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"Disappearing" or "Emergency" Morality

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agroves
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I have been studying Objectivism for about two years now and have only run into what I see as one major problem, which relates to its ethical approach. However, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this matter so hopefully I can clear up where I am going wrong. And please accept my apology if this has been addressed before and I didn't find it in my search.

It has to do with a somewhat unrealistic ethical example, which I weary of after reading "Ethics of Emergencies" in The Virtue of Selfishness to begin with (p. 49). However, the problem is not so abstract it warrants dismissal.

It goes something along these lines, with certain variations:

Man 1 points a gun at Man 2 and says that he must kill Man 3 in order to live (arguably what happened to the Nazis who were charged with executing Jews). Now it is obvious that Man 1 has intiated force against Man 2 and he expects Man 2 to intiate force against Man 3.

The essay on Emergencies in the Virtue of Selfishness says that this ethical connundrum can be solved by realizing the heirarchy of value. The same essay points out that your own life is the very thing from which all other values arise (p. 53), so it should be the utmost ethical consideration. That seems to suggest that you should kill Man 3 in order to save your own life if you are Man 2.

I also found this radio interview, which I assume to be real and not apocraphyl in which Ayn Rand herself answers this very question:

Well here you have to take your example literally. If a man is under threat of losing his life, then you cannot speak of his right, or the right of Man C, since the rights have already been violated. All you can say is that the rights of Man B and Man C are still valid, but the violator is Man A, with Man B as merely the tool. Therefore you cannot say that rights do not exist. They do exist, but the violator is the initiator of force, not the transmission belt. However this does not apply to any other kind of misfortune, and it does not apply to a dictatorship, because here you would be speaking metaphorically. For instance, you couldn't claim that the men who served in the Gestapo, or the Russian secret police, they couldn't claim (as some of the Nazis did) that they were merely carrying out orders, and that therefore the horrors they committed are not their fault, but are the fault of the chief Nazis. They were not literally under threat of death. They chose that job. Nobody holds a gun on a secret policeman and orders him to function all the time. You could not have enough secret policemen. Therefore I took your example literally. Actually, such a thing does not happen, because if somebody wants to murder someone, he picks a willing executioner. He cannot go with a gun in the back of Man B, and order him to shoot Man C, because that does not relieve him of the responsibility, nor the guilt, for the crime. Only in that literal sense could one say that Man B is absolved, but not in the metaphorical sense; not if he is a willing official of a dictatorship, and then claims "I had no other way to make a living"" That does not absolve him. His life was not in danger. - http://www.jeffcomp.com/faq/murder.html (an obstensively anti-objectivist page)

Rand is saying that based on the heirarchy of value, Man 2 should kill Man 3 in order to preserve his own life and that as long as he was only put in that situation once and didn't voluntarily choose it, then he wouldn't be morally culpable, since "one cannot speak of rights" in such a scenerio.

However, this seem inconsistent with other statements about the heirarchy of value, which can place things above your own life.

For one, Rand argues in The Virtue of Selfishness, namely that if an emergencies arises (Rand cites mostly natural disasters), that man "should volunteer to help strangers" (p. 55) Those situations are:

An emergency is an unchosen, unexpected event, limited in time, that creates conditions in which human life 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.) - VoS (p. 54)
Certainly the emergency in the scenerio is unchosen, unexpected, and limited in time, but the example proves, in theory, that human life is possible if for instance Man 2 did decide to kill Man 3, at least metaphysically so.

In her Playboy Interview Rand says:

PLAYBOY: Would it be against the principles of Objectivism for anyone to sacrifice himself by stepping in front of a bullet to protect another person?

RAND: No. It depends on the circumstances. I would step in the way of a bullet if it were aimed at my husband. It is not self-sacrifice to die protecting that which you value: If the value is great enough, you do not care to exist without it. This applies to any alleged sacrifice for those one loves.

PLAYBOY: Would you be willing to die for your cause, and should your followers be willing to die for it? And for the truly nonsacrificial Objectivist, is any cause worth dying for?

