Reason as the Leading Motive

The Cabin-Owner’s Ethical Scenario

Posted by Jerry on February 29, 2008

Some blogger–whose claim to fame is that he is an atheist–presented a hypothetical scenario that aspires to be a critique of Objectivist and libertarian ethics (for this post, I’ll overlook his confusion of libertarian ethics with Objectivist ethics). After reading his scenario, I think most Objectivists will find that his critique inadvertently–and aptly–exposes the failure of Socialism and central regulation than pose a challenge to Objectivism.

Here’s the scenario (I’ve deleted the personal references to his interlocutor):

Let’s say I’m lost in the mountains during a snowstorm, without food, heat or warm clothes, and near death from hypothermia and exposure. Let’s say I stumble across a remote cabin, locked, well-supplied with all the provisions I need to stay alive, and the owner isn’t home.

I believe it would be my moral right to break a window and take shelter in the cabin (and yes, I’d absolutely say the same thing if it were my cabin). To Objectivists, however, this would be a violation of the property rights of the cabin’s owner, which is never justified. I can only presume that the Objectivist believes it would be my moral duty to lie down in the snow and freeze to death, even if life and safety are just the thickness of a glass pane away.

At the outset, it should be clear that no amount of wishful thinking will conjure up a bureaucrat and a cadre of police officers at this remote location to enforce the “moral right” of the starving individual to break into the cabin. Forget about a free Objectivist society. Even in a Statist or Socialist society, this marooned and starving individual will not have a bureaucrat miraculously appear by his side with Beef Steak and Diet Coke. For a marooned and starving individual stuck in the middle of a snowstorm, no great amount of government taxation will feed his immediate need!

Indeed, the starving man is stuck in a framework that can only be most efficiently and immediately addressed by the individuals involved in that immediate situation; in other words, he is in a situation that emulates the framework of a free market system, wherein he has to take independent action to address his needs and deal with his particular context of reality in a free and non-coercive manner. There is no police or government around to enforce his violation of another man’s rights or to guide his own actions.

Remember, rights are moral principles that must be protected even by force, if necessary. So, given the logic of the above scenario, every starving bum on the street would have the moral right to break into anyone’s home and steal their food with lethal government force on their side–and the only criteria to justify their stealth and loot is their physical need of hunger. Are you really willing to claim that it should be a *right* to break into someone’s home if you are starving, dying, homeless, and on the verge of collapse?

In a free society, an individual like in the above example will realize that it is his privilege and an undesirable exception borne out of utmost necessity to be able to use someone else’s property without compensation or trade.

Case 1) If the cabin owner is present, he realizes that he faces no threat by the force of a government from such marooned individuals and that helping the starving man is not something forced upon him at the point of a gun. In a free society, genuine charity and benevolence is organically fostered and encouraged, because such a society accepts the premise that men are capable of moral actions, men are capable of autonomous decisions, men are capable of living their own lives effectively, that men are capable of being generous and helping others who are not quite so capable of doing these things, and that men should be left free to pursue and expand their capabilities.

For a marooned and starving individual stuck in the middle of a snowstorm, no great amount of government taxation will feed his immediate need. His immediate need can only be satisfied by the benevolence of the cabin owner in a private and voluntary transaction–not by invocations to a non-existent Socialist bureaucrat or police officer. Should we support an ethical theory that seeks to snuff out the last remnant of benevolence in this context by introducing force even here and demanding that the cabin owner help the man at the point of a gun? Do we wish to extend the consequences of introducing forceful expropriation of property to every hungry, starving, needy bum on the street even in non-remote locations?

