Hanging By A Thread

Flagpoles, Lifeboats and the Edge of Ethics

It seems to be a near-universal compulsion for those interested in ethics to attempt to find situations where ethical rules contradict themselves, therefore introducing an element of irrationality or subjectivity to ethics. “Lifeboat” scenarios (cannibalism-is-wrong-but-what-if-you’re-starving), “desperation” scenarios (all-starving-men-will-steal-so-how-can-stealing-always-be-wrong) and so on all seem to be endlessly obsessed over.

One central problem I believe is that philosophers – like most thinkers in the humanities – suffer from both “Physics Envy” and “Newton Paranoia.” “Physics Envy” is a desire to gain the kind of universal absolutism that remains possible for those dealing with non-conscious matter and energy – or mathematics, for that matter. “Newton Paranoia” is the fear that a seemingly-comprehensive and accurate theory will turn out to be incorrect in extreme situations, just as Newton’s theories did in situations of extreme gravity and extreme speed.

It is interesting to note that biologists do not seem to suffer from either of these pathologies. In dealing with the effects of DNA replication and mutation, they face a large number of “gray areas,” as well as continued scepticism from Christian superstition and a few significant challenges in the differentiation of species. Plus, the discipline was also invented centuries before the discovery of DNA, yet somehow managed to soldier on!

The fear that extreme situations will break a theory, combined with the desire for absolute certainty, has stalled the development of ethics since the days of Socrates. In the absence of rigorous philosophical proofs, ethics has remained embedded in the rather soupy morass of culture and religion, much as physics did before Bacon.

However, to me there is something enormously unpleasant and frankly irresponsible in endlessly hacking away at all of the “lifeboat scenarios” and trying to find the final and irrevocable ethical answers to the various catastrophes and extreme situations that can be imagined in this or any other world.

Philosophers – particularly moral philosophers – are the ethical physicians of mankind. Currently, ethics remains such a subjective and murky swamp that it can be reasonably said that the world is suffering from a plague of bad ethics. It is certain that the ethical propositions accepted by most thinkers – the nonaggression principle, property rights and the validity of voluntary contracts – would solve or prevent almost all the institutional evils that the world currently suffers from.

However, ethicists – particularly the academics – worry themselves half to death (and bore us almost entirely into the grave) fretting about whether a man hanging from a flagpole can kick in a window to save his life.

To me, this is like possessing the cure for cancer, but refusing to release it because if someone takes it, and is simultaneously struck by lightning, falls into a sinkhole and sneezes, there may be an adverse reaction.

I believe that this scholastic “retreat to inconsequentiality” occurs because it is far easier to endlessly debate ethical impossibilities then to actually live your ethics in your life. If – academic or not – you believe in the moral validity of the nonaggression principle, then clearly to really live that value requires you to no longer associate with people who advocate aggression, in the form of domestic violence, child abuse, or institutional violence such as war, taxation and unjust imprisonment. Certainly, most people do not see the violence inherent in the existence of a government, but it does not take more than a few moments to understand this basic fact, once it is pointed out. If, however, after weeks or months of pointing out the violence of the state, those around you continue to support it, then ethics means absolutely nothing at all if you continue to associate with them.

Of course, this is all emotionally very unpleasant, but unpleasant or not, it does remain a simple fact that if you claim that something is evil – the initiation of force – then you must by definition also accept that those who advocate evil are corrupt at best, and complicit at worst. For an ethicist to continue to associate with people he defines as corrupt or evil is a complete contradiction of any reasonable ethical standards, as foolish and ultimately contemptible as, say, a District Attorney who rails against prostitution turning out to be a customer.

That having been said, I will do my best to eliminate at least one of the challenges posed by those who wish to find the limits of property rights.

I have worked for the past few years on developing a rational proof for secular ethics, which I talk about in my book Universally Preferable Behaviour. In it, I discuss the oft-cited example of the man on the flagpole.

In this scenario, I am hanging by my fingernails from a flagpole outside the window of someone’s apartment. My choices are to either (a) kick in the window and clamber to safety, or (b) fall to my death.

I will take it as a given that just about everyone on the planet would choose option ‘a’ rather than falling to his death. In this situation, clearly we have an abrogation of property rights (breaking someone’s window and entering the apartment) which is considered the most sensible, right, proper and rational thing to do.

If voluntarily initiating the destruction of someone else’s property can be the right and sensible thing to do, how can we claim that property rights are absolute? (There are countless variations on this basic argument, such as stealing a loaf of bread when you’re starving and so on.)

To answer this opposition, we need to understand the nature of property rights a little more comprehensively.

If we start from the position that there are no unchosen positive obligations, we can easily understand that the exercise of property rights is voluntary. If my car is stolen, I am not morally obligated to assert my property rights and report the theft to the proper authorities, or go hunting for my car myself. I can quite easily shrug, blame the will of the gods and go and buy a bicycle.

Similarly, we can easily imagine a scenario wherein I would be very happy to have my car stolen. Perhaps it requires an expensive repair, and I would rather get the insurance money. Perhaps I was involved in a hit-and-run, and am happy to get rid of the evidence.

In these cases, if the thief were to ask my permission before stealing my car, I would tell him, “Yes, please go ahead and take it!” Thus his removal of my car could scarcely be called “theft” at all, but rather would be a kind of “free removal,” such as when someone takes a television set that I have left by the side of the road.

