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What If Respecting Rights Kills Me?

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This is an easy way out. Let's assume now that he defends his property with his life, and my only means of my acquiring it is to kill him.

Okay, your hypothetical is reaching the point of absurdity. There is no way one can determine the outcome of combat. It is possible that you could incapacitate him, it also possible that you could kill him, or make his death inevitable.

The point of ethics is "Do you want to live?". Are you willing to take another man's life in order to live (given that it is the only way to live)? If yes, then kill him, if no, then no.

However that is just a syllogism. Watch this...

Do you want to live (Provided the only way to survive is to molest children)? If yes, molest children, if no, do not molest children and die!

These hypothetical situations are detached from reality.

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I would suggest that rights are useless if they get you killed. Take the man's water. Pay him back later as much as you can and apologize and hope that he agrees to forgive you.

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That's an unjustified assumption. It is not rights that would get him killed. More likely, taking the water will result in the owner pulling a gun and shooting you or a sword and chopping your head off. In other words, violating the rights of the water's owner is more of the threat than not.

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This seems interesting, and so I'll pose the hypothetical with details so as to make it clear, and hopefully Minarchist will agree it gets his point across.

You are an engineer on a flight in from a Saudi oil field (you work for ExxonMobil, say), and have always strived to be honest and productive. Something happens, a bird flies into the engine say, and your plane crashes in the middle of the Sahara. The plane is ablaze, and you barely make it out alive. Everyone else is dead, and their bodies burned. All the supplies on the plane were burnt up in the fire. You wait for a day or two, but no one comes. You start walking north, thinking that maybe you'll eventually hit the Mediterranean, though when that will be you have no way of knowing. Finally, on your third day without water, you stumble across an oasis, where an old man lives. He's lived in the Sahara all his life, and found this oasis years ago, and made a life for himself there, alone. He built a fence around it, and tells you that you may not enter (he was taught English years ago by a Westerner, when he lived in Egypt many years ago). He is afraid you'll try to kill him, and he is armed with a bow and arrow. There is a small spring in the middle of the oasis, and he refuses to give you any water, even though you beg. He tells you to go away, though there isn't anyone else or any water that he knows of for many miles in any direction. You are on the edge of death, but find a nice rock, and you love to play baseball in your spare time as a pitcher. You know you could knock him out with a throw (possibly killing him), and then hop the fence and take the water. What do you do?

There, you are in the situation through no fault of your own, and the man refuses to give you water, and there is no other water or people around for many miles. Take it or die. Dum dum dum....

Hope that satisfies everyone's need for detail. Now, as for my opinion: you could knock him out and take the water and be prepared to be charged with assault, possibly murder, and theft (that is always an option that you could, if you chose to, take). What you should do, in my opinion, is keep begging, for it is better to die as a man that live as an animal. And a moral code which lets you run roughshod over other people for any reason whatsoever is automatically invalidated because it is not universal and exceptions to it cannot be objectively determined (so suggesting that this is a moral exception is nonsense).

Again, this is a context that is outside of morality. Do what you want to take the water, but be prepared to die trying. I'm just curious as to why the individual in the example would be less afraid of dying from trying to get the water than from not getting the water. Perhaps you could explain that.

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This seems interesting, and so I\'ll pose the hypothetical with details so as to make it clear, and hopefully Minarchist will agree it gets his point across.

You are an engineer on a flight in from a Saudi oil field (you work for ExxonMobil, say), and have always strived to be honest and productive. Something happens, a bird flies into the engine say, and your plane crashes in the middle of the Sahara. The plane is ablaze, and you barely make it out alive. Everyone else is dead, and their bodies burned. All the supplies on the plane were burnt up in the fire. You wait for a day or two, but no one comes. You start walking north, thinking that maybe you\'ll eventually hit the Mediterranean, though when that will be you have no way of knowing. Finally, on your third day without water, you stumble across an oasis, where an old man lives. He\'s lived in the Sahara all his life, and found this oasis years ago, and made a life for himself there, alone. He built a fence around it, and tells you that you may not enter (he was taught English years ago by a Westerner, when he lived in Egypt many years ago). He is afraid you\'ll try to kill him, and he is armed with a bow and arrow. There is a small spring in the middle of the oasis, and he refuses to give you any water, even though you beg. He tells you to go away, though there isn\'t anyone else or any water that he knows of for many miles in any direction. You are on the edge of death, but find a nice rock, and you love to play baseball in your spare time as a pitcher. You know you could knock him out with a throw (possibly killing him), and then hop the fence and take the water. What do you do?

