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“The Ethics of Emergencies”
by Ayn Rand
“In the normal conditions of existence, man has to choose his goals, project them in time, pursue them and achieve them by his own effort. He cannot do it if his goals are at the mercy of and must be sacrificed to any misfortune happening to others. He cannot live his life by the guidance of rules applicable only to conditions under which human survival is impossible. The principle that one should help men in an emergency cannot be extended to regard all human suffering as an emergency and to turn the misfortune of some into a first mortgage on the lives of others.
Poverty, ignorance, illness and other problems of that kind are not metaphysical emergencies. By the metaphysical nature of man and of existence, man has to maintain his life by his own effort; the values he needs- such as wealth or knowledge- are not given to him automatically, as a gift of nature, but have to be discovered and achieved by his own thinking and work. One’s sole obligation toward others, in this respect, is to maintain a social system that leaves men free to achieve, to gain and to keep their values.
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. The altruist ethics is based on a “malevolent universe” metaphysics, on the theory 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. As the simplest empirical refutation of that metaphysics- as evidence of the fact that the material universe is not inimical to man and that catastrophes are the exception, not the rule of his existence- observe the fortunes made by insurance companies.
Observe also that the advocates of altruism are unable to base their ethics on any facts of men’s normal existence and that they always offer “lifeboat” situations as examples from which to derive the rules of moral conduct. (“What should you do if you and another man are in a lifeboat that can carry only one?” etc.) 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.
The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental- as disasters are marginal and incidental in the course of human existence- and that values, not disasters, are the goal, the first concern and the motive power of his life.”
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