It is very likely that most people will be very upset if their car is stolen, and will attempt to pursue justice and recover their property. A tiny minority of people will actually be relieved to have their car “stolen,” in which case permission to take the car is in a very real sense granted after the theft, rather than before.

Of course, this “permission” does not have to be implicit, but rather can be entirely explicit.

Imagine that I buy a lottery ticket for five dollars, and find out that it wins nothing. Is it reasonable for me to then present this lottery ticket to you, saying that I bought it on your behalf, and that you now owe me five dollars? Very few of us would feel flattered and gratified by this unsolicited “generosity.”

Since I did not ask you to buy a lottery ticket for me, I will not accept an obligation to pay you for it “after-the-fact.”

On the other hand, if I buy a lottery ticket, and then find out that it wins $1 million, what would you do if I present this lottery ticket to you, saying that I bought it on your behalf, and that you now owe me five dollars? Clearly, you would jump at the chance to pay me five dollars in order to receive the million-dollar prize, thus happily accepting an obligation “after the fact.”

As a final example, if you come up on the street and stab me in the neck, that would be an example of a violent assault. On the other hand, if I am choking to death in a restaurant, and you are a surgeon who performs an emergency tracheotomy on me, you are also stabbing me in the neck without my permission, but I would doubtless thank you profusely afterwards for saving my life.

The difference is that I would give you my permission to stab me in the neck if I could, but you cannot secure my permission under the circumstances, so you make a perfectly reasonable guess about my preferences, which is that I would rather be stabbed in the neck then choke to death. In the same way, if I cannot or do not get your permission to buy a winning lottery ticket beforehand, I can reasonably assume that you will be happy with me buying a ticket on your behalf after the fact.

In fact, I can be completely certain that if I came back to you without the lottery ticket and said, “I held a winning lottery ticket in my hand, but I threw it out because I did not have your permission to buy it ahead of time,” you would surely be enraged – or least upset – with me.

Thus one-sided contracts created without permission are perfectly valid if the permission can be achieved voluntarily after the fact.

In this way, we can re-examine the “flagpole scenario” under quite a different light.

If I come home to find a policemen in my apartment, who introduce me to a man who had kicked in my window in order to save himself from falling to death, I would be thrilled and fascinated, and entirely pleased that he had found a way to prevent his own demise. I am quite sure that the man would be more than willing to compensate me for my broken window, but even if he did not – if he were homeless, say, or utterly broke – I would still be pleased to have played even a tiny role in saving his life. A broken window can be considered a small price to pay for a story that will thrill people for the rest of my days, and the satisfaction that comes from helping to save a life!

If, on the other hand, I come home at the end of the day to find policeman out front of my apartment building, and discover that a man had fallen to his death, crying out that he did not want to break my window in order to save himself, I would be absolutely appalled. “Why on earth would he not want to break my window, and prefer instead to plummet to his death?” I would ask.

I would surmise – no doubt correctly – that his obsession with preserving the integrity of my window was in fact a mere cover for a deeper and darker death wish.

In this case, we can see that the man who kicks in my window would be doing so with a reasonable expectation that I would prefer him to do so rather than fall to his death – just as a surgeon who cuts into my throat while I am choking reasonably assumes that I would prefer him to do so rather than allow me to die.

If permission cannot be reasonably gained about the use of property ahead of time, then it can always be sought after the fact. If I grab a lifesaver from your boat in order to throw it to a drowning man, it scarcely seems reasonable for me to imagine that you would prefer that I let the man drown rather than “steal” your property.

We perpetually take this approach in the realm of gift-giving, insofar as we transfer property with the goal of enhancing happiness, without gaining the prior approval of the recipient. If I buy you a cat for Christmas, you may be very pleased, or you may be allergic to cats. If you are pleased, and accept the present, you now own the cat. If you sneeze, and reject the present, then I cannot force the cat upon you. In other words, I cannot compel you to accept a property transfer after the fact, although of course since I’m trying to please you, I should reasonably guess which gift would give you the greatest pleasure.

Thus we can see that kicking in someone’s window to save your life is not a violation of his property rights at all, but rather a use of his property based on a reasonable assumption of how he would want his property to be used if permission could be sought ahead of time, or in the moment.

If I guess wrong, then I am liable for the consequences. If I steal your car, it is not a reasonable defense for me to say, “It was not theft because I believed that you wanted me to take your car.” If I buy a cat that you turn out to be allergic to, then the ownership of the cat reverts to me.

In the same way, if you would have preferred that I fall to death my rather than kick in your window, then of course I am liable for the property damage that I have incurred. My “guess” as to how you would want your property to be used has turned out to be false, just as if I had taken your car thinking that you wanted me to, when it turns out that you considered my action to be rank theft.

Naturally, for any of this to occur, a man must be hanging from a flagpole, have no other option than kicking in a window, and the man whose window is kicked in must have preferred that the hanging man fall to his death – and the man who has saved his life by kicking in a window must refuse to pay any and all restitution for the window he has broken.

Such a circumstance will never arise in this or any other universe. The endless pursuit of these topics tells us much more about the limitations of ethicists than it does the limitations of ethics.

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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October 2022

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