Good enough. I'm not sure that building a fence around a body of water is a proper claim to ownership.

Hope that satisfies everyone's need for detail. Now, as for my opinion: you could knock him out and take the water and be prepared to be charged with assault, possibly murder, and theft (that is always an option that you could, if you chose to, take). What you should do, in my opinion, is keep begging, for it is better to die as a man that live as an animal. And a moral code which lets you run roughshod over other people for any reason whatsoever is automatically invalidated because it is not universal and exceptions to it cannot be objectively determined (so suggesting that this is a moral exception is nonsense).

I agree with you, but it seems contrary to the idea of inalienable rights.

Every man's death is metaphysically inevitable. No ethical code can allow you to live forever. So every ethical code requires the ethical man's death.

There\'s a difference between dying because of something beyond your control and dying because of a choice based on ethics.

You know that.

The only justification I can some up for dying in this scenario is that a man would be unwilling to live if he were forced to be a robber (or worse, murderer) of an innocent man to do so.

One common flaw with these sorts of scenarios is that they\'re told from a perspective of omniscience. "Your death is certain unless you drink within X hours".

Agreed, but the reason I chose a desert is because it allows me to put the hypothetical man in a situation in which it's unreasonable to believe he will find another source of water.

The point of ethics is "Do you want to live?". Are you willing to take another man\'s life in order to live (given that it is the only way to live)? If yes, then kill him, if no, then no.

I like this answer to an extent, but again, it seems contrary to the idea of inalienable rights.

How can it be moral to violate an innocent man's rights?

Again, this is a context that is outside of morality.

How so? It's a choice, and it\'s ethics that guides our choices.

I'm just curious as to why the individual in the example would be less afraid of dying from trying to get the water than from not getting the water. Perhaps you could explain that.

Because he's already near death, he's been walking for days, and he knows he needs water soon.

That do it for you?

EDIT: Odd. It added a "/" everwhere I put punctuation and took your names out of the quotes.

Fixing it now.

Edited by Minarchist
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Oh, the fun of extreme hypothetical questions... I'm going to approach this from the cut and dry "emergency" situation, in which immorality is taken out of the equation. First of all, not everyone is going to react the same and choose the same direction in such a situation. Furthermore, someone in the serious throws of dehydration is probably incapable of making rational choices. However, in the perfect hypothetical situation (of a horribly imperfect situation) it would be moral to obtain the water from another, by any means, if your immediate survival depended on it. Yes, this would be a violation of individual's rights; the other person's rights don't end because another is in an emergency. However, objectivism isn't libertarianism and all choices don't come down to individual rights.

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I'm going to approach this from the cut and dry "emergency" situation, in which immorality is taken out of the equation.

Morality is NEVER taken out of the question, at least not in situations where men capable of volition are involved.

First of all, not everyone is going to react the same and choose the same direction in such a situation.

Irrelevant.

Furthermore, someone in the serious throws of dehydration is probably incapable of making rational choices.

I've never been dehydrated (to my knowledge), but I'm pretty sure that as long as you're conscious you're capable of making rational choices.

However, in the perfect hypothetical situation (of a horribly imperfect situation) it would be moral to obtain the water from another, by any means, if your immediate survival depended on it.

That's the conclusion I come to, but I think this stands contrary to the idea of inalienable rights.

Rand says: "Since Man has inalienable individual rights, this means that the same rights are held, individually, by every man, by all men, at all times. Therefore, the rights of one man cannot and must not violate the rights of another."

I'm trying to figure out if there's some bridge between the purpose of ethics being ones own life, and the inalienable rights of others that I'm missing. Rand says that men should not sacrifice others to themselves.

It is important to keep in mind that this is a question of individual choice, not of the law. I understand and agree that the only proper purpose of law is the protection of individual rights.

What really bothers me is the more obscure implications of this question.

Edited by Minarchist
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That's an unjustified assumption. It is not rights that would get him killed. More likely, taking the water will result in the owner pulling a gun and shooting you or a sword and chopping your head off. In other words, violating the rights of the water's owner is more of the threat than not.

I agree, I am just answering the hypothetical, even though the answer is practically meaningless.

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I like this answer to an extent, but again, it seems contrary to the idea of inalienable rights.

Ethics, for the most part, is meant to be approached inductively. You are approaching it deductively.

Yes, you can create a scenario in which it would be in some one's best interest are to violate the rights of others, just like I can probably find a scenario in physics where gravity does not behave normally, this doe not however mean that we should build rockets without gravity in mind or act without rights in mind.