RAND: The answer to this is made plain in my book. In Atlas Shrugged I explain that a man has to live for, and when necessary, fight for, his values -- because the whole process of living consists of the achievement of values. Man does not survive automatically. He must live like a rational being and accept nothing less. He cannot survive as a brute. Even the simplest value, such as food, has to be created by man, has to be planted, has to be produced. The same is true of his more interesting, more important achievements. All values have to be gained and kept by man, and, if they are threatened, he has to be willing to fight and die, if necessary, for his right to live like a rational being. You ask me, would I be willing to die for Objectivism? I would. But what is more important, I am willing to live for it -- which is much more difficult. - (http://ellensplace.net/ar_pboy.html)

According to those statements, living life rationaly is placed above the heirarchy in just mere living. To me this answers the question, but not the way Rand did on the radio interview. Under my understanding, you cannot rationally intiate force against innocent Man 3, even if it is to save your own life, since doing so would be living irrationally, which would result in just "living."

The following exchange is also attributed to Rand between her and N. Branden in The Passion of Ayn Rand:

As she discussed the absolutism of reason, he had interrupted to say uneasily, "But there's a problem...Even if I were somehow rationally convinced that I should murder, say, my wife, I don' think I'd be able to do it. So doesn't reason have it's limits?" "Did you say rationally convinced?" Ayn had asked quietly. (p 233)

This passage suggests that it can never be rational to kill an innocent person. So it can never be rational to kill innocent Man 3 and you should put your life at risk to fight Man 1 since he was the first one to intiate force. Since you could never live rationally, having killed Man 3, the heirarchy of value would seem to suggest that you should strive to live rationally over striving to live, per se. However, I am still uneasy about this conclusion, especially given Rand's apparent willingness to suggest that you could kill Man 3 if it would save your own life.

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Man 1 points a gun at Man 2 and says that he must kill Man 3 in order to live (arguably what happened to the Nazis who were charged with executing Jews). Now it is obvious that Man 1 has intiated force against Man 2 and he expects Man 2 to intiate force against Man 3.

The essay on Emergencies in the Virtue of Selfishness says that this ethical connundrum...

Rand does not use the word "conundrum" in that essay, so you've attributed to her a belief that I don't think she had -- there is no conundrum. Some people may be puzzled, but there is no conundrum. [NB the approriate way to substantiate your claim that "Rand says..." is to provide a quote. Not your interpretation, but her words. This is true even quoting that yutz Kant]. On the the last clause in the scenario, the 2-to-3 relation is not initiation of force. Note that Rand says from the web page: "he isn't initiating the force himself". So let's move on.

your own life is the very thing from which all other values arise (p. 53), so it should be the utmost ethical consideration. That seems to suggest that you should kill Man 3 in order to save your own life if you are Man 2.
Definitely not. You should not sacrifice your own life for the sake of others, but that does not mean that you should kill a third person if someone threatens you. There are contexts where you should, and contexts where you shouldn't. You should kill 3, if it is inescapable that the alternative is your own death.
I also found this radio interview, which I assume to be real and not apocryphal in which Ayn Rand herself answers this very question

Well, if you can provide real evidence that she said this, go for it. I'm curious why you assume it is real. Like, if I tell you that Mars has a reptile king, would you consider that "real"? Perhaps if you could locate the putative Alan Gottheld on the panel, you could test whether this is real. Again, I just want to point out that the world is full of liars (not meaning you), and by any standard, I think you need to be really cautious about accepting sputative claims about what Rand said, without hearing the tapes yourself.

That said, the answer is "yeah, that's right" (in other words, while I urge you to be cautious about accepting unsubstantiated claims for what Rand said, there is nothing in that page that indicates to me that this is un-Objectivist). Moral judgment is about free choice, not coerced choice -- that point is pretty clear in Rand's writings (so tape transcriptions are unnecessary). That is what the web page basically says.

However, this seem inconsistent with other statements about the heirarchy of value, which can place things above your own life.

For one, Rand argues in The Virtue of Selfishness, namely that if an emergencies arises (Rand cites mostly natural disasters), that man "should volunteer to help strangers" (p. 55)

This is an oft-misunderstood passage. Acting in risk of your life is not the same as sacrificing your life. Rand's rightful approval of lending assistance during natural disasters is predicated on you not willfully killing yourself. She does not advocate that you kill yourself for the sake of others, she advocates that during natural disasters, you may suspend the ordinarily very high level of caution that arises from the fact that you usually do not absolutely know what will happen when you act. So usually I would stay out of that raging river, but I might go into the river in some conditions, if I believe that I can dive in and save the child, and not kill myself.

