Jim Ryan at Philosoblog proposes two hypotheticals, in the form of phone calls. This is the first:
Joe: “Hello? Oh, Fred, hi. Yes, the mailman came, and it looked like he dropped mail at your house. Oh, by the way, your son, Bobby, is bleeding to death on your front lawn, after he severed his foot under the lawnmower. Actually, I think he’s dead…. What? No, I didn’t. I was busy with this crossword puzzle. I know we’re next-door neighbors and all, but I have no obligation to help other people. I’m free to live on my own and be selfish as long as I don’t hurt anybody…. Listen, Fred, you’re obviously too upset to think clearly about this, so I’m hanging up now. Bye.”
This is the second:
Joe: “No, he’s still alive, barely.”
Fred: “I have remote control of my burglar alarm next door. If I press the button, the alarm will sound. It is very, very loud and will fill your house with mind-numbing noise. I suggest that you call an ambulance for my son and administer simple first aid, or I will do this.”
According to Jim, the libertarian thinks Joe did nothing wrong in Hypo 1, but Fred did something wrong in Hypo 2. This is obviously absurd, therefore libertarianism is false.
Hypo 1 suggests that it is wrong to refuse to help someone in an emergency at little or no cost to oneself. I agree; so does every libertarian of my acquaintance. (So does Ayn Rand, for that matter; in “The Ethics of Emergencies” she calls people like Joe who would refuse to help “psychopaths.”) But the question is whether it ought to be against the law. Jim concedes in his comments on this article that enforcing Samaritanism by law is a bad idea. We agree, both morally and legally. Nothing here causes libertarians any difficulty.
Hypo 2 suggests that it is wrong to “force” someone to be a Samaritan. Joe has violated no one’s rights, even though he sits idly by as little Bobby bleeds to death; but Fred has violated Joe’s by setting off the burglar alarm.
And I guess he has, in the same sense that my neighbor violates my rights when he throws a loud party next door. Big deal. You cope with the party by asking the neighbors to turn the music down, first politely, then rudely; perhaps in a dire extremity you call the cops. But you don’t file a lawsuit, and the courts in a libertarian regime would dismiss it as frivolous if you did. People infringe on each other in these minor ways all the time, and it is a characteristic of anti-libertarians to legislate such matters, the way New York is doing with cigarette smoke. Libertarians believe these minor infringements can be negotiated amicably. In this sense they resemble ordinary sensible people.
If the alarm had gone off because Fred’s house was being burgled, would “libertarian” Joe squawk about his rights being violated? Not if he’s like any libertarian I know.
Jim says Fred did nothing wrong in Hypo 2, and I agree again. He committed a tort to which no moral opprobrium attaches. A more serious example: If a million children are vaccinated for measles, one can be expected to die from an unforeseen allergic reaction. The death is a tort, yet there was nothing immoral about vaccinating the child.
It is a common misconception that illegal acts are, or ought to be, a subset of immoral acts. In fact many acts that are properly illegal, like underage driving, are not immoral (provided you’re an adequate driver); and many acts that are immoral, like watching little Bobby bleed to death, are properly legal. Libertarianism is a legal position, and to dissect it we need to concentrate more on law and less on morality.