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Yes, you can create a scenario in which it would be in some one's best interest are to violate the rights of others, just like I can probably find a scenario in physics where gravity does not behave normally, this doe not however mean that we should build rockets without gravity in mind or act without rights in mind.

I'm not saying that it means that, simply that it means that "rights" aren't inalienable (if my conclusion is correct) and that we shouldn't always act without forcing others to serve our interests.

This is CLEARLY contradictory with what Rand said, and I'm trying to figure out if I'm missing something.

Edited by Minarchist
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I don't see any inherent problem posing this hypothetical, it is entirely possible for this situation to happen, there is nothing wrong with considering it.

Let's say you are a worthless drugged out hippie who decided to go on a spirit quest and got lost out in the desert and now you are asking for part of the water from this honest, hard-working producer. Frankly, you should be content that he is putting you out of your misery, it would be unethical for you to impose suffering upon him to help sustain and prolong your own. If the two roles were reversed, it seems like the ethical conclusion would be as well. If you are some honest, hard-working producer whose airplane was struck down by a lightening bolt out of the blue sky, and you came across some desert man who sits grinding meal in a bowl, hour after hour, century by century, frankly it would be unethical of you not to sustain and prolong your own life, even at his expense. If you can see yourselves equally as honest producers, you will be able to come to a rational conclusion without resorting to force.

Edited by TeaPartier
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There\'s a difference between dying because of something beyond your control and dying because of a choice based on ethics.

You know that.

Yes, there is. But your hypothetical seems to be more of the former scenario than the latter.

The only justification I can some up for dying in this scenario is that a man would be unwilling to live if he were forced to be a robber (or worse, murderer) of an innocent man to do so.

I honestly can't figure out what you mean by that.

Agreed, but the reason I chose a desert is because it allows me to put the hypothetical man in a situation in which it's unreasonable to believe he will find another source of water.

Okay but you ignored all the other bits of required omniscience required to make your scenario realistic. It may be the case that the only way I can get the water is by killing the man, but how am I supposed to *know* that the only way I can get the water is by killing the man?

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Morality is NEVER taken out of the question, at least not in situations where men capable of volition are involved.

From an Objectivist standpoint, this is your error. According to Rand's ethics there are so-called "lifeboat situations" where ethics are impossible due to the emergency situation. The only prerogative in a lifeboat situation is to return things to normal as soon as humanly possible.

Rand made the point that ethics are for living a normal life on this earth. They do not apply in emergencies. It also may not be possible to act ethically where force is involved. "Morality ends at the point of a gun." You appear to be looking for some kind of absolute ethics that applies in all situations regardless of context as if ordained from somewhere else. This is not the perspective Objectivist morality takes.

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I'm not saying that it means that, simply that it means that "rights" aren't inalienable (if my conclusion is correct) and that we shouldn't always act without forcing others to serve our interests.

This is CLEARLY contradictory with what Rand said, and I'm trying to figure out if I'm missing something.

Yes, I believe that you are missing something, and it is crucial to understanding what Rand meant when she wrote of inalienable rights. Several people have hinted at the answer by saying that this scenario is "outside the context of morality," but that simple of an answer is far from satisfactory (and did not satisfy me, either, when I first asked this question).

I don't know how much of Rand's epistemology you are familiar with, but context is key. Any true principle is always formed within a context of knowledge, and does not apply outside of that context. I will give an example dealing with a scientific principle first, to better explain what I mean.

The principle is: Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. This principle is absolute (or inalienable, if you will), but only within a certain context. It assumes that we are in Earth's atmosphere at sea level. If these conditions are not met, the principle does not apply and that statement is not true. Now, this does not make the principle non-absolute; it is absolute, but only within its context.

Ayn Rand formed the moral principle of rights through a similar epistemological process. She decided that inalienable rights are what are required in order for humans, living in normal conditions, to be successful in their pursuit of life:

"Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work." - Galt's speech

On what conditions did she base this conclusion? Well, rights are required in order for man to successfully engage in productive work. Productive work is man's best method for long-range survival, in her judgment. She studied men and decided that under normal circumstances, a man can never better himself by violating the rights of another. This is what she concretized as the "harmony of rational self-interest." Value is not a zero sum game, there is no such thing as a prudent predator in the long run, crime doesn't pay. Under normal circumstances, where long-term survival is the goal, rights apply.

