Science Fiction

Robert Heinlein on Libertarianism and the Lifeboat Problem in Space


Patrick McCray, author of the great book on the origins of modern space colony and nanotech thinking, The Visioneers (which I reviewed for Reason in our June issue) dug through the Robert Heinlein archives and came up with some interesting stuff about the nexus between his sometimes militaristic politics and his vision of human future in space, and contains some sneering at certain other types of libertarians:

Heinlein supported Reagan's SDI program unlike "the Sagans, the Asimovs, the Garvins, the Arthur Clarkes" and other "soft-minded fools who fantasize about a world that does not exist." …..Heinlein goes on to note that the debate over SDI had science fiction writers "more bitterly divided that it was over the war in Vietnam." 

Like many people intrigued with the idea of settlements in space, Heinlein gave a lot of thought as to what off-world politics might be like. In this matter, he said he remained "both a pessimist and a lower-case libertarian." When it came to "our race's future in space," Heinlein predicted that those "who do not go into space will find, rather quickly, that they can neither control nor tax those who do."

Heinlein goes on to make it clear that his political position was rested entirely on an unsentimental pragmatism and was "not based on our Bill of Rights" or "libertarian theory." A key test for the sci-fi writer was a person's proposed solution to what he called the Lifeboat Problem – what rights should an individual be accorded in a place where food, water, air, safety, etc. are in tenuous supply i.e. a submarine or a space colony? 5 In fact, he demanded a solution to this question before "any avowed libertarian" should be allowed "to open his big mouth on the subject of "natural rights" in space."

He framed the scenario thus: "You are boat officer in a lifeboat, rated capacity 50 persons and it is filled to capacity, a mixture of men, women, and children. In the water are others…The sea is Beaufort scale four or higher; the water is freezing cold. You are armed with a loaded pistol. So far as you know no one else is armed…but you may be mistaken." What do you do? Rotate people in and out of the life boat every 20 minutes and try to save everyone? Noble but impractical. Maybe someone would suggest taking a vote  to which Heinlein said "I would shoot that bastard just for drill."

So far as libertarians enamored with theory and posturing – "Any libertarian so doctrinaire that he cannot find a pragmatic solution to this problem deserves no tolerance from others…Unfortunately a large percentage of those who describe themselves as "libertarians"…would be a a mortal danger to their shipmates."

So, libertarians and far-out space nuts alike: what do you do on the lifeboat? And does the answer to that question say much about how human ethical and political rules should apply when you are not in a lifeboat? And is space for humans essentially always this sort of lifeboat?

Some thoughts on Ayn Rand's thought on this sort of "lifeboat ethics" and why normal human ethical principles don't necessarily apply there.

I wrote on Heinlein's libertarian legacy for Reason in a 2007 feature, and on his musing on anarcho-capitalism.

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  1. He framed the scenario thus: “You are boat officer in a lifeboat, rated capacity 50 persons and it is filled to capacity, a mixture of men, women, and children. In the water are others?The sea is Beaufort scale four or higher; the water is freezing cold. You are armed with a loaded pistol. So far as you know no one else is armed?but you may be mistaken.” What do you do?

    We vote free healthcare and cell phones for all!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. If I’m armed and in the lifeboat then I don’t see a dilemma. Everyone else can figure out the other 49 slots.

      1. And people wonder why I’m armed, plus a rifle and ammo for each in the car.

        1. Because of people like me or because you want a slot on the boat?

          1. Technically that’s yes and yes: Because I am people like you and want a slot on the boat, I would seek to work out an agreement with you to keep the boat from being overloaded and killing us all.

      2. I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that libertarian morality states that if you don’t have a concealed carry weapon, your life is forfeit to those who do.

        1. Sounds like someone who doesn’t think libertarians are morally sound.

      3. Every scenario is a game: you are not provided with enough information to make any kind of rational decisions. So, it’s a question about sentiment, not reality.

        Why were people on the boat? Which of the 50 could not survive in any case? There are a hundred questions and answers that you know the answer to in an actual situation. Without that knowledge, it’s silly to make choices, even the choice to save yourself.

    2. We vote free healthcare and cell phones for all!!!!!!!!!!!


      *eyes remaining 48 passengers suspiciously*

      “Anyone else got any more stupid suggestions?”

      1. ….but we voted……….it’s democratic……

        1. “Veto means I forbid! Anybody want to see a veto override fail?”

      2. Women and children only…they take up less space and eat and drink less.

        You might be able to exceed the 50 person threshold if only small people are allowed inside.

        1. Exactly. Fatties overboard. Their insulation will sustain them longer in the event of rescue.

          1. Plus the cold water will keep the meat fresh longer.

        2. Yep, Birkenhead Drill.

    3. Is there anybody in the water I like? Is there anybody in the boat I dislike?

  2. A story I read in school actually heavily influenced my thinking on this:

    1. I see a mention of Donald Duck’s Rocket Race to the Moon. It must have been reprinted in the 1970s because I remember reading it and I’m sure nobody gave me a comic from the 1940s.

    2. There are two very simple answers to that story before we even get into the solutions people came up with. One of the following is most probable:

      A: The Craft has already lifted off with the additional weight, if it had “exactly enough” fuel, it doesn’t matter what the people on board do, they’ve missed their target destination, either by being too slow on takeoff, or by burning too much fuel to accellerate to whatever point in the trip they’ve reached.

      B: A real rescue vehicle is always loaded with too much fuel to ensure that it can make the destination, despite unforseen complications, so the problem is moot.

      1. C. There is always something that can be thrown overboard.

      2. Here’s the story:

        I’ll have to read it again to determine whether any of your issues have been addressed.

