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Is it OK to steal/kill to save the life of your child?

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sharke
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Before anyone says it - I'm aware that such a question will inspire many groans from the regulars here and for that, I apologize!

I used to take part in an Objectivism/capitalism forum some time ago and so I know the kinds of questions that come across as tedious and pointless. However, I'm in the midst of an online discussion with someone and to be honest it's been a long time since I've read any Rand or had any such discussions. I was though, drawn to correct the guy and his typical misrepresentation of Rand's philosophy - by pointing out to him that she held that sacrificing a greater value for a lesser one was immoral.

I gave a simple example in which there are two children in front of you who are dying of thirst and you only have enough water to save one of them - to give the water to the other kid would be to sacrifice a greater value for a lesser one and hence immoral. I know it's a stupid scenario which never comes up and thus it's wrong to start talking about ethics using such dumb scenarios as examples. However I was looking to make a simple point quickly and clearly.

He's shot back with his objections and I'm having a little trouble formulating the answer. My Objectivist gears have, I'm sad to say, become a little rusty of late and I wondered if anyone could at least point me in the right direction.

He's now started off about "gray areas" and has come up with another dumb scenario of his own in an attempt to "foil" Objectivism. In his scenario, my child is dying and needs some medicine which is out of my price range and in very short supply. His question: Would it be moral to steal that medicine for my child, knowing that stealing is wrong and that another child who needs that medicine will die from lack of it?

I can break down the problem and solve its second half - if it's a choice between my kid being saved and another kid, then I choose my kid. But as for the issue of whether or not it's OK to steal that medicine?

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No. Need is not a standard of value. When need becomes the standard of value, you give permission for the needy to rape the successful, and turn need into the most important part of life. When the successful and those who achieve are turned into those who need, and when need makes right, the race dies off from starvation.

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Is there nothing to be said for the idea that it is OK to steal to save the life if that life has more value to you than not having to face the consequences of stealing?

In other words, do it as long as you are prepared to face the consequences and accept the appropriate punishment for your crime? After all this is why we have a criminal justice system, surely?

Edited by sharke
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Sounds like a typical altruists' trap. Call him out on what he's trying to do.

He's trying to undercut your beliefs by appealing to your emotions. If you say it is OK to steal the medicine (which is obviously wrong), he's going to attack you for contradicting Objectivist principles. If you say it is not OK to steal the medicine, then he's probably going to attack by calling you immoral, or say "OMG you'd let your own son die! Monster!"

This is highly anti-intellectual. Give him the true Objectivist response; it is wrong to claim the property of another individual. If he thinks your wrong, ask him to prove the alternative.

In other words, do it as long as you are prepared to face the consequences and accept the appropriate punishment for your crime? After all this is why we have a criminal justice system, surely?

To accept any form of punishment is to make the concession that you are wrong. You cannot make an action morally permissible merely because you are prepared to face the punishment for it.

And the purpose of the criminal justice system is to punish those who initiate forceful aggression, not to vindicate them.

Edited by kanjmai
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Is there nothing to be said for the idea that it is OK to steal to save the life if that life has more value to you than not having to face the consequences of stealing?
The problem here is distinguishing between actual value and a "feeling of value". Value is not an emotion, and a declaration "I want it!" does not create value. The first thing to remember is that the standard of value is your life -- things that actually and objectively advance your life are good, things that contradict your life are bad. The second thing that you have to keep a firm mental grip on is that reality is what it is, and having feelings about reality doesn't change how those things actually are. Then you need to remember what a moral code is -- a set of concepts pertaining to good and bad actions (point 1 reminds you what the standard of evaluation is). This, along with basic realizations about man's nature, will lead you to see that your nature is not to be a parasite living off of the life of others, that your proper existence does not require others to sacrifice themselves. Even though reality may seem harsh -- threatening to take away a value -- your emotional attachment to a thing does not override the need for a set of non-contradictory moral concepts, and the threat of loss, even of a loved one, does not change the facts of reality. Namely, you do not have the right to initiate force against another to prevent the loss of value.

[ed.]

Oh, yeah, the other point I wanted to make was that it's not okay to steal if you feel that one person's life is of more value than another's; because that's not the equation. You are gaining the physical existence of another, at the expense of your proper existence -- as man. You are trading away your highest value, your own life qua man, for a lesser value. Because in accepting the savage's credo and living as an animal, you are denying your nature, your identity.

