There was a brutal murder this past weekend in Washington, D.C. A thug tried to steal a young adult’s cell phone and then knocked him to the floor in the struggle. Once on the ground, the thief proceeded to stab the victim 30 or 40 times all over his body. Finally, he came back to the corpse and stomped on it a bit
The other passengers in the train car watched in horror, afraid for their lives. They didn’t try to save the victim and they mostly tried to end the train ride alive. According to Ayn Rand in her excellent essay entitled “The Ethics of Emergencies” from The Virtue of Selfishness:
A rational man does nor forget that life is the source of all values and, as such, a common bond among living beings (as against inanimate matter), that other men are potentially able to achieve the same virtues as his own and thus be of enormous value to him. This does not mean that he regards human lives as interchangeable with his own. He recognizes the fact that his own life is the source, not only of all his values, but of his capacity to value. Therefore, the value he grants to others is only a consequence, an extension, a secondary projection of the primary value which is himself.
In the Objectivist ethics, you help (or, more significantly, save) a stranger when doing so doesn’t jeopardize your life. This was an extreme example of “lifeboat ethics” and anyone who tried to stop the murderer was putting his or her own life on the line. It is perfectly moral to not have risked your life in that situation.
But, amazingly, some don’t see it that way. The Federalist condemns the other passengers as “beta males” and “men without chests” in an appalling display of armchair machismo. The kicker, for me, is when the author indicates that their behavior is a great example of “callous and unthinking selfishness.”
The point of Ayn Rand’s essay is that morality is not defined by what one would do in an “oncoming bus” scenario. Those are not common occurrences and morality is ostensibly a guide to life. So the actions of anyone riding that train don’t really speak to their morality.
But if a random group of Americans on a random train on a random day values their lives such that they shirk the common altruist duty of sacrificing themselves for a stranger, perhaps selfishness hasn’t been extinguished from the American sense of life.