Who owns the lifeboat?

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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Comments

  • theinterpreter  On February 28, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    Pilosophy is anthrophy

    It goes round and round in circles and never really gets anywhere unless you understand who created us the world, and the universe and the laws that are in place thereof.

    So if both of my children needed rescuing I would want to know who created that dlemma in the first place.

    Circumstances are of the mind as is the solution so man has the dilemma and somewhere in his concious the answer, whether he chooses to gift the answer is another question, otherwise we wouldn’t have wars for the answer to them is discussion, discussion, discussion untill a solution to all and for all is reached, which says that man can and is limited and therefor to be in the prescence of one who is above all that has been created in and of man is the ultimate solution when the /that creator creates from love to/of and freely gifts us all the answers as and when we need them and like man doesn,t make us beg.

    And so ‘let there be light’ in all for all, for we are done with going round in circles and now need all the answers (Lord!)

  • Aristotle The Geek  On February 28, 2009 at 11:09 pm

    # “unless you understand who created us the world, and the universe and the laws that are in place thereof.”
    Don’t want to get into a debate on theology here; but you have two options – believe that an Entity created the universe and try “searching” for the answers, or believe that the universe has always existed in some form or another, that the “laws” don’t change at the drop of a hat and that they actually make sense.

    # “So if both of my children needed rescuing I would want to know who created that dlemma in the first place.”
    You would spend time pontificating on the matter rather than jumping in to save them, thereby letting both of them die rather than one?

    # “Circumstances are of the mind as is the solution”
    When you stand in the middle of the road and a bus is approaching you at full speed, that circumstance is not in your mind – you are not imagining things. The solution is to act based on the available information, and the recommended action is getting off the road.

    # “for we are done with going round in circles and now need all the answers”
    Answers are not revealed, they are either discovered or invented – by you, or by some other Human. If you wait for the Entity to answer, you will have to wait for ever.

  • theinterpreter  On February 28, 2009 at 11:48 pm

    1. I don’t ponder danger for me or my children. I AVOID IT AND THOSE WHO BRING IT.

    IF YOU GET YOURSELF INTO A ‘BUS’ CIRCUMSTANCE as I do not ! then I suggest you need help.

    ANSWERS ARE INVENTED (so where then is integrity and truth, only in the inventor! who is anybody and everybody thereby are we in confusion)

    ENTITY: THAT YOU SPEAK OF SO EASILY, IS IN FACT HELL AND HATE WHICH PRETTY MUCH SUMS UP THE HUMAN AT HIS WORST.
    FOR AN ENTITY HAS NO CONCSCIENCE AND THEREFOR IS HE SUPREME AND WITHOUT MERCY.

    SO ON THE EVIDENCE ABOVE IF ITS ENTITY THAT CREATED THE UNIVERSE THEN WE ARE IN BIG TROUBLE WOULDN’T YOU SAY.

  • theinterpreter  On February 28, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    IF YOU WANT SOMBODY TO PONDER SOMETHING THEN FOR ENTITY IT MEANS HE IS DISTRACTING YOU FROM THE REAL TRUTH OF WHO HE REALLY IS THEREBY ARE YOU THE FOOL!

    JESUS ACTED ENTITY DISTRACTED.

    I DON’T SEEK HELL he usually seeks me.

  • theinterpreter  On March 1, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    So who owns your lifeboat.

    THE GOOD THE BAD OR THE ONE WHO CAME

    To set the (your) record straight.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On March 1, 2009 at 8:40 pm

      theinterpreter,
      1. STOP SHOUTING.
      2. I have a very low tolerance for stupidity. If you cannot read and write properly, or comprehend stuff, please don’t comment.
      3. I am moderating your comments. If you want to continue talking, stick to the subject of the post and previous comments. Otherwise this is your last comment on MY blog.

  • Vipin  On March 1, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    Nice post. thanks

    Even sans qualifiers, I dont think the life boat situation is a argument aganist absolute property rights. If there are ten people on a ship, and a lifeboat for eight, do we necessarily then need one or more persons making a decision on behalf of the others, selecting those to be saved? And hence infringing on property rights of the others?

    Its an indeterminate situation, for we do not know who the people are. Adam Smith wrote the Theory of Moral Sentiments before The Wealth of Nations. Classical Liberals and dare I say Libertarians, well understand the diverse motivations and sentiments of people, and do not characterize them as “rational maximizers of monetary wealth” or anything of that sort. That was a devise of mathematical economists of a particular kind, who couldnt have used differential calculus without utility functions.

    In short, we just dont know. I depends on the kind of people on board. Some may opt to sacrifice their lives to save that of others. Who knows, we might well be faced with a situation where not even eight jump into the boat as they offer their own place to others. Quite the opposite is possible too. Indeterminate!

    • Aristotle The Geek  On March 1, 2009 at 8:35 pm

      # “I dont think the life boat situation is a argument aganist absolute property rights….”
      It isn’t. neither is it an argument against the right to life (or self-ownership, as R calls it).

      But…while stating that we base any theory of ethics on “normal circumstances,” Rothbard is using the same theory to craft a solution to the so called “lifeboat” scenarios. Property rights, though derived from the right to life, if interpreted correctly, can offer a solution to such cases – that’s his argument. And therefore the argument that the owner of the ship/ boat and/ or his agent gets to decide who gets on the boat.

      # “Its an indeterminate situation, for we do not know who the people are.”
      # “In short, we just dont know…”
      It is, and we don’t. But the lifeboat school of ethics use the same reason to deny the absoluteness of rights. And the Rothbardian argument is aimed at them. This, incidentally, is entirely in line with some “tort” arguments he makes in “Law, Property Rights and Air Pollution” – the liability of men shooting each other.

      # “Classical Liberals and dare I say Libertarians, well understand the diverse motivations and sentiments of people, and do not characterize them as ‘rational maximizers of monetary wealth’ or anything of that sort.”
      No, we do not characterize people like so. “Rational” here means predictable and zombie-like, at least that’s what those who devised the theory have in mind.

  • hopesome  On March 2, 2009 at 3:30 am

    Shouting!

    isn’t that what you are doing.
    I’m just responding.

    Low tolerance shows you are not open to a good debate but take on board only those that agree with you or yours and further more patience is not of your way but of mine.

    You should not enter into a discussion and when you fail to have an answer insult you rfellow.

    Respect you are lacking in.

    WORK ON IT.

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