An Objectivist on a Life Boat

August 27, 2008 by  

On August 26, 2008, I released a video that addressed the assertion – sometimes heard even amongst students of Objectivist philosophy – that “ethics don’t apply in life boat scenarios” or other emergencies. In the video, I spoke extemporaneously, but I thought my argument should nonetheless be made available in written format, for googlers and others who may prefer to read philosophical arguments, rather than to listen to them or to watch them. What follows is, for the most part (about 99% of it), a transcription of what I said in the video. However, I have removed contractions in most places and, in a small number of places where the spoken word left some ambiguity as to my meaning, I have made my meaning more clear.

The lifeboat scenario.

The lifeboat scenario is one in which, usually, there are two people in a lifeboat with no food, no water, no means of sustaining their lives, out in the middle of an ocean or similar body of water, and no land nearby, no rescuers on the way, that they know of.

The typical question asked in the lifeboat scenario is: “Should person X murder and then eat person Y in order to survive?”. It’s important to consider the question itself and what it’s designed to do. By removing the possibility of production – by making it impossible for any of the life boaters to produce what they need to survive – the lifeboat scenario effectively says that rationality – man’s own mind – is of no use in this scenario. So it’s a sneaky attack, actually, on rationality or the role of rationality in man or in the definition of man. It effectively seeks to do the equivalent of saying: “If man were a mindless brute, then would it be ethical for man to murder and eat the other life boater?”. In other words, by changing the metaphysics or, at least, creating a highly artificial metaphysical situation – a situation in which production is not possible – the questioner hopes to have the same effect as though he were asking “If man were not man, then would it be ethical for man to do X?”.

Now consider the purpose of ethics. The purpose of ethics is to establish, or to discover, a “code of ethics” or a code of behaviour that will all man to survive on Earth, in this life. So, the first question is: “What is man? What is the nature of man?”. Well, man is the rational animal (as Aristotle would say). Man survives only because, and only through the use, of his rational faculty. In other words, to survive, man has to solve problems using logic and considering only the observable facts of reality (the things for which there are, ultimately, physical evidence). If he fails to do that – if he makes up the facts upon which he makes decisions, or if he fails to think logically about the evidence – then, ultimately, there is a higher likelihood that he will die.

In fact, if he consistently acts irrationally he certainly will die. He can only, at that point, be fed or put on life support. He cannot provide for himself. And ethics, at that point – at the point were a person is not providing for himself – is utterly irrelevant to him. He’s not making decisions of life or death. He exists only because someone has a tube in his throat or what have you.

Of course, you can choose not to be rational. And, when you choose not to be rational, you are choosing, ultimately, not to use the only tool you have that gives you control over your fate; that allows you to survive (without somebody putting you on some sort of life support). So, when we say “man”, we’re talking about the kind of human being who has decided to think; the kind of human being who has decided to apply his rational faculty to the available evidence around him. A person who does not do so is not, formally speaking, acting consistently with his nature. He is not man. He is human, but he is not man.

Man’s rational faculty allows him to produce the values that allow him to survive; the values upon which his survival and happiness depend. If he does not produce values, he will have no values to consume.

Cannibalism is not the production of values. It is a consumption of values and, of course, it is limited by the number of people who are available to murder and eat. So, in a typical life boat scenario, it is not the case that a person who has chosen not to think can survive by cannibalism. He will survive in the short term – he will extend his life for some amount of time – but eventually he will be right back in the same boat (of the person who has chosen not to think). He will die, because he will not have that life support available any more: there’s no tree of human beings from which he can pluck his food. Cannibalism, in other words, is not only irrational, but is short sighted. In fact, it is worse than short-range thinking, it is point-blank thinking: you are in the emergency; you are starving; you eat right then, right there; you are not thinking about the future; you are not thinking about how this is going to affect your future; you are thinking only about filling your stomach right then, right there. So, it is worse then thinking short-range. It is, as I say, point-blank thinking.

