Expanding on Rothbard’s “Lifeboat Situation”

January 9th, 2013   Submitted by Wendy McElroy

“Two men are stranded in a lifeboat, and…” Murray+N+Rothbard

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.

41 Responses to “Expanding on Rothbard’s “Lifeboat Situation””

  1. JohnathanNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Wendy,

    This isn’t directly about arguing from “lifeboat” situations, but a response to your rights. vs. morality distinction.

    Indeed, I often have to explain to others that voluntaryism/non-aggression is only the start of a process. It is only telling you that you shouldn’t aggress on other persons or their property, and that is okay to defend one’s person or property with force if necessary against aggressors.

    It does *not* go on to say, given human nature, “What are the sorts of things one *should* be doing in order to hope to lead a fulfilling life?”

    The first is a prerequisite of the second, but so much more ink/bits are spent discussing the first, it’s easy to lose sight that once that issue is settled, there are many much more interesting questions about the second, and the answers can be very different for different individuals.

  2. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    I’m glad you addressed the issue of stealing to survive. Of course a libertarian would steal in order to survive. It only means that restitution will have to be paid at a later date. It doesn’t invalidate that natural rights of the individual stolen from.

    As far as two people faced with cannibalism on a life boat, situations like that happen every year, and as far as I know it never gets resolved through cannibalism. At least not amongst westerners. I suppose the thought of having to murder another person is too great a price to pay to stay alive, since restitution cannot be paid to your victim. In other words, you may live, but you’d only live with a guilty conscience your whole life.

  3. Thanks Jonathan. In “The Wealth of Nations,” Adam Smith made an intriguing distinction between rights and morality.. He said that a man who did not aggress against his neighbor was not a moral man. Or, rather, he might be a moral man but it was not possible to tell merely by his non-aggression because non-aggression was the duty he owed to every other person and, so, not something for which he was to be morally congratulated. To judge his morality, it was necessary to observe how *else* he treated the neighbor. Was he kind or did he slander the fellow? Did he allow his neighbor’s house to burn down or risk his safety to assist anyone inside? These are the actions in which morality lived. And, yes, I agree with you. These are the more interesting questions and ones for which there is usually not one answer.

  4. Hi Seth: I can think of cases of cannibalism but they are extremely rare, and that is interesting in and of itself. I think the Western horror of that practice is so deeply ingrained that eschewing it goes well beyond a respect for rights. Various African tribes that practice cannibalism might give a very different answer to the lifeboat situation. This raises the question of how deeply our behavior is influenced by our culture. Admirers of Rand (and I am one) like to think that their decisions are almost entirely rational but I have always been comfortable with the idea of being a product of my culture to a significant degree. This is neither rational or irrational…but arational..

  5. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    Cannibalism isn’t what bothers me. I don’t think I’d have too much difficulty eating another person. It’s the killing an innocent person that makes my stomach turn.

    I suspect it’s the same for most westerners as well. If the meat is already dead and they’re hungry, they’ll eat. But they won’t kill for it.

    I could be wrong.

    • ShawnNo Gravatar says:

      That’s a question one can’t answer unless truly faced with the situation. Sitting here typing this answer, there’s no possible way I could imagine eating a human being. The very thought disgusts me. But, I’m also not starving currently, either. Extreme situations can certainly alter a person’s behavior quite radically.

    • macsnafuNo Gravatar says:

      Sure. How many people would be comfortable with killing a cow or chicken before it’s turned into hamburger or fried chicken? So in that sense, killing another human to survive isn’t even about rights or morality. But if you could buy ground human meat at the store, I imagine it would be a lot easier for many people to take it home and cook it.

  6. JohnathanNo Gravatar says:

    Wendy, It interests me how, in your reference to Adam Smith, the additional factors related to moral reasoning still all had to do with how the person chose to treat his neighbor.

    True, one does not enhance one’s ability to trade or collaborate, often a requirement to achieve one’s chosen values, by being an asshole.

    Yet why do the various “lifeboat” scenarios and related discussions rarely address the personal choices one makes regarding things like goal selection, rationality, productivity, time preferences, etc.?

    Perhaps the term “morality” really does apply only to one’s relationships with or actions toward others. Is there a better word for what I describe in the previous paragraph?