Edited by DavidOdden
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Morality does not consist of out-of-context "rules" or commandments. The answer to this situation is the same as all other lifeboat-type scenarios: Morality cannot be said to apply in extreme emergency circumstances; whatever a person chooses to do under the threat of death (his own, or that of a loved one) is, in effect, moral.

Under normal circumstances, theft is certainly immoral. But when the life of your husband, wife, child, friend is at stake, what else are you supposed to do? Stand by idly and recite "Thou Shalt Not Steal" to yourself as you watch the person die?

Assuming that theft were the only issue at stake, any normal person would steal the medicine, administer it to the person they love, then report what they had done to the police and work to make restitution to those harmed by the action.

The particular scenario under discussion adds another layer: the theft will not merely inconvenience another person, it will lead directly to their death. While this might make stealing the medicine much more unpleasant to do, it doesn't change the essential nature of the situation. You still have to take action to save the life of the one you love, and this action will cause significant harm/loss to someone else. Fortunately, most of us will never have to face decisions like this at any point in our lives. But the principle is the same: When the life of someone you love is at stake, you do whatever you can to save them. Other people be damned, "morality" be damned — and you worry about restitution, fallout and clean-up later.

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Kevin, your position amounts to a repudiation of the concept morality and is based on a misunderstanding of the "lifeboat" scenario. The lifeboat scenario pertains to a man losing his own life in a lifeboat in an actual emergency; this scenario is about the initiation of force to keep some other value. Objectivism does not hold that morality is generally inapplicable when a value is threatened. Please re-read Rand's writings on such emergencies and see what "emergencies" are -- fires and floods, for example. Sickness is "metaphysically normal" though quite unfortunate. You would be on better grounds claiming that a man had a right to initiate force against a shop-keepet in order to get suppplies to protect his house from a flood, since Rand at least did mention floods.

But the principle is the same: When the life of someone you love is at stake, you do whatever you can to save them. Other people be damned, "morality" be damned — and you worry about restitution, fallout and clean-up later.
Your "principle" is arbitrarily chosen. There is no reason you could not have just declared "When your own values are at risk,you do whatever you can to keep them. Other people be damned, 'morality' be damned -- and you worry about restitution, fallout and clean-up later." In short, morality is applicable only when it's not inconvenient. Objectivism does not consist of the arbitrary invocation of "context" and the repuduation of man's need for a moral code to guide his life.
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Kevin, your position amounts to a repudiation of the concept morality and is based on a misunderstanding of the "lifeboat" scenario. The lifeboat scenario pertains to a man losing his own life in a lifeboat in an actual emergency; this scenario is about the initiation of force to keep some other value.

When discussing lifeboat scenarios Rand said that she would not be willing to kill a stranger to save herself, but would kill several to save her husband. Kevin is right to note this as constituting a lifeboat scenario since it is the life of your child that is at risk. Theft in this scenario is certainly moral, murder would come down to subjective choice.

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But the principle is the same: When the life of someone you love is at stake, you do whatever you can to save them. Other people be damned, "morality" be damned — and you worry about restitution, fallout and clean-up later.

If we accept that the idea that Objectivist principles, morality and individual rights can be cast aside in emergency situations in favor of sacrificing others to self--altruism, have we not rendered such values as worthless? It seems to me that emergencies are where one's principles are needed most. If we are willing to kill others to get the medicine we need for a sick child, would it not make more sense to just socialize medicine and avoid any potential need to go on some future murderous rampage?

Note: Not advocating socialized medicine.

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If we are willing to kill others to get the medicine we need for a sick child, would it not make more sense to just socialize medicine and avoid any potential need to go on some future murderous rampage?

If life was like a big life boat scenario, where you had to kill other men in order to survive, than you would be right to apply your choices in a life boat scenario to the wider context of the entire nation or the world. As it happens, life is not lived in a life boat: violating the rights of others is not neccesary for your survival. This is the dangerous switch that those who pose such scenarios often try to pull.

Real-life life boat scenarios are extremely rare. In this case, for example, why is this medicine so rare that only one dose is in existence? Why couldn't you take out a loan to pay for the medicine or appeal for charity to pay to save your child? Luckily, these types of problems are usually only thought experiments.

