Friday, January 25, 2008

Slow read with commentary: "The Ethics Of Emergencies"(1)

Rand's essay "The Objectivist Ethics"is well-known, and the simple, decisive arguments against it - like her equivocation between "survival" and "survival as man qua man", and her deficient understanding of the is/ought problem - are now becoming equally well-known.

However a shorter and lesser known essay, "The Ethics of Emergencies", throws other light on fundamental problems with both Rand's ethics and her typical style of argument. Over the next few weeks we will do a "slow read" on this piece, para by para, and unpack in detail the plentiful intellectual and stylistic confusions therein.

"The Ethics of Emergencies" by Ayn Rand (February 1963)

The psychological results of altruism may be observed in the fact that a great many people approach the subject of ethics by asking such questions as:"Should one risk one's life to help a man who is: a) drowning, b) trapped in a fire, c) stepping in front of a speeding truck, d) hanging by his fingernails over an abyss?"
Comment: This opening is vintage Rand. For despite her authoritative tone, Rand knew next to nothing about psychology, and sometimes chided Nathaniel Branden for even being interested in such an ultimately irreducible subject. Yet despite her ignorance, and perhaps because of this convenient irreducibility, she nonetheless regularly enjoyed draping her arguments in pseudo-psychological trappings*. This penchant for armchair psychology is mostly risible: for example, in "The Cult of Moral Grayness" Rand declares that the order in which people commonly say "good and evil" and "black and white" is, apparently, "...interesting psychologically." One is tempted to reply that the only thing interesting psychologically is that Rand finds this interesting psychologically. Similarly, here we find her whimsically inferring the "psychological results of altruism" on society at large from existence of a commonplace "what if"? She clearly never read Freud on the cigar. (Stylistically we also have the glitch of her clumsy set of examples. For we really need only "drowning"; we do not need the ramping melodrama of the other three redundancies, nor the attempt to itemise this padding into significance).

But what are these "psychological results" of altruism? Rand then outlines them as follows:
Consider the implications of that approach. If a man accepts the ethics of altruism, he suffers the following consequences (in proportion to the degree of his acceptance):
1. Lack of self esteem - since his first concern in the realm of values is not how to live his life, but how to sacrifice it.
2. Lack of respect for others - since he regards mankind as a herd of doomed beggars crying for someone's help.
3. A nightmare view of existence - since he believes that men are trapped in a "malevolent universe" where disasters are the constant and primary concern of their lives.
4. And, in fact, a lethargic indifference to ethics, a hopelessly cynical amorality - since his questions involve situations which he is not likely ever to encounter, which bear no relation to the actual problems of his life and thus leave him with no moral principles whatever.
Comment: Perhaps we should really consider the implications of Rand's approach here. For, from the mere utterance of an ethical chestnut, she is claiming to have diagnosed the utterer's psychological state as suffering from a "lack of self-esteem", "lack of respect for others", "a nightmare view of existence", and "in fact, a lethargic indifference to ethics, a hopelessly cynical amorality..."If there was any doubt that Murray Rothbard's parody "Mozart Was A Red" - where Mozart's "collectivist", "anti-life"psychology is implied by "every bar of his music" - accurately reflected the Randian method in action, this gives us a perfect example in her very own words.

We should also pause to reflect on 4., where she criticises the above ethical questions for being situations one is "not likely to encounter" and thus leave us with "no moral principles whatever." Yet this is the very method she uses elsewhere to capture the "essence" of altruism; by the use of a reductio ad absurdum to claim, for example, that "death is the ultimate goal and standard of altruism." Of course, we are hardly likely to encounter death as a result of a typical altruistic act. What, according to Objectivism, our moral status will be should this unikely event occur we will attempt to discover as we read on.

(to be continued)

*She also indulged in lengthy, pseudo-psychological introspective ramblings herself, as is excruciatingly exhumed in the end section of James Valliant's hapless hagiography "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics".


Jay said...


Interesting points, but you left the core of her thesis totally intact: most people do couch ethical questions in disaster scenarios rather than normal day to day situations. This is an important and significant observation, whether her psychological conclusions are 100% true or not.

Personally I do think that reveals something about how morality/ethics are perceived.

Daniel Barnes said...

>most people do couch ethical questions in disaster scenarios rather than normal day to day situations.