    • Bob RobertsonNo Gravatar says:

      Johnathan, I believe it is because the “lifeboat scenario” is specifically designed, “the trolly cannot be stopped except to throw the fat man..”, to have as few choices as possible, to put those choices into isolation, and thereby to lead to the conclusion desired by the person creating the scenario.

    • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

      Jonathan..although the words are often used interchangeably, I make a distinction between morality and (personal) ethics. I use morality with reference to the specifics of how I should treat others and ethics with reference to the principles underlying the specifics. If I should not lie to friends (a specific), it is because of the general value of truth (a principle). I don’t claim that this is a hard and fast distinction…but it is one I use.

  7. HReardenNo Gravatar says:

    Principles are general rules, not rules etched in stone. There are extreme situations when abandonment of a principle is a morally right decision. What is not clear to me however is the senario of saving one’s life at the expense of others. i.e. Those who collaborated with the agents of the National Socialists. For example, prisoners who would help the prison guards by shaving the heads of prisoners’ prior to the prisoners being murdered knowing that the prisoners were going to be murdered. A situation such as one being lost in the woods and finding a cabin with food in it and they eat the food is a clear matter of survival otoh.


    • Hello H.R. Principles are also contextual. Even Objectivism is based on a fundamental contextualism as evidenced by the fact that Rand would preface her discussion of values with the conditional “Given that life is of value, then….” For a person to whom life is no longer of value — e.g. a man in extraordinary pain with no prospect of relief — then her list of life sustatining values loses its hold on him. He might well value a painless pro-death scenario instead.

  8. Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

    Wendy, sometimes I see discussions about rights and/or morality kind of like the old religious debates of how many angles can dance on the head of a pin. Since angels, morality, and rights have no physical existence they at best represent issues of philosophy. I basically like libertarianism as a fair approximation of individualistic anarchism, but I can’t see that it is any more “right” than London’s law of club and fang. Ultimately any social system will exist or fail by virtue of the power its proponents have. To the extent that rational discourse can influence the proponents of any particular system, a discussion of rights and morality may be worthwhile. In most cases probably not. Most people will only change in response to coercive threats. A shame, but I have observed it to be true.

    • vasoNo Gravatar says:

      “…Ultimately any social system will exist or fail by virtue of the power its proponents have…”

      That is true only in the short term. The “Power” people have will not guarantee long term survival or winning competition with other peoples/societies. Romans had more power than barbarians, but the latter ended up victorious. Thus morality as Rand taught was an objective discipline with man’s proper survival being the ultimate criterion for evaluating good and evil. Given man’s nature there’s objectively right code of morality (which promotes “proper survival”).

      • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

        Vaso, I do not see that the situation changes from the short term to the long term. Historically, power matters and moralilty is what the intellectual apologists for the present regime say it is. Rome held power by virtue of its military for hundreds of years. The military then became weak and Rome fell. The reasons it became weak can be debated, but the power was due to the military might which made Roman morality king for hundreds of years.

        • VasoNo Gravatar says:

          You are putting cart before the horse, IMO. First, Rome established relatively superior (but obviously not ideal) social system (e.g. property rights for citizens, free-er trade etc), then the resulting economic surplus allowed it to sustain strong army and big state, then they plundered their colonies; but not only plundered, in the beginning at least, they also spread their social order, technologies.

          Above totally primitive level of competition pure military efforts are vain. The same has been happening with the West in a few recent centuries. Property rights get recognition, economy develops, surplus emerges, state apparatus grows with a little lag, then parasitism, which necessarily comes with military might, overcomes productivity, and collapse follows. Stefan Molynex analyzed this cycle well.

          The rise of military might of a state is necessarily followed by collapse. It’s like cancer; it kills the host (state). The cancer prospers and lives short term only and ends in self-destruction.

          • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

            Vaso, perhaps you are accurate and militarism drags down a society over enough time. But when you are referring to nation states the “short term” is quite long compared to human lifespan. Rome existed for hundreds of years. The Egyptians were powerful even longer. China has been up and down for about 5,000 years. The USA looks to have a sustainable power base that could eventually rival the Chinease’ in that it uses modern phychology to back up its military power. But without the military power no state lasts very long. Throughout history we peons have been traded back and forth by virtue of military might. The ruling elilte only cares about productivity peripherally. Power is their first concern. Otherwise true free enterprise systems would be proliferating all over the world rather than the various forms of tyrrany and forced collectivism that we see everywhere. Hell, even in the USA where free enterprise is still given lip service there is no large scale free enterprise. Oh sure we have a few gray marketeers, barterers, etc. But we principally live under socialist type governmental controls on we individuals with giant corporations playing at a variant of free enterprise amongst themselves. Of course that is not really free either for corporations backstab one another forming alliances with government and breaking them when convenient constantly undercutting one another through the power of government which ultimately depends upon physical coercion of individuals.
            My basic point in all this is that despite our predilictions, most people make decisions based on emotion not logic. Physical coercion has worked for all human history as the major driving force behind human action or inaction. That will not change because some intellectuals in the ivory tower state that morality and ethics should take precedence.

