In Ayn Rand’s version of ethics, called objectivism, the individual is motivated by morality to place his/her individual interests above any others. Rand states the highest moral principle is the attainment of happiness, and that any endeavor that elevates someone or something that the individual does not value is irrational. Sacrificing something or someone of value to self in order to preserve something or someone not of value to self is an act of immorality.
In an example of objectivism, Rand tells the story of a man who has the option to save his wife at the expense of ten other women. In some moral traditions, he would be obliged to save the lives of the ten other women because their lives weighed in the balance of his wife’s, are more valuable. They are ten and his wife is one. If one were to subscribe to perhaps, utilitarianism, which states the greatest good is that which provides for the greatest number of people, then the man would be obliged to sacrifice his wife in order to act morally.
In an example of immorality, Rand tells the story of an able bodied swimmer who failed to save his drowning wife due only to his lack of control over his emotions. The man has made a moral mistake because his actions lacked integrity. He claimed to love his wife, yet he obviously did not love her enough to put into action his skill of swimming, and save her.
Rand’s assessment of both situations was correct. Those closest to us have the most right to our charity. An individual cannot be realistically charged with the care of the entire world, but he can be charged with the care of a few individuals to whom he has taken oaths, such as oaths of marriage, parenthood etc. In the first example, the man’s first sworn duty is to his wife. He is supposed to cleave to her first. The other women are not his moral responsibility because he has taken no oath to them, and they provide him with nothing in terms of his survival. They do not contribute to his life; they have not earned his aid. We are not entitled to the aid of strangers merely because we are living, and strangers may have resources. Rand expounds on this by stating that conditions of life such as illness, injury, and poverty happen in the normal course of things. Therefore, a man has no duty to alleviate strangers from these conditions; they simply are, and every human faces risk. It is only in times of unexpected emergency when an individual should attempt to help strangers, and even then, not at the expense of his/her life.
In the second example, Rand is correct in calling the man immoral because he failed in his duty, not because there was potential harm to himself, but because he was weak. One of the reasons this was an immoral action was because he compromised his integrity. The other reason this lack of action was a moral wrong is because he actually was harming himself. He would have suffered, by allowing his wife to drown, considerable emotional and mental harm for the rest of his life, which would negatively affect his existence.
Rand’s assessments for morality in these situations are correct because, according to objectivism, man’s ultimate duty is to himself. The only rational act is the act that upholds one’s survival, and the survival of one’s close friends/family who are important to survival. The first man in saving his wife acted morally, the second man acted immorally. Objectivism allows the individual to preserve him/herself, provide for his/her family, and not feel guilty for doing so.
Rand, A. The Ethics of Emergencies. Retrieved 14 October 2014, from https://bblearn.utk.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-1286014-dt-content-rid 7458716_1/courses/Philosophy25246785FA2014/Rand.pdf