        1. I don’t think those issues were specifically addressed in the story, but bringing them up entirely misses the point. The stories of the time were (still are, really) filled with miraculous escapes as Commander Incredible saves the day by pulling off something impossible; TCE is making the point that it doesn’t matter if you’re good, or pretty, or kind, or whatever: the constraints of physics do not care about that.

          1. Read it again just now:

            A) There is just enough extra fuel to slowdown if he jettisons her in that certain phase of the flight, before acceleration.

            B) The reason why the ship doesn’t have an excess of fuel for unforeseen events is bogus. Godwin states the EDS are loaded with so little fuel so the mothership doesn’t have to carry as much. Unused emergency fuel could be siphoned off back to the main supply upon return (or jettisoned if necessary.)

            C) There is an entire supply closet with a door to house a small box of medicine. The pilot has a “blaster.” They are both wearing clothes that could be jettisoned. And emergency ships are always loaded with redundant equipment as a matter of logic. (What good is a rescue ship that can be disabled by a blown fuse or a bad single circuit panel?)

            Of course this isn’t the point of the story, but these things are still worth looking at. A no-win scenario requires working these things out.

            1. From the wikipedia article:

              The story was shaped by Astounding editor John W. Campbell, who sent “Cold Equations” back to Godwin three times before he got the version he wanted, because “Godwin kept coming up with ingenious ways to save the girl!”

              1. Ah, shit. I remember that now. Campbell was a weird dude and stamped his foibles into a large chuck of science fiction. His other prejudices included “humans always win” and an insistence that psychic powers were inevitable and stories set past a certain point in the future without them were unbelievable.

                1. He also was the guy who promoted Scientology so that it became self-sustaining.

  3. I forgot that Heinlein wanted to be a career Naval Officer but was booted for health issues.

    1. Which probably saved his life:

      He was assigned to the East Asia but developed tuberculosis and immediately given a disability discharge from the Navy.

      The east asia fleet was pretty much annihilated in the opening months of the war. Admiral Winslow’s The Fleet The Gods Forgot has the depressing story. Winslow had to use Japanese sources because the destruction was so complete that often no records existed in the U.S. as to the details of how the ships were sunk. They simply ceased to communicate and were never seen again.

      I suspect it affected Heinlein greatly. He never wrote about it, but he had to have lost a large number of friends and classmates from his naval academy days.

      1. Somewhere (Niven, Pournelle, or Turtledove maybe?) I read an alternative history short story about the great Admiral Heinlein. Turned out that an unhealthy Halsey was a decent writer.

        1. Niven had “The Return of William Proxmire,” where Senator Proxmire goes back in time and cures Heinlein’s TB. The thought being that a cured Heinlein wouldn’t write sci-fi, and thereby inspire all of the NASA nerds and fans giving Proxmire such grief. He makes things worse (from his point of view.)

          On tarran’s point, the wiki for the Battle of the Java Sea and all of the subsequent ancillary battles proves his point. The IJN pretty much stomped everyone flat for the first 6 months of the war. One of the “what-ifs?” I toy with, is what the U.S. would do had Midway been an asskicking by the IJN, say no carriers lost, all 3 US carriers sunk, and Midway taken. Would the U.S. have moved for an armistice with Japan while dealing with Nazi Germany?

  4. Maybe someone would suggest taking a vote to which Heinlein said “I would shoot that bastard just for drill.”

    I like his take on Democracy.

    1. You have to be able to think like a wolf or be resigned to be the lamb dinner.

  5. This was solved long ago. It is women and children first.

    1. Ok, so you have a life boat filled to capacity with 50 women and children.

      There are 300 other women and children in the freezing water. What do you do?

      1. Drive the first load to shore, then come back hoping to pick up more.

        1. No, it’s the dog and the chicken on the 1st trip, then bring the dog back,….

    2. Not Van Halen’s best work, but a good album nonetheless.

    3. Essential personnel first, else those women and children aboard don’t survive.

  6. Ask if anyone in the boat would willingly give up their seat for someone else (they may have loved ones in the water, etc.), and have them choose who they are giving it to, make the switch, and then that’s it. Time to head for shore. First come, first serve.

    1. Sounds like the best plan.

  7. 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.

    That’s good ol’ You-Know-Who, galt bless her.

    1. Voldemort?

    2. I think we had to explain that to MNG about 1,000,000,000,000 times and I’m sure he still doesn’t get it. Along with the “ticking timebomb” torture fans.

      1. Look, NutraSweet, making up ridiculous situations in order to artificially force completely abnormal moral decisions that most of us will never, ever face is a perfectly honest form of argument. I mean, what would you do if the last unicorn in the world was trying to gore you and you had a plasma rifle in 40 Watt range? What would you do?

        1. I’d aim low, so that when we stuff the corpse, we can patch the fur with horsehair.

        2. I believe that all Sugarfree knows is good…and ball…and rape. So there’s your answer.

          1. I would rape the unicorn with a good ball.

            1. Finally, someone answers correctly.

        3. Also note, the lifeboat/ticking time bomb scenarios – once you’ve come up with an ethical framework – will automatically apply to the bad tempered cop pulling you over for running a red light.

        4. I mean, what would you do if the last unicorn in the world was trying to gore you and you had a plasma rifle in 40 Watt range? What would you do?

          In the 40 watt range…? Dry it’s shiny mane maybe.

          1. nah, you use the rifle to butt stroke it. 40 watts isn’t even going to dry nail polish.

            1. Did…did both of you completely miss a Terminator joke?

              1. No…we made fun of the Terminator joke.

      2. Pop quiz, hotshot. What do you do?

      3. Its my two sigma rule.

        First, lets solve the problems of issue X that are likely to occur. We can worry about outliers and exceptions later.

    3. But…but…finite resources…peak SOMETHING!!

    4. That we do not live in lifeboats and shouldn’t base our ethics on that kind of situation is a good observation.

      But Heinlein does make a good point about having to deal with that before applying your ethics to space colonies and such since in those situations life is quite a bit like being in a lifeboat.

