Apr 10.

Stefan Molyneux


A Free Society and the Ethics Of Emergencies

By Stefan Molyneux, MA
Host, Freedomain Radio – www.freedomainradio.com

A free society is by its very nature based on negative rights – i.e., thou shalt not rather than thou shalt. One common opposition to these negative rights is the ‘saving strangers’ scenario often advanced by statists.

In this moral parable, an onlooker sees a man who is drowning, and has to decide whether to dive in and save him or not. If this onlooker calmly watches the man drown, this is generally considered to be a very bad thing, and creates a first instance of a ‘positive right’ which claims that the onlooker is morally obligated to do something to save the drowning man. Behold, sayeth the statist – here we have an example of a positive right!

From this ‘thin edge of the wedge’ are created a plethora of positive rights such as forced taxation, the welfare state, the right to a job and health care, and all of the other convoluted and destructive messes of modern state programs.

Thus it is probably worth spending a few minutes discussing how the ‘Saving Strangers Scenario’ (SSS) would play out in a truly free society – i.e., a society without a centralized and coercive government.

Objection #1: Priorities, priorities, priorities…
Surely, as taxation and regulation climb into the stratosphere, as the brutality of Western foreign policy reaches a new low, and as the national debt (and large parts of the Middle East) explode – surely, there are slightly more important ethical issues to discuss then how we should deal with a theoretical drowning man that we will almost certainly never encounter. I have never run into an SSS in my life – and don’t know anyone who ever has – thus I would like to suggest that we turn our attention to more immediate moral matters. Given the current state of affairs, focusing on this issue is like being trapped in a burning building and worrying about being hit by a meteor. Thus, if people ask us to spend an inordinate amount of time on this issue, we may, I think, politely decline.

Objection #2: General Human Kindness
Whenever I stop my car to ask for directions, I am generally optimistic that people are going to do their best to try and help me, based on the fact that most people are very kind. I often read news reports about strangers helping other strangers out of difficult situations – sometimes even in the face of excessive personal risk. I have never once read a news article describing an easily-preventable death which occurred among a crowd of able onlookers who did nothing to stop it. (I have occasionally read of people deciding against interrupting a mugging, but I find that hard to condemn, since risking injury or death for merely material possessions seems rather unwise!)

Thus, the SSS seems a rather artificial argument, based on the probabilities of occurrence and the kindness of the average person. Certainly as a justification for the existence of a centralized state it seems particularly flimsy!

Objection #3: Show Me The Money!
Obviously, for the SSS to be solvable at all, someone has to be willing to dive in and save the drowning man. Given that in this scenario, the cold and sociopathic onlooker is usually considered to be a real risk, it seems hard to understand exactly what the alternatives would be. If people in general do not care about the dangers that other people are experiencing, then it makes no sense to create a universal monopoly of force which is supposed to ‘take care’ of those in danger – precisely because those ‘cold and sociopathic’ people will run state programs as well!

If people do care, then the only other possible reason that they would not intervene is because they would not gain materially by doing so. In other words, people will act if, like policeman and firemen, they would be well paid to intervene in the SSS scenario.

If payment is the issue, a free society solves it very nicely! Obviously, a company which owns a beach would lose business if its customers kept drowning. Thus this company would doubtless hire lifeguards and string buoys and warn of riptides and restrict swimming during dangerous times and so on. Thus it would be very unlikely that anyone would be allowed to drown without at least some company representative trying to save them! (As far as monetary rewards go, the beach owner would simply pay a bonus to anyone who saved a customer, just as banks pay a bonus to any teller involved in a bank robbery.)

All right, but what about a man hiking in the wilderness who spies a woman drowning and there is no one else around to save her? And what if the only possible incentive he would respond to would be monetary rewards? And what if he (for some strange reason) did not think that the woman would ever pay him any money for saving her life? Would he just then let her drown? Is that why we have a government?

Well, as I have mentioned in my previous articles, in the absence of the state, Dispute Resolution Organizations (DROs) will spring up to mediate altercations between people and to ensure their safety. Just about everybody in a free society would be represented by some form of DRO – including the woman drowning in some remote mountain stream with a cold-blooded man standing by who only will only save her if he is rewarded financially!

Now, if the woman does drown, then her DRO is out a lot of money – death benefits, loss of future customer revenue, and so on. Thus it seems likely that DROs will be more than happy to pay good money to anyone who saves one of their customers from death, injury, or even fraud!

In this way, even the extreme (and frankly ridiculous) situation outlined above will be neatly solved in a free society. Thus there is no practical reason why the SSS should ever be the basis of an argument for positive rights – and thus one more support for the moral justification for government can be gently removed!

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.
  • I like this article for its brevity. As someone already convinced of the virtues of life in a stateless society, I find this article both trivial and reassuring at the same time. (Is that allowed, lol?) I find it trivial because as you said, the issue almost never arises in everyday life, and much more pressing issues are at hand for most of us. I also find the simple solution that the woman’s DRO would offer incentives for people to help in the SSS perfectly acceptable. The simplicity of it might even be shocking to some, who may have spent hours racking their minds over this problem.

    Once you gain the ability to place human interactions into the framework of a DRO society instead of a state-based society, the solutions to these problems all become quite obvious. I think that teaching the skill of determining demand for DROs in a free society is very important to the freedom movement as a whole. It would be neat to see people all over the internet proposing voluntary solutions to problems instead of violent ones. Hmm..maybe this article isn’t so trivial after all.

    Andrew Greve / 2:41 pm /
  • Another argument against teh “necessity” of the state that I think this article didn’t stress enough is that, in an SSS scenario, the ONLY reason the state has for saving the person in distress is ALSO profit.

    Profit for the policeman/fireman (in terms of money and prestige and awards, etc…) and profit for the state (in terms of future tax earnings and more loyalty from the rescued person).

    So having a monopolistic state in place to save people in SSS scenarios does nothing to remove the brutal FACTS of the INCENTIVES for saving a person.

    Those incentives are the same whether or not the rescuing entity is a private protection company or a monopolistic taxing state.

    Great article nonetheless Stefan. I am enjoying your written essays and podcasts immensely!

    Aaron Kinney / 2:41 pm /
  • My problem with simply dismissing the SSS scenario in utilitarian terms (i.e. it will hardly ever happen so we don’t need to worry about it) is that it is a popular and simple example for discussing central tenets of libertarian principle. What should one do ‘in principle’. Is it a ‘crime’ to not help when you could (i.e. do you have some kind of positive obligation)? If so, why? If not ‘criminal’, is it simply immoral? Or even immoral at all (if you have no obligation then what’s the problem right?), etc.

    In my personal experience this example (and it’s countless variations such as a trader not giving food to a starving penniless man he happens across and leaves him to starve) is also one of the things that people who don’t accept the concept of a stateless society home in on as an example of why a society built on such principles is bad/wrong/unstable. It is a simple step for them to say (wrongly) that if you have a society built up on the principle of not helping each other (or not being required to do so) then you will have people starving in the streets (and that would happen because we’re all self evidently selfish otherwise we wouldn’t have that principle in the first place) and so we need the state to prevent this disaster, and so on.

    To me, this example performs a similar task to crusoe economics. There is likely no single man on an island somewhere interacting on the simplest possible terms with nature to create a market economy but it functions as an effective thought experiment with which to remove all the fluff that confuses the ideas, and attempts to reduce it to it’s basic components so we can understand the underlying principle. Same with the SSS example – as unlikely a scenario as it may appear it still presents an effective illustration of the principle of negative rights and libertarians of all hues ought to be able to robustly defend it on that principle rather than make the statists talk to the hand because we are feeling a bit utilitarian today and have more important things to think about. If we cannot defend that principle then we are wasting our time with the ‘important stuff’.

    Being able to say why no person should have the unilateral right to place an obligation on another should be a fundamental and second nature response to any statist accusation to the contrary.

    Gekko / 2:41 pm /
  • Good points – also, there will always remain a benevolent, altruistic, volunteer ethic in any society so financial interests & DRO’s do not necessarily apply to all situations. Smart DRO’s would sponsor such services anyway, such as Community Volunteer Fire Depts by providing equipment etc.

    Anonymous / 2:41 pm /
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