How many discussions of rights and ethics begin in a lifeboat where one man’s survival involves killing the other? The discussions usually end by concluding there is no right of self-ownership, no such thing as natural rights; there is no objective morality.
The argument so deeply annoyed Austrian economist Murray Rothbard that chapter 20 of his pivotal book The Ethics of Liberty is entitled “Lifeboat Situations.” Rothbard’s analysis has exerted a defining influence on how many libertarians approach ‘moral dilemma’ constructs that are used as hypothetical debating points. He wrote:
“[A] lifeboat situation is hardly a valid test of a theory of rights, or of any moral theory whatsoever. Problems of a moral theory in such an extreme situation do not invalidate a theory for normal situations. In any sphere of moral theory, we are trying to frame an ethic for man, based on his nature and the nature of the world — and this precisely means for normal nature, for the way life usually is, and not for rare and abnormal situations. It is a wise maxim of the law, for precisely this reason, that ‘hard cases make bad law’. We are trying to frame an ethic for the way men generally live in the world; we are not, after all, interested in framing an ethic that focuses on situations that are rare, extreme, and not generally encountered.”
Interestingly, this is an issue upon which the oft-conflicting Rothbard and Ayn Rand are in accord. The chapter entitled “The Ethics of Emergencies” in Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness described those who argued ethical positions from emergency situations. Rand commented, “Observe also that the advocates of altruism are unable to base their ethics on any facts of men’s normal existence and that they always offer ‘lifeboat’ situations as examples from which to derive the rules of moral conduct. (‘What should you do if you and another man are in a lifeboat that can only carry one?’ etc.) The fact is that men do not live in lifeboats—and that a lifeboat is not the place on which to base one’s metaphysics.”
Rothbard writes of “abnormal situations” and Rand refers to arbitrary “metaphysics” but they are both making the same point, and it is valid: political and moral systems should not be evaluated by extraordinary or hypothetical situations anymore than the average person’s daily health regime should be determined by a course of chemotherapy.
Nevertheless their answer to the lifeboat situation is not entirely satisfying. Many of the hypothetical debating points that are intended to discredit natural rights and morality should be dismissed. Why? Because they dramatically alter the nature of reality and then ask you to apply a moral code that is rooted in the real world. For example, if pushing a button can cure your son’s cancer but also kill an innocent person, would you do it? This is an intellectually dishonest question because no one could know what they would do in a reality that did not resemble their own.
A lifeboat situation does not alter reality in a similar manner, however. Consider a commonly offered form of the situation. Two men are adrift and, unless one of them becomes a cannibal, they will both starve to death. The situation is amazingly rare but it is possible in our present reality. Sometimes unrealistic elements are added. For example, no rescue is possible. This assumption alters reality because it would require knowledge of the future on the part of the stranded men. Nevertheless, it is plausible to assume both men are convinced of their utter isolation.
The underlying principle being tested by the lifeboat: at what point (if any) would you be willing to violate the rights of another human being for your own survival? Unlike magical buttons, this is an honest question. A libertarian answer hinges upon the distinction between rights and morality.
A right is an enforceable claim that every human being has against others in society. Because individuals own themselves, they have an enforceable claim to the peaceful use of their bodies and all property peacefully acquired thereby. The rights carry a corresponding duty to respect the equal freedom of others.
But not every peaceful action is moral. People lie about adulterous affairs, they are cruel to animals, they verbally humiliate children. Or a man could buy an artistic masterpiece for the purpose of destroying it. None of the foregoing are violations of right but I consider them all to be immoral. Or, as Rand would phrase it, they are “anti-life.”
The key difference; natural rights tells people that they are free to use their bodies in any peaceful manner; morality tells them which specific peaceful acts they should choose in order to lead a fulfilling or moral life. You should not lie, you should not be gratuitously cruel, you should not destroy for the sake of destruction.
The question of “when (if ever) would you be willing to violate the rights of another human being to survive” arises in situations that are far more common than a lifeboat. What if you have to steal food in to keep from starving to death? Frankly, I would almost certainly steal the food. But, in doing so, I would not be negating natural rights. I would acknowledge the act as theft and my victim as deserving restitution when I was financially able to do so. I would also submit to other reasonable remedies, if there were any. In short, I would acknowledge natural rights but my actions would demonstrate that – at least in this one case of life or death — natural rights were not my priority.
Morality is a different question. It is the difference between making restitution and sincerely apologizing, asking for forgiveness. Again, the morality of stealing food to preserve your life is not as clear to me as the rights issue.
Returning to an actual lifeboat situation… In terms of natural rights, one man killing and cannibalizing another is outright murder. When rescued, the perpetrator should expect to face whatever punishment that crime merited. Indeed, the prospect of just punishment upon rescue might be a strong constraint on both men’s behavior.
Other constraints would include their characters, their personal relationship and religious beliefs. Murder and cannibalism may be so abhorrent to their ingrained sense of morality that it would be impossible to continue with life afterward. My sense of self makes it difficult to imagine killing another human being for food even if I could come to terms with the rights issue. There is a difference of kind between stealing a loaf bread and killing a human being.
At this point in the hypothetical debating point, the natural rights advocate has either agree to his own death or to committing murder. The question is apt to declare victory by claiming to have discredited natural rights (libertarianism) and objective morality. Libertarians need to take an aggressive stand in arguing that nothing of the sort has occurred.
Why? Because in evaluating the worth of a political or moral system, it is essential to ask, ”compared to what? Does any other system address the situation better?”
A society by contract may not resolve the constructed conflict in a peaceful manner. But if it provides the best and most coherent solution available, then it has been vindicated rather than discredited. It becomes important to assess how other political or moral systems address the irksome cannibal question.
Under the political system of communism, property is ‘owned’ in common and usually controlled by a single political party known as the state. Two communists adrift would be common property (as would be the boat and everything on it) and they would need to decide which one would ‘play’ the state, perhaps by comparing rank in the Party. Socialism suffers from a somewhat similar problem. Under democracy, both men would cast a vote.
Under the moral system of pacifists, both would sit and wait for the other person to die of natural causes. Altruists would each jump overboard to save the other.
The preceding examples may sound (and be) foolish but they are no more so than the emergency-dilemmas thrown up as a way to dismiss natural rights. The most that the lifeboat situation demonstrates is that rights cannot perfectly resolve every case. Nor can any other political system.
It is not reasonable to judge systems by a standard of perfection. The only reasonable method is to examine how well a political or moral system works in the real world and, then, to contrast its performance with that of competitors. And by that standard, natural rights does very well indeed.