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Morality cannot be said to apply in extreme emergency circumstances; whatever a person chooses to do under the threat of death (his own, or that of a loved one) is, in effect, moral.

This is a misinterpretation of a life boat scenario. It is not simply an extreme emergency. Life boat scenario has a very specific formulation. It is when no moral option is available. That is what makes it amoral and not the state of emergency itself.

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He's now started off about "gray areas" and has come up with another dumb scenario of his own in an attempt to "foil" Objectivism. In his scenario, my child is dying and needs some medicine which is out of my price range and in very short supply. His question: Would it be moral to steal that medicine for my child, knowing that stealing is wrong and that another child who needs that medicine will die from lack of it?

This is not an emergency situation despite the high stakes involved. Emergencies are described as metaphysical by Rand to point out that all men are threatened in an emergency. A predicament where only one person is threatened, even if it is your sick child, fails to be a metaphysical emergency. If it was considered to be then no one on earth could live a normal life until everyone else's loved ones were safe, healthy, housed and fed because of the constant attacks by the self-righteously needy. This is exactly the altruist version of morality.

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In his scenario, my child is dying and needs some medicine which is out of my price range and in very short supply. His question: Would it be moral to steal that medicine for my child, knowing that stealing is wrong and that another child who needs that medicine will die from lack of it?

This is not an emergency situation despite the high stakes involved. Emergencies are described as metaphysical by Rand to point out that all men are threatened in an emergency. A predicament where only one person is threatened, even if it is your sick child, fails to be a metaphysical emergency. If it was considered to be then no one on earth could live a normal life until everyone else's loved ones were safe, healthy, housed and fed because of the constant attacks by the self-righteously needy. This is exactly the altruist version of morality.

I disagree. Assuming you don't read in anything into the scenario (eg. the kid can get well on his own or you are Alexander Flemming and you can engineer your own cure), there are only two options:

1) You steal the rare medicine thereby saving your dying child, violating the property rights of the medicine's manufacturer, and killing an unknown child.

2) You don't steal the medicine, thereby allowing another child to live (whose family can afford the medicine) and preserving the property rights of the medicine's manufacturer.

The clause about killing a stranger absolutely makes this a lifeboat scenario. I'm assuming of course that as a parent your child would be an irreplaceable value, more important than even your own life, and not just some other important value like your car, etc.

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I disagree. Assuming you don't read in anything into the scenario (eg. the kid can get well on his own or you are Alexander Flemming and you can engineer your own cure), there are only two options:

1) You steal the rare medicine thereby saving your dying child, violating the property rights of the medicine's manufacturer, and killing an unknown child.

2) You don't steal the medicine, thereby allowing another child to live (whose family can afford the medicine) and preserving the property rights of the medicine's manufacturer.

The clause about killing a stranger absolutely makes this a lifeboat scenario. I'm assuming of course that as a parent your child would be an irreplaceable value, more important than even your own life, and not just some other important value like your car, etc.

Having an irreplaceable value does not give you a license to do whatever is needed to achieve or maintain that value. What is this child going to think when he grows up and learns his father killed another child?

Regardless of whether or not this is technically a lifeboat scenario it is definitely not an emergency situation. Illness is a part of the normal risks of living. It is an unavoidable fact of life that some people get ill. Changing this metaphysical given into a man-made fact by stealing a rare medicine is irrational, violates rights, substitutes another child's death for your own child's, and transmutes mere misfortune into active evil.

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Having an irreplaceable value does not give you a license to do whatever is needed to achieve or maintain that value. What is this child going to think when he grows up and learns his father killed another child?

Regardless of whether or not this is technically a lifeboat scenario it is definitely not an emergency situation. Illness is a part of the normal risks of living. It is an unavoidable fact of life that some people get ill. Changing this metaphysical given into a man-made fact by stealing a rare medicine is irrational, violates rights, substitutes another child's death for your own child's, and transmutes mere misfortune into active evil.

Define emergency. I can't think of any lifeboat scenario that doesn't fit the definition of emergency "a serious situation or occurrence that happens unexpectedly and demands immediate action" but perhaps you have a different understanding of the concept? Also, as I have said I am assuming as the scenario assumes that you have no other options. If it is possible for you to pay for the medicine even if it takes selling youself into lifelong debt, that is the better option.