Y' reckon? I've rarely if ever had that experience myself. Further, as evidence allow me to offer all the Dear Abby-type advice columns ever written in any popular medium, which would have to be in the tens of millions. Therein you'll find a vast number of examples of the surprisingly small repertoire of typical ethical dilemmas - "shall I tell my boyfriend I hate his friends?" or "My best friend slept with my wife, what should I do?" or "My mother is interfering with the way I raise my kids, should I tell her to butt out or put up with it?" or "My boss wants me to lie to a client" and so on and so forth. Not an "emergency" in sight. If you can find one column, let alone "a great many" of them, with something like "Should one risk one's life to help a man who is hanging by his fingernails off a cliff?", well if a free copy of ARCHN2 existed you'd win it.

Hence my thesis, backed only by the most overwhelming weight of evidence ever offered on the ARCHNblog...;-)... is that Rand's thesis is complete bull puckey, concocted on a whim and probably a The Objectivist Newsletter deadline. She's "interviewing Olivetti" as my mother, a former journalist, used to say.

Wells said...

Actually ethics is about emergencies. Everyone acts ethically when there is nothing to lose by doing so.

Take for instance the "My boss wants me to lie to a client. What should I do?" Situation. People agonize over situations like that because there are probably adverse consequences for telling the truth. If the situation continued "But his boss wants me to tell the truth." It becomes much easier to remain on the straight and narrow.

Just like there isn't courage if there isn't the probability of losing anything or suffering any hardship, ethics may be about the relationship you believe exists between moral action and personal security when these things are in conflict.

Jay said...


One thing I've encountered a lot is the "Prisoner's Dilemma" as a way of trying to invalidate self-interest. I dunno, to me that's a cheap way of sweeping aside the countless non-emergency situations in which it pays to act in your own interest.

Daniel Barnes said...

HI Jay

The Prisoner's Dilemma doesn't invalidate self interest, especially in its iterated form ie when the game is repeated frequently. It's well explained in the wiki:'s_dilemma

Jay said...


Thanks for the link. I'll check that out. Also, a post idea for you guys.

While you're on the subject of ethics, you guys should review Tara Smith's work Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics - The Virtuous Egoist. She goes into much more detail carrying out Rand's theories than Rand did, and I'd love to see if your objections to man qua man and her improper grasp of is-ought hold up across Smith's text. Here is what one reviewer had to say:

Smith's presentation is masterful, executed with clarity, power, and finesse. Yet it is accessible, and she maintains a warm, reflective style throughout that is grounded in the realities of human life. While following along as Smith unwinds the major virtues Rand identified, what makes them virtues, and what they demand of us in action, you may find that you can't help but consider the implications regarding your own behavior -- the character you are shaping by your everyday choices and actions -- the course you are charting in your own life. This is a solid academic work, but it is also the deepest sort of practical self-help book, implicitly encouraging people to get real and seriously consider what it means to live as a human can and should.

Dragonfly said...

We shouldn't forget that what seems to us - leading a comfortable life in the relatively safe environment of our western world - to be an emergency is and has been a common if not daily experience to a large part of the world population. If you're living in a war zone or in an occupied country (like many European countries during WW II) your perspective may be quite different. Wouldn't such situations be relevant to an ethical theory? I think they would be relevant par excellence.

What use is a fair-wheather ethics theory if it can't tell us anything when the circumstances are not so good? I think Rand avoided these problems while she realized that her formulaic approach wouldn't work there. In such situations it isn't always clear what is good and what is bad behavior. So, instead of accepting the existence of such grey areas she declared it off limits, with the argument that these are "exceptions" and therefore shouldn't be taken into account. Exceptions to whom?

I wonder for example what the official Objectivist viewpoint is about the case where in a war situation a soldier throws himself upon a grenade to save his comrades. Many people would think this is a heroic act and will admire that soldier for it, but probably few of them will think that it was his duty to do that. And therein lies a difficulty of Rand's theory, who can see altruism only as a duty and not as something people can do voluntarily.

Daniel Barnes said...

Dragonfly's point - which we'll get to as we go - is important. Rand's ostensible position - which is actually highly confused anyway when you break it down - is that when the going gets tough, ethics go out the window. One would think that this is precisely when ethics would matter most. But I'll leave that for now.

Re: Tara Smith, I will get around to reading her book at some point. My initial encounters with her were not promising, however. It seemed to be the same old Randian verbalist bromides just watered down for academic consumption. But I will have a decent look at some point.

