Reason as the Leading Motive

The Nature of Emergencies

Posted by Jerry on April 2, 2008

When discussing the ethics of emergencies, I have encountered the objection that if a moral system is unable to properly address life-boat scenarios, then the system is at least inadequate if not completely worthless. The argument is that a significant number of people actually do face emergency situations on a daily basis; if a philosophy is unable to address and offer moral prescriptions for such people in such situations, then—effectively—the philosophy has ignored a huge chunk of the human population and is inapplicable to them.

Let us consider the validity of such an objection. Here are some statements that highlight the dire plight and struggles of a large number of people around the world: 

  • Across the world, one child dies every five seconds due to hunger-related causes.
  • Nearly one in three people die prematurely or have disabilities due to malnutrition and calorie defeciencies, according to the World Health Organization.
  • In 2005, about 10.1 million children died before they reached their fifth birthday.
  • 25 million people have died from AIDS, which has caused more than 15 million children to lose at least one parent. Approximately 39.5 million people are living with HIV/AIDS in the world.

From the above, one would surmise that the world is indeed in a chronic state of emergency—that human life qua life is essentially always in a chronically anxious and uncertain mode of living. Are we always in an emergency?

This line of thought is grossly fallacious: it confuses the categories of the metaphysical and the empirical or man-made. A given state of affairs in empirical reality does not determine the metaphysical nature of reality. Reality is as is. Human life—by virtue of human free will—often diverges from the norm and ideal of its own nature. For example, while external reality contains and permits no contradictions, human minds and actions often involve contradictory ideas or behavior.

The emergencies faced by a large number of people around the world is a description of the actual state of affairs in the world; in other words, it is am empirical observation. This, however, does not mean that life qua life (in the metaphysical sense) is chronically in a state of emergency. It is meaningless to speak of emergencies without some reference to normality or normal conditions; it is an aberration from normal conditions that is regarded as an emergency. In the context of this discussion, “normal conditions” refers to the identity of reality as it is. Examples of an aberration in reality would be when you face a contradiction due to incorrect premises or irrational actions, or when natural or man-made disasters make nature hostile and threatening to your life.

An emergency situation, therefore, by definition involves a divergence from the normal state of affairs in accordance with the identity of reality. For example, a normal human heart functions in accordance with its identity, i.e., it does what it is metaphysically equipped to do. A malfunctioning heart is an aberration from this normality because its proper functioning is hindered. This creates a state of emergency with regard to the heart.

As a thought-experiment, imagine that 90 percent of the human beings on this planet suffered cardiac arrests at the same time. Would we be philosophically justified in stating that the essential identity of the human heart has now changed? That is, would it make sense to redefine the essential identity of the human heart? Hopefully, this comes across as an absurd suggestion. It is not the number of cardiac arrests that determine the metaphysical nature of the human heart; likewise, it is not the innumerable instances of crises in human lives across the world that determine the metaphysical nature of life and this universe.

Therefore, to claim that human life qua life is always an emergency is to plead for a redefinition of the essential identity of reality and human life. It is not just a particularly sloppy error in thinking but a grossly malevolent perspective on life and reality.

Every moral theory—of any philosophical system—has to rest on a metaphysical view of existence. It has to begin with a set of premises that define the nature of reality and then build a moral theory that prescribes moral actions that will indeed work in such a reality, because it is based on the way in which reality functions.

A moral system cannot be constructed on premises derived from emergency situations because emergencies do not determine or change the metaphysics of reality as such. One example of an emergency situation is wherein no volitional choice by the human agent is possible; therefore, in such a situation, no moral prescriptions can exist as well. However, it is a self-evident fact that we are regularly faced with alternatives in normal conditions and we certainly do make choices; therefore, a moral system must respect and recognize this metaphysical fact in the kind of prescriptions it offers.

Another example of an emergency is wherein a man acts to save the life of another person—perhaps even at the cost of his own life; to apply this as a principle of behavior even in normal state of affairs is to condemn every man to matyrdom—as a sacrificial animal for the other. I hope there is no need to speculate about the consquences of such a moral prescription.

