Emergency Ethics

Philosophical Reflections XXXIX

Last time our discussion included whether altruism is a virtue. A follow-on question is how one should behave in emergencies, in which the need for help and/or the risks of giving it are magnified far beyond normal.

Just Deserts

Consider this dilemma, which is the kind of thing one may encounter in a philosophy course on ethics:

You are staggering through the desert, with death from thirst only hours away, when you encounter a man. He has two big canteens of water, more than enough to reach safety, you think. But the man refuses to give you any water, arguing that he needs it all for his own survival.

Do you have the right to take some water by force? Does the other man have the right to defend his water by force? Does it make any difference if your predicament is due to bad luck or bad judgement?

Questions like that have a place – in an advanced course on philosophy where they might help illuminate the darker borders of morality. However they are worse than a distraction as an introduction to ethics – yet all too often, artificial dilemmas like that are what people think questions about ethics are all about.

To see why such questions are distractions, indeed damaging, think what they imply: that the defining essence of ethics consists of pondering emergencies so rare one will never encounter them. Consider your chances of being lost in a desert, and if you were, the chances of someone coming along who is able to save you but refuses to for no good reason. To the extent that the result is supposed to guide you in your real life – how can it? Why would ethical judgments in extreme emergencies necessarily have anything to do with ethical judgments in normal life? There is a huge and fundamental difference between, say, eating dead human bodies to survive after crashing in the Andes, and hunting the homeless for a snack.

That kind of thing just gives philosophy a bad name, reinforcing the impression that philosophy is some kind of meaningless intellectual game with no bearing on life. On the contrary, philosophy is about life, and ethics is about how to live your life. That is why ethics should be derived from induction about the nature of reality and the nature of man, and therefore, will concern broad truths that apply to all people. It is why ethics should aim to find out what makes a good life in the real world as we face it every day. The answer to the question “why be moral?” cannot be found in dreaming up responses to emergencies one will never suffer. The answer is simply “because your life depends on it: and here is how to live it.”

The Outer Limits

Nevertheless emergencies do happen: though rarely with any associated moral dilemmas, except possibly of the kind “should I run into this burning building?” The answer to those is less about solving a conundrum than acting according to your hierarchy of values. In other words, is the potential value saved and your chance of saving it worth the risk to your other values, including your life? As we have seen before, normally other people are a value to you, and so benevolence including reasonable aid in emergencies follows.

However, there is still some value in considering moral dilemmas posed by a certain type of emergency: definitely not as the basis for morality in normal life, but as part of a more advanced thinking about ethics. This is partly as a guide to what may be acceptable in the unlikely case of such guidance being necessary, and partly to cast an oblique light on the nature and foundation of ethics.

For example, I have argued that it is not moral to initiate direct or indirect force against another person. Obviously, that includes theft. Yet, those ethics are based on the fundamental value of your own life. What if the principle conflicts with the value at its foundation? For example, say you are hurt and the only way to save your life is to steal a car to drive to hospital? Or lost and starving, you wander into an orchard?

The answer is not that difficult and again lies in the hierarchy of values. In this case, your life is more important than the normal principle that supports it, with one proviso. The proviso is to recognise that while you had to do it, you did violate another person’s rights, and you owe them objective recompense (such as returning the car and paying for any damage). They of course might refuse any payment (just as, had they been present, they might have offered to drive you themselves), but that is for them to decide, not you to impose on them.

The principle here can be expressed as “if you are in a position where to save your life or some other great value your only solution is to violate someone else’s rights, then take what you need – and pay for it.”

That principle itself is part of a larger principle to which I have alluded before, namely, the highest virtue when dealing with other people is justice. Your circumstances might be so extreme that you can justify extreme actions, but they cannot remove from you the requirement of justice, that you always pay for what you take: if possible with prior agreement (almost all circumstances) and if impossible, after the fact (some emergencies).

To put it another way, a principle derived from the value of your life cannot be used to destroy that life. That would be a contradiction, and reality bears no contradictions. However, the larger principle still holds that you cannot actually preserve your life by living as a brute rather than as a person, a thinking being. Thus there comes a point at which your life is no longer worth saving: when to save it you would have to betray what your life means, to destroy that which makes your life worth living. Thus we are not surprised if a parent risks their life to save their child, for to do nothing would be such a horrible betrayal of what they hold dear. And if you grasp the importance of a moral life, you would not be surprised that there is a limit to what one can do, morally, just to keep breathing.


We can use that principle to analyse dilemmas such as our earlier “lost in the desert” scenario.

The answer boils down to: what does justice demand in this situation?

For example, if you have been dumped in the desert through no fault of your own and your potential saviour refuses to help you purely out of malice, then I could not fault you judging him as anti-life and challenging him for the water – so long as even then, you used only what force was necessary.

Or say the person would help you if he could, but did have just enough water for one: but you held information vital for your country in time of war (assuming your country is in the right). In that case, you might owe it to him to explain the situation, and either agree on a solution, or find he is deliberately or effectively aiding the enemy. Then you two are at war, and normal considerations do not apply.

Then consider the case where your own lack of preparation or stupidity has landed you in this situation. Meanwhile the other person is minding his own business, having thought ahead and prepared properly, but for reasons beyond his control is unable to help you. Then justice demands that you let him on his way, with nothing but a plea to send rescuers if he can. (That this is the just course is easily made apparent by considering what you would think if your positions were reversed, and some lost and ill-prepared loser attacked you to steal your water, purely to mend his own deficiencies at your expense!) The same answer follows from the principle of taking what you need and paying for it – there can be no recompense for attacking such a man and stealing his water, for you have gone beyond the possibility of paying for it.

Reality Check

Those are the kinds of questions one can ask about emergencies, and as we can see, they can illuminate some interesting principles concerning the limits of ethical principles. Note that this is not a new topic: we have seen in the past that virtues such as honesty are not context free, and it can be perfectly moral to lie like a trooper if justice demands it (as in protecting your property from thieves or protecting your Jewish guests from Nazi investigators).

An interesting result is that, as with the issue of honesty, justice is the overriding virtue. And while the limits to what you might do to save your life might depend somewhat subtly on the relation between virtue and a life worth living, application of the principle of justice is easier to do and provides an excellent proxy guide. In emergencies where violation of someone’s rights might be the only way out, the application of justice is to take what you need and pay for it later; and if your action is beyond what you could ever redress, the price is too high – for you.

But that is as far as emergencies can take us. They are not a guide to normal life, and that something might be demanded or excused in an emergency does not give it legitimacy in normal dealings with other people. How we should act in those cases is determined by the normal requirements for life and happiness, where nothing justifies violating another person’s rights.

© 2008 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.