            • VasoNo Gravatar says:

              Indeed the short term could be very long from the point of view of individual actors. I understand morality as the code of values which promotes people’s proper survival sustainably, not until some organization runs out of victims, however long that might take. You might be defining it differently, e.g. the running code of values which promotes people’s survival in their actual environment. ‘Proper’ and ‘sustainably’ are missing in this definition. Hence the different views on military power’s role. The definition of ‘proper’ will also reflect the sustainable nature of the code. The survival as a looter cannot be called proper, even though it may be doable and easiest to practice for a time.
              Yes, almost all of the states nowadays are fascist.
              Maybe it will all mean that this cycle of liberty – accumulation of capital- rise of the state – military power – stagnation – collapse will repeat indefinitely. The bright side of that would be that at least liberty will return from time to time. But unfortunately, not necessarily during lifetime of any given generation.

              • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

                Vaso, I fear you may be correct and the cycle you mention may continue ad nauseum. I tend to look at things from a pragmatic perspective while trying to keep a basic freedom philosophy, so I would be a looter to survive but would prefer trading in a free enterprise system. Unfortunately free enterprise seems to be vilrtually non-existent anymore. The thing I see so many libertarians not seeming to realise is that for the vast majority of people including myself survival trumps all ethical, moral, legal, etc. considerations. If you can’t show most folks how freedom will help them survive they will ignore you at best.

                • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

                  Although I subscribe to a cyclical theory of history, I don’t see the cycle in black and white terms — that is, I don’t there is either liberty *or* authority.. There is and always will be a struggle between liberty and authority because impulses toward both (as with good and evil) exist within man himself. Sometimes liberty will be on the rise in general terms or in specific locations and authority will be on the decline. At other times, the situation will be reversed. We (in North America and Europe) are definitely in a period of low liberty and high authority, although there seem to be areas of the world where liberty is faring well. There is no need to despair or to become part of the problem because there is still a great deal of hope for liberty to expand. Indeed, one of the main hopes resides in the people who do not give up and join with authority or just “give up.”

                • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

                  Fritz…if I use the phrase “peaceful cooperation” in the place of freedom, does that make the survival value more evident? Because in society, I consider “peaceful cooperation” and “freedom” to be almost interchangeable terms for practical purposes. Of course, cooperation assumes you have something of value — and optimally of continuing value — to offer another person. I think libertarians ignore the fact that practical liberty requires a significant degree of self-sufficiency; practical liberty within society requires the ability to produce what someone else wants.

                  • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

                    Wendy, I like your idea that the terms “peaceful cooperation” and freedom are nearly practical equivalents. I remember Rayo’s definition of freedom as “invulnerability to coercion” which may be technically more accurate but less pragmatic than your definition. It certainly could be a wonderful society if we mostly practiced peaceful cooperation. Unfortunately the huge dichotomy between the “haves” and the “have nots” basically precludes any peaceful solution that does not continue the status quo of economic slavery for the vast majority of people on the planet. The ruling elite who have title to most everything, most of the power, and control of the mass media are not going to peacfully cooperate with creating a free society. The same families have controlled high finance for at least the past 400 years. I do not think they will give up that power willingly. It would not matter so much if people actually had the power to start an alternative economic system and ignore the old one. But if you try with any notable success to do anything like this, men with guns will show up at your door to either arrest you or shoot you. I always remember Randy Weaver’s family and all those people murdered at Waco, Texas. And they were only promoting a very small aspect of the freedom you or I believe in. My brother believes that people are basically evil and must be controlled by law and religion for society to survive. I observe people to be neither good nor evil but weak enough to usually take the path of least resistence. If one could convince most people that freedom was in their self interest they would flow that way for a while until the going got tough. Then they would sell out not only their own freedom but your’s as well for alcohol, drugs, and Facebook are far more important to them than individual liberty. To be fair, most don’t even understand what real liberty entails. They don’t miss what they have never had.
                    You are one of the most rational promoters of freedom I have ever read, at least on a level with Rothbard. Yet can you honestly state that you have had notable success in making a more free world? It scares me how little most people care about or understand that we live in an ever increasing police state.
                    Sorry Wendy. I guess I am getting old and worn down. My innate cynicism is getting the best of me. Keep writing. You are great!