  8. First question – do we have an estimate of when, or if there will be a rescue? If that answer is “we have no idea” any fancy egalitarian answer will be utter drek – shoot anyone who tries to climb on board. Then you can be pretty sure at least fifty will have a high chance of surviving until rescue. On a shorter time scale, other options may be fielded.

  9. I wonder what RAH would think if he knew that SDI was just a money fire to scare the Soviets. I mean, I like the idea, but we spent an awful lot of money to “destabilize” an inherently unworkable politconomic state.

    1. SDI wasn’t intended as a money fire.

      The fact is that for many people, particularly the people who had experienced the shock of Pearl Harbor, the dark days of watching the Axis sweep across the Pacific and Europe, and the rise of communism, the notion of not having a defense against a strategic suprise nuclear attack was anathema.

      We assume now that MAD kept the peace because of the idealized game theory that justifies it. We forget that MAD has failed throughout history. It’s a Mexican standoff.

      Case in point, in order to ensure peace, Charlemagne destroyed the city walls and fortifications in much of the land he controlled. That way no local baron would dare to rebel, because when Charlemagne showed up, there would be no siege.

      Of course, that made Paris and northern europe ripe pickings for the Viking raiders.

      The problem with SDI wasn’t that it was a bad idea, it’s just that the technology to support it wasn’t there to make it work; you could manufacture nuclear weapons and launch vehicles more cheaply than the defensive weapons, meaning that the cost of defeating any defense was cheaper than building the defense.

      My guess is that ground based laser batteries will eventually make the ICBM obsolete. Plunk them around high value targets and allow them to play missile command on incoming RV’s.

      1. “My guess is that ground based laser batteries will eventually make the ICBM obsolete. Plunk them around high value targets and allow them to play missile command on incoming RV’s”

        This is likely true to some extent, the ICBM won’t in and of itself become extinct but it will become a second tier weapon only capable of being used after you somehow defeat the laser batteries or against technologically inferior opponents.

      2. I agree with all of that, but there is a contingent of GOP revisionists that contend that it was OK that SDI was technologically impossible because super-genius Reagan was actually trying to spend the USSR broke.

        If that’s true, it was a money fire. Or a particularly dangerous form of potlatch.

        1. A family member who shall remain nameless worked on SDI, and even briefed Reagan on what he was doing:

          1) Reagan was not stupid or slow.
          2) Reagan wanted the thing to work.
          3) Reagan was asking questions that showed a very heavy emotional investment in making it work.

          It might have been premature from a technological standpoint, but so were jet engines ~1935. That doesn’t mean they were a bad idea.

          1. That Reagan wanted them to work doesn’t mean that it wasn’t also a defense-industry rip-off. My only real objection is to the Reagan-worshipers trying to have it both ways.

            I sort of split the baby: I think we took some largely theoretical and far-off-down-the-road research and made it seem much more feasible than it could have ever been at the time. That they had science fiction writers on some of the SDI research groups should have been a tip-off.

            BTW: Have you watched The Americans on FX? They are operating on the revisionist premise that all the higher-ups knew SDI was just a scam to bankrupt the USSR.

            1. No. I don’t watch broadcast/cable TV anymore.

              If it ain’t on Hulu+ or Netflix, it may as well not exist, for me.

        2. SDI was negotiation leverage more than anything else. Create a high value chip to put on the table and your other chips remain safe while the Soviets could only bargain with what they already had. There was a lot of pressure from the Europeans, particularly Thatcher, on the Reagan administration to treat Gorby when he came to power as a shining star on his way to a Nobel, and it would have been absolutely dreadful to deny the Fabulous One his due by refusing him a deal. SDI was the ploy the administration came up with to deal with Thatcher’s soaked panties.

          That’s basically a summary of my old buddy and former State Dept. flunky Dr. David Myers description of the game in play.

          1. That’s interesting, because the family member who shall remain nameless came to precisely the opposite conclusion.

            It’s possible that State saw it as a bargaining chip, while the Pentagon saw it as a legitimate weapon system, and Reagan kept all the factions thinking that they were the guys he really supported.

            1. Exactly what I was thinking when I read your analysis after writing mine, same event interpreted by two different cultures with conflicting prerogatives.

      3. it’s just that the technology to support it wasn’t there to make it work

        I think that was pretty well understood at the time, but it misses the point. The Soviets were worried what would happen once we decided to work on it in earnest. They had seen us develop a nuclear bomb in a matter of years, and it wasn’t that long before that we had gone from nothing to a moon landing in just a decade. They were very worried about what would happen if we made the same commitment to SDI.

        1. The Soviets were sincerely concerned that it was a first strike enabler.

          It’s vital to understand that the guys running the Soviet Union, particularly in the latter Brezhnev era, weren’t the sociopaths of the Lenin and Stalin era. They were sociopathic, but at Chuck Schumer levels (7 on the Bundy scale in contrast to Beria who was probably a 27). But they had basically lived their entire lives in a bubble, with memories of the Great Patriotic War shaping their view of national security issues. They *knew* communism was a joke, no true believer could successfully navigate the byzantine politics without falling foul of some intrigue.

          They were worried that the U.S. would do to them what the Germans had. The Russians had been defeated in WW-I, and had almost been defeated in WW-II. In both cases they had been attacked by the west (in their minds).

          It wasn’t that they feared that it would be expensive to manufacture the ICBM’s to counter the threat. IIRC the Russians never had as many ICBM’s as people thought they did. It was that they feared that once SDI was up, it was only a matter of time before some U.S. president did to them what Hitler tried.

