so painful she commits suicide by jumping off a cliff, so therefore no action is needed as she's already dead. A terrible result.

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Come to think of it, I just noticed a little gap of information in the situation. The rare disease is painful, but you never said how painful

I suspect this is incorrect.

Incredibly rare and painful may mean:

1) Incredibly rare, but not incredibly painful; or

2) incredibly rare AND incredibly painful.

Given the phrasing, I suspect #2 is the implied meaning.

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Your spouse has an incredibly rare and painful disease. There is medicine that can cure it, but the only supplier of the medicine wants it for a price that it is physically impossible for you to pay. Your only options are to either to steal it or let your spouse die. What would you do and why?

I argued that I could not morally take something that someone had made from them by use of force. My friend revealed to me that the man who is selling you the medicine is using its uniqueness to capitalize on a monopoly and sell it for much more than its worth (I believe it was an eighty dollar value being sold for one thousand dollars). I told him that the man being a generally unpleasant person gave me no right to steal from him, and that I could possibly take legal action against him.

Legal action on what grounds? To legally force him to sell to you for less?

However, if the disease is incredibly rare and incredibly painful, what constitutes the "worth" of the cure? The constituent parts? I think its evident that such is not the case. The worth of the cure is its value, and its value depends on you. Your wife is in incredible pain, so is it worth $1000? Assumptively, yes, if you value your wife to the highest ideal.

So, here is the question. Looking at it from that perspective, he is being selfish, but that does not change the fact that he is violating the rights of another human being. So then, all I have to ask, is the premise of giving up something he values less (some immediate freedom) for something more (the life and health of his spouse) morally valid, even if his act is not? I have my own answer to this question, but I am curious to see what you all think.

He is not just giving up his immediate freedom, if he is (or purports to be) an objectivist. If he steals the medicine, he is not only using force to get what he wants and infringing upon the right of the medicine owner to trade voluntarily, he is also acting altruistically, in determining that HIS need for his wife to live outweighs the right of the medicine owner to trade voluntarily. Ultimately, he's reaction to emotion, not reason, and thus, by stealing hte medicine, acting irrationally.

If he believes in Objectivism, and he values his wife, presumably his wife also values him and honors him as reflecting her own values as well. Therefore, it is extremely likely in my view that his wife is also an objectivist.

Therefore, he should consider what her opinion of him will be once she discovers that her husband acted in a manner in which she views as doubly immoral, in order to save her life.

So no, I do not think the premise is morally valid. Validity can not be found in pursuing ones own interests at the expense of others, no matter how altruistic the intent.

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Thats supposed to be the point. There was nothing I could do. Physically impossible. When I suggested that I just go get a loan, my friend explained that I couldn't get the money or medicine any other way than via theft. Trust me, I tried that.

Yes, that's what makes it a cheap trick. The real question is "If you have to decide between theft and the death of a loved one, what would you do?" But instead of asking the question openly, the blame is shifted to a "selfish" third actor. That's why it cannot be taken seriously.

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Legal action on what grounds? To legally force him to sell to you for less?

I was referring to monopoly laws -but my knowledge of them is not very good and I apologize for my ignorance. As Benpercent pointed out, the man would not have legal dominion over the chemical itself. I tried similar reasoning with my friend, but he claimed that the over charging man was ONLY way to get the medicine.

However, if the disease is incredibly rare and incredibly painful, what constitutes the "worth" of the cure? The constituent parts? I think its evident that such is not the case. The worth of the cure is its value, and its value depends on you. Your wife is in incredible pain, so is it worth $1000? Assumptively, yes, if you value your wife to the highest ideal.

I think 1000 is really meant to stand for an arbitrarily high number. Like I pointed out before, here in the real world, a thousand dollars is a drop in the bucket if your dealing with terminal illness. I would gladly pay it, but the problem being is that the question is set up to make it so you CAN'T do the right thing or the "happy" thing at the same time.

He is not just giving up his immediate freedom, if he is (or purports to be) an objectivist. If he steals the medicine, he is not only using force to get what he wants and infringing upon the right of the medicine owner to trade voluntarily, he is also acting altruistically, in determining that HIS need for his wife to live outweighs the right of the medicine owner to trade voluntarily. Ultimately, he's reaction to emotion, not reason, and thus, by stealing hte medicine, acting irrationally.

If he believes in Objectivism, and he values his wife, presumably his wife also values him and honors him as reflecting her own values as well. Therefore, it is extremely likely in my view that his wife is also an objectivist.

Therefore, he should consider what her opinion of him will be once she discovers that her husband acted in a manner in which she views as doubly immoral, in order to save her life.

So no, I do not think the premise is morally valid. Validity can not be found in pursuing ones own interests at the expense of others, no matter how altruistic the intent.

