Is it evil to help others at your own peril?

Estimated reading time 7 mins.

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The title is a summary version of a recent question from a reader, as it is more or less implied in what I say in a recent article, “There’s No Such Thing As a Necessary Evil. The reader quoted an excerpt from my article, then asked the question as follows:

” An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.”

“The evil, by contrast, is that which is harmful or injurious. If the ultimate value or end in itself—the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated—is life, then any goal or action which threatens life is the evil. For a human being, this means anything which poses harm or injury to one’s life. ”

To save the life of some one else if you put your life in danger, then are you doing an evil act?

Because it is an excellent question, because it requires more than a quick answer, and because the clarification might be valuable to others, I respond here in a blog post instead of privately in the comments section.

Harmful or injurious—to whom or what?

To begin, let’s not think of “evil” in this context as “malicious” or “nasty.” It is certainly neither of those to risk one’s life to save another. But strictly defined as “harmful or injurious”, “morally wrong or bad,” I maintain that it is immoral. And even this verdict depends on lots of context, which we’ll look at in a moment. The essential issue, however, is in how we define our ultimate end or goal. If our stated moral purpose is to serve others and sacrifice our own lives, then it is not immoral but clearly good to give up one’s own life to save another.

And this is what our commonly accepted morality informs us to do. But in the article, I am challenging the validity of that moral code. Instead, I’m suggesting that the maintenance and furtherance of an individual’s own life ought to be the ultimate end or goal toward which he must apply the science of morality in helping him answer the question, “What should I do?” Equipped with such a moral standard, the moral thing to do is to not put oneself in danger for any and all people who might need help. It is instead one’s moral right and obligation to procure one’s own life and values, and it is harmful and injurious (i.e., evil in the context of that goal) to throw one’s own life away for the sake of any random other. This is the power of morality and why what we choose as a moral standard is literally a matter of life or death.

Principles, not commandments

But it’s not so easy to say what one ought to do in the scenario as offered by the questioner, as it is unclear in many aspects. Lots of contextual factors leap to mind: How dangerous is the situation? How equipped am I to deal with it, i.e., how much risk it involved? (e.g. If it’s a drowning situation, am I a strong swimmer or will I necessarily drown myself?) Who is the person? Is it a loved one or a stranger?

Moral principles are guides to action but must be applied according to context, which requires a process of reason and consideration of relevant factors. Commandments, on the other hand, require no process of thinking. You just obey. Circumstances are inconsequential.

If one’s moral standard of the good is, “Sacrifice selflessly for others,” then none of the above is relevant. The answer is clear: Give whatever you’ve got—even your own life—for the sake of saving that other. But if one’s moral standard of the good is, “My life is of paramount importance relative to others and my goal is to further and promote it,” all the above questions come into play.

As I’ve stated in many places, if my goal is to live the most optimal life I can possibly live by gaining objective values, it is clear that other people are of importance to me, and it’s in my interest that others do well and thrive. Clearly, then, it is good for me to give non-sacrificial help to people in certain contexts. And while I won’t go into what constitutes sacrificial versus non-sacrificial help here, I will refer you to Ayn Rand’s masterful essay, “The Ethics of Emergencies” in the The Virtue of Selfishness.

Risk it for values

Let’s go back for a moment to one of the contextual questions I put forth above: Who is the person? Is it a loved one or a stranger? It will at once help us answer the original reader’s question while allowing us to offer a quick note on the nature of love and whether it is selfless, as poets and philosophers commonly hold. I’ve made clear that our moral purpose ought to be to gain values and thrive, not sacrifice values and die. We ought to be self-ish and not selfless. It makes a big difference, then, whether the victim in question is a person known to me or a stranger, a loved one or a hated enemy, etc.

I’m not in for a long discussion here, but put briefly, the principle is that the degree I’m willing to risk my own life depends on what I stand to gain. It also depends upon a hierarchy of values which each of us ought to have set objectively. If my hierarchy is rational, my wife, for instance, will be (and is) at the top of my list of values I seek to gain, maintain, and nurture. If she is in danger, then, the earlier question as to what is at risk for me in terms of my safety becomes muted. I will risk even death. Choosing between a life without her when I could have acted to save her (and living with that knowledge) and death, it is not a contradiction to say that death is the more rationally selfish choice.