          1. Yeah, I see that above you compared it to jet engines ~1935, so I take back the “miss the point” comment. I agree that the Soviets were madly paranoid about a first strike from the west. And while SDI might have seemed far-fetched, and people often assume it wasn’t/isn’t possible, I think that’s a cavalier attitude. the Soviets had seen us do “the impossible” before, and in a very short time. There’s no telling how much progress we could have made on SDI after a decade or two of full commitment.

            1. They were, and are, quite paranoid about their command and control being susceptible to a first strike. Pershing II and ALCM (never mind stealth) cut their warning time from 30 minutes to about 5 IIRC. Less, if the first strike is an F-117 with a B83. Hence their development of stuff like Perimeter. Their society required much more concentration of nuclear authority within entities like the Politburo or Defense Council than the corresponding U.S. structure.

              So the theory from their end went:
              1) The U.S. launches a decapitating strike;
              2) Most of the USSR missiles sit there due to no one able to give the launch order, and
              3) What few strikes are managed get shot down by SDI.

              I think they had a point. Perimeter is still active, as far as I know, and has a bad habit of going into alert mode on trivial stimuli (Google Black Brant and Norway.)

              As to technical feasibility of SDI, I think it was a lot more feasible than the critics were saying, especially if it wouldn’t have to cope with a 10,000 warhead strike. My own suspicion of what we use now, are stealthy drones or F-22s easily deployable to the launch sites of places like North Korea, with missiles intended to shoot down the rockets in boost phase. This in addition to stuff like THAAD, SM-3 etc…

              Some of the programs from SDI sounded interesting, such as Excalibur and Casaba Howitzer. If we’re serious about NEO mining, we’ll need those.

      4. I think the First World War is another good example of MAD failing. All those mutual defense treaties were supposed to prevent Europe from destroying itself with wars. But it really just made it inevitable.

    2. If not for Reagan, the Soviet Union could have dragged on for decades. I have no doubt some in the US government would have been willing to subsidize it.

      1. Or our spending trillions of dollars countering everything they did made us the perfect foil to keep their populace from rebelling against their shitty living conditions and solving the problem of their government themselves.

        Nah, it was God-King Reagan and his magic hair.

      2. Bullshit.

        The Soviets were on their last legs in the late 70’s. The only place where communism could survive are in places like North Korea, where natural barriers prevent the population from escaping.

        With each passing year, the state got weaker. Glasnost wasn’t the product of an attempt to match US. weapons spending. It was the product of a collapse of consent by the proles to Soviet rule.

        1. Amazing hindsight. Almost no one in the West had any idea of that at the time.

          1. True, but that’s what you get when your only eyes on something are those of the incredibly incompetent CIA.

            I should point out that Virginia Heinlein was telling people in the 1950’s that the Russians were overreporting their economic stats. Her job in WW-II had been to analyze recon photos of transportation networks, and she calculated that Moscow’s transport would only support a population 1/3 of what was claimed, and that the stated population would be starving because no way enough food could be shipped into the city to feed them all.

            The evidence was there. And people did see it, they just didn’t dominate the media.

        2. Hahaha!! Apparently you never traveled behind the Iron Curtain. It would have lasted decades while the people starved.

          1. Wow!

            A moron who has no idea how the Iron Curtain fell, makes up shit!

            You sure schooled me, Big T!

    3. I should add that this isn’t entirely true.

      The path chosen by Reagan was largely a technological overreach, but the initial papers proposing SDI had numerous low cost solutions for Ballistic Missile defense.

      The problem with them was that they focused on the strategy and technology of fighting a nuclear war, not protecting American Cities.

      See the thing with Nukes is that they really do need to be accurate, hitting within less than 1/2 mile of a hardened target (like a nuke missile silo) to destroy it. We had dozens of easily build-able technologies available in the 80’s which would have been able to protect our missile bases.

      Protecting cities however is much harder because of the warhead goes off within 10 miles of it’s target you still destroy the city and kill most of the people within it.

      Unfortunately the President and Pentagon Brass decided to focus on the much harder technology of trying to defend cities, and ignored protecting the nuke weapons themselves.

  10. Another important question: how many rounds in the pistol?
    is the lifeboat truly filled to capacity?
    How likely is a person helping another into the lifeboat to fall in in the process?
    How many in the water are likely to have survivable core temperatures at this point?
    How likely is a grossly overloaded lifeboat to capsize? What is the yhreshold for grossly overloaded?

    What is the goal of the boat officer? Is it maximum number of survivors? Is it naximum capability of the surviving group? Is it to follow pre-published rules as closely as possible?

    1. Another important question: how many rounds in the pistol?

      Or more importantly, how many of these people’s firearms knowledge goes beyond what they learned from cowboy and spy movies?
      People who believe your pistol can shoot everything within 25 yards for two hours without reloading are unlikely to make trouble.

  11. Do I have enough bullets to shoot all the men? Are any of my family members present? Are the women hot Brazilian models or clones of the Hillary Clinton? Are there any retards or diabetics present?

    1. How many are morbidly obese? Are any of the women neonatal RN’s? Do I end up on an island with said 50 people? Would I have to face some sort of tribunal later on?

      1. Toss the obese overboard. They’ve got blubber to insulate them from the cold water.

    2. Are there any retards

      Doesn’t…doesn’t your own presence there answer your question? It would answer both if NutraSweet were there.

      1. Yeah, but I am the retard with the gun. Throwing Sugarfree overboard saves enough volume and weight to save at least three more chicks.

          1. Well I know who the fuck I am kicking off FIRST on my boat.

    3. Heinlein’s scenario is amateurish and sloppy. There is nothing there to indicate which direction the pistol should be pointing, at the other people, or given the Hillary Clinton clones scenario, if a bullet should be saved for one’s own head.