The rational person, on the other hand, needing to produce values, has to think long-range; lives long range; thinks about the effects of things done now on their happiness and survival in the longer term. Of course, in the life boat, there is no opportunity to produce, so that’s not possible. But it is not the case that, by turning to cannibalism, one is somehow thinking long-range, or even short-range, or that one is being rational. It is not a case of being rational at all. It is a case of abandoning rationality; abandoning long-term thinking (and even short-term thinking); thinking more or less as an animal would think; consuming, and not guaranteeing ones future at all.

We can break the schools of moral philosophy into three general groups: the subjectivist, the intrinsicist, and the Objectivist. Let us look at how each of those three would approach the life boat scenario.

The subjectivist effectively says any range of things along the lines of: “Well, you know, nature isn’t knowable; the facts of reality aren’t knowable; or they’re chaotic and unpredictable; or man’s senses are unable to detect what reality is really like”. So, the subjectivist effectively is saying that, if there is going to be a code according to which he or she guides his life, it certainly is not going to be founded upon the facts of reality. The subjectivist has given up on the possibility of knowing the facts of reality. So any system of ethics that he chooses to adopt is adopted arbitrarily; designed somewhat arbitrarily. Even if in some sense it is considered to be fair (e.g., “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), it has nothing to do with reality. It does not concern itself with the facts of reality or with knowing the facts of reality, or with being determined by the facts of reality.

The subjectivist merely makes it up. So, for example, there is not reason for a subjectivist to reject this sort of philosophy: that, in a life boat, it is right for the lighter person to eat the heavier person – to kill and eat the heavier person – because, under that scenario, the lighter person will have food for a greater number of days than if the reverse were done. In other words, if the heavier person were to kill and eat the lighter person, the heavier person would have food for fewer days. So you can say that “Well, obviously, the correct solution is for the lighter person to kill the heavier person and eat the heavier person for a greater number of days, thereby increasing the likelihood that the lighter person will be found and rescued…”, etc. But that is completely arbitrary morality. There is no way to prove it. It is not connected in any way with the facts of reality in terms of right and wrong: the standard is completely arbitrary.

In fact, the moral subjectivist really has no way of distinguishing the life boat scenario from any other scenario. There is no way for the subjectivist objectively – or with reference to the facts of reality – to justify having a different response when in a lifeboat with no food than when being on the streets of New York. The subjectivist could not say that it is wrong to murder and eat someone in New York, but right to murder and eat someone in a life boat, except by arbitrary assertion. There is no principled way for the subjectivist to do it that is, in any way, connected with the facts of reality or that is, in any way, dictated by the facts of reality. Nor could the subjectivist say that the rules are different for hungry people versus for people who are not hungry (i.e., it would be completely arbitrary if they were to assert a difference).

So, that is the moral subjectivist in a lifeboat. He basically makes it up. There is no right or wrong. It is impossible for him, really, to prove anything he might assert about life boat scenarios.

Let us move on to the intrinsicists. The intrinsicists are those who say that “No, no, there is right and wrong, but it exists independently of what anyone thinks. In other words, for example, the intrinsicist might say “It’s right because god said so” (e.g., “he said so in a book”, somewhere). Or: “Red things are always good to eat”, period, “they’re always good for everyone to eat, regardless of their allergies; regardless of what they like to eat, etc.”.

The intrinsicist essentially says: “One rule fits all in all circumstances”. So, we have two people sitting in a life raft, and the intrinsicist is asked “Is it right for X to kill Y”. He might say “absolutely not”. Well, okay, but what if the intrinsicist says yes, that “It’s absolutely right for X to kill Y”. Well, then it is also logically right for Y to kill X. Why? Because the same rules apply to everybody, independently of any particular person’s mind. So, if it is right for X to kill Y, and it is right for Y to kill X, then it is also true that it is right for X to die, and it is right for Y to die. In other words, at the same time, in the same situation, and in the same place, it is both right for X to live and right for X to die. Or, to put it another way, it is both the case that X’s highest value is his own life and not the case that X’s highest value is his own life. In fact, it could be that his highest value is his own life and, simultaneously, that his highest value is his own death. Why? Because the rightness of X’s death is what morality dictates for Y, and the rightness of X’s life is what morality dictates for X.

