Suppose a bushfire (wildfire) is approaching someone's home. They have a strong connection to their home but are unable to defend it. They would be utterly devastated if it burnt down. Is it ethical to force them to leave?


4 Answers 4


If only the one person's interests are involved then respect for individual autonomy suggests that there is no ethical justification for overrriding that person's conception of their interests in favour of what the state takes to be its better judgement. This is essentially John Stuart Mill's liberty principle (On Liberty, 1859): state or other public interference with what a person is doing or proposes to do is justified only if it causes or is likely to cause harm to others. On these grounds forced evacuation is not justified in the situation just described. The person should not be forced to leave.

In contrast, if there is actual or probable harm to others in allowing the person to stay put, then the state is justified as guardian of the public interest in forcibly evacuating. X may have the right to stay put if no-one else's interests are thereby harmed or put at risk. But if, for instance, X's refusal to evacuate means that others, who want to evacuate cannot do so, or if the unevacuated property poses safety risks to others, then the harm condition in the liberty principle comes into operation and it is ethical to evacuate X forcibly if X cannot be persuaded to move out voluntarily.

You are new to the site, and I am glad to welcome you to it. I hope you won't mind my saying that your question is abstract in a way that means it can't really be answered without adding detail and context. This is what I have done in venturing a response. Just a pointer for future questions.

  • Why would it be ethical to remove someone forcibly just because it would pose difficulty for a rescue operation when you can easily relay an ultimatum like "if you choose stay you agree to forfeit any right to help by X"? At the end of the day a rescue person does something risky under their own will so they are at harm only if they choose to be.
    – Cell
    Jan 2, 2020 at 2:07
  • Hello. Cell: I didn't mean to suggest that forcible evacuation would be justified merely because a person's staying put would 'pose difficulty for a rescue operation'. The harm to others condition in the liberty principle is more stringent than that.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jan 2, 2020 at 9:35

It's unlikely that there is a single, simple moral answer to this question, but it's worth considering that this isn't merely about the rights and privileges of the homeowner in question. Police and fire fighters have an ethical duty to protect citizens and their property, and a person who refuses to obey an evacuation order causes some potentially serious problems:

  • What if firefighters need to set a backfire that destroys that home, or drop potentially hazardous fire retardant chemicals on it, in order to protect the larger community? Do they just commit themselves to killing the homeowner?
  • If the homeowner panics and tries to escape later, how many police officers might have to put themselves at risk trying to save him?
  • If the worst happens, who ends up with the unpleasant task of locating and recovering the homeowner's remains?

No man is an island, and no question of ethics can ever be decided from within a narrowly individualistic focus. Whatever personal devastation a homeowner might feel about losing their home must be weighed against the potential problems their refusal poses to the community as a whole, and to the people tasked with protecting it.


It would depend on the situation. If that home owner refuses to evacuate, does that create legal or ethical obligations for others to possibly risk their lives to protect him? If yes, and such a situation is foreseeable, it is ethical to remove them.

If for example a firefighter has the right to let him burn... then we have to decide is it ethical to override someone’s free will if we decide that he’s making an irrational decision.

As an example, the homeowner has a strong connection to their home, but of course not to their neighbours home. So he might have convinced his neighbour to evacuate, assuming that is the rational decision, but then made the irrational decision himself to stay.


It depends on your "ethical" axioms. After you put axiomatic system that is coherent you will get your answer pretty easily. Here, in your question it seems that you expect that logical deduction will solve some feelings that are in contradiciton with each other. Thats not going to happen.

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