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Ethics: Emergencies and Obligations - Part 5 - Principles in Emergencies

Everybody needs ethics — ordinary, everyday, regular ethics. You'll use it every day throughout your life. It's clearly worth study.

Not everybody needs emergency ethics. It's a specialization of the science that only operates in rare circumstances that most people hope to avoid. Frankly, most people have better things to do with their time than to study something they'll never use.

However, there are people for whom emergency situations are an occupational reality. Firemen, police, soldiers, emergency room and military doctors, search and rescue, paramedics, and others regularly encounter emergency situations. These people need ethical principles for emergencies.

Ethical principles within emergencies aren't wholly different from normal ethical principles. The methodology is the same — even in an emergency, ethical principles are grounded in a person's hierarchy of values and derived from the facts of reality about what behavior is required to achieve those values. An important distinction, however, is that emergency ethics is not concerned with the question of what people ought to value. Emergencies are peril; it is generally possible only to preserve values, not to pursue them.

People with occupational exposure to emergencies are subject to another important consideration — it's part of their profession. These people have, by their chose of career, accepted the ethical obligation to do their job through extreme circumstances. Professionals are held to a higher standard than ordinary people in emergencies. They've chosen it and have trained for it.

It isn't my purpose here to talk about the specific ethical principles that are proper guides for policeman, firemen, soldiers, etc., except to note that they are different for different professions. The differences in acceptable behavior between law enforcement (a policeman) and war (a soldier) are clear. The differences in contexts drive differences in applicable principles. This is in clear contrast to normal ethics, which provides universal principles applicable to all normal contexts. In normal ethics, specialized subsets of ethics for e.g. different professions deal with the task of applying the universal principles in a more focused context — not with balkanizing the science into sub-groups that operate under incompatible principles.

No more discussion of professionals. Let's focus on ordinary people.


The proper ethical principle for most people in an emergency is to get out. End or leave the emergency, get out of peril, protect your life and return to a normal ethical context where you are better equipped to make decisions. In the course of "getting out", pay attention to your hierarchy of values and take those actions necessary to protect your highest values, even if in normal circumstances those actions would violate your ethical principles. This is an emergency context, remember, so your regular principles may not apply.

It is difficult to make good decisions in an emergency. You're under stress, you're in a hurry, and your automatized principles may guide you incorrectly. For all these reasons it's important to grant considerable deference to the decisions people make during emergencies. However, this is not a license to do as one pleases because "everything goes." When the emergency is over, you are obligated to make reasonable recompense for actions which violated ordinary ethics.

If in an blizzard someone breaks into a cabin to survive, they should pay to repair the window (or whatever) and to replace the food they ate. The obligation to make amends is softened by leniency — if they were reasonably trying to do right during an emergency, but caused (say) considerable property damage that they cannot afford to repair, that debt should not be binding.

Insurance may be the right analogy, here. Emergencies are a risk, like natural disasters. (In fact, natural disasters are emergencies for people present in them.) The element of human choice is certainly present in a person's actions during an emergency, and human choice may cause damages, but these are already difficult circumstances and it is easy to construct "no-win" situations where damage is unavoidable. People should not be punished for pursuing the least-bad of a set of lousy alternatives. That said, if human choice caused an emergency, no lenience should be given to that choice.

It is worthwhile to mention a few principles subordinate to "get out" that will generally serve your hierarchy of values in an emergency:

  • Think. Your decisions in an emergency are based on a risk-reward calculation. You may be able to preserve significant values with only a small increase in risk.
  • Help people. The typical person is substantially more good than evil, so the typical total stranger is worth aiding. You should first help people you know to be good, before helping strangers. You should not (ever) help people you know to be evil, unless there's an overriding short-term reason to do so.
  • Alert the professionals. They're trained for this stuff — you're not. They will also have equipment, increasing their capabilities. Even if you're safe already, they can help others, and that is a goal in an emergency. A corollary is: don't drain their resources unnecessarily.

I'm sure with additional thought I would add several more to this list. But I'm more interested in the fact that emergency ethics is different from normal ethics in important ways, than in fleshing out the contents of emergency ethics. Besides, I'm tired, and even after all this I still haven't gotten to Josh's questions yet, so this is a good place for a break. Next time, the political implications of emergencies! We saw here that emergencies are ethically significant — are they politically significant, too?


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