So, the intrinsicist runs into contradictions. He cannot find a set of rules that are applicable consistently; that are not contradictory; and, therefore, he ends up with no answer; with an answer that cannot be demonstrated to be true.

Now, let us move on to the Objectivists. The Objectivist says: “What are the facts of reality? What is the nature of man”? The thinking animal; the rational animal; the animal that survives by thinking; by producing values. “What is man’s highest value”? His own life. “What is man’s purpose”? His own happiness. “What is the standard by which we determine something to be good or to be evil”? Human life; the needs of a human on this earth. “What is man’s highest virtue”? Rationality: the very tool that makes the production of values, and happiness, possible.

Now if you do some googling, you will undoubtedly see that there are some people who subscribe to Objectivism who claim that, under Objectivism, the right answer would be that, in a life boat scenario – in an emergency – ethics do not apply. So, on YouTube, for example, our own XOmniverse has said that ethics do not apply, such that it would not be wrong for you to murder and eat the other life boater:

“I think that, in this scenario, it is – although unfortunate – it would be ethical in order to kill and eat the other person. The reason I think this is, once again, we are outside the context of normal human conduct”. (Excerpt from “Lifeboat Scenarios and the Non-Aggression Principle)

My understanding is that XOmniverse believes that this is the logical consequence of Objectivist metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. I think he is utterly incorrect, as are the many other Objectivists I’ve seen on various discussion boards who say that “ethics do not apply in emergency situations” (see here, here, here). I do not think that is the correct interpretation of Rand’s Objectivism in the life boat situation. She certainly did say that if you are trying to discover morality, you do not take an artificial situation – one in which production is not possible; one in which rationality has no role – and then base your ethics upon that. She certainly said that, and that is why she rejected the life boat as the starting place for the development of a code of ethics. However, I do not think she said: “In the lifeboat, ethics does not apply, so go ahead be a cannibal”. She did not say – and I do not think it is a rational interpretation of what she did say – that it is right to pursue ones own happiness or to continue ones own survival by murdering someone else and eating them.

Consider some of the implications of the position that “ethics does not apply in a life boat and, therefore, it is right to murder and eat another life boater”. One applied assumption is that ones own life is ones highest value (I am talking about the Objectivists who assert this). They are assuming that ones own life is ones highest value; that it is right to live. That is an ethical assumption; it is an assertion of ethics. They are assuming that the purpose of a person’s life continues to be – in a life boat – the pursuit of ones own happiness. That, too, is an ethical assertion. So they are not really saying that ethics do not apply in a life boat. What they are saying is that virtue does not apply in a life boat.

If “ethics does not apply in a life boat” – if that is really what they mean – then life is not ones highest value in a life boat: there is no reason to prefer living over dying, or dying over living; there is no way to put a value on life; life could be worth nothing; death could be worth nothing; there are no values. In a life boat scenario, if “ethics do not apply”, then life has no purpose: happiness is not ones purpose; the pursuit of happiness is not ones purpose; neither is the pursuit of misery. There is no purpose…if “ethics do not apply in a lifeboat”. There is no reason, if “ethics does not apply”, not to assert that one should offer oneself up to be killed and eaten; that it is wrong to pursue ones own misery.

In fact, if “ethics do not apply in a life boat” at all, then not even non-Objectivist ethics apply. In other words, emotionalism does not apply: there is no reason to prefer following your whims – your emotionally-driven whims – over, for example, obedience to the will of Allah or anybody else; or obedience to the will of others sitting in the lifeboat. There is no way to say that it is right to do what you feel you should do, but it is wrong to obey what others told you to do in a life boat. There is no way to do that – no way to make that decision – if “ethics do not apply in a life boat scenario”.

The fact of the matter is that, when a person says “ethics do not apply in a life boat, therefore it is right to kill and eat the other life boater”, one is smuggling-in, implicitly, both ethical values and ethical purpose. They are sneaking it in the back door and then claiming that “ethics do not apply”. What they really want to do is reject virtue.