Thus, to fabricate a contorted moral system on the premises of such emergency situations will result in disastrous consequences. A logical system of premises that is based upon the metaphysical nature of reality and human life is the only foundation for a proper code of morality.

16 Responses to “The Nature of Emergencies”

  1. K. M. said

    While I agree with your analysis of the relevance of emergencies to a moral system, none of the facts mentioned constitute an emergency and you should not grant that. Being hungry or contracting AIDS is not an emergency by any stretch of the imagination.

    K. M.

  2. Ergo said

    I agree with you. I was not granting that these “facts” (notice, I didn’t even use that word in the post, I chose to say “statements” instead) constitute an emergency. These were just the kind of examples I encountered as part of the argument that life is full of emergencies and that most people around the world live in a chronic state of crisis on a regular basis.

  3. I should have thought of this. It’s the exact argument I’ve been looking for.


  4. Ramana said

    I agree to the fact that emergencies faced by many people in the world today doesn’t give any ground to say that emergencies by themselves are metaphysical facts. It only goes on to bolster the fact that irrationality to thought is evil in action. People who constantly claim that emergencies “happen all the time” should check their man-made choices not the nature of existence which makes choices possible.

    However, I am still thinking of the thought experiment you prescribed. Supposing 90 percent of humans suffered from cardiac arrest at the same time, integrating such a fact, you find the answer changes how one would think about the heart and it strikes at the essence of human knowledge with regard to a human heart. Wouldn’t that alter ones view of the nature of the human heart?

  5. Ergo said

    “Supposing 90 percent of humans suffered from cardiac arrest at the same time, integrating such a fact, you find the answer changes how one would think about the heart and it strikes at the essence of human knowledge with regard to a human heart. Wouldn’t that alter ones view of the nature of the human heart?”


    Altering one’s view of the nature of the human heart changes nothing about the human heart. I deliberately chose to use a large number of instances of a severe emergency–like 90 percent–to illustrate the point that it is neither the severity nor the widespread prevalence of an emergency that determines a change in the identity of existents.

    To claim that identity of the human heart has somehow been altered or that we have inaccurately identified the nature of the human heart, purely on the basis of the fact that there has been an incredibly large number of cardiac arrests at the same time, would be to claim that every single human heart must experience a cardiac arrest–because every entity acts according to its metaphysically given identity.

    Further, events don’t determine identity, identity determines events.

  6. Anon said

    As K.M. said, none of those four situations constitutes an “emergency.” An emergency was specifically defined as circumscribed in time. It is an immediate threat to life, such as a heart attack. In her essay, she specifically ruled out poverty as an emergency.

    I would add that Ayn Rand DID create a philosophy that is applicable to persons in those situations. If they truly want to end those conditions, they should adopt capitalism.

  7. Ramana said


    I fully agree to the point that identity determines events and only identity does. I was wondering while integrating a new fact that strikes at the heart of the identity of the existent, what then? I am currently reading OPAR and only marvel at how beautifully Peikoff put forth his examples like the one with blood groups and RH factors. I think I understand now.

    To apply it here, I think I would say, “Within the context of circumstances so far known, nothing explains such an event. Upon integration of such a fact i come across a new external event in the human body which causes cardiac arrest when acted upon the heart. I still understand that the identity of the heart has not changed. Its basic functions still remain the same. But now I understand that when such an externality acts upon it, it fails.”

    In essence, the identity of the heart has not changed after such an event, only my treatment did.

  8. Branden said

    I believe that this is an extremely crucial point, Ergo, and I applaud you for making it. A lot of false ethical systems nowadays are justified by the error of emergencies having supremacy.

    I haven’t given much thought to the matter, but I’d be curious what the result would be if the same analysis–not using emergencies to dictate ethics–was applied to Objectivist justifications for Objectivist ethics.

  9. Ergo said

    Branden, I didn’t understand your point about applying Objectivist “justifications” to Objectivist ethics. What does that mean?

  10. Branden said

    I was trying to say that I would be interested in the results of applying your argument of “emergencies don’t justify ethical systems” to arguments for rational self-interest. I realize that my original phrasing was probably poor.