I will quote Ayn Rand on lifeboat scenarios, because as I said before this is clearly a lifeboat scenario, "Personally, I would say the man is immoral if he takes an innocent life. But formally, as a moral philosopher, I'd say that in such emergency situations, no one could prescribe what action is appropriate. That's my answer to all lifeboat questions. Moral rules cannot be prescribed for these situations, because only life is the basis on which to establish a moral code. Whatever a man chooses in such cases is right-- subjectively. Two men could make opposite choices. I don't think I could kill an innocent bystander if my life was in danger; I think I could kill ten if my husband's life was in danger." (Ayn Rand Answers, pp.114)

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A quote war? You're on! :)

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.

People getting sick and dying is normal. It is a continuous threat, but happens rarely enough that life goes on.

The principle that one should help men in an emergency cannot be extended to regard all human suffering as an emergency and to turn the misfortune of some into a first mortgage on the lives of others.

Poverty, ignorance, illness and other problems of that kind are not metaphysical emergencies.

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People getting sick and dying is normal. It is a continuous threat, but happens rarely enough that life goes on.

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.

Normal illness is not an emergency. I contend that the advent of a rare, deadly, fast acting illness for which there is only one dose of an extremely-expensive cure in existence would be an "unchosen, unexpected event, limited in time, that creates conditions under which human survival is impossible" if such an illness were possible. I'm sure if you were in that situation you'd think it was too.

What, you might ask, is the difference between this case and the type of "illness" that we are all familiar with and Miss Rand was referring to in your quote? First, I can't name any real disease in existence where the treatment (if it exists) can't be afforded somehow. For example, I've heard of poor families with kids with lukeimia that appealed to charity to pay for treatment.. raising enough money to pay to get cured. Secondly, there are no medicines that are in such limited supply that the treatment of one man prevents the treatment of another. Curing myself of tuberculosis does not cause a stranger to die from it. We must consider the facts as they are posed in the scenario which are metaphysically different than those posed by a normal illness.

As "illness" is used in this scenario this could just as easily be "two men are given poison and there is only one antidote" or "two men are on stranded in the andes and there is only food for one" or "two men are in a lifeboat that can only fit one." As the question is posed this is an emergency, is a lifeboat scenario, and must be treated as such.

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... As the question is posed this is an emergency, is a lifeboat scenario, and must be treated as such.

I discern two differences between this scenario and a typical lifeboat scenario. First, only one party (you and your child) is in danger. There is no general large scale disaster or predicament making life impossible for your neighbors. Second, although the illness is time-limited, unlike a lifeboat scenario the story is not going to be resolved after you save your child's life. Oh no, you aren't out on the raging main or on a trackless mountainside, this story takes place in the middle of civilization. The other child will have relatives, lets say a father who will want vengeance. Being a poetic sort he doesn't kill you, he kills your child. Of course, you kill him. Now three people are dead and you are imprisoned. This is where blind irrationality can take you.

It is no good to claim that the vengeful father is being irrational. His rebellion against the injustice you have intentionally imposed upon him is far more justified than your rebellion against the mindless microbe that infected your child.

Sometimes life is a bitch. Take it like a man qua man.

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DavidOdden and Grames: Does morality ever require man to commit suicide? Your position is that adherence to moral principles means that we must sometimes refrain from acting to rescue the lives of those we love. Are we ever similarly obligated not to act to defend and protect our own lives?

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DavidOdden and Grames: Does morality ever require man to commit suicide? Your position is that adherence to moral principles means that we must sometimes refrain from acting to rescue the lives of those we love. Are we ever similarly obligated not to act to defend and protect our own lives?

Your terminology is mixed. It biases your question.

"commit suicide"

"refrain from acting to rescue"

"not to act to defend and protect"

The question maybe better stated. "If your death is forseeable, is any action valid to sustain your life?" I think the answer is clearly no.

Refraining from any action is not the same as committing suicide. Committing suicide is choosing to die. Refraining from acting in a certain manner (which is choosing to act in a certain manner) is choosing to live your life in a certain way. All moral men (men who chose to live a certain way) will eventually die. So ethics properly applied, applies to non-emergencies. Just based upon that, if your death is forseeable, and it is a non-emergency, there may be ways of preserving your life which are not moral. For example, being unable to afford a life-saving medication to treat a potentially fatal illness does not give you the moral right to steal it instead.

