The Baby In The Woods
This is a follow-up thread that expands upon the comments section of Altruism Against Freedom, originally posted on Rebirth of Reason (RoR) by Joseph Rowlands on February 6, 2006. In light of the heated nature of those comments, this thread is not intended as a personal attack against any of the participants, but it is intended to clarify the discussion and provide a deeper analysis of the principles involved from an individual-liberties framework.
Some might object that this thread would be more appropriately posted as a comment in the original Altruism Against Freedom comments section. I would disagree for these reasons:
- At the time of this writing, the original thread is over eight years old, and most of the participants, including Michael Stuart Kelly (MSK) - whose ideas will be a central focus of this thread - are no longer active commenters on RoR. It would be unfair to reopen what has essentially become a closed thread, over many years of inactivity, as if the original commenters were still present. A similar principle in law is the granting a new trial when too much time has elapsed or circumstances surrounding the original trial have substantially changed.
- In addition, the exclusive focus of this thread will be the baby in the woods hypothetical that arose in comments, rather than the Altruism Against Freedom article itself. This thread will introduce new principles and perspectives beyond the original comments section, using the baby in the woods hypothetical only as a starting point.
The Original Hypothetical
The following are the facts of the original hypothetical:
A baby is alone in the woods, starving and with nobody to care for him or her. The baby is able to eat adult food. Person A has a surplus of food and comes across the baby. Person A decides not to share any food with the baby, and watches the baby die. Person B comes across Person A and the baby and learns what has happened. Person B flies into a rage and uses violence against Person A for not feeding the baby.
The original facts are not a clean hypothetical because they needlessly introduce the subjects of heat-of-passion mental states and vengeance into a discussion that all parties agreed is really about how “necessity” (or emergency) situations interact with property rights. Therefore, I will be using a modified version of the original facts as follows:
[...] Person A decides not to share any food with the baby, and watches the baby starving. Person B comes across Person A and the baby, learns what is happening, and through violence forces Person A to feed the baby.
Side Note to the Reader:
MSK has characterized the RoR commenters as claiming Person A's actions to be “morally correct” or “OK.” The commenters corrected MSK on this point in the original thread, clarifying that the actions of both Person A and Person B were immoral. Despite this correction, MSK continues to mischaracterize the RoR commenters as recently as yesterday on Objectivist Living (see here). This history is noted only to avoid confusion over what arguments were actually made by the participants.
Analysis of the Hypothetical
Ethics has been colloquially described as how one acts when nobody else is watching. In other words, the actor pursues an ethical action regardless of whether or not they are likely to be caught or punished. Ethical principles can be personally held or shared and encouraged within a community. Ethics are distinct from legality, although there may be overlap.
A common ethical principle that Objectivists and libertarians hold is the “non-aggression principle,” sometimes called the “non-initiation of force principle.” Ayn Rand notably endorsed the non-aggression principle and argued that liberty was a precondition for virtuous conduct. One commonly used definition of “force” in the philosophical context is violence, the threat of violence, or fraud, all of which deny another individual control over his or her own life.
The central question from the hypothetical is whether it is morally correct for Person B to force Person A to give food so the baby might live. Since Person A did not use force against either the baby or Person B (mere inaction cannot be considered force), Person B was the initiator of force against Person A in the hypothetical. Therefore, a strict adherence to the non-aggression principle would hold that Person B acted immorally.
Though not entirely clear on the subject, MSK seemed to generally support the non-aggression principle while also arguing that certain scenarios – “emergencies” - called for its temporary suspension out of necessity in order to save a life. This argument is consistent with the legal defense of “necessity,” which in certain extraordinary situations can justify appropriating another person's property in order to avoid a greater harm. MSK has made similar statements on Objectivist Living regarding his support of heroes who “break the rules” in order to vanquish their foes.
After further researching the question, it doesn't appear that “necessity” is a valid basis for suspending the non-aggression principle within the traditional framework of Objectivist ethics. Therefore, Person B could be said to be acting immorally by redistributing the food by force. It's important to note, however, that there are degrees of morality and immorality within most ethics systems. This particular scenario was concocted in order to be as heart-wrenching and extreme as possible, and therefore, although Person B's violence was immoral, the extreme circumstances mitigate the conduct to the extent where the violence is as close to being justified as an immoral action can be. An additional consideration is that no human being can reasonably be expected to act morally in every situation, so Person B would not necessarily be a bad person for this single transgression.
The danger of presenting Person B's violent redistribution of resources as moral should be obvious to any advocate for individual liberties and limited government. As many RoR commenters pointed out in the original thread, it's difficult, if not impossible, to explain why violence would be moral in this case to prevent one death, but systemic violence would be immoral to prevent many millions of deaths across the country. It is further difficult, if not impossible, to explain why death should be the only exception in utilitarian calculus, rather than expanding the exception to the prevention of any serious (or non-serious) greater harm.
In light of this danger, the most reasonable and consistent position for an Objectivist to take (in my opinion) is that Person B's violence was unethical, but at the same time understandable on an emotional basis and mitigated by the extreme circumstances. Not using violence would be a very difficult choice for any person filling Person B's shoes, but we wouldn't need ethics to guide us if decisions were always easy.
(Edited by Robert Baratheon on 3/01, 8:38pm)