  11. Jason said

    Quite a quiet site lately, Ergo…

    Hope everything is alright…

  12. John Enright said

    I’m concerned that it’s so quiet too. I hope nothing bad has happened and that you’re just having too much fun to post.

  13. Wolfgang said

    Some comments by German blogger Sascha: http://heroicdreams.wordpress.com/2008/05/03/emergencies-and-range-of-tolerance/

  14. Hi Ergo; thank you for your comments on my blog! I just replied to them over at http://heroicdreams.wordpress.com/2008/05/03/emergencies-and-range-of-tolerance/#comments.

    However, I am reprinting my reply here, for the record:

    Ergo; thank you for your comments!

    1.) That’s a good question. I guess that those are situations where you still can survive physically somehow, but not on fully human terms, or on the terms proper for the relevant organism. Perhaps trying to identify concrete examples would be helpful.

    2.) That surely is an interesting aspect, too. However, even after reading your blog post on it, I am still not entirely sure what this means in terms of concretes.

    In a certain sense, normalcy is also an issue for a “range of tolerance” approach. Because, after all, what are “normal conditions” for any given organism? Its range of tolerance!

    Range of tolerance is to be understood as a certain range of measurements on quantitative axes each representing one physical/environmental characteristic, such as temperature, moisture (is that the right word?), chemical composition of the soil, presence of other useful or harmful organisms, or whatever. And it should be possible, for every given organism, to specify a certain range of measurements on these axes that is its specific range of tolerance. The particular range of measurements is determined by the organism’s identity, i.e. by the kind of needs for survival and capacities for action it has, by the way it _normally_ functions.

    And I would agree that anytime someone claims, implicitly or explicitly, that life on earth is a constant state of emergency, he is rewriting the metaphysically given. He either rewrites the organism’s identity or the nature of reality, claiming in effect that the organism has needs that by the nature of reality cannot be satisfied, or that its capacities for action, by the nature of reality, are not suited to satisfying its needs–that the organism is, after all, not suited to reality, but fundamentally disconnected from it. This, obviously, is absurd, not only in the light of evolutionary theory.

    (3) Yes, most definetly. If there were no life in the universe, then there could not be emergencies. To paraphrase Ayn Rand: It is only life that makes the concept of emergency possible — since an emergency is always an emergency _for_ a living organism in regard to its life and survival. The whole determination of what constitutes any given organism’s range of tolerance is highly dependend on the context of its survival needs and survival capacities, and without living organisms the whole concept would make no sense. “Range of Tolerance” is a concept describing or pertaining to a particular class of phenomena, namely: living things.

    The dependency upon life also opens up an interesting perspective on the concept of normalcy. Because normalcy seems to be relative to the thing you consider. For living organisms, their particular ranges of tolerance diverge. What are normal conditions for some organisms are not normal conditions for others. It is normal for fish to live in water; it is not normal for cats, elephants or man. The sea is the normal environment of fish; not man’s. And disasters, of course, whether they be man-made or natural, are not normal conditions of life for man.

    So far, I only considered living things. But what does it mean to speak of normalcy in regard to the universe? You could argue that normalcy is a thing acting in accordance with its identity. In this case, everything happening in the universe is normal–from a metaphysical perspective–, even living things remaining in or going out of existence, according to their particular identity.

    In regard to living things, again, you could argue that normalcy is acting in accordance with their identity (i.e. appliying their capacities for action to satisfying their survival needs), in a certain range of environmental characteristics suitable to them.

    You see, the problem here is that although, from a metaphysical perspective, everything happening in the universe is normal (i.e. existents acting in accordance with their identity), we speak of some states as not being normal and even as being emergencies from the perspective of particular organisms. I guess, we are dealing with an equivocation on the concept “normalcy” which most probably is used here in two different ways, or on two different levels.

    Sorry, this got rather long.

  15. […] like many who support a mixed-economy (or full blown socialism) – their minds are mired in emergency life-boat dilemmas such as “what if a young girl has leukaemia?” or “who picks you up from the roadside if there […]

  16. nature said

    Thanks for finally writing about >The Nature of Emergencies Leitmotif <Loved it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: