The Ethics of Emergencies describes how some people base their ethical principles on emergency situations. The classic example is the lifeboat scenario. The scenario is that what if you are stuck on a lifeboat with some other people, and there’s not enough water for everyone to survive the trip to shore. In order to live, you have to sacrifice someone else.
The lesson of the scenario is that you have to choose between your life and the life of another person. There is a fundamental disharmony of interests, and it is to kill or be killed. Which means in life, you are either a murderer, you are a victim, or you can sacrifice your life for other people. The problem is that these ethics-derived-from-emergencies are anti-contextual. It is not true that there is a disharmony of interests and we do not have to choose between killing and dying in day to day life. We do not have to choose between sacrificing ourselves to others or others to ourselves.
So abstracting general principles from these situations is a really bad idea. By trying to use these situations as a representation of real life, it actually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you accept that life is full of conflicts of interest, you will act accordingly and create conflicts where there are none. You will seek to sacrifice yourself where no sacrifice is necessary, or you will trample on the interests of others thinking it’s either you or them. Rand described an emergency as a kind of situation where human life is not possible. That is not to say you would not survive an emergency.
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It means that if life were like that normally, it would be impossible. You may survive the lifeboat scenario, but only because you remove yourself from the emergency situation at some point but when you reach the shore and find food, water, and hospitalization, the emergency is over. But during the emergency, lives are in danger. Rand’s article acts as a warning against taking emergency situations too seriously. They are all dangerous and necessarily short-lived. The goal is not to figure out how best to survive emergencies, but rather to figure out how to avoid them, or if you get into them, end them quickly.
Your behavior in emergency situations is going to be different from your day to day events, precisely because the context is so different. For example, you might not give money to someone who is unemployed and poor because it is not an emergency situation but they have the choice to change their situation, and the results are a predictable outcome of their actions. You cannot really take responsibility for someone else’s life. But in the case of an emergency situation, like tsunami disaster, the context is very different. The disaster affected everyone, and wasn’t a foreseeable event to avoid.
It’s natural that people would evaluate the two kinds of situations in entirely different ways. Sending help to the tsunami victims is completely different from sacrificing for someone who won’t bother living his own life. You’ll notice that modern ethical theories often rely on emergency situations. There could be a situation where altruists try to defend their theories by saying “What if there’s a baby drowning in a lake, and you’re late for a business meeting! “. This is central to the altruistic view. They come from the perspective that life is a constant emergency, and only an ethics of emergencies can see us through.