  12. I actually align much more with Heinlein than most libertarians.

    The NAP is a nice guideline but ultimately is a fools errand because it rewards the bastard who chooses to stop abiding by it first. It also fails to recognize the realities of the world we live in. It might be great if we lived in a libertarian society with a long cultural attachment to those philosophical ideals, but we don’t and there really are bad guys out there who wouldn’t hesitate to enslave or kill us if they got the chance.

    As far as the lifeboat scenario, I know Heinlein was smart enough to recognize that lifeboat scenarios make poor models for laws and cultural mores on a daily basis and what he was getting as was the penchant for more doctrinaire libertarians to be unable to jettison their ideals and come to a rational solution in such cases.

    As far as the proposed scenario, there are 2 important details left out, how far from land are you and who quickly are you likely to see a rescue (if at all).

    1. If land is reasonably close you jettison the supplies take on as many additional bodies as you can and start rowing for shore. If you are far out to sea but rescue is reasonably only hours away then you rotate people into and out of the boat in an attempt to save as many as possible for as long as possible (while also jettisoning supplies). If you are far out to sea and rescue is days or further away you kick out anyone over the age of 45 and all but a handful of the men under 45 (no more than 20% of the boat should be men) with the rest of the slots taken up by women and children and then you start rowing away from the wreckage to lessen the risk that those in the water will swamp the boat.

      1. The scenario didn’t say “this boat will repopulate the colony upon arrival”, what’s with the reproductive bias?

        1. You want to be the boat officer who lands on the deserted island with Bea Arthur, or with Jessica Hamby?

          1. Ah, the old zombie or vampire dilemma, eh?

            1. The zombie just gets a lobotomy courtesy of my shovel.
              With Jessica? (Particularly pornographic paragraph, deleted.) Yeah, baby!

      2. Bitches gotta swim. Equality and all that, plus they’re weaker.

    2. If and when an emergency comes, we can deal with it then. The annoying part is “oh yeah well where is your LIBERTARIANISM NOW that we’re in this lifeboat?”

      Well, we’re not in a lifeboat, so stop saying that.

      1. Indeed, the lifeboat scenario is not a valid critique of libertarianism.

        That said it can be a critique of specific libertarians who are unable to recognize that their moral systems have boundaries beyond which they do not work and therefore are not axiomatic truths

    3. The NAP is a nice guideline but ultimately is a fools errand because it rewards the bastard who chooses to stop abiding by it first.

      How so? It’s not pacifism. It just means you don’t initiate violence. It’s perfectly acceptable to react to violence with violence under the NAP.

      1. “How so? It’s not pacifism. It just means you don’t initiate violence. It’s perfectly acceptable to react to violence with violence under the NAP.”

        Because you don’t always survive the first strike with the capacity respond in kind (and often you don’t survive it at all)

        1. So what then? Kill anyone who you suspect might strike you?

          1. Maybe, need more information on the scenario.

            Basically Heinlein described himself through one of his voice of the author characters in “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”…

            “A rational anarchist believes that concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘society’ and ‘government’ have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame . . . as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else. But being rational, he knows that not all individuals hold his evaluations, so he tries to live perfectly in an imperfect world . . . aware that his effort will be less than perfect yet undismayed by self-knowledge of self-failure.”
            Mannie: “Hear, hear!” I said. “‘Less than perfect.’ What I’ve been aiming for all my life.”

            “You’ve achieved it,” said Wyoh. “Professor, your words sound good but there is something slippery about them. Too much power in the hands of individuals?surely you would not want . . well, H-missiles for example?to be controlled by one irresponsible person?”
            Prof: “My point is that one person is responsible. Always. If H-bombs exist?and they do?some man controls them. In terms of morals there is no such thing as a ‘state.’ Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts.”

            1. Basically YOU as an individual have to decide the best course of action using the information you have at hand and whatever moral rules you have formulated. The NAP is a good guideline but there are times you need to throw it away because the more moral course involved initiating violence. You also need to be ready to accept the consequences for your actions whether you are right or wrong

              1. Professor De La Paz was based on the anarchist Robert Le Fevre, who was Heinlein’s neighbor in Colorado Springs. Heinlein was emphatically not an anarchist, but presented Le Fevre’s flavor pretty well.

                Incidentally, it was LeFevre’s lectures that converted me to anarchism.

        2. “Avenge me! Aaaauuuggghhh!”

        3. Uhm, that’s why you group up – lone wanderers only exist in videogames.

      2. I’ve always considered the NAP to be a less suicidal strain of pacifism.

  13. First to last out of the boat:

    Incurably ill (me)
    The overweight
    In(or post)fertile women
    Prepubescent boys
    Men over 40

    Never out of the boat: Redheaded women of child-bearing age I am related to.

  14. First to last out of the boat:

    Incurably ill (me)
    The overweight
    In(or post)fertile women
    Prepubescent boys
    Men over 40

    Never out of the boat: Redheaded women of child-bearing age I am related to.

    1. or not related to.

      1. This is a Heinlein joke.

  15. First to last out of the boat:

    Incurably ill (me)
    The overweight (me)
    In(or post)fertile women
    Prepubescent boys
    Men over 40 (me)

    Never out of the boat: Redheaded women of child-bearing age I am related to.

    1. Fucking 3pm bullshit. Goddammit fuck.

      1. Redheaded women of child-bearing age I am related to.

        Eewwww….not your sister again?!?!

        1. Given that he had more than a couple of books which har quite positive views on incestuous relationships Heinlein would probably not agree with you

          1. Again….this is why there are only 8 libertarian women.

          2. Mother, underaged female clone, a number of descendants, and an adopted daughter.

            1. I’m assuming you’re referring to Lazarus Long here, but that is nothing compared to his mom and dad.

              Seriously HBO only wishes it could get away with as story as scandalous as “To Sail Beyond the Sunset” in which Maureen heartily encourages her husband to indoctrinate all of their daughters into the mysteries of sex once they are old enough (which seems to be around 13 years old) and they are all quite happy with the outcome until one of her daughters decides she wants dad to herself and kicks Maureen out of the house.