Case 2) If the cabin owner is absent or not around, and the individual is starving and his only hope of survival is to get water and food from the cabin in this remote location, then the man still cannot ludicrously hope for government (or divine) intervention in any manner. He must act swiftly on his own to mitigate his survival risks and be cognizant of the nature of his actions:

According to the Objectivist ethics, the man must enter the cabin to take only the items that will most immediately and sufficiently stave off his certain death. All the while, the man must remind himself that he had *no right* to the property of this private cabin owner but has been a privileged recipient of the good and rational sense of this cabin owner (since it requires rationality and smart sense to be productive enough to have a well-stocked cabin even in a very remote location as in this scenario, also it requires that the hypothetical scenario has a government that respects the private property of this cabin owner to let him own his cabin and the food and things in it).

After the crises of survival has been controlled, the man has the moral obligation to inform the owner of the cabin about the incidents that transpired and of his actions and offer to make appropriate payments within a specified amount of time. This is because the starving individual acted out of immediate need, was cognizant that his survival literally depended on the good and rational sense of the productive achievements of this cabin owner who had a well-stocked home, had no immediate means of repayment, and knew that it was not his right but his privilege or good fortune to have found a well-maintained cabin in such remoteness that had the food he had needed. The only rational thing such a man can do is to not abuse his privilege and respect the source of wealth and property that has prevented his certain death.

If the individual is remiss on his obligation to inform and/or compensate the cabin-owner for the use of his property, then the cabin owner is fully justified in initiating a lawsuit against the man for the violation of his property rights.

If the owner is unaware of who the perpetrator is—perhaps because the perpetrator chose to abuse his privilege and escaped sneakily beforehand—the cabin-owner is fully justified in not supporting further parasitic and dishonest exploitation of his scarce wealth and property in this remote location by enforcing whatever security and surveillance measures he finds necessary. This may result in later instances wherein an honest but starving individual may be denied life-saving access to a rational person’s wealth not because the cabin-owner chooses to protect his property, but because the earlier perpetrator of the violation set up a context of force, dishonesty, and parasitism that led to the creation of such an undesirable context.

Extrapolate this to the wider socio-economic context and it should be clear which system fosters more benevolence, charity, and generosity: one where men are free to produce wealth and then freely help each other without force or coercion and where honesty is duly rewarded in a just system; or a system in which men are forced to protect what little they own with zeal and terror in their eyes because at any moment their property may be expropriated by higher powers at the point of a gun for the benefit of parasites by virtue of their need.

As a general rule, life-boat scenarios are not proper grounds to test ethical theories; this is because by their very nature, life-boat scenarios are transient and require unsual actions, whereas ethical theories are meant to be guides on actions over the span of an individual’s life, which means guide to actions that are to become routine, usual, and standard. For more on this, see Moral Dilemmas.

13 Responses to “The Cabin-Owner’s Ethical Scenario”

  1. Yeah, the thing I’ve noticed about those improbable situations people conjure up is that they require the concretes to be defined. Once they are defined, the dilemma either is resolved, or it is discovered that it never really was a moral dilemma in the first place.

    I think it’s extremely comical how people attempt to use their feeble interpretations of Objectivism in order to make slander it.

    “Oh sure! An Objectivist would tell a guy to starve!”

    Great post!

  2. Ergo said

    L’Innommable, I don’t fully understand what you mean by “concretes [are] to be defined”. Isn’t it helpful to a discussion to have terms and concretes defined?

  3. Exactly. You have to define the concretes and terms used in such examples. In examples like the one above, they are not completely defined by the guy who posed the situation.

    What you did was to define the concrete that was given in that situation. In fact, you gave several possibilities for the remote cabin. You stated how a person should act if there’s no one there, or if there is.

    That’s just one of the things that needed to be defined. Is it a deserted remote cabin in the mountains, or does someone live there? See, it’s all a matter of defining what the situation actually is, and acting accordingly.

    You defined things very well.

  4. Almost universally, people associate ethics with a command that is not derived, but somehow a priori and inviolate. they see it as something imposed by some external ethical authority. Correctly, ethics are principles (as opposed to rules) that one figures out by looking at human beings and looking at the types of situations we find ourselves in. However, people do not see it that way.

