In our day to day life, emergencies are bound to be there—whether it is some last-minute reading you are doing for an exam, or you are about to treat some patient who has been badly injured in an accident. In such instances, we are normally bound to act differently as opposed to normal occasions. Nevertheless, in spite of the trivial nature of such circumstances, which may sometimes compromise with our moral principles as human beings, we are still bound to act morally. It is based on such tricky situations that Ayn Rand advances guidelines and fundamental precepts that will help govern us.
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In order for us to concisely understand Ayn Rand’s propositions and their importance in today’s life, it is inherent that we first begin by understanding what the term emergency means. According to Rand, an emergency is a situation where human life is not possible. Consequently, emergencies call for immediate attention. Having said that, what then does Ayn Rand say with regards to the ethics we should consider when we are faced with emergencies?
Preliminarily, Rand (1961) makes it clear that during an emergency, the primary goal of a person is to escape danger. This may sometimes call for timely yet controversial decisions. So in making such situations, we should ensure that the decision we make benefit us individually before going ahead to benefiting others. This might be a hard pill to swallow for altruists who believe that putting others ahead of ourselves is the essence of being human. They, in fact, go ahead and say that by helping others, we cultivate a seed for others to help us in the future as opposed to being egotistic, which limits our chances of being helped by others. On the other hand, egoists, who essentially advocate for putting yourself ahead of other people, would be in full support of Rand.
Additionally, Rand (1961) says that only in unavoidably difficult emergency situations that we are permitted to tow down on our ethics. For example, if you are faced with a gang of hoodlums who want to kill you and the only option you have is killing one of them to escape, then the “ethics of emergencies” allow you to go ahead and kill. However, Rand cautions that an emergency should not be used as an excuse for behaving unethically as most people do.
While commenting on Rand’s assertions, Peikoff (1991) says that the problem with following the ethics of emergencies is that they are mostly contextual. Consequently, applying abstract and general concepts of one situation in another circumstance, which is totally different, limits the overall objective of the ethics. For instance, applying the aforementioned example as a guide for all gang attacks is a bad idea since not all gangs focus on killing people; some of them may just be in need of money—which you may just give and go away without killing anyone.
In as much as most of Rand’s sentiments tended to be a bit extreme and morally debatable, I believe that being egotistic, or “selfish” as some people call it, is sometimes necessary. This is simply because, at the end of the day, the buck stops at you. If you are not happy, then even putting your life on the line (as other people advocate) will not be of much help to you.
Finally, it is important to say that today’s moral environment calls for difficult situations—especially with the increased emergency cases like floods, terrorist attacks, gang-related violence to add to the long list of emergencies we know. As a result, we should always strive to behave ethically at all times. So you do not have to wait for a plane crash in order to assist the victims; you can always help even in feeding the destitute in your neighborhood. Plus, it is the little things we do for one another that normally count most in life.
Peikoff, L. (1991). Objectivism: the philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton.
Rand, A. (1961). “The ethics of emergencies,” The virtue of selfishness, a new concept of egoism. New York: Signet Books.