But imagine that it is a stranger, and the context is much different. While said person is a potential value, he is not more important than me. (Likewise, from his perspective, his life is properly more important to him than mine. I deal in objective, not intrinsic, value.) I have repeated over and over that we may gain tremendous value from others through trade of material values (e.g. goods, services, art, general abundance, etc.) and spiritual values (knowledge, inspiration, friendship, love, etc.). But the risk I am willing to take on to procure one such potential source of said values becomes much smaller than if it were a family member, friend, or my own wife.

Curiously, many people recognize this when they think in terms of “common sense.” One would not criticize a man who ran to the end of a burning building in which his own child was trapped instead of rushing to the opposite end where a stranger cried for help. Observe that it is the principle of pursuing values of importance to the person who must act (i.e., the principle of egoism) which is in operation when he does the “common sense” thing. (Now go further and ask yourself what you’d think of him if he left his own child to die in such circumstances. And now ask yourself what the morality of sacrifice instructs the man to do, to the extent he takes it seriously.)

Not a “bad guy,” but immoral

It is not that people who put themselves in dire danger for the sake of others are “bad people” with malicious intent, etc. Clearly not. But let’s not get sidetracked by the connotation of a term and the emotions it evokes. While a person who would die for a stranger is not “evil” in any malevolent sense, I am saying that he is immoral and that I wonder tragically where his self-esteem went and what malicious code made him feel that he ought to value his own life so cheaply.

We give people medals and high praise for acts of selflessness, for actions in which they have placed the well-being of others above their own. Would we give a medal to the father who left his child to a horrible death while rushing to save the stranger? Would my wife think it noble of me to leave her and our children (I don’t have any children in reality) for the sake of a stranger? Do you approve of such a person? I don’t. Again, I don’t put them in the same category of evil of a person who sacrifices others to himself, but I regretfully place them in the appalling category of evil that sacrifices personally important values. I don’t approve of sacrifice in any direction, for any purpose.

Take ideas literally

He “placed the well-being of others above his own.” I know these words sound good put just like that. They are the magic words strung together in such a way as to make our hearts warm—but digested unconsciously lead us to slaughter. I urge you to think about what they mean. When you take them seriously and consistently, you might come to hear them quite differently and to feel the corresponding abhorrent emotion.

Ask anytime

I thank the reader once again for the substantial question and the opportunity to elaborate upon and clarify what was an implied but doubtless preposterous-sounding conclusion to many people. I invite further questions or comments on this issue or any other. My goal here is “think out loud” while seeking clarity. Questions help with that immensely. It is much appreciated!

13 thoughts on “Is it evil to help others at your own peril?

  1. ontologicalrealist 3 Mar 2020 / 1:06 am

    ” My goal here is “think out loud” while seeking clarity. Questions help with that immensely. It is much appreciated!”

    That is a good attitude. Actually I agree with you quite a lot. Thank you.

    You mention ‘objective values’ .

    What is an ‘objective’ value and what is a ‘subjective’ value?

    Also: What do you mean by ‘objective’ and what do you mean by ‘subjective’? If someone puts forward a theory which nobody else agrees with, then is that theory objective or subjective?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Matthew Boulton 4 Mar 2020 / 1:15 pm

      Thank you again for the question. I’ll have to reply later, but I promise an answer. I’m not going to leave you hanging!


    • Matthew Boulton 7 Mar 2020 / 12:37 am

      I’m sorry this took so long! With the Coronavirus, some free time opened up as classes became postponed, and my wife and I took advantage of a weekday window to take another three-day trip away. And I took the time to really give my mind a break. But I’ve sat down to think about and answer your question, and once again, I decided to do it in a post. I really do urge you to read the short article I refer you to in the post, as it will add a lot to what I’ve said in regard to objective value (maybe even more clarifying than my jumble! haha). Thanks again for your question! Find my response here:


  2. ontologicalrealist 10 Mar 2020 / 1:14 am

    I am quite in sympathy with what you wrote about morality. I also agree that truth is a matter of objective reality.

    I have read what you suggested. I am interested in discussion with you and not anybody else’s opinions, teachings or what they consider to be “truth”.

    You wrote, “Truth is a matter of objective reality, i.e., facts which are perceivable, but not invented, by man.”

    Why is ‘objective reality’ dependent upon being perceivable by man and not by neanderthals? Was there no objective reality when there was no ‘man’ on Earth?

    I hope that you will make an effort to reply to this question yourself (As you had written,”My goal here is “think out loud” while seeking clarity. Questions help with that immensely.”).