    Most typical reasonable folk might say that not stealing is a good “common-sensical” principle, but if one finds oneself in a weird abnormal situation, then it might be “common-sensical” to adapt to that special case. However, while they can see that it makes sense “common-sensically”, they think this is in conflict with the idea of an ethical system, which they think should not be so flexible.

    Of course if the typical human experience was of this kind: lost with stealing as the only way to survive, then we would come up with different a different ethics, not the ones in Objectivism.

    I suppose an analogy that some might understand is this: we can use Newton’s laws in a whole lot of situations, without gaining any benefit from the “corrections” that came later with Einstein.

  5. dexter said

    Very well written!!!

  6. Ergo said

    Innommable, the questioner actually did mention that the cabin-owner wasn’t home and that the cabin was locked. I wanted to draw out all the implications of such a scenario, which is why I went into the details of case 1 and case 2 above.

    Further, if you note, his criticism quite easily applies to socialism in that just in the time of one’s most critical need for food, the bureaucrat is *not* around to nourish the starving man with Steak and coke purchased from the forceful expropriation of someone else’s wealth. Isn’t that the purpose of government redistribution–so that no man may go hungry? Just like universal healthcare, this is universal food program. But if this scenario is meant to critique Objectivism, then shouldn’t it by implication reveal some fantastic method by which Socialism offers a triumphant answer to the situation and feeds the starving man? Nope. The man is left to fend for himself; now here is where he enters into a transaction that demands the choice of rationality or force from him: should he choose to demand what is not his, by force, or respect the rational nature of the property and its source which are literally his life-savers? The choice to act in whichever way is his own and he is free to do as he pleases, provided he accepts the possible consequences as well.

    The Socialists want to claim that the man should have a moral right to break into the cabin; let’s take that further: since he has acted rightfully in his stealth and loot, the cabin-owner can simply not press charges against the man ever. Further, the cabin-owner must just accept the possibility for such robbery occurring indefinitely more in the future in the event of every other random starving and marooned individual near his cabin. Since it is their right, the owner is helpless in defending his property–nay, it isn’t his property at all in the first place! Should the owner then continue to stock his cabin with food and items of comfort only to live in the fear that they all might be stolen by someone else and that he can legally and morally do nothing about it?

  7. Ergo – Great post and a brilliant explanation for the the scenario. I am very interested in understanding an Objectivist’s solution for global warming.

  8. Oh, right, I didn’t realize he did mention the owner wasn’t home. My bad.

    And yes, your critique of that person’s scenario is an apt deconstruction.

    One of the things I wondered when I first read this was whether this well stocked, remote cabin in the mountains would exist at all in a socialist state.

  9. Ergo said

    Hi Archana,

    The solution to global warming assumes at least three things:

    1) That global warming is indeed a fact happening to our planet today. (Don’t be so sure, the objective jury is still out on this question; it’s only that the environmentalists have a louder voice. See my posts in the category “Environmentalism.”)

    2) That global warming, if it is true, is caused by human activity. (Again, don’t be so sure of this fact. It is a graphically illustrated fact that the planet actually *cooled* rapidly post industrialization for a good part of the early 20th centurty, which led some scientists in the 1970s to cry panic over global COOLING! Think about solar energy and its influences on the planet’s oceans as a possible alternative to anthropogenic climate change.)

    3) That if indeed the planet is warming, it is necessarily a bad thing. (Again, don’t be so sure. The planet has undergone many drastic fluctuations in climate–like the Ice age, etc.–even when humans were not around to make any difference. So, should we really prevent the planet from going warm at all costs? Why? To what end? How come the environmentalists have no qualms about interfering with nature and its natural cycles in this case?)

    Basically, the science surrounding this issue is so muddled with political and ideological agendas, that I refuse bother with the issue of global warming. For me, the more pertinent and practical issue is the issue of defending and upholding human rights. So long as the human rights to life and property are not violated in any way, I don’t particularly care how we approach the issue of global warming. Indeed, I am reasonably persuaded by the view that private and commercial use of property will infact reduce pollution, minimize waste, maximize efficiency, increase productivity, and raise the quality of the property and lives of people.