              1. Yup, only LL himself. Maureen getting gyno exams that she found erotic from her dad as a teenager was pretty squicky as well.

                I fully believe the theory that RAH had some sort of neurological event in 1970 which explains all the latter books.

                1. He did have an event.

                  He had a stroke that dramatically reduced the blood supply to one portion of his brain.

                  IIRC he lost his ability to do calculus. He’d see a problem and recognize “I know how to solve it!” and then when he sat down to actually solve it, total blank.

                  After some experimental surgery that restored the blood supply, he got his abilities back. But everything he wrote from that point forward was a plea for immortality.

                2. I was under the impression that he was pranking his editors.

                  Basically he had reached a point where they had to publish pretty much anything he wrote so he wanted to see just how outrageous he could get and still have them publish it.

                  That and he was certainly not advocating things like casual incest but rather challenging peoples taboos to make them think about them rather than just accepting them because that is the way they always were.

                3. “Yup, only LL himself. Maureen getting gyno exams that she found erotic from her dad as a teenager was pretty squicky as well.”

                  It was pretty clear throughout the book that she really wanted to sleep with her dad but he just wouldn’t give in to her (even though he wanted to) because it was “inappropriate”.

      2. Never comment during the Red Hour. How difficult is that to remember?

        1. Human time means nothing to the slowly dying.

    2. Incest is so good, you have to have it at least three times!

  16. What was Heinlein’s take on the ethical issues of breaking the warp barrier and turning into giant horny salamanders?

    1. Given the quantity of sex (and usually very taboo sex) in his books I’m guessing he’d be in favor of anything that made us horny

  17. those “who do not go into space will find, rather quickly, that they can neither control nor tax those who do.”

    Take my love, take my land
    Take me where I cannot stand
    I don’t care, I’m still free
    You can’t take the sky from me.

    1. Cancelling that show took monumental stupidity.

      1. Anything that reduces the number of Whedonites can’t be all bad.

    2. 2nd best sci fi theme song ever.

      The best is this…


      1. I love you.

  18. But we are all already on a lifeboat in space. It just holds 7 billion or so people right now, with the upper limit much higher.

    1. Time to start shootin’.

      Oh, wait.

      1. Only way to be sure.

  19. I should point out that under this scenario, any rotation in and out of the water will kill everyone.

    The winds will kill anyone with wet clothes. The wave action ensures that anyone in the water will rapidly be exhausted so that the cold kills them more quickly.

    The waves also ensure that you can’t overload the boat by trying to get everyone aboard and fuck the capacity ratings. Put 51 people on the boat and the chance of being swamped goes up.

    Basically, it’s a Koyabashi Maru scenario. You (the guy with the gun) are going to decide who lives and who dies, and anyone you leave in the water will die, and you must leave a bunch of people in the water.

    1. But what if I reprogram the simulation to make it possible to save everyone?

      I don’t believe in the no-win scenario, Lieutenant tarran.

      1. I thought your solution would be to brandish the gun, shrieking “Ass, Grass, or … Food: Nobody rides for free!”, and to save the hottest chicks.

        1. That’s exactly how I would reprogram it, dude. Come on, use your head. There would be 49 hot chicks and me in the boat, and the only people in the water would be Michael Bay and Brannon Braga.


          1. You’re in a boat with Michael Bay and Tulpa…

            You have just enough cordage to either strangle one of them or fish for food. There are sharks. A trolley car full of human clones is headed for an endangered whale. And a terrorist is going to blow up NY with a dirt bomb…

            Fuck, marry, kill?

            Where’s your non-aggression principle now, asshole? Your ideas don’t work in the real world, hippy.

            1. (shoots the General and tosses him overboard, pulls a hot chick out of the water to take his place)

              1. shoots the General and tosses him overboard

                Initiation of violence. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 bitcoins. Your whole worldview is a sham.

                Vote Obama ’16!

    2. First principles: people exist for themselves, not as a means to the ends of others. If have no right to force the people on the boat sacrifice themselves for the people in the water. If someone on the boat chooses to give up their seat, that’s there business, but I can’t make them do it.

  20. Its not a no-win scenario. The lucky 50 win, everyone else loses.

    1. 50 wins doesn’t look like no-win to me.

  21. I agree with Rand, though I probably come at it from a different angle (and seem to share Heinlein’s focus on pragmatism). Heinlein seems to have it completely backwards. Moral rules exist to serve us for the 99.9% of normal, every day interactions. A life boat scenario is, by definition, a rare and freak occurrence. Normal rules likely do not apply, as their utility is in more common situations. The opposite is true as well: what works best in a life boat scenario may be disastrous in other, far more prevalent and important situations.

    1. All of which is to say that, in that scenario, I’m unashamedly tossing out all the rules! Fuck you, I only care about me and mine! If they’re on the boat with me, I’ll probably do nothing. If someone does need to be ejected, I’m doing it on a case-by-case basis. Don’t care if you’re a man, woman or child. If you rank at the bottom of my evaluation, get the hell off my boat!

    2. Heinlein’s naval training made him very concerned with being prepared for life-or-death scenarios.

      In any hostile environment, be it combat, the sea, space, at a restaurant booth inhabited by my ex-wife, you have to be prepared to react to a life-threatening emergency correctly or you are likely to die. And the preparation has to be so thorough that the reaction is immediate and almost instinctual.