    • Tom JNo Gravatar says:

      Armed agents of the state are too few in number, as a percentage of the population of most countries, for coercive threats to be the primary determinant of most of the choices people make in life. I rather see the herd instinct as the primary cause for the typically broad support for statist systems.

      • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

        Tom, I used to raise sheep, cattle, hogs, and horses. The herd instinct you mention is part of the reason threats of coercion by a few work against the many. No one wishes to be the sheep cut out of the herd and slaughtered. If we had a recalcitrant steer that caused us difficulty guess who got slaughtered first. People, being slightly brighter than cattle, usually recognize the very real threat that government thugs represent and don’t stray far from what the herd of people are doing thus not calling attention to themselves by being “different”. So it matters little that the thugs are relatively few in number. Theilr threat is to individuals not the herd.

    • Hello Fritz: Sorry to take so long to reply but things have been a bit crazy here. Nothing wrong or bad…just non stop.

      I think that systems of rights and morality can be compared to each other in reference to the questions that every such system must confront. This is a utilitarian way of arguing — and one I do not prefer — but it is valid enough. An example of one question would be, “which one provides the most justice at the least price to society?” Every system of rights and morality must deal with “justice” even if the manner of handling it is to dismiss its relevance or desirability. Another question, “which system provides social harmony and at what price?”

      The main problem in such comparisons is that some systems define terms like “justice” in markedly different manners and, so, you must begin with the basics. Almost everyone will agree there is something wrong about murdering an innocent man who has done you no harm; they may agree on the basis of rights or of morality. You can generally proceed from this point of agreement to build a broader consensus, although that may well break down at some point of the extrapolation.

      Equally, almost everyone will agree that a peaceful society is better than one in which there is an open violence of all-against-all on the streets. Again, this is a point of agreement upon which to build.I always try to go back to the basics when I am speaking with someone who defines justice or social order in a qualitatively different manner than I do.

      I think comparisons are quite possible..

      • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

        Unlike you, I do tend to see thing in a utilitarian way largely because of being very poor throughout my life. If one is usually worried about where you will find the wherewithall to keep your family afloat another month, week, or sometimes day, you tend to put aside ivory tower type thinking for when you can afford it. That time has never really come for me. But I do agree that getting basic definitions straight is very important. Most libertarians define freedom far differently than most leftists for example. But I must admit that I am astounded at how seldom I find even amongst anarchists people who seem to share my apriori assumptions about life and liberty which seem utterly rational to me.
        As for your comments on the cycle of liberty, I agree that nothing is ever black and white but always nuanced. But your thoughts that the USA and Europe are now low on liberty and high on authority though accurate in my mind are diametrically oppossed to what most folks think here today. You say that there are places in the world where freedom is on the upswing so there is no need to dispair. Where are these places?! To the best of my knowledge there is no place on earth with a more free general lifestyle than in the USA. I think we agree that the real level of freedom here is terrible and getting much worse quickly. So where is the hope for we individuals? This is not a rhetorical question. My kids can barely survive using every government program they can not because they want to but because they see no choice. I will personally probably be dead within a few years because I can’t possibly afford dental and health care. So where is the hope for a free enterprise system where I could afford it? I have promoted liberty as long as I can remember, even as a kid. I’ve been kicked in the teeth consistently for my efforts. My contemporaries who sold out now have $100,000 plus per year jobs and a half million dollar estate while I try to get by on under $11,000 per year living in a house without running water and off the grid just to be able to survive. And I have it much better than many folks I know. Where is the hope Wendy? Where is the hope?

  9. LauraNo Gravatar says:

    Hello Wendy,

    I’ll start by saying that I’m a huge fan and longtime admirer of your work and philosophy. I think you do amazing work giving a voice to those of us who want to be treated and treat others as individuals, not simply as one collective or another.

    To my question, you say, “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.”

    The problem I have with this statement is the inevitable problem of the subjective nature defining the “best and most coherent solution.” Surely there are endlessly abundant situations where rational and moral individuals will disagree what constitutes the best outcome.