What is man’s highest virtue? Rationality. It subsumes the other virtues that are found in the Objectivist system, in fact. So when a person – an alleged Objectivist in particular – says “there are no ethics in a life boat, therefore you should kill and eat the other guy in order to guarantee your survival or to prolong your survival”, what they are really saying – by saying you should jettison rationality, man’s highest virtue – is “You should cease to choose to be man”, because man is the human who has chosen to think; who has refused not to be rational. So, what they are saying is: “When you are in a life boat, you need not be man. You can resort to being an animal; you can resort to being merely human but not man; in a life boat A is no longer A; man is no longer man”. Or, they are asserting that “Man is not the rational animal in a life boat. We redefine man, in a lifeboat, to be the brute, the mindless brute. And then, when he is rescued, he pops back into being the rational animal”. There is an identity violation going on (I am referring to the Axiom of Identity) in the thinking of a person who says that “In a life boat, ethics do not apply, therefore, murder and eat the other life boater”.

Now, keep in mind: situations do not change the nature of man. The fact that you are in a life boat does not mean that man is not the rational animal. The only thing that can change your nature is your choice. Man has free will, and only the exercise of that free will determines whether man ceases to be man or man continues to be man; whether human becomes man, or refrains from becoming man. The environment around oneself does not make one not-man. It is a choice. Another implication, therefore, of saying that “ethics do not apply in a life boat” is that metaphysics changes a person from being a man into a non-man; that man does not have free will.

An Objectivist would not murder and eat his fellow life boater. An Objectivist would not temporarily suspend being man. He would not temporarily resort to being not-thinking; to being a non-thinking brute; to refusing to use his rationality. Blanking out – ceasing to be rational while in the life boat – will only guarantee that person a life of guilt, shame and pain. That is all that will result, and the Objectivist knows it.

An Objectivist never chooses not to be man. An Objectivist never allows difficult situations – situations in which it is not possible to be productive; to produce values to prolong ones life and pursue ones happiness – to cause him to choose (i.e., he does not choose on the basis of those situations) to cease to be rational; to cease to be man. Tied to a torture rack and facing possible death, he does not choose not to think in order to survive. He knows that such is a choice between death (from thinking and being tortured to death) and death by not thinking. It is a false choice; a choice between death and death. An Objectivist knows that rationality is not a guarantee of his own survival, but the Objectivist also knows that there is nothing to be gained from ceasing to be rational; from ceasing to be man.

Video: An Objectivist on a Life Boat, by Paul McKeever


9 Responses to “An Objectivist on a Life Boat”

  1. John F. Schmidley on August 27th, 2008 10:18 pm

    Very good article. I enjoyed reading it. I’ll admit that I subscribed to the whole “ethics do not apply in life boats” thing before.After reading your argument though, I find myself in agreement.

    I think the best answer to these questions, though, no matter what you think, is to refuse to answer at all. They are malicious BS questions, whose only possible answers are either BAD or REALLY BAD. It’s a thinly veiled attack on rationality itself. As such, they do not even deserve the time of day, except to denounce them and move on.

    Oh, and I like how you transcribed one of your videos like this. I, for one, am able to concentrate and remember something a lot better when reading it than when hearing it. It also takes less time.

  2. Paul McKeever on August 28th, 2008 7:52 am

    Thanks for your kind assessment. I may transcribe other videos, if time permits.



  3. Joseph Kellard on August 29th, 2008 7:46 pm


    Have you read Ayn Rand’s answer to all lifeboat questions in Robert Meyhew’s book “Ayn Rand Answers.” If not, turn to pages 113-114 in that book, read it, and do tell what you think of it.

    Joseph Kellard

  4. Paul McKeever on August 29th, 2008 9:18 pm


    I don’t have “Ayn Rand Answers”, and I do not have a full quotation of the question asked and the full answer given by Ayn Rand. However, my understanding was that she was addressing situations in which X will be killed by Z if X does not kill Y. In other words, it appears that she was addressing a question in which X is wondering whether or not to kill Y in self-defence. That is a very different situation than one in which Z is not threatening/going to kill X, such that there is no issue of self-defence.