      Moreover, for a military officer, maintaining discipline (ie the habit of enthusiastic and immediate compliance with orders), is vital to survival. It’s also vital out at sea (watch the Deadliest Catch: the captains who don’t call the shots don’t do very well for very long).Heinlein wrote many treatises on what it meant to be an adult, and one theme that appears in all of them is that a person should have thought through their reaction for any conceivable crisis (or set of crises). Heinlein also felt that sometimes the adult thing to do is to die, as in the story about the woman who got her foot stuck in the train tracks and her husband and the hobo who futilely tried to save her, refusing to save themselves and fighting to free her right up to the moment the train killed them all.(cont)

      1. To Heinlein, it didn’t matter that you were a pacifist; you needed to have thought through what you would do if the ICBM’s went up, or your house caught on fire, or the home invasion crew kicked in your door, or a pregnant woman in last stages of labor shows up at your door. While he had standards as to what was right to do in those situations, I suspect that he wasn’t impatient with people who reasoned their way to different conclusions than him, than being pissed off at people who hadn’t considered what to do at all.

      2. In any hostile environment, be it combat, the sea, space, at a restaurant booth inhabited by my ex-wife


  22. Leave those in the water in the water, leave those in the boat in the boat, and shoot anyone dumb enough to attempt assault on my person.

    After everyone calms down we’ll vote on whether or not to force those in the boat to purchase health insurance.

    What the fuck was so hard about that?

    1. Yep. I didn’t put any of those people in the water. Why is it my responsibility to save them when it means condemning someone else?

      1. Exactly. I think Heinlein is under the misconception that doctrinaire libertarians believe that inaction can equal initiation of aggression. Maybe someone somewhere made that claim, but I’ve never heard it.

        1. Not exactly, he was reacting to the idea proposed by MANY libertarians, both randian and Misean that pragmatisim was never a goal and that libertarian philosophy could solve all problems.

          1. That sounds weasly to me. He’s arguing against what many libertarians say, but doesn’t name them or the specific principles they espouse that are violated with his thought experiment (and SDI, for that matter).

            I have a feeling he’s misconstruing people’s personal opinions and libertarian philosophy. It would be like saying that libertarian philosophy is wrong because some libertarians say they dislike deep dish pizza, and you think deep dish pizza is delicious.

    2. After everyone calms down we’ll vote on whether or not to force those in the boat to purchase health insurance.

      You could throw the chief justice in the water.

      1. Hey man, ease up. If we got 50 people out in the middle of the ocean, they’re gonna need health insurance if anyone gets sick.

  23. The weird thing to me is that if anything, libertarianism looks like a better fit to the hypothetical outer space colony than most ideologies. If even the air you breathe is a good that has to be provided by someone else, seems like libertarians are going to be the first to agree that you’re not entitled to it. Most adherents of other ideologies look like they’re going to spend their time demanding that Engineering Section create more air out of nothing.

  24. Heinlein had a point, but I think his argument was based on faulty reasoning — or perhaps the faulty application of engineering reasoning to a primarily ethical problem. The dealbreaker challenge he posed is in the great tradition of demanding that libertarianism satisfactorily address some extreme, outlier situation, or be dismissed as “impractical.” Another example: “Does the 2nd Amendment/Natural Right of Self-Defense mean you can have a nuclear bomb at home?” These extreme situations rarely occur. When they do, there effectively IS NO SOCIETY. Might makes right. Mob rules. With luck, the mighty and the mob rabble have already been thoroughly inculcated with civilized manners and customs, which might improve their behavior when they are between a rock and a hard place, but we are silly to count on that.

    No -ism, except perhaps despot-ism, can apply when society fails. So, while we might prefer an -ism that produces “better” consequences in extreme situations, we should CERTAINLY prefer the -ism that produces the most desirable results in a NORMAL situation, and can help society remain stable in the NORMAL mode across the broadest range of scenarios. So, e.g., I would not prefer socialism or communism over libertarianism because not only would they not outperform libertarianism in the lifeboat scenario, they would ultimately be unsustainable, pushing the society toward lifeboat scenarios, rather than away from them.

    (concluded in reply comment)

    1. (concluded from main-level comment)

      As someone said, you want a government that fits like a well-worn suit of clothes, not like a straitjacket. Libertarian approaches can reasonably satisfy that criterion. So can benevolent dictatorships (as long as the benevolent despot remains capable of wielding power and authority). I don’t think, however, that collectivist approaches can long cut the muster, if at all, because politically-influenced group decisions take so long to make and, when finally made, tend to be of the “one-size-fits-all” variety, in my experience. Such decisions can fit most of the people most of the time, but can very poorly fit a significant number of the people ALL of the time, leading to destabilizing unrest.

    2. “Heinlein had a point, but I think his argument was based on faulty reasoning’

      Nope, you are reading it wrong.

      He was not using the lifeboat scenario as a critique of libertarianism but rather a critique of **SOME LIBERTARIANS** especially those like Mises and his followers who believed that their “self evident” principals were valid at all times and in all places.

      Well clearly here we have a scenario in which they are not valid ergo there are times when niceties like the NAP need to be jettisoned for pragmatic purposes, Heinlein believed that the Strategic Defense Initiave was one of those times. If you disagreed that the threat of the Soviet Union and Nukes was up to that level he probably wouldn’t have had a problem with you, it would have been only if you thought libertarian philosophy offered the answers to all questions at all times.

      1. How does SDI go against NAP? Having weapons (especially those designed for defense) does not violate any libertarian principle.

        It’s a strawman argument.

        1. Given that the SDI was supposed to use specially designed nuclear bombs pumping out X-Ray lasers fired downward from orbit to kill ICBM’s in the boost phase… and it sucks if the backdrop is a city… I don’t think you can say that the use of SDI was NAP compatible…

          People on the ground were going to die. Anyone in orbit was probably going to die. One could argue that it would save millions of lives at maybe the cost of a few thousand, but that doesn’t make it NAP compatible.

          1. That’s tricky.

            First of all the mere possession and building of SDI doesn’t violate any principles (other than the stolen tax loot it’s built with). I can own a gun and have it ready on my hip to meet any threat against me.

