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Criminal-acts or not?

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Chris
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My question concerns the comments that have been made by Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff about the rights of others not necessarily having to be respected during certain types of emergency situations. Specifically, I wonder what should be done by the government--if anything--in response to individuals who have refused to acknowledge liberty rights of others due to their encountering emergency situations themselves. If someone--for example--were to refuse to respect those liberties of others which he would normally have to respect as rights out of a realistic expectation that something catasrophic might occur if he were not to infringe upon such liberties, then what--if anything--should the government be able to do as a responss to such forceful behavior, and why? I myself wonder if ANYTHING could be a moral action for the government to take against such an indivudual,IF it is indeed true that one must not neccessarily respect the normally applicable rights of others in certain situations. (If the person has done nothing morally wrong in initiating force against others, then I don't know if any MORAL actions could be taken by the government against such a presumably innocent person.)

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Specifically, I wonder what should be done by the government--if anything--in response to individuals who have refused to acknowledge liberty rights of others due to their encountering emergency situations themselves.
The government should never act against a person who refuses to acknowledge the rights of others. That would imply that the government has a right and obligation to compel people to acknowledge the rights of others, but it does not -- the proper function of government is limited to use of retaliatory force against rights violators, in accordance with the law. So as long as a person does not violate the rights of others, the government has no need to deal with citizens, even citizens who do not accept the rights of others. What matters is whether they act contrary to the rights of others.

As for people who actually violate the rights of others, the excuse that they have previously encountered an emergency themselves is no excuse. Just because you've been on a sinking ship or in a fire does not so traumatize you for life that you are incapable of respecting the rights of others and cannot be held responsible for your acts.

If someone--for example--were to refuse to respect those liberties of others which he would normally have to respect as rights out of a realistic expectation that something catasrophic might occur if he were not to infringe upon such liberties, then what--if anything--should the government be able to do as a responss to such forceful behavior, and why?
The issue is not whether a person has a realistic expectation that something catastrophic might occur -- that standard is way too low. Rather, the standard should be that a person must be certain that a true "metaphysical emergency" is taking place now. My expression "metaphysical emergency" is intended to limit this to real emergencies, which last only moments and which are unpredictable. Thus the recent collapse of the economy was not an emergency, though the government treats it as one. As a hypothetical example, assume that (as an engineer) you know with certainty that the ship will explode if the port engine is started, and you can see that the captain is reaching to hit the start button on the port engine. Because of noise you cannot yell and be heard, but you have a gun. At this point, you are faced with the alternative of certain death (due to inaction), or continued existence (by shooting the captain). No code of morality can hold that "in order to exist qua man, you must cease to exist", so you're on your own, buddy. The should, then, allow a necessity defense.

On the other hand, assume that (as an engineer) you become aware of a design flaw in the construction of a ship, whereby in certain non-bizarre circumstances, gasoline fumes might accumulate and a spark might set them off when the port engine starter is engaged. You should be imprisoned if you shoot the designer or builder, because this is not an emergency. It is a potential emergency, not an actual one, and there are rights-respecting ways of dealing with the problem.

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One of the things you wrote in your response was, "The government should never act against a person who refuses to acknowledge the rights of others." The statement of mine you were referring to in making that comment was unfortunately poorly worded. I was meaning to describe someone who not only refused to ACKNOWLEDGE the rights of others in an emergency scenario, but who actually VIOLATED those rightrs in order to survive. My apologies for having not expressed my thoughts clearly enough. I am actually in complete agreement with your statement that refusing to ACKNOWLEDGE the rights of others--without actually violating those rights--is not something that should be punishable by government.

You also wrote, "The issue is not whether a person has a realistic expectation that something catastrophic might occur -- that standard is way too low." My own belief on this issue is that a certain degree of expectation that something catastrophic might occur to one would qualify the scenario as being an emergency. As to exactly how much harm to oneself one must expect, or how certain one must be that such harm would occur, I'm not really sure.