    As a real world example, studies have shown that in areas where vaccinations are mandatory for school children, infection rates have gone down. While I always strive to keep up to date on my vaccinations for my own benefit and personally believe others should do the same, I remain unconvinced that the “best” option requires forcing others to inject a substance they are fearful of into their bodies. I could easily see others arguing that this price is very small and worth the cost. Which of us is “right” depends entirely on one’s subjective values when weighing outcomes.

    I can’t help but feel your analysis results in argument that is less for natural rights than it is for utilitarianism. I believe a stronger approach to the life boat scenario is to do what you borderline suggested and simply throw it out, much in the same way you would throw out outliers in a statistical sampling.

    Your thoughts?

    • Hello Laura: Thank you for the compliment.

      When I used the phrase “the best and most coherent solution available”, I did not mean the content of the solution would be set in stone, that there would be only one answer to the same question. You mention that rational people disagree and the same dispute might be answered in a wide-ranging vary of ways. The “best and most coherent solution available” would be defined by the process of the solution, not by its end result. By which I mean, *any* resolution that is peacefully arrived at by the parties involved is the best one. As a third and irrelevent party, I might think the mutually acceptable resolution is bunk. But my opinion does not matter.

      Another way of phrasing this: libertarianism is “process driven” not “end driven.” As long as the process is peaceful, then the end result reflects libertarianism. It may not reflect a sound morality but it does reflect rights.

  10. AnonymousNo Gravatar says:

    Hey bro. Great website and some good advice. Keep fighting the good fight, and I will do my best to keep up. Cheers!

  11. vasoNo Gravatar says:

    I do not see how “lifeboat situation” or “stealing bread to survive” compromises voluntarism and objective morality. One’s decision to violate moral principles to survive does not compromise moral principles, but rather moral integrity of the person. The violator should be honest in accepting wrongdoing and punishment, including the use of force (potentially deadly) in defense by the victim. The owner of the bread to be stolen for one’s survival has every right to defend their property.
    In the lifeboat there’s no conflict if non-aggression principle is applied consistently. One should value one’s own survival more than that of a stranger. But it does not mean permission to kill (except in self-defense), whatever the circumstances. If one of the two in the boat has to die, the only moral option for the pair may be to cast lots. It may be extremely difficult to accept having to die, but it does not alter moral judgment.

    • KratoklastesNo Gravatar says:

      If your assessment of the other guy in the boat is that there is 0, then E(number of future rights-infringements) > 0.

      In that case, the probability-weighted sum of the outcomes is inferior to the outcome if you force the game (i.e., you kill the guy and eat him).

      It gets better: damage from rights-infringement is convex (violating 100% of someone’s rights is more than twice as bad as violating 50%). So there’s an even stronger case for eating him.

      And since you cannot possibly know another’s mind, it can be said a fortiori that your prior MUST BE that Pr(the other guy is not like you) > 0.

      Kill him. Eat him. If you’re moral it’s actually the moral thing to do.

    • KratoklastesNo Gravatar says:

      Sorry for dupes, but the first bit of the comment got truncated because > was inadvertantly recognised as HTML.

      This is what I posted…

      “If your assessment of the other guy in the boat is that there is less than 100% chance that he has your level of understanding of rights, ethics and morals, then permitting your life to be extinguished by a morally-inferior agent becomes an immoral act.

      I’m not a fan of utilitarianism, but it can work ‘in the deviations’ (as we economic modellers say).

      If you’re genuinely a rights-observing individual, the ‘state of nature’ if you survive is that the expected number of future rights-infringements by survivors will be ZERO.

      If Pr(the other guy is not like you) > 0, then E(number of future rights-infringements) > 0.

      In that case, the probability-weighted sum of the outcomes is inferior to the outcome if you force the game (i.e., you kill the guy and eat him).

      It gets better: damage from rights-infringement is convex (violating 100% of someone’s rights is more than twice as bad as violating 50%). So there’s an even stronger case for eating him.

      And since you cannot possibly know another’s mind, it can be said a fortiori that your prior MUST BE that Pr(the other guy is not like you) > 0.

      Kill him. Eat him. If you’re moral it’s actually the moral thing to do.”