Jay said...


I believe her point was that if disasters were the norm it would mean we were unfit for survival, which clearly isn't the case. As you alluded to, we live relatively safe lives here so why shouldn't the bulk of ethical instruction deal with those situations? As psychotherapist Michael J. Hurd once noted, "Life isn't a hurricane, or a flood, or a disaster."


I agree that ethics is about priorities, but is "my boss wants me to lie?" really an "emergency?"

There is plenty in the Objectivist literature about being honest even when the consequences aren't immediate or devastating.

Wells said...


Usually with the 'Boss wants me to lie' scenario will do things like threaten to fire you, pass over for promotions, dock your pay, give you a poor performance review, deny tenure, etc. It's not a burning building, but there still is some pain involved.

While I am pretty sure there is literature concerning honesty even when telling the truth carries no consequences. Some of it may have been written by objectivists, and some of it may even be good. However I cannot class it as important.
Here's why. I don't like to lie, I don't know people who like to lie. I don't even think anyone who regularly reads this blog likes to lie. If it won't hurt me, I'll tell the truth, every single time. It's only when truth starts to cost something when I feel tempted to forsake it.

Also, about what Michael J. Hurd said. I'll have to class him as correct insomuch as life is not a disaster.
However consider this, Life does break the mean. we didn't exist for 15 billion years (1.5 * 10^10). Now I'll probably live for 100 years (1 * 10^2). And when we die, we'll not exist for a further 20 trillion years (2 * 10^13)*. That hundred years of existence is very, very extra-ordinary. It should be kept in mind. Existence is not a disaster. It probably is its exact opposite, but it can still be very turbulent.

*This assumes a closed Universe and a big crunch at the end of the Uniiverse.

Dragonfly said...

Jay: "I believe her point was that if disasters were the norm it would mean we were unfit for survival, which clearly isn't the case. As you alluded to, we live relatively safe lives here so why shouldn't the bulk of ethical instruction deal with those situations? As psychotherapist Michael J. Hurd once noted, "Life isn't a hurricane, or a flood, or a disaster."

That reminds me of the apocryphal Marie-Antoinette quote "let them eat cake".

For millions of people life is and has been a hurricane, a flood and a disaster. You simply don't realize how privileged you are compared with the great majority of people that live and that have lived on earth. It isn't that long ago that the average lifespan of human beings was about 30 years. That doesn't imply that we are unfit for survival. On the contrary: history has shown that people do survive, even after the population has been decimated by epidemics, famines or wars.

Jay said...


I thought it was clear from your original context ("leading a comfortable life in the relatively safe environment of our western world") and my restatement of it that I meant life today. I'm fully aware that disease, natural disasters, famines, and political despotism have ravaged populations past and present.

I know, for example, that prior to the Columbian exchange Europe was a dying continent, where 2 of every 3 years were famine years and if it weren't for the potato being discovered in the New World and sent back, the entire continent might have died out. That's because the potato was the only crop able to grow in Europe's over-planted, largely infertile soil.

However, I also know that by gradual trial and error, Western civilization took root and made such problems far less imposing. Hence the relatively safe and prosperous country we now live in and hence why the bulk of ethics should instruct us on the non-lethal matters that command our daily attention.

Ellen Stuttle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ellen Stuttle said...

[Typo-corrected re-post of the above deleted post.]

Daniel wrote:

[Rand] sometimes chided Nathaniel Branden for even being interested in such an ultimately irreducible subject.

Daniel, sorry to be obstreperous, but I do think that your terminology "ultimately irreducible subject" at minimum needs explaining. I can not recall Nathaniel's ever using such a term to describe AR's chiding him. He describes -- though I can't off-hand locate the text cite in his non-indexed memoir(s) -- her chiding him for being interested in all those evil people, his clients. I.e., she never "got" the difference between psychological difficulties and moral flaws. Allan Blumenthal told me first-hand that she similarly criticized him. Still, I don't know if this is what you mean by your usage "irreducible subject." (And if you do, why that term.)


Daniel Barnes said...

>I can not recall Nathaniel's ever using such a term to describe AR's chiding him.

Obstreperise away...;-)

I was relying on memory, as I couldn't find the quote either. As I recalled it was to do with the fact that rarely came to the clearcut conclusions Rand preferred. Those could have been moral or causal AFAIK. If anyone has the quote I'm happy to be corrected.