A Free Society and the Ethics Of Emergencies

By Stefan Molyneux, MA
Host, Freedomain Radio – www.freedomainradio.com

A free society is by its very nature based on negative rights – i.e., thou shalt not rather than thou shalt. One common opposition to these negative rights is the ‘saving strangers’ scenario often advanced by statists.

In this moral parable, an onlooker sees a man who is drowning, and has to decide whether to dive in and save him or not. If this onlooker calmly watches the man drown, this is generally considered to be a very bad thing, and creates a first instance of a ‘positive right’ which claims that the onlooker is morally obligated to do something to save the drowning man. Behold, sayeth the statist – here we have an example of a positive right!

From this ‘thin edge of the wedge’ are created a plethora of positive rights such as forced taxation, the welfare state, the right to a job and health care, and all of the other convoluted and destructive messes of modern state programs.

Thus it is probably worth spending a few minutes discussing how the ‘Saving Strangers Scenario’ (SSS) would play out in a truly free society – i.e., a society without a centralized and coercive government.

Objection #1: Priorities, priorities, priorities…
Surely, as taxation and regulation climb into the stratosphere, as the brutality of Western foreign policy reaches a new low, and as the national debt (and large parts of the Middle East) explode – surely, there are slightly more important ethical issues to discuss then how we should deal with a theoretical drowning man that we will almost certainly never encounter. I have never run into an SSS in my life – and don’t know anyone who ever has – thus I would like to suggest that we turn our attention to more immediate moral matters. Given the current state of affairs, focusing on this issue is like being trapped in a burning building and worrying about being hit by a meteor. Thus, if people ask us to spend an inordinate amount of time on this issue, we may, I think, politely decline.

Objection #2: General Human Kindness
Whenever I stop my car to ask for directions, I am generally optimistic that people are going to do their best to try and help me, based on the fact that most people are very kind. I often read news reports about strangers helping other strangers out of difficult situations – sometimes even in the face of excessive personal risk. I have never once read a news article describing an easily-preventable death which occurred among a crowd of able onlookers who did nothing to stop it. (I have occasionally read of people deciding against interrupting a mugging, but I find that hard to condemn, since risking injury or death for merely material possessions seems rather unwise!)

Thus, the SSS seems a rather artificial argument, based on the probabilities of occurrence and the kindness of the average person. Certainly as a justification for the existence of a centralized state it seems particularly flimsy!

Objection #3: Show Me The Money!
Obviously, for the SSS to be solvable at all, someone has to be willing to dive in and save the drowning man. Given that in this scenario, the cold and sociopathic onlooker is usually considered to be a real risk, it seems hard to understand exactly what the alternatives would be. If people in general do not care about the dangers that other people are experiencing, then it makes no sense to create a universal monopoly of force which is supposed to ‘take care’ of those in danger – precisely because those ‘cold and sociopathic’ people will run state programs as well!

If people do care, then the only other possible reason that they would not intervene is because they would not gain materially by doing so. In other words, people will act if, like policeman and firemen, they would be well paid to intervene in the SSS scenario.

If payment is the issue, a free society solves it very nicely! Obviously, a company which owns a beach would lose business if its customers kept drowning. Thus this company would doubtless hire lifeguards and string buoys and warn of riptides and restrict swimming during dangerous times and so on. Thus it would be very unlikely that anyone would be allowed to drown without at least some company representative trying to save them! (As far as monetary rewards go, the beach owner would simply pay a bonus to anyone who saved a customer, just as banks pay a bonus to any teller involved in a bank robbery.)

All right, but what about a man hiking in the wilderness who spies a woman drowning and there is no one else around to save her? And what if the only possible incentive he would respond to would be monetary rewards? And what if he (for some strange reason) did not think that the woman would ever pay him any money for saving her life? Would he just then let her drown? Is that why we have a government?

Well, as I have mentioned in my previous articles, in the absence of the state, Dispute Resolution Organizations (DROs) will spring up to mediate altercations between people and to ensure their safety. Just about everybody in a free society would be represented by some form of DRO – including the woman drowning in some remote mountain stream with a cold-blooded man standing by who only will only save her if he is rewarded financially!

Now, if the woman does drown, then her DRO is out a lot of money – death benefits, loss of future customer revenue, and so on. Thus it seems likely that DROs will be more than happy to pay good money to anyone who saves one of their customers from death, injury, or even fraud!

In this way, even the extreme (and frankly ridiculous) situation outlined above will be neatly solved in a free society. Thus there is no practical reason why the SSS should ever be the basis of an argument for positive rights – and thus one more support for the moral justification for government can be gently removed!

Stefan Molynuex, is the host of Freedomain Radio (www.freedomainradio.com), the most popular philosophy site on the Internet, and a "Top 10" Finalist in the 2007-2010 Podcast Awards.

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