Estimated reading time 7 mins.
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.
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!