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Titanic with lifeboats

Are We All in the Same (Life)Boat?

In “The Ethics of Emergencies,” Ayn Rand answers “no.”

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“A worldwide tragedy like the Covid-19 pandemic momentarily revived the sense that we are a global community, all in the same boat, where one person’s problems are the problems of all.”1 When Pope Francis made this remark in his recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, he took his metaphor seriously. He compared the pandemic to a “storm” that had “exposed our vulnerability and uncovered [our] false and superfluous certainties.”

Revealingly, the pope emphasized that the pandemic “revived” our sense of being all in the same boat, and “exposed” as false our previous certainties. From this perspective, life generally is a storm we are stuck in together, and the only way to weather it is to accept the ethical injunction that “we are brothers and sisters of one another” and to expand charitable efforts along with the role of government in the redistribution of wealth.

The pope’s comments are a perfect illustration of a point made by a very different thinker, Ayn Rand. She wrote: “Every code of ethics is based on and derived from a metaphysics, that is: from a theory about the fundamental nature of the universe in which man lives and acts.” Rand herself held a view of the universe that was the opposite of the pope’s, and because of that (further illustrating her point), she held a very different view of ethics. To see that difference, it’s worth taking a look at the essay in which Rand comments on this issue, “The Ethics of Emergencies.”

“The fact is that men do not live in lifeboats — and that a lifeboat is not the place on which to base one’s metaphysics.” That’s Rand’s overall response to the contemporary ethicists who focus nearly exclusively on what they think morality demands of us in extraordinary situations (often, the sacrifice of one person to another). Of course, it’s obvious that no one actually lives in a lifeboat. But her deeper point here is directed against those, like the pope, who work from the premise that it’s as if we all do.  

Life isn’t an emergency, and we need ethics to guide our choices in everyday life, not primarily in special circumstances.
When Rand says that a lifeboat is “not the place on which to base one’s metaphysics,” she is rejecting the view that the universe is “malevolent,” and “that man, by his very nature, is helpless and doomed — that success, happiness, achievement are impossible to him — that emergencies, disasters, catastrophes are the norm of his life and that his primary goal is to combat them.”

Rand rejects this “malevolent” view of life for reasons that she highlights in both her fiction and in her nonfiction works on philosophy. In her view, when we use reason to discover causal connections, we learn how to obey nature so as to command it to our ends. This allows us to create opportunities out of the raw materials of nature — rather than cowering in fear of it.

In “The Ethics of Emergencies,” Rand focuses on explaining a corollary of her view that nature is hospitable to our existence: the fact that other people’s interests are not threats to our own but sources of value. In her view, friends and loved ones are “profoundly personal, selfish values”: this means that helping them when they are in trouble is no sacrifice, but an expression of loyalty to one’s values.

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What might surprise someone who reads “The Ethics of Emergencies” for the first time is how little there is in this essay about the actual ethics of emergencies. But this should not be surprising. Rand’s point about “lifeboat ethics” is not that no one ever has to use a lifeboat or that emergencies never arise. They do. Her point is that life isn’t an emergency, and we need ethics to guide our choices in everyday life, not primarily in special circumstances. That’s because we need ethics to pursue and achieve values over the course of years, not just to protect our values when events unpredictably threaten to take them from us.

To learn more about what Rand thinks ethics does have to say about atypical, emergency cases, pick up the essay, which is available in Rand’s collection of essays The Virtue of Selfishness.

Notably, before she analyzes how ethics deals with special emergency cases, Rand takes us on a tour of important principles that should help us live better lives in ordinary circumstances, especially by exercising integrity with respect to the people we value. It just might be that the better we get at living life in ordinary times, the less likely it is that we’ll find ourselves stuck in a lifeboat in the first place. And it certainly must be that the more we care and think about what a life of value pursuit requires, the less we will think of life itself as one big lifeboat.

Listen to an interview with Ben Bayer on the Secular Foxhole podcast on the topic of Ayn Rand’s essay “The Ethics of Emergencies”:


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  1. Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, Vatican.va, October 3, 2020.
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Ben Bayer

Ben Bayer, PhD in philosophy, is a fellow and director of content at the Ayn Rand Institute and the author of Why the Right to Abortion Is Sacrosanct (2022). Ben is a managing editor of New Ideal and a member of the Ayn Rand University faculty.

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