Lifeboat Situations: Freedom in Times of Emergency

From time to time, the fundamental right of each of us to our individual liberty is challenged by the notion that such a right shouldn’t necessarily apply in emergencies. In the regular, fair weather of societal relations, it is easy enough for us to agree that we should, for instance, have no right to physically injure or steal from other people. But what if an emergency could be resolved only by a breach of the non-aggression principle (NAP)? What if that situation was so desperate that the only way to avoid almost certain loss of life (or severe bodily harm) was to violate the property rights of another person?

Some of these emergency situations are easier to resolve in favour of the NAP than others. This is obviously the case when the degree of harm that would be inflicted on another person is equivalent to the degree of harm that one seeks to avoid for oneself. For instance, if John is in need of an urgent heart transplant, it would be absurd to suggest that he could instruct a surgeon to extract Sally’s heart so as to transfer it to his (John’s) body, thus condemning Sally to the very fate that was meted out for him. More realistically, what if a man needs to drive his dying wife to the hospital in as quick a time as possible in order to save her life? Given his desperation, is it not likely that he will drive less carefully and with a lower degree of consideration for other road users than if he was just driving to work? Unfortunately for him, however much we may empathise with this man’s sense of urgency, he would not be relieved of the requirement to avoid striking pedestrians and other cars. As we said in a previous essay:

If a man drives dangerously in order to get his wife to hospital as quickly as possible so that her life can be saved, it’s absurd to suggest that he can, in the process, simply create more emergencies by knocking over any pedestrian that gets in his way. Absolving the defendant in such a case means that everyone else can be forced to bear the cost of his priorities and his urgently desired needs.

In short, however unfortunate your plight, you cannot offload the cost of the burden onto other people. Indeed, to look at it from another angle, the avoidance of harm to oneself (or to someone for whom you care) is itself a benefit; obtaining that benefit at the expense of other people through physical force is the very essence of aggression.

Matters become slightly more difficult when the number of people that can be saved during an emergency is greater than the number that would suffer from aggression in the process. For instance, in a famous case in English law – a literal lifeboat situation – three stranded seafarers killed and cannibalised a fourth so as to provide food for survival. Once rescued, two of the survivors were prosecuted and found guilty of murder (although their final sentence was a mere six months’ imprisonment). While this case is complicated by the fact that the victim was as equally marooned as the defendants (i.e. he, and everyone else, would have died anyway had he not been sacrificed), we can see that the principle in favour of the judgment is the same regardless of the extent of the emergency. A group of people should not be able to offload the burden of their shared misfortune onto another person any more than a single individual can; each individual is an end in himself, and cannot be sacrificed for the benefit of others. Indeed, all of these examples are simply a more extreme variety of the general, oft-cited problem of the supposed need to balance “security” with “liberty”. The libertarian answer to this is that nobody’s security can be bought at the expense of another person’s liberty.

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