    As a point of evidence, note that government interference in the protection of endangered species of animals have had very little and marginal positive effects in the number of such surviving species (as evidence, read about the poaching laws in Zimbabwe and their utter failure to protect elephants from being poached; contrast that with the approach adopted by Kenya, where they opened commercial trade and ownership of elephants, which resulted in an increased number of surviving elephants). Now, contrast that with the case of those species of animals that are the most remotely distant from the possibility of extinction: cattle, chicken, ducks, dogs, cats, etc., are far away from extinction. The common denominator among these latter species is that they are commercially available in the market for private ownership as pets or for commercial trade and consumption. It is in our selfish interest to breed them and protect them from extinction.

    The same logic applies to trees, plants, vegetation, fishes in seas and rivers, etc. Those that are left to the market for ownership, trade, and consumption are the ones that are the best protected by their private owners for their own selfish profit in the bargain. Whereas, government laws against poaching of elephants and tigers, for example, have had so little to no effect in their protection.

    Anyway, all this is for another post.

  10. smally said

    For some other perspectives on this thought experiment (or ones nearly equivalent to it), I recommend:

    Rad Geek’s comments in reply to Alex on an old post Is Property Arbitrary?.

    Whose Liberalism? Which Individualism? by Irfan Khawaja. His example, about 12 pages down, is of escaping a vicious dog by climbing someone’s fence.

  11. Ergo said


    Thanks especially for the link to Irfan Khawaja’s article. Because it is so pertinent to the topic of this post, I am excerpting the relevant part of his article. It is the part about ethical emergencies and its defining qualities of differentiation from a normal course of daily events. I had originally intended to create a post on this topic even before you had commented with Irfan’s link; but since Irfan makes the point so well, I’m happy to present his words.

    ===============From Irfan Khawaja’s “Whose Liberalism? Which Individualism?”================

    Note that the emergency-case exception to rights is self-limiting. To make the exception, we have to begin by distinguishing emergencies from the larger background of non-emergency contexts. An emergency is a radical departure from normal conditions, not merely a continuation of suboptimal conditions. An emergency, to paraphrase Ayn Rand’s definition, is a relatively temporary, unchosen, and unexpected event, which poses a danger to life or physical integrity, and creates a high probability of death.[12] One of the defining features of such events is that all or most of the actions of those involved in the emergency aim at transforming the emergency into a non-emergency with the greatest possible haste. It is important, then, to differentiate “emergencies” so conceived from other merely dysfunctional states of affairs. The two relevant differentiae are: (a) the unique etiology of an emergency (its randomness relative to a background of normality) and (b) the severity of its consequences on the lives of those involved.[13]

    These two differentiae explain why emergencies pose an exception to rights: rights are not principles designed to handle cases of random danger; they’re principles designed to handle situations where long-term planning and action are possible. But precisely because emergencies constitute an exceptional case, if and when an emergency requires a rights-violation, the violator is obliged to act in such a way as to return, as quickly as possible, to non-emergency conditions, and thus to minimize to extent of the violation. In the dog-attack example cited above, while I could legitimately violate the owner’s property rights to get away from the dog, I would not be justified in stopping in his backyard to ogle his sunbathing daughter. Having escaped the dog, of course, the status quo ante would obtain again in full force.[14] Thus while emergencies can sometimes justify exceptions to rights, they don’t provide carte blanche for subverting them altogether.

    Finally, it’s worth remembering that the emergency-case exception operates against a background context that presupposes a fundamental harmony between rights to life, liberty, and property. Rights to liberty and property exist for the sake of the contribution they make to life. Emergencies are an exception to that general harmony. But precisely because they are an exception, we can only grasp how to deal with them by first grasping the normal cases in which the rights go together, and by defining the exceptional cases in terms of them.

  12. Cool Blog! I’m Reddit-ing this!🙂

  13. Ervin said

    I glad reading your article. Thank you very much for provide good information.

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