According to those statements, living life rationaly is placed above the heirarchy in just mere living. To me this answers the question, but not the way Rand did on the radio interview. Under my understanding, you cannot rationally intiate force against innocent Man 3, even if it is to save your own life, since doing so would be living irrationally, which would result in just "living."
I don't see why you consider this different in an important way, though it is technically different. The point that you missed is that if someone initiates force against you, and forces you to kill or steal, then you yourself have not initiated force. That is the crucial difference. Let's put this in more obvious terms. Killing is bad, okay? It's immoral, right? Except when you have to kill an assailant, to stay alive. The mistake is in thinking that killing is an absolute evil.

This passage suggests that it can never be rational to kill an innocent person.

Needless to say, quoting from the Branden movie is not the best way to gain insight into Objectivism. Consider this: suicide is not rational. If killing the assailant is impossible, either life is not rational (the Branden answer) or killing an innocent to save your life can be rational.

Of course, killing the assilant is always the best choice.

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agroves, I think that it is important to consider the context when trying to analyze various quotes by Ayn Rand in written essays, or, extemporaneously, in radio interviews. You might want to look at this topic started a year ago. The topic itself is not directly relevant to the issues that you present, but starting with my post #155 in that thread we do discuss several aspects of your concerns.

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I have been studying Objectivism for about two years now and have only run into what I see as one major problem, which relates to its ethical approach.

Perhaps I missed it in your long first post, but to what does the word "Disappearing" in the topic title refer?

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Rand does not use the word "conundrum" in that essay, so you've attributed to her a belief that I don't think she had -- there is no conundrum. Some people may be puzzled, but there is no conundrum.
I admit my error in this regard. Apologies.

On the the last clause in the scenario, the 2-to-3 relation is not initiation of force. Note that Rand says from the web page: "he isn't initiating the force himself". So let's move on.

I don't think you can dismiss this fact that easily. Epistemology itself demands that you understand why it is not intiating force instead of simply saying 'becasue she said so...' Either it is or it isn't an intiation of force and I'm trying to understand why it wouldn't be provided you killed Man 3. I'm not grasping why it isn't.

There are contexts where you should, and contexts where you shouldn't. You should kill 3, if it is inescapable that the alternative is your own death.
That is a good answer to the question, but it doesn't hit more to my point, which is- if it can be rational to put your own life at risk to save other people in "emergencies" does the example qualify as an emergency?

I'm curious why you assume it is real.

For the same reason that I assume people are innocent until proven guilty. The fact that mentioned it could be apocryphal was a confession that that could be one possible solution to the problem- that Rand hadn't really said the things she did on the radio interview and thus there could be no conflict with The Virtue of Selfishness.

Acting in risk of your life is not the same as sacrificing your life. Rand's rightful approval of lending assistance during natural disasters is predicated on you not willfully killing yourself. She does not advocate that you kill yourself for the sake of others, she advocates that during natural disasters, you may suspend the ordinarily very high level of caution that arises from the fact that you usually do not absolutely know what will happen when you act. So usually I would stay out of that raging river, but I might go into the river in some conditions, if I believe that I can dive in and save the child, and not kill myself.
That is my understand as well. So in the situation with the man with the gun, you should attempt to knock the gun away or kill Man 1 if you think it is possible without willfully sacrificing your own life. That's basically what I was asking.

Except when you have to kill an assailant, to stay alive. The mistake is in thinking that killing is an absolute evil.

In the scenerio you aren't killing an assailant to stay alive, you're killing an innocent person, though. I see that as a major difference. If you are killing someone who has intiated force against you, of course there is nothing wrong with that.

Needless to say, quoting from the Branden movie is not the best way to gain insight into Objectivism. Consider this: suicide is not rational. If killing the assailant is impossible, either life is not rational (the Branden answer) or killing an innocent to save your life can be rational.
It's a book. Your other point is well taken. I suppose what I am pointing out here is that in that ethical scenerio, suicide is not guaranteed and you should at least attempt killing the assailant, even if the probability that you yourself will die is 90%. I suppose it comes down to your own judgment about your own ability to kill or at least disarm Man 1 in the situation. But that doesn't mean that the ethical standard is in conflict, but rather that Man 2's appraisal of the situation is what is in flux.

Perhaps I missed it in your long first post, but to what does the word "Disappearing" in the topic title refer?

Sorry about the length. I probably shouldn't have used that word by itself an highlighted like that, but I refered to something Rand said in the radio interview: "Once the element of force is introduced, the element of morality is out. There is no question of right in such a case."

but starting with my post #155 in that thread we do discuss several aspects of your concerns.

Thank you, all of this was very useful. I think I have a firmer grasp on the corpus of what objectivism says about the issue.

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