            The second part, using the SDI and hurting “innocents” is where NAP gets cloudy. If I have said gun and someone tries to harm me in a crowd and I know that shooting them would most likely hurt innocent bystanders, would shooting them be a violation of the NAP? I really don’t know. Like I said, it’s tricky and I think libertarian philosophy could be used to justify either shooting or not.

        2. Nope, obviously you’ve never studied the strategy of nuclear wars.

          Any ability to harden your nukes makes them more resilient to a counterattack. If your nukes are resilient to a counterattack you can freely launch a first strike, at the end of the exchange your opponent will no longer have any nukes left while you will. You may now either proceed to force a peace at your terms on him or nuke his populace into extinction. Ergo there is no distinction between defensive and offensive weapons.

          That plus ultimately what was paying for those research dollars? Oh right taxes which are axiomatically theft to a libertarian (a position even Heinlein wouldn’t debate).

  25. It’s a triage scenario. Break out the black tags and move on. Anyone in the water is probably a yellow tag anyway. Sucks. If anyone wants to get out that’s fine. But nobody is getting in my boat that’s unlikely to survive anyway.

    1. It’s a triage scenario.

      Exactly. If the only guy who knows how to work the boat and the survival supplies is in the water, kick out granny and bring him in. Otherwise, shut the hatch and let hypothermia comfort the dying.

  26. The lifeboat scenario I would think depends on how long you’re going to be on your own. If it’s only a few hours until rescue arrives, then you allow anyone who’s willing to trade their lives for another to get off the boat and let someone else on, but you don’t force all the men off the boat to let women or children on. Granted everyone else may hate those who choose to stay rather than sacrifice themselves, but hey, who cares what they think, I’m the one with the gun bitches! It also helps that I don’t necessarily believe that the life of a woman or child is ipso-facto more valuable than the life of a man.

    If you’re going to have to go find a deserted island and survive indefinitely, Gilligan’s island style, then the calculus changes slightly. You need to make sure you have at least a few people with useful survival skills. You’d need people who can hunt, fish, make stuff, etc. That implies you would probably need at least some adult males (not that all women are useless in survival situations, just that in general men are more likely to have some skills, and children, particularly younger ones, would be pretty much useless). Although I still wouldn’t force any woman or child off the boat if they’re not willing to volunteer, even if Bear Grylls was one of the dudes treading water.

    At least that’s my 2 cents off the top of my head.

  27. Is it a Reason cruise? Are Lucy, Katherine, or Kerry on board?

  28. I would think that private property rights would be enough to solve this – its my boat, we don’t have enough air – the only issue is, did I contract with you to provide services (in which case I had better pony up some air) or not (in which case you had best seek other accomodations).

    Of course that’s just to resolve *legal* disputes – I would fully expect that IRL, in the immediate, someone’s going to fight and kill to stay alive – which would be perfectly fine under the whole ‘right to life’ thing. You have a right to life, not a right to expect someone to give up theirs for yours.

  29. You might be able to exceed the 50 person threshold if only small people are allowed inside.

    Who wants a boat load of midgets?

  30. Bleeding Heart Libertarians had a similar thread a few weeks back.

    The general question was when is coercion permissible, and the argument was that in a lifeboat situation, you have a duty to come to some sort of consensus on how to run the boat, assuming that your presence would be a burden to the other people in the boat. So they would have the right ot either coerce you into going along with the consensus, or throw you out the airlock if you refused.

    Of course, the problem with these analogies is that it’s used to justify all sorts of other uses of coercion in situations where the lifeboat analogy doesn’t really apply. For example, ObamaCare is not a lifeboat situation. It’s entirely possible for everyone to jump out of that boat and swim on his own. Similarly, if you change the lifeboat analogy a little to one where where your presence doesn’t impose a burden on others, then you would reach different conclusions about whether they can coerce you.

    These analogies areoften used to model free rider problems, but there is a difference between a free rider problem where the free rider doesn’t raise the cost to others or doesn’t benefit, versus one where the free rider is a significant burden and/or raises costs to others.
    You can make a case that if your in a lifeboat and you’re consuming limited resources, you have a duty to cooperate. You can’t really make that case if you’re swimming in the water and the people in the boat keep throwing food at you.

  31. The libertarian answer would focus on property rights to the boat.

    (1) If I am the boat captain because I own the boat, then I choose who and how many may stay based upon whatever arbitrary criteria I want. Maybe I choose women and children first; maybe I leave everyone behind; maybe I seek to maximize the people saved. Bottom line: my boat, my rules.

    (2) If I am the boat captain because I am agent on behalf of the owner, then I choose based upon the criteria articulated by the owner or, if none, my best estimation of the owner’s goal. As boat captain, I may have the authority to decide, but my authority is subject to whatever conditions the person who conferred that authority upon me may have set.

    (3) Even in emergency situations, there often is an implicit agreement among the parties about how the situation would be addressed. That agreement might not be specifically on who would be saved or what criteria would be applied, but it instead might be on who is in charge. For example, when passengers fly on an airline, a condition to carriage is their implicit agreement to follow the good faith, lawful instructions of the crew members, especially in emergency situations. Of course, you might renege on the agreement if the facts play out in a manner adverse to you, but that does not negate the existence of a valid voluntary basis for resolving the situation.

  32. A better reference to Rand’s thoughts in the Lexicon:

  33. What’s the difficulty? The boat is full. Move out. Signal for help.

    It would take some special consideration to call for some other action, such as offloading some to pick up others, or to take on more than the capacity.

    If the boat has life preservers or other things useful for floatation, you might toss some – but it is already stipulated that it is freezing cold. The life preservers would do little good. So, again, move out. It’s a “tough” but simple choice.

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