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Ethics: Emergencies and Obligations - Part 7 - Force in Emergencies

I'm finally returning to the series on emergency ethics I started in January. It's been several months since the last time I wrote about this; if you'd like to review, here are the previous installments:

Ordinarily, I condemn the initiation of physical force. This condemnation is rooted in Ayn Rand's argument that reason is man's fundamental tool for living and that force is imposed in order to circumvent the victim's exercise of reason. If I engage my mind toward an act of production, and you steal my product, you disrupt my ability to survive by the use of reason. This is fundamentally anti-human. And since human life is the standard of value, this use of force (i.e., to steal) is evil.

The standard caveat: Not all force is evil. Self-defense is fine. Recovering stolen property is fine. It's the initiation of force that's problematic.

The unusual nature of emergencies (see especially Part 2) creates exceptions to the non-initiation-of-force principle. This occurs because the ordinary conditions of existence that lead to the NIFP are dissimilar to the conditions of emergency situations.

Let's imagine I have a misanthropic neighbor, the sort of person who yells "get off my land!" while waving a shotgun menacingly when kids run through his yard. He's told me in very clear terms that he wants me to leave him and his property alone at all times. Now let's say one day he has a heart attack and collapses in his front yard. He falls suddenly, making no indication that help is requested.

Do I trespass, against his explicit instructions, in order to attempt to save his life? (Maybe I know CPR or have a defibrillator.) Is this an unacceptable initiation of force? Clearly not. It would be perverse to adhere to the NIFP — which bars violence against my neighbor in order to protect his life — in a context where adherence to the NIFP would virtually guarantee his death.

Life is primary. Nonaggression is derivative, it emerges from context. It is useful and remarkable that the NIFP applies so well to almost all situations — it makes everyday ethics a manageable business — but it's important to realize that it doesn't apply to all situations.

"Okay," you're thinking, "I see your point about life-or-death situations. But what about emergencies that aren't so dire?" Let's modify the misanthropic neighbor example. Let's say there's a small fire starting in his house while no one is there. (He accidentally left the stove on and Fluffy jumped up on the counter… poor Fluffy…) Let's also say that I'm a professional firefighter, I hear the cat scream, and notice the situation.

The fire is still very small. I'm an expert and have the right equipment — I can easily save his house by breaking into it. (I'm purposely ignoring the angle that the fire is an objective threat to my own safety and property; assume my house is far enough away that it's not a risk.) Would saving his house be aggression and forbidden as breaking-and-entering, or is this acceptable?

It's acceptable. In ordinary situations, aggression against property is forbidden because it takes value away from its rightful owner — value that plays a role in maintaining and enhancing the owner's life. In the context of this emergency situation, my action preserves the value of my neighbor's property to my neighbor. Yes, I am initiating force and damaging property by breaking into his house — but the damage would have been far worse if I had done nothing. This initiation of force should not be condemned.

Here's the interesting question: In this situation, should I be entitled to bill my neighbor for my firefighting services, and have the law on my side if he declines to pay? That will be the subject of my next installment.

Tiny Island