I'm curious as to what you think of my question as to WHY it would be morally permissable for the government to take action against someone who violated the rights of another in order to get by in an emergency situation. I asked this question because IF it is granted that it is MORALLY permissable to violate the rights of others in order to avoid serious harm in an emergency scenerio, then I wonder what action could be taken against an individual for having acted in such a way. In other words, how could it be an act of governmental justice to punish people for morally permissable actions? I must admit that I myself think that I MIGHT violate the rights of others in an emergency scenario if I thought that it could help me to survive. I agree with Ayn Rand, also, that the decision of whether to violate the rights of others or not in such circumstances in order to avoid serious harm to oneself would have to be a SUBJECTIVE deciion; morality could not say what one should OBJECTIVELY do in such a situation. I also know that I would support the government's taking actions against indivduals for violating the rights of others under ANY Circumstances, regardless of whether it was an emergency or not. I do wonder, however, WHY I should feel as I do that someone who violated the rights of others in order to avoid serious harm in an emergency should be puhished by the government if such action was morally permissable.

Lastly, I hope that this message posts the way I imagine it will. I have had difficulty serveral times already in trying to post what I had in mind due to not knowing how to use the "insert quotation"-function of this website. Every time I try to use that function, I end up being told that my number of opening quote tags doesn't match my number of closing quote tage, and I'm not sure why that is--as I have counted them and everything appears normal to me. Please feel free to let me know what I might be doing wrong in trying to use that function:)

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When you hit 'reply', the post is preceded by '[ quote name= and so on, ending with ], and then there is a closing tag '[ /quote]' (without the space). It's challenging to get all of the tags properly closed. Sometimes you just have to read through once just focusing on mismatched tags. Practice, practice....

My own belief on this issue is that a certain degree of expectation that something catastrophic might occur to one would qualify the scenario as being an emergency.
Well, that would have to be a very high degree of expectation, and the catastrophe would have to be imminent.
I'm curious as to what you think of my question as to WHY it would be morally permissable for the government to take action against someone who violated the rights of another in order to get by in an emergency situation.
The point is that it would not be, if the violation of another person's right were necessary for the innocent accused's survival. If the concept "emergency" is being applied correctly, and if the force is required (not merely one of a number of possible actions), then obedience to laws requiring respect for other people's rights would lead to severe physical harm to yourself. And the law cannot require a person to be harmed if the harm was not of their own doing. The question is, what kind of acts would not be properly covered by an invocation of an emergency?
I do wonder, however, WHY I should feel as I do that someone who violated the rights of others in order to avoid serious harm in an emergency should be puhished by the government if such action was morally permissable.
I don't know, but it might be that invocation of an emergency is like invoking ignorance of the law: if you could get away with it by just saying so, everybody would do it. The concept has to be well-defined and justified morally -- not simply by saying "but it's an emergency!". An "emergency" is not "something out of the ordinary, something that needs to be dealt with in a shorter than usual time frame" -- I've had agenda items announced a week in advance that went to the head of the line because they were "emergencies". Passage of bills authorizing various trillion dollars' worth of government spending over the past couple of years have been because of "emergencies". So the concept of "emergency" is vastly over-used, and given that I myself an unwilling to give any credence to a claim that a person is innocent "because it was an emergency". I accept the argument that there was no reasonable alternative, if that can be shown, but skepticism about claims of "emergencies" is well-warranted. Perhaps that's what makes you uncomfortable with the emergency defense.
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IF it is granted that it is MORALLY permissable to violate the rights of others in order to avoid serious harm in an emergency scenerio, then I wonder what action could be taken against an individual for having acted in such a way.

Since the course of this conversation seems to accept your hypothetical, I want to weigh in on that point, as I deny the morality of the extreme case, in which an innocent other is killed as means to self-protection.

-- Mindy

Edited by Mindy
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  • 2 months later...

I would have to disagree Mindy.. In the "extreme case" as David defined it the innocent other is unknowingly about to cause your death. He is not morally guilty but he is nevertheless a very real threat to your life. There are many possible scenario's in which this sort of reasoning may apply. The idea that "I can't get away, and I can't stop him without causing him serious harm or death" is both sound and moral. The individual does not intend to kill the innocent victim, however the harm he intends to inflict is the only way of preserving his own life.. In David's hypothetical it's important to recognize the fact that even if the individual does not shoot the innocent captain the captain will still die, as his actions would result in the death of everyone on the ship. However, if the individual shoots him, there is at least a possibility that he will survive.. in practical terms he's actually doing the captain a favour.

Edited by Cmac19
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