I understand your point. My friend is not an Objectivist. What I was really curious about is if it was a selfish and moral act to do something for someone else, at the cost of something for yourself, if you value the result more than what you gave up. In other words, the happiness of his wife for his freedom, if he values his freedom less than the comfort and happiness of his wife. I understand and agree with you that regardless of how moronic or potentially mean the supplier is, or how needy the wife is, it is still morally wrong to steal, and as mentioned before, this is one of those situations where you can't be both moral and "happy."

Yes, that's what makes it a cheap trick. The real question is "If you have to decide between theft and the death of a loved one, what would you do?" But instead of asking the question openly, the blame is shifted to a "selfish" third actor. That's why it cannot be taken seriously.

Its the way the thing is set up, if you haven't noticed the descriptions dripping with loaded words. The selfish third actor is really a rational scape goat placed there to test moral style. The whole set up, loaded words and all, is a test to try and see how rational and rooted your morality is. Hence all the traps and trick phrases. Its not a test of your morality, but how its set up. Its all part of Kolberg moral theory. If you answers somehow involved the word "love," you were put on he bottom tier, levels 1 and 2. This is the "selfish" child-like "mine!-mine!-mine!" moral style. If your answer involved the law, yours on the second tier, levels 3-4. These involve authority and law. My teacher put me in here because I mentioned jail, in passing. I disagree with his judgement, but it doesn't matter. Anything else is the third tier, levels 5-6, which involve an internalized and personal moral code. Yes or no doesn't matter, its your justification that labels your operating level.

You want to know what's really sadistic about this experiment? It is revealed after you answer that the reason the medicine is so grossly over-priced is that the medical supplier has a daughter who is dieing of cancer and needs the money to save her life. My psycology teacher can be a dick sometimes B) .

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I was referring to monopoly laws -but my knowledge of them is not very good and I apologize for my ignorance.

I'm not an expert, but my rudimentary understanding is that they are fundamentally anti-capitalist. I'd suggest reading, as a starter, about Alcoa and what the judge ruled against them for.

I think 1000 is really meant to stand for an arbitrarily high number. Like I pointed out before, here in the real world, a thousand dollars is a drop in the bucket if your dealing with terminal illness. I would gladly pay it, but the problem being is that the question is set up to make it so you CAN'T do the right thing or the "happy" thing at the same time.

My main point, tho, is that the question incorrectly equates price with value. Price is just the amount of money involved - or in fundamental terms - the material rate of barter being asked for by the seller. Value is determined by more than material goods - the value to you is the curing of your wife's disease.

I understand your point. My friend is not an Objectivist. What I was really curious about is if it was a selfish and moral act to do something for someone else, at the cost of something for yourself, if you value the result more than what you gave up.

Objectively speaking, morality is morality. Something is either moral, or it is not, for the type of being to whom it applies. Morality only applies to living things, and is different for animals than for man. Objectivist morality says that, for Man, since we *can* reason, our only moral option is to act rationally in the pursuit of our own interests. To do this, I believe we must 1) determine if our interests are moral and reject any interest that is not, and then 2) determine the relative value of the interest to us. Then we must prioritize based on the value of those moral interests that remain.

How do we determine morality of our interests? If they promote our own life AND do not infringe on anothers ability to promote their own life, they are moral. If they destroy our life, but don't infringe on another, they are immoral, and if they promote our life but do infringe on another, they are immoral. To be rational, then, one must value acting morality above all else.

So - if your friend steals the medicine, he commits an immoral act by infringing upon the sellers ability to promote his own interest - that being to trade voluntarily for the price he commands. Its *his* medicine. If the seller is immovable on his price, then the moral and rational choice is to treat the situation as if the wife were pinned under a rock so heavy, no one could move it in time to save her. There is no action you can take to save her, so you must then, because you value her, do all you can to comfort her and share what joy you can with her in the time you have left.

You want to know what's really sadistic about this experiment? It is revealed after you answer that the reason the medicine is so grossly over-priced is that the medical supplier has a daughter who is dieing of cancer and needs the money to save her life. My psycology teacher can be a dick sometimes <_< .

Irrelevant data: Why the seller demands the high price is of no value to you. His daughter's need does not put a claim upon you to act any differently.

Some would say, "this just proves that not stealing is the right thing to do". It doesn't. If you say, "no I won't steal", the professor could very well come back and say, "well the seller just wants the $1000 to buy a new hotrod". But if the professor IS consistent with this data, its still irrelevant. Your wife's need puts no claim on him, and his daughters need puts no claim on you.

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I'm not an expert, but my rudimentary understanding is that they are fundamentally anti-capitalist. I'd suggest reading, as a starter, about Alcoa and what the judge ruled against them for.

I'll have to.

My main point, tho, is that the question incorrectly equates price with value. Price is just the amount of money involved - or in fundamental terms - the material rate of barter being asked for by the seller. Value is determined by more than material goods - the value to you is the curing of your wife's disease.

*Nods*

So - if your friend steals the medicine, he commits an immoral act by infringing upon the sellers ability to promote his own interest - that being to trade voluntarily for the price he commands. Its *his* medicine. If the seller is immovable on his price, then the moral and rational choice is to treat the situation as if the wife were pinned under a rock so heavy, no one could move it in time to save her. There is no action you can take to save her, so you must then, because you value her, do all you can to comfort her and share what joy you can with her in the time you have left.