    • Matthew Boulton 10 Mar 2020 / 2:00 am

      I’m sorry if something there was misleading. This is why questions are good! Let me be clear. Objective reality exists independent of man, neanderthal, or ANY consciousness. And that independent reality may be perceived by man or neanderthal (or animals), but it doesn’t have to be. It just IS, and has always been, even when there was no one to perceive it.

      It is objective VALUES which are determined in relation to a living thing. This includes neanderthals. There are things which are good for or detrimental to the life of a neanderthal. And whether said things are good or bad for them is not set by their own feelings or ideas, but by objective reality.

      Objective reality (including the nature of the life in question) is the standard of value. Value is not subjective (i.e. created by the subject). It is objective and must be discovered by the subject.

      Thanks for the question!


    • Matthew Boulton 10 Mar 2020 / 3:42 am

      Let me add here that this pertains to moral values as much as any other value. Moral values are objective in that they are determined by the nature of man and his requirements for living and flourishing. And these values then determine what virtue is required to achieve them. In this way, moral virtues are objective. Morality is a science.


  3. ontologicalrealist 12 Mar 2020 / 3:17 am

    Hi, thank you for your direct and to the point answer.

    “Objective reality exists independent of man, neanderthal, or ANY consciousness.”

    I am inclined to think along this line too. Though I will like to ask you several questions to clarify and go deeper in this.

    What is the difference between objective reality and non objective reality? Does a non objective reality also exist? How many realities are existing there?


    • Matthew Boulton 12 Mar 2020 / 6:12 am

      Hi, there! To the point, I say that there is only one objective reality, and that it exists independent of any consciousness, as I said before. We may summarize this idea as the primacy of existence, which says that existence exists and that it is for a consciousness only to perceive that which exists. This implies, to the first part of your question, that there is no non-objective reality.


  4. ontologicalrealist 14 Mar 2020 / 12:46 am

    Hi, O.K.

    First I want to say that due to covid-19 disruptions I may sometimes not be able to correspond. But I would like to continue this discussion with you.

    I can say that I have no problem in sort of agreeing with you in this.

    How do you come to perceive what exists? Can you describe the process of perceiving? Perhaps with examples?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Matthew Boulton 15 Mar 2020 / 12:02 am

    Hello! Well, I don’t think it’s necessary to know HOW we come to perceive things, the same way it’s not necessary to ask where the universe came from, for example. Existence just IS and does not need any reason or explanation. It is the standard by which we explain other phenomena or judge the truth or falsehood of ideas. In the case of perception, that faculty is just given us and is self-evident. We perceive with our senses, and I’m not sure I need describe the process of perceiving. It includes seeing, touching, smelling, tasting, and hearing.

    I will add that our senses ARE valid and do tell us about true reality. Even though other organisms have different sense organs and therefore acquire different sense data than we collect, it is still no less data about the SAME reality and gives us information to help us act within it (just as their sense data are appropriate to allow them to function in the world according to their nature and needs). I say this to counter the idea that because different organisms (and even different people) perceive the world differently (perhaps because a person’s faculties are slightly impaired or for other reasons), it does not mean that we perceive different realities.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. ontologicalrealist 16 Mar 2020 / 12:16 am

    Thanks for clearly stating your case.

    “it is still no less data about the SAME reality”

    I tend to agree with you on this.

    ” We perceive with our senses, and I’m not sure I need describe the process of perceiving.”

    You are right. Whatever is there is there whether I can know why it is there or not.

    “I will add that our senses ARE valid”

    What does it mean for senses to be valid? What is the difference between a valid sense and an invalid sense? Any examples for both cases?

    “I will add that our senses ARE valid and do tell us about true reality.”

    What is ‘true reality’ and how does it differ from an ‘untrue reality’ ? Any examples?


    • Matthew Boulton 16 Mar 2020 / 12:35 am

      Hello, there. I didn’t mean to imply that there were invalid senses. I was countering the point that many intellectuals try to make, which is that we can’t trust our senses as they give us distorted information about reality. Nothing can give us a perception of “true” reality, i.e., true reality cannot be known to us, they say. (This is Plato and his “cave.”) So I’m just clarifying that we can trust our senses, that they give us valid information about reality.

      As to reality, no, there can be no “untrue” reality. Reality is everything that exists, and can neither be true nor untrue. It is the standard of what is true or untrue. When I speak of “true” reality, I mean whether our interpretation of it is true (i.e., whether we are objective).


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