As storm cleanup continues, so also does the moral debate. The idea of evacuation as a moral duty has gained traction among some officials, theologians and hurricane survivors. But others find the notion misguided, uncompassionate and a threat to individual liberties. The issue hits a tender chord since rugged individualism is a defining value of American culture. But megastorms like Sandy are fueling conversations about the limits of that ethic, as they expose how interdependent people ultimately are.
To sort this out, one must first recognize that there is no such thing as a “moral duty”--an inherent obligation to take some positive action--apart from one’s chosen obligations. As Philosopher Ayn Rand has pointed out, the concept “duty”--which, more precisely, is an anti-concept--“negates all the essentials of a rational view of life,” including reason, free will, and causality. It means blind submission to a higher authority, regardless of or in contravention to one’s own judgement. No facts of reality can justify this.
“Moral duty” is conditional and only applicable in the context of the freedom of the individual to act on his own reason. If a man has children in his care, or an elderly parent, or even pets, he has a moral duty to consider the effects of his actions on them. They are his chosen responsibilities. He has a right to put his own life at risk, if he chooses, but not those others. If they are dependent on him for their safety, by his own choice, then he should evacuate.
The same principle applies to first responders--those who would voluntarily engage in rescue operations. No one has an inherent moral duty to risk his own life for another. Since first responders have chosen a job that entails risks, they have a moral duty to fulfil their chosen responsibilities within the context of the rationally defined risk limits that the job entails. But that responsibility is not open-ended or unconditional. First responders, or their superiors in charge of rescue operations, have a moral right to declare that no rescue will be forthcoming that would put first responders’ lives in unnecessary danger; i.e., danger that goes beyond the defined risks that the responders agreed to shoulder.
Contrary to MacDonald’s premise, there is no clash between individualism and the ethics of emergencies. An individualist, as philosopher Ayn Rand correctly defines the term, is not “a man who says: ‘I’ll do as I please at everybody else’s expense.’ An individualist is a man who recognizes the inalienable individual rights of man—his own and those of others,” and who “will not sacrifice [himself] to anyone—nor sacrifice anyone to [himself].”
A person should not knowingly put another’s life at risk for his sake when a rational alternative exists (such as the inconvenience of spending a night or two away from home). As long as a coastal resident is not putting others’ lives in danger, and understands that by ignoring an evacuation order he has no moral right to either call for help or expect anyone to come rescue him when the going gets rough—i.e., he respects others’ rights to their freedom of choice—he has no moral duty to evacuate. If, however, a person has any doubt that he will not
“chicken out” and call for help—thus putting others’ lives in danger—he should evacuate. The type of person that expects others to bail him out of his bad choices is not an individualist, “rugged” or otherwise. He is simply a parasite.
In short, everyone involved should act rationally, self-interestedly, and contextually. There are no conflicts of interest among people who do not expect others to sacrifice their self-interest for one’s own sake.
These are the basics. Of course, every individual circumstance has its own context--as MacDonald points out in the article--and must be judged accordingly, based on the facts of reality. And thinking independently, rationally, respectfully for the rights of others, and with one’s only focus being on the facts of reality, is just what defines an individualist. Individualism is crucial to a flourishing life, and a crisis—far from being the time to look for “the limits of that ethic”—is the time when individualism is most desperately needed.