However, this also provides clues as to which contexts are outside the purview of rights. Rights are based on normal circumstances, where man must live by projecting long-term goals and needs rights in order to do so. Therefore, they do not apply when men are forced into a temporary situation where immediate survival requires harming another person. I will not attempt an exhaustive list of the types of situations which fit this description, but one such scenario is the one given in this thread.

Now, just like the scientific principle above, the fact that rights are limited to a context does not mean that they are not absolute within that context. Provided I am at sea level, when I bring water up to 212oF, it will begin to boil, every time. This is why we call it absolute, even though there are contexts under which it would not happen. Similarly, rights are absolute and inalienable whenever the context from which they are formed applies. Like a scientific principle, they apply every time, with certainty, whenever the preconditions are met. Thus, we are justified in calling them inalienable. However, if the conditions are not met, they do not apply.

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From an Objectivist standpoint, this is your error. According to Rand's ethics there are so-called "lifeboat situations" where ethics are impossible due to the emergency situation. The only prerogative in a lifeboat situation is to return things to normal as soon as humanly possible.

Rand made the point that ethics are for living a normal life on this earth. They do not apply in emergencies. It also may not be possible to act ethically where force is involved. "Morality ends at the point of a gun." You appear to be looking for some kind of absolute ethics that applies in all situations regardless of context as if ordained from somewhere else. This is not the perspective Objectivist morality takes.

I think you're confusing "the Objectivist ethics" with morality in general. Any time human beings are faced with choices, they require a method of choosing between different options, and morality can guide them. However, the specific principles elucidated in The Objectivist Ethics (e.g. the trader principle) only apply under normal circumstances. Abnormal circumstances still require morality; they simply require a different set of principles. Because such situations are abnormal, it was not worth Rand's (or anyone's) time delimiting the proper principles to follow in abnormal situations.

The "morality ends at the point of a gun" quote is given by Rand to make precisely the point that volition is required for morality to apply. It is choice which is important for morality, not normal circumstances. "The point of a gun" was Rand's metaphor for force's removal of man's ability to choose. It means more than simply abnormal circumstances, it symbolizes the removal of volition.

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Thanks for the answer Dante. With all of this said, is it always proper for the government to keep men from alienating the rights of one another, even in emergencies?

I want to say "yes", the government should never step outside of it's role of protecting individual rights.

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I think themadkat has it right. Constructing a scenario where "respecting rights kills me" is to consider events on the fringe of the fringe of a normal human existence. Since the context changes from normal existence in these hypotheticals, the rules of conduct necessarily change.

The moment you give me a scenario where my only option choice available action TO SURVIVE is to kill, then you have placed me outside of the context of normal life as a man. When you remove the possibility for living a life based on reason and eliminate the possibility of choosing to live at all, then you have reduced me to the status of an animal. At that point, it is kill or be killed... and I'll do as the animal must do.

Disclaimer: However, in none of these scenarios above would I have given up on my capacity for surviving based on my abilities to reason and act as a rights respecting human.

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Thanks for the answer Dante. With all of this said, is it always proper for the government to keep men from alienating the rights of one another, even in emergencies?

I want to say "yes", the government should never step outside of it's role of protecting individual rights.

I don't know what my answer would be to that, actually. I'd also be inclined to say yes, but I'd have to think about it. At the very least, if they did put a provision making it legal to (say) temporarily break into grocery stores during hurricanes or something in order to obtain necessities (food and water), they would need to enforce full reimbursement for all rights violations which occurred during the disaster, to the extent possible. A temporary emergency does not eliminate the need to set things right once normal conditions prevail again.

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I don't know what my answer would be to that, actually. I'd also be inclined to say yes, but I'd have to think about it. At the very least, if they did put a provision making it legal to (say) temporarily break into grocery stores during hurricanes or something in order to obtain necessities (food and water), they would need to enforce full reimbursement for all rights violations which occurred during the disaster, to the extent possible. A temporary emergency does not eliminate the need to set things right once normal conditions prevail again.

Necessity is a defense under common law, which is to say nothing of whether or not it ought to be.

I'm not sure, but it's possibly only a defense under criminal law, so there would still be a civil case for damages.

Edited by smyjpmu
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  • 3 weeks later...

A cursory look over the "Ethics" forum and this one yielded no similar threads, and in attempting to search for it I found that there were simply too many ways to phrase the question.

Since ethics is based on the choice to live, what if respecting rights ended my life?

Let's say, for instance, that I were to get lost in the desert and came upon a man with several water bottles. If he refused to give them to me, and my death were certain otherwise, should I respect his rights, or would that be unethical in that it would kill me?

I guess I could phrase it this way: Should I hold another man's rights superior to my life, and if so how would that be ethical?

I imagine this question's been asked before, I just can't seem to find it. Apologies if I just didn't look hard enough.

Going back to your original question, you'll see the main problem with it.

Respecting rights is not what kills you. Your being in the desert for an extended period of time with no water is what kills you, in this instance.

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I think you may be looking at it ina limited way. My right to life is not antagonistic to your right to life. The "right" to life is predicated on the valuing of life in general...I value life the way I value a Rembrandt painting, whether I own it or you do.

If the other guy has "excess" water and you need it to live, he ought properly respect that and benevolently give you some. He cannot, if he doesn't need that water. claim the right to life and not help you save yours. That is a contradiction. And perhaps the words "help you" is misleading...it is not his responsibility to help you, that is not what he is doing...he is being consistent and helping himself by being true to his principles.

Yes, you can morally take some of his water to live, provided you do not endanger his life. If he fully comprehends the beauty of life, he should be happy to give it to you.

Stampedingherd.blogspot.com

Rights are value- based; the value here is life itself. Life is the primary value, while mine, or yours, is the specific value - well, thats my phrasing. ie, to value mine, I should also value yours.

Actually, I'm just repeating what RayN writes above, and I like his reply.

However, doesn't this presuppose that this guy with water shares the same morality you do?

(I've often wondered about the corollary of "do as you would be done by" - can't someone also insist that "he be done by, as he would do?" )

So, is it the consensus here that it is moral to initiate violence in this fictitious scenario?

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I agree with DavidOdden.

In this situation, ethics is irrelevant because you cannot choose to live like a man.

Your choices are living as a sub-human or dying.

Whatever your choice is now (either taking by force the bottles or accepting death as inevitable) is outside the scope of ethics, in the same way that it is outside the scope of ethics what a wolf decides to do in any situation.

A deontologist would say that this is still an ethical question because you are still deciding: you are still making a choice.

But this is a false presentation of the problem. First of all, both choices are irrational: if you choose to take the bottles by force, you are denying the reality of the other man as owner of his life. If you choose to die, you are denying the reality of your own body. Secondly, what makes a human action lie within the borders of ethics is not the ability to choose, but the ability to pursue rational values. If you can't pursue values rationally, then your life as a man has ended.

The apparent difficulty with this sort of lifeboat situations is that they are often presented within a deontological mindframe. Sice you have both a "duty" to your life, and a "duty" to the life of others, those duties clash.

However, within an objetivist mindframe, you don't have "duties". You pursue rational values.

You can still live like a wolf if you like, or you can die if you like. You won't be a villain or a martyr.

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I would post a nice, succinct answer, but I believe the question you have asked is pretty much identical in ethic to the "Life Boat Scenario".

Paul McKeever gave a very well thought out answer on youtube if you are curious:

To hit on a few key points:

Objectivism defines man as the rational thinking human being. What you are proposing is the following:

To remain a human, rational, thinking man or to become nothing but an irrational brute or animal.

A real Man does not simply cast off his code of Morality and Value when he meets a challenge or personal threat. You cannot have values and cast them aside when they don't suit you. Or as Rand would say, you cannot have your cake and eat it too.

***SPOILER From ATLAS SHRUGGED***

Think of John Galt from Atlas Shrugged. When he was captured he didn't just throw his hands up and say "Okay, you got me. Now that you are threatening me with death, I'll just do whatever the hell you want." No way. He held his highest values like a RATIONAL, Volitional MAN not an animal, right until the very end.

***END SPOILER*

If you maintain rationality in this situation, you would thus realise the following:

1. The man within the fence has a right to his property

2. You have no right whatsoever to initiate the use of physical force against him.

3. To consider using physical force is to accept that your mind, the only tool you ever really have, is invaluable in this situation (which is obviously false)

Etc.

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I agree with DavidOdden.

In this situation, ethics is irrelevant because you cannot choose to live like a man.

Your choices are living as a sub-human or dying.

Oh dear, I seem not to have been clear enough. The proposed context is an affront to ethics. It isn't that since you're faced with the possibility of death then ethics just has to go on the trash heap. It is that the hypothetical is engineered to demand a contradiction, and is cooked up to "prove" that ethics is useless. The hypothetical reduces to saying "Suppose I act immorally up to a certain point, and then realize that reality is going to kill me -- is it moral to continue to ignore morality if doing so keeps me alive?".
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