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Ethics: Emergencies and Obligations - Part 6 - Justice in Emergencies

What is the role of government in an emergency? As previous articles have argued, the context of an emergency is significantly different from ordinary life, with important implications for ethics. Does this contextual difference also give rise to significant implications for politics?

One of government's responsibilities is the administration of justice. This can only be done after the emergency has passed and normal conditions have been restored. (As much as I relish the thought of lawyers rushing, lemming-like, into peril… it won't happen.)

In a natural disaster, there is no culpability. No one is at fault for e.g. a hurricane or tsunami. There are victims, but no perpetrators. Therefore, direct punitive actions are inappropriate.

Can culpabilitiy arise from the failure of disaster warning systems? A warning system essentially makes predictions, and the issue of wrong predictions should be comprehended by contract between the clients and providers of warnings systems. The contract defines the scope of culpability, and the administration of justice here consists of enforcing the terms of the contract.

When the warning system is operated by the government, rather than by a private group, the situation is messier. The standard economic concerns over government meddling in the economy apply: Does the government establish a monopoly? How is quality affected by the involuntary nature of contributions? (How) Are the operators held accountable? Is innovation stifled by statute? Is regulatory capture a factor?

The obvious subtext from my questions is that the government shouldn't be involved where capitalism will do fine by itself. Just as lighthouses were provided privately, so too can warning systems be. But if the government is involved, the administration of justice becomes more complex to the extent that law and regulation are less clear than a private contract would have been.

It is the nature of government that it can only pay for damages to one group of people by stealing the funds from another. Yet that latter group is totally innocent, and the taxation is a fresh injustice. Injustice is done in the name of administering justice. How sick.

There are also man-made disasters, such as Bhopal. In these cases there is clearly culpability, and the administration of justice demands investigation and (as appropriate) remedy to those harmed. Here the government is acting normally — it is upholding the individual rights, including property rights, of those harmed. The culpable party must pay those damages.

I leave open the possibility that the disaster was novel and unforseeable. If the danger was unknown — not hidden, but truly unknown — this is a valid defense. Omniscience is not a reasonable standard to be held to.


The actual administration of justice occurs after the emergency has passed, and is the straightforward application of government's mandate to protect individual rights. This aspect of government is little affected by the special nature of emergency situations. Others are more affected, and will be discussed next time…

Tiny Island