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Ethics: Emergencies and Obligations - Part 2 - Emergencies in Context

Ethics is not a deductive science. (On this, Hume was right. But I am intentionally bypassing that debate, it's not germane to my purpose.) In my inductive understanding of ethics, the difference between emergency circumstances and metaphysically normal circumstances is very important.

The purpose of ethics is to guide us in answering the question "what should I do?" throughout out lives. It is the nature of inductively-derived knowledge that it is valid within the context from which it was discovered. In a sufficiently different context, it may not apply.

This is important to remember when considering ethics. The overwhelming bulk of ethics is concerned with and is derived from the metaphysically normal circumstances under which the overwhelming majority of our lives are spent.

Emergencies are quite unlike metaphysically normal circumstances. An emergency is a situation where human survival is imperiled. Emergencies are atypical — if great peril were common, lifespans would be short indeed. Because emergencies are rare, most people do not spend much time thinking about the ethics of emergency situations, and are easily tripped up by persistent questioning along those lines. People attempt to apply the ethics of everyday life to situations that threaten life, and easily reach conclusions that they are uncomfortable with.

Questioning about so-called "lifeboat situations" is typical in philosophy classrooms, and is used to plant doubt in students' minds to make room for the professor's ideas. This is a monstrous practice, and a pedagogical error. Students should not be learning that their preexisting ethics are incomplete — of course they are, that's why they're in class — they should instead be learning that emergencies are a fundamentally different context than regular life, combined with a guided explanation of inductive ethics and the resulting comfort with the fact that ethical principles are contextual and therefore may need to be modified to be applied to a different context.

(Aggressive lifeboat questioning is also dangerously close to purely arbitrary questioning, which on principle should never be answered. Care should be taken to introduce real, historical examples of emergencies, with context, and questioning should be based on reality.)

Failure to recognize the contextual basis of ethical principles leads to dogmatic and deductive application of those principles beyond their appropriate scope. Libertarians are particularly prone to this error because they are predisposed to think in terms of basic principles. For example, "if stealing and trespassing are wrong, but you were caught unprepared in a blizzard, would you break into a cabin to wait out the storm, eating the food inside?"

A reflexive application of property rights is not appropriate in this case. The reason property rights are important in normal circumstances is that they're the essential means to sustain one's life through productive work. In the blizzard emergency, "respecting" property rights would create the opposite outcome — you would die of exposure.

Property rights are a tool to sustain your life. There are contexts in which they do not serve that purpose, and that's important to know. You should not use a tool in circumstances where it's unsuited for your purpose.

I want to state a useful ethical guide, but without going through all the reasoning to justify it. (Please forgive the jump.) Your life is your ultimate value, and if you ever believe that your morality obligates you to die, your morality is wrong, or misapplied.

Tiny Island