Rothbard’s analysis has exerted a defining influence on how many libertarians approach ‘moral dilemma’ constructs that are used as hypothetical debating points. He wrote:
“[A] lifeboat situation is hardly a valid test of a theory of rights, or of any moral theory whatsoever. Problems of a moral theory in such an extreme situation do not invalidate a theory for normal situations. In any sphere of moral theory, we are trying to frame an ethic for man, based on his nature and the nature of the world — and this precisely means for normal nature, for the way life usually is, and not for rare and abnormal situations. It is a wise maxim of the law, for precisely this reason, that ‘hard cases make bad law’. We are trying to frame an ethic for the way men generally live in the world; we are not, after all, interested in framing an ethic that focuses on situations that are rare, extreme, and not generally encountered.”
Interestingly, this is an issue upon which the oft-conflicting Rothbard and Ayn Rand are in accord. The chapter entitled “The Ethics of Emergencies” in Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness described those who argued ethical positions from emergency situations. Rand commented, “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 only carry 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.”
It is not reasonable to judge systems by a standard of perfection. The only reasonable method is to examine how well a political or moral system works in the real world and, then, to contrast its performance with that of competitors. And by that standard, natural rights does very well indeed.