    I have little difficulty with most self-defence situations: if Z is using Y as a human shield and threatening to shoot X, and if X can avoid being shot only by shooting through Y to get Z, then it is right for X to shoot through Y, and it is wrong for Z to have used Y as a human shield. In such a case, Z is Y’s murderer even if the bullet that kills Y comes from X’s gun.

    If, on the other hand, Y is nobody’s human shield, but Z tells X to choose between shooting Y or being shot by Z, it would be wrong for X to shoot Y: X would be the murderer of Y, and so would Z, in such a situation. It would be right, and not murder, for X or Y (or both) to shoot Z.

  5. Elisheva Levin on August 30th, 2008 7:07 pm

    Very interesting indeed.

    In general, I do not like lifeboat situation questions because I think they are often used to prove that human beings are, at some basic level, irredeemably depraved.

    I was very interested in your answer because you insisted that even in life and death situations human beings have the responsibility to choose their actions. What is really interesting is that according to people who study human behavior in disasters, most people in such situations do indeed choose their behavior and they do not often panic. For example, when people evacuated the twin towers, they tended to act in an orderly manner and even helped one another. This is not an example of irrational selflessness; rather, it exemplifies human self-understanding as choice makers.

    Even in the Nazi concentration camps, where people often knew that they would be murdered, they often behaved with moral courage. It is as if, knowing that the choice was between death as a human being and existence deprived of their identity as a moral agent, they chose to continue identifying themselves as human beings capable of moral choice.

    Such stories come out of nearly every account of extreme situations. Acts of moral courage demonstrate that most of us, at the core, continue to see ourselves as human beings and not as beasts right up to the moment of death.

  6. Paul McKeever on August 30th, 2008 9:11 pm

    Great observations Elisheva!

  7. Ryan Mulkerin on September 2nd, 2008 9:34 am

    “In general, I do not like lifeboat situation questions because I think they are often used to prove that human beings are, at some basic level, irredeemably depraved.”

    I find the worst part is it assumes a correct answer and tries to push a person into either saying something “obviously” wrong or contradicting their ethics. However if you throw out objectivity, then how can anyone have any answer to the problem? As Paul McKeever says in his article, the other ethical philosophies don’t have any rational basis for their decisions. The only answer is objectivity.

    Also I chose not to get into a situation where I’d need a lifeboat.

  8. Chris on October 8th, 2008 4:47 pm

    Mr. McKeever,

    “The fact of the matter is that, when a person says “ethics do not apply in a life boat, therefore it is right to kill and eat the other life boater”, one is smuggling-in, implicitly, both ethical values and ethical purpose. They are sneaking it in the back door and then claiming that “ethics do not apply”. What they really want to do is reject virtue.”

    Very nice.


  9. Brian Gallagher on August 17th, 2009 2:19 am

    Philosophical reasoning aside, wouldn’t the rational response given the situation of

    “there are two people in a lifeboat with no food, no water, no means of sustaining their lives, out in the middle of an ocean or similar body of water, and no land nearby, no rescuers on the way, that they know of.”

    be that both people try to help each other stay alive in the face of limited resources, using their intellect to try and find some form of production (fishing, collecting plankton or algaes, distilling salt water into potable water, etc.) while trying to signal and/or navigate in a direction likely to lead to rescue or escape?

    It is unlikely that both people would die at the same instant. In that event, the surviving person could reasonably use the resources of the person who is no longer a rational being (they are now basically just a pile of meat and bone) without moral conflict, as food, as bait, as shelter (protection from sun) or whatever.

    There would be no advantage in a perceived resource-less environment to killing the other person prematurely, when they are not costing you anything in terms of resources, and they may be able to come up with an idea that may help to resolve their problems.

    If this post is just an exercise in philosophy, but without seeking an actual answer (which I’m guessing it may be since no explicitly proposed solution was included in the post) feel free to ignore my utilitarian perspective. 🙂

    – Brian

Feel free to leave a comment...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!