Edited by KendallJ
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Refraining from any action is not the same as committing suicide. Committing suicide is choosing to die.

If you are faced with the option: either take some kind of action in a given circumstance or die, and you choose not to take the action, for all intents and purposes you have chosen to die. Call it what you will, my question is: Can morality ever require man to make this choice?

So ethics properly applied, applies to non-emergencies.

I agree. But what is an emergency? Are emergencies only metaphysical events such as fires, floods, earthquakes — as DavidOdden and Grames have indicated? Is there such a thing as a personal emergency, one in which only one's own life is in danger, or the life of someone you care about? Does having a gun pressed into your back qualify as an emergency situation — at least for you the victim? Does morality end where a gun — or any other kind of real, objective threat to one's life — begins?

Just based upon that, if your death is forseeable, and it is a non-emergency, there may be ways of preserving your life which are not moral. For example, being unable to afford a life-saving medication to treat a potentially fatal illness does not give you the moral right to steal it instead.

One never has the right, per se, to steal somebody's property. However, in a crisis of life or death one cannot be concerned about respecting anybody else's rights. Assuming you are an otherwise moral person, morality will never force you to select non-existence over existence. If a morality is based on life, under extreme emergency circumstances one is justified in taking whatever actions are necessary in order to preserve it.

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If you are faced with the option: either take some kind of action in a given circumstance or die, and you choose not to take the action, for all intents and purposes you have chosen to die. Call it what you will, my question is: Can morality ever require man to make this choice?

That isn't really choosing to die, it's just choosing to live realistically and accepting the fact that all lives eventually end in death. Choosing to live right and accepting the consequences of that (even if the consequences are death now as opposed to death in the future) isn't at all the same as suicide.

I agree. But what is an emergency? Are emergencies only metaphysical events such as fires, floods, earthquakes — as DavidOdden and Grames have indicated? Is there such a thing as a personal emergency, one in which only one's own life is in danger, or the life of someone you care about? Does having a gun pressed into your back qualify as an emergency situation — at least for you the victim? Does morality end where a gun — or any other kind of real, objective threat to one's life — begins?

I think the criteria Ayn Rand used to define an emergency is when there is no moral option, therefore you (and everyone else) have to just do whatever you can. In a flood there is no initiation of force, everyone is in an equal position of vying for their own lives and so pure strength and ingenuity are going to be the determining factors in who lives and who dies - you have just as much of a right to use your mind as anyone else in this situation and if that ends up being good for you and bad for them there's still no blame to be placed. If someone holds a gun to your head then that person is initiating force and you have every moral right to do whatever you have to to defend yourself, retaliation included. Someone being sick doesn't count as an emergency because it's just you in that situation and it still doesn't give you a right to use force against someone who is completely removed from your personal tragedy and therefore can't (morally) be forced into helping you.

One never has the right, per se, to steal somebody's property. However, in a crisis of life or death one cannot be concerned about respecting anybody else's rights. Assuming you are an otherwise moral person, morality will never force you to select non-existence over existence. If a morality is based on life, under extreme emergency circumstances one is justified in taking whatever actions are necessary in order to preserve it.

One of the facts of life is that it's going to end. You can't ignore this fact and use it as a justification for force. You aren't choosing non-existence - you're accepting existence as it is, death and a lot of other potentially terrible side effects included.

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One never has the right, per se, to steal somebody's property. However, in a crisis of life or death one cannot be concerned about respecting anybody else's rights. Assuming you are an otherwise moral person, morality will never force you to select non-existence over existence. If a morality is based on life, under extreme emergency circumstances one is justified in taking whatever actions are necessary in order to preserve it.

"Life" is not morgue avoidance. That is not what is meant by life in the Objectivist ethics. Any sort of life is not necessarily preferable to death.

What you are calling emergency is not. The fact is that everyone will be in this situation at some point in their life. And those who are successful at avoiding it once will be there again. As one gets older the cost of living goes up. You run out of life, when the cost of sustaining to you overwhelms your resources. That natural effect does not give you the right to then choose to live by any means. This is not an emergency.

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