*nods in agreement, again* This, I think, answers my question. Thank you. Unless anyone else has a dissenting viewpoint?

Irrelevant data: Why the seller demands the high price is of no value to you. His daughter's need does not put a claim upon you to act any differently.

Some would say, "this just proves that not stealing is the right thing to do". It doesn't. If you say, "no I won't steal", the professor could very well come back and say, "well the seller just wants the $1000 to buy a new hotrod". But if the professor IS consistent with this data, its still irrelevant. Your wife's need puts no claim on him, and his daughters need puts no claim on you.

I understand that, and argued that earlier (when I recapped the debate with my friend). The point of the experimental set-up is probably to test if it can make you act immoral and irrational. Hence all the empathetic heart-string tugging and loaded words. No, its not nice, and its rather stupid, but I kind of have those feelings about most of psychology.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Read 'The Voice Of Reason'. I think it's an essay in there by Leonard Peikoff, where he asked students to mail him examples of what they were being taught in their courses at University. This exact problem was mailed to him. I'm surprised it still exists today.

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Read 'The Voice Of Reason'. I think it's an essay in there by Leonard Peikoff, where he asked students to mail him examples of what they were being taught in their courses at University. This exact problem was mailed to him. I'm surprised it still exists today.

For references purposes, if I may ask, what essay in particular are you referring to? "Assault from the Ivory Tower"?

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"Unless anyone else has a dissenting viewpoint?"

I have. This is a scenario where one has to choose between the right to life and the right to property. Apart form the fact that the scenario is a bad trick, I will try to answer the question of morality in this context.

It's the right to life that makes the right to property possible and necessary. I don't say that because of this, the state must confiscate all property if there's a human being whose life is in danger and can only be saved by means of something that is very expensive. But I say that it is not immoral to steal that medicine if the man values his wife very highly - and if, after her being cured, he tries everything to return the amount of money.

Immoral actions are supposed to harm both the one who acts immorally and his eventual victim. This man is not harmed if he steals the medicine - if he values his wife highly enough. If he does, he would eventually die for her; so it certainly wouldn't be a sacrifice if he "just" stole something. One should act morally because of selfish reasons. What selfish reason is it that would forbid a man to steal? The right to property. But that is not a primary; the right to life is. So, in this context, I would say it would be morally okay for an individual - NOT for the state - to steal the medicine.

Please forgive the eventual inaccuracy of language, I am not a native speaker.

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I have given it some further thought and I think I have to clarify what I said, especially the right to life and the right to property. One might think that I wanted to say that the right to life of the wife would be negated if she is not given the medicine. This, of course, is not true. What is crucial in this context is that the man eventually values his wife very high, so that he wouldn't want to live in the world without her. If so, it is morally okay for him to steal the medicine - he shouldn't sacrifice a value so high that after her death, he is not able to value anything any more. But this scenario has nothing at all to do with politics, and it is indeed a cheap trick.

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I have given it some further thought and I think I have to clarify what I said, especially the right to life and the right to property. One might think that I wanted to say that the right to life of the wife would be negated if she is not given the medicine. This, of course, is not true. What is crucial in this context is that the man eventually values his wife very high, so that he wouldn't want to live in the world without her. If so, it is morally okay for him to steal the medicine - he shouldn't sacrifice a value so high that after her death, he is not able to value anything any more. But this scenario has nothing at all to do with politics, and it is indeed a cheap trick.

This is essentially my friend's argument.

I don't see your reasoning. You say your argument is not a rational for stealing on a mass scale, but that is the way it looks from here. Using your logical precedent, since I have teeth that need root canals, and since those teeth could become infected in a potentially fatal manner, my need of dental surgery is life threatening. Since I value my life, which is in danger, by your logic I can steal to pay for my dental work, as long as I turn myself in later or try to make amends. This is essentially Rand's ethics of an emergency, but I don't think it really applies to either situation. There is nothing immediately at danger in either case. While the scenario is set up for the immediate need of the medicine, you could argue from the emergency standpoint, in real life there are so many alternatives its a little silly.

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You say your argument is not a rational for stealing on a mass scale, but that is the way it looks from here. Using your logical precedent, since I have teeth that need root canals, and since those teeth could become infected in a potentially fatal manner, my need of dental surgery is life threatening. Since I value my life, which is in danger, by your logic I can steal to pay for my dental work, as long as I turn myself in later or try to make amends.

Yes, I can see your point. Perhaps it would really be better to point out that the situation is virtually impossible, and not to answer it because of that reason. Too many people would change the context and try to justify unjust and evil actions.

There is nothing immediately at danger in either case.

Well, in the version presented here, it doesn't say that the woman's life is in immediate danger. I came across a version that says so. If it's "only" pain, my reasoning would not apply here, you're right.

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