  12. Paul BonneauNo Gravatar says:

    While Rothbard’s and Rand’s critiques of lifeboat scenarios are very convincing, they mirror a technique used in Physics. When an equation is derived that describes a system, the first thing a physicist does is takes every variable to its extreme values to see if the equation correctly describes what would intuitively take place. It’s a method of validating that equation.

    Of course Physics is an exact science, and human affairs is far from that. All we have to do is to be “close enough”. Rothbard is correct.

    As to rights, we don’t have to look to extreme cases to detect that they are fantasies. They don’t even work in common situations.

    “A right is an enforceable claim that every human being has against others in society.”

    So, the Jews in Treblinka had no right to life? They obviously couldn’t enforce anything.

    “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.”

    Not so well I think. The Jews no doubt got themselves into trouble by thinking their lives were protected by these fantasy “rights”. They’d have been better off understanding reality, and buying themselves guns and ammo.

    There are no rights. There is only will, and self-interest. People act, or refrain from acting, due to will and self-interest, and only academics imagine that it is rights that drive them.


    • KratoklastesNo Gravatar says:

      You start from an incorrect premise (that a ‘right’ is an ‘enforceable claim’) and proceed from there to furnish an example where rights were not enforceable. Where I come from, that gets the acronym ‘GIGO’.

      A right is a JUST claim – a claim that satisfies a quasi-Pareto (or quasi-Kaldor-Hicks) condition: namely that exercise of the right leaves no other non-offending economic agent worse off.

      A right may not be ‘enforceable’ – as in your Treblinka example – but the rights still exist.

      Recognising rights does not immediately make the rights-holder immune to all acts of aggression: life is not a cartoon.

      However, recognition of rights enables the identification of instances in which rights are VIOLATED, which in turn enables moral and ethical evaluations of the protagonists.

      This is where the ‘lifeboat’ example has some (limited, sophomoric) usefulness: the easiest counter-argument to it is that you can (and arguably *should*) kill and eat your cohabitant in the lifeboat, knowing full well that you are violating his rights and committing an unethical and immoral act.

      Why ‘arguably *should*’? Because your understanding of rights and ethics – the very fact that you acknowledge that you are violating the rights of the other in the lifeboat – is known to you with certainty.

      By contrast, you have no basis on which to assign CERTAINTY to your assessment of the ethical status of the other guy in the boat.

      It is UNIVERSALLY preferable that individuals with ‘sound’ understandings of rights and ethics survive such situations, on the basis that the present value of future infringements on rights by the survivor, is minimised.

      So,,, in summary: if you’re a moral person (you understand and recognise rights, deplore their unjust violation, and KNOW that what you are about to do is a violation of the other’s rights), the ‘right’ outcome of the game is that you kill and eat the other guy – whether you believe in utilitarianism or not. I happen not to believe in utilitarianism, because of the stupidity of treating Buffet’s ‘utils’ as being of equal value to those of a blind pensioner’s, despite understanding that a dollar in each case has different utility (that is to say, a policy that deprives a pensioner of one util but adds two utils to Buffet, is acceptable on the ‘social utility maximising’ view – despite being reprehensible).

      • Paul BonneauNo Gravatar says:

        Well, *I* did not start from the premise that a right is an enforceable claim. I merely quoted Wendy on this point, in order to refute it. Personally I don’t think rights are much of a claim at all, but just a meme that is held inconsistently from one person to the next, that does not describe reality very well.

        “However, recognition of rights enables the identification of instances in which rights are VIOLATED, which in turn enables moral and ethical evaluations of the protagonists.”

        Yeah, I know. The Nazis were judged at Nuremberg – by the very same group of people who got away with bombing the shit out of innocents living in Dresden. The Nazis’ problem was clearly not that they violated “rights”, but that they had lost the war.

        Oh, and I thought we had decided lifeboat arguments were pretty worthless? So why are we continuing with them?

        If you are worried about future infringements, the thing to do is get yourself a battle rifle and a case of ammo, not to argue how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Most thugs who bust down your door won’t be very impressed with “I know my rights!”

    • I am not sure where to start answering the points upon which you and I disagree. I hope you excuse my starting with the last point you make in your post and, then, working my way upward as time permits. That is, the point that Jews under Hitler who believed in their own natural rights would have cried out “You are violating my rights!” instead of defending themselves.

      Why wouldn’t they buy guns with which to exercise the right of self-defense? Wouldn’t a commitment to the right to defend their lives make more of them rise up as they did in the Warsaw Ghetto? Your logical leap on the gun issue just baffles me and, so, I don’t know how to answer…unless, of course, you conflate natural rights with pacifism.

