IT IS OFTEN CONTENDED that the existence of extreme, or “lifeboat,” situations disproves any theory of absolute property rights, or indeed of any absolute rights of self-ownership whatsoever. It is claimed that since any theory of individual rights seems to break down or works unsatisfactorily in such fortunately rare situations, therefore there can be no concept of inviolable rights at all. In a typical lifeboat situation, there are, let us say, eight places in a lifeboat putting out from a sinking ship, and there are more than eight people wishing to be saved. Who then is to decide who should be saved and who should die? And what then happens to the right of self-ownership, or, as some people phrase it, the “right to life”? (The “right to life” is fallacious phraseology, since it could imply that A’s “right to life” can justly involve an infringement on the life and property of someone else, i.e., on B’s “right to life” and its logical extensions. A “right to self-ownership” of both A and B avoids such confusions.)
In the first place, a lifeboat situation is hardly a valid test of a theory of rights, or of any moral theory whatsoever. Problems of a moral theory in such an extreme situation do not invalidate a theory for normal situations. In any sphere of moral theory, we are trying to frame an ethic for man, based on his nature and the nature of the world—and this precisely means for normal nature, for the way life usually is, and not for rare and abnormal situations. It is a wise maxim of the law, for precisely this reason, that “hard cases make bad law.” We are trying to frame an ethic for the way men generally live in the world; we are not, after all, interested in framing an ethic that focuses on situations that are rare, extreme, and not generally encountered.
Let us take an example, to illustrate our point, outside the sphere of property rights or rights in general, and within the sphere of ordinary ethical values. Most people would concede the principle that “it is ethical for a parent to save his child from drowning.” But, then, our lifeboat skeptic could arise and hurl this challenge: “Aha, but suppose that two of your children are drowning and you can save only one. Which child would you choose? And doesn’t the fact that you would have to let one child die negate the very moral principle that you should save your drowning child?” I doubt whether many ethicists would throw over the moral desirability or principle of saving one’s child because it could not be fully applied in such a “lifeboat” situation. Yet why should the lifeboat case be different in the sphere of rights?
In a lifeboat situation, indeed, we apparently have a war of all against all, and there seems at first to be no way to apply our theory of self-ownership or of property rights. But, in the example cited, the reason is because the property right has so far been ill-defined. For the vital question here is: who owns the lifeboat?
Murray Rothbard; Lifeboat Situations, “The Ethics of Liberty”
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"Even if I am a minority of one, the truth is still the truth." — Mahatma Gandhi
"I look upon an increase in the power of the State with the greatest fear, because, though apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress." — Mahatma Gandhi
"The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights, cannot claim to be defenders of minorities." — Ayn Rand
"There are four characteristics which brand a country unmistakably as a dictatorship: one-party rule—executions without trial or with a mock trial, for political offenses—the nationalization or expropriation of private property—and censorship. A country guilty of these outrages forfeits any moral prerogatives, any claim to national rights or sovereignty, and becomes an outlaw." — Ayn Rand
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