      More later,
      And best to you,

      • Paul BonneauNo Gravatar says:

        What I actually said was, “The Jews no doubt got themselves into trouble by thinking their lives were protected by these fantasy “rights”. They’d have been better off understanding reality, and buying themselves guns and ammo.”

        That is, if I am correct about the post you responded to. It’s a little unclear in this blog.

        To elaborate, people think that rights protect them, which makes them careless about getting actual protection. To me that is a drawback of the “rights” meme that never is admitted for some reason.

        “Why wouldn’t they buy guns with which to exercise the right of self-defense?”

        Because they think they are already protected – by “rights”! Foolish them.

        “Wouldn’t a commitment to the right to defend their lives make more of them rise up as they did in the Warsaw Ghetto?”

        Another problem with the “rights” meme is that it is superfluous. It adds nothing to the discussion. For example, I can re-write your last two sentences to be much more concise and clear by simply eliminating this “rights” fluff:

        “Why wouldn’t they buy guns with which to defend their lives? Wouldn’t the will to live make more of them rise up as they did in the Warsaw Ghetto?”

    • macsnafuNo Gravatar says:

      Computer programming is similar to science. Once a program is written, the programmer has to make sure it can handle any possible data, including invalid data, to keep the program from crashing. As you say, human affairs are far from an exact science, but perhaps lifeboat situations should be treated like invalid data for a computer program, in that they are not relevant to the principles or morals that are supposedly being tested.

      As for rights, sure rights exist–as normative concepts of how people ought to treat other people. The question of the enforcement of rights is a separate but related question from the actual concept of rights themselves. But recognition of rights, by *somebody*, is a necessary first step towards enforcing them. The concept helps clarify how we think about political or criminal issues, and how we think we should act or react on those issues.

      Or alternately, I could ask you where this “will” and “self-interest” that you speak of exist? I’ve never seen them, I can’t touch them, they can’t be put in a box or a room. How do you know that they exist?

      • Paul BonneauNo Gravatar says:

        “I could ask you where this “will” and “self-interest” that you speak of exist? I’ve never seen them, I can’t touch them, they can’t be put in a box or a room. How do you know that they exist?”

        That’s not a very good test. There are lots of things that exist that I haven’t seen or touched. There are people who say that everything is a dream. I don’t go quite that far; I’m willing to buy a collection of brain cells, chemical receptors and electrical transmission that boils down to something called “will”. Also, because people act like they have wills. The will to live is not hard to discern in lots of animals, never mind humans. Rights on the other hand, have nothing backing them up. No behavior, nothing. Every behavior you see can be attributed to such things as will and self interest.

        If you disagree, then please tell me of some physical manifestation or behavior that can be attributed to “rights” but not to will or self-interest. Note that I don’t go around killing people any more than you do, even though I think the “right to life” is silly.

        “rights exist–as normative concepts of how people ought to treat other people”

        If that’s as far as it went, I’d have no complaints. In fact I imagine that is exactly how the meme of rights was born. But people usually are not talking about some academic, normative concept when they use the word “rights”. They talk about rights protecting them, or them protecting rights. They talk of it as “I can do X” (e.g. get “free” health care). My argument is a somewhat semantic one; the way the word “rights” is used today is way beyond the original concept, and has migrated into never-never land. Also it has been bent to the ends of the ruling class. Time to give up on it. If academics still want to talk about how people ought to treat each other, let them use those words, not “rights” which is confusing because it can mean almost anything.

  13. Don DuncanNo Gravatar says:

    Paul: When Jefferson penned the famous idea of “inalienable rights” to justify the secession of some British from the control of their king he was refuting the idea of a sovereign king, and claiming that “all men”, i.e., each person, is a sovereign. This probably was not well understood, e.g., the full implications of such a new concept had never been worked out. That was to be the American experiment. It did not fail because “rights” are a fantasy. It failed because the intellectuals did not fully understand all the implications, and did not defend the idea well. The idea of sovereign individuals was quickly contradicted by a counter American Revolution document, the Constitution.

    Today, words like “rights” and “capitalism” have been destroyed by academics (intellectuals). So have the words like “will” and “self interest”. We could invent new words but they would be destroyed also. All we can do is keep fighting the lies and confusion. We have to be “The New Intellectuals”.