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Meeting 18: Who Survives on the Lifeboat?

  • Sep 22, 2013 · 5:00 PM
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Philosophy PhD candidate Henry Shevlin will present on the following topic:


Suppose you find yourself in a situation in which killing an innocent person is the only way to prevent many innocent people from dying. What’s the right thing to do? This question arose in The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens (1884), a famous English law case involving four men stranded in a lifeboat without food or water." (The above is from philosopher Michael Sandel's discussion of the dilemma in his Harvard course on Justice, )

The question is whether the sailors were justified in killing and eating one person in the group to save the others. In their defense, the person sacrificed was ill and the other sailors were starving, near death, and had been stranded in the lifeboat for many days, with no reasonable expectation of rescue. Yet, improbably, the surviving sailors were indeed rescued, then tried and given a death sentence by the court, which was afterwards commuted to six months in prison.

What would you have done, in their place? What principle of justice, fairness, utility, desert, duty or any other consideration would help you decide? Rather than answering the question merely in the abstract, imagine that you are in the lifeboat and you don't know if you'll be the person sacrificed. How does your choice reflect on your character? Assume that there's no question of swimming to safety, as you are starving and would drown in the cold, rough, shark-infested seas before you swam the hundreds of miles to shore.

Secondly, if the group in the lifeboat decides to sacrifice one person to feed the others, how could you choose? Is it fairer to choose randomly, or is it fairer to choose by considering the characteristics of a person, such as their age, the kind of life they have led, or the degree to which others depend on them? Could you live with yourself, after deciding who would die? Unlike the actual legal case, assume everyone on your lifeboat is equally healthy, and that the boat is populated by 10 people of varying ages, sizes and genders, all of whom know one another well. It's up to your group to determine whether any of the following individual differences provide a reasonable basis for deciding which person to sacrifice, or whether all are irrelevant. Your boat holds an elderly embezzler, a Pulitzer winning writer, a nun living in a monastery, a young and violent criminal, a famous professional athlete, a cancer researcher, a homeless man, a retired philanthropist, a 7-year old child and her mother.


The two short readings (a short article by Judith Jarvis Thomson called "Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem" and a 1-page overview called "How the Trolley Problem Works") can be found at More -> Files.


Once you finish the readings, go and take the short questionnaire.  It will give you perspective about your own intuitions about "the trolley problem."



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  • William C.

    I recall a recent incident on the subway in which a train was delayed during rush hour for about a half hour because someone at the MTA wanted to save the lives of two cute little kittens. He did recieve some criticism from a Republican politican. I am quite certain that the subway would not be delayed if there were two cute little subway rats. I do think that personal emotions certainly complicate decisions of this nature.

    September 24, 2013

  • Randall

    However, in case B let's say that I was not just a random bystander, but the responsible official in the control room at the MTA. Here, it seems to me that I'd be much more likely to order that the train not hit the crowd, despite my strong personal desire to save the girl. Why does my intuition tell me this? I believe it's because a second moral system is being called upon: not utilitarian calculus (or personal preference and emotion) but my sense of Duty, the obligations I agreed to uphold when becoming a public servant, namely to privilege the public's interests over my own. Ethics is multi-faceted, including these triage-type situations, calling upon a variety of valid approaches to reach the right moral decision.

    September 23, 2013

  • Randall

    I agree with Divya: it was a great conversation, but unsettling; particularly confronting the astonishing difference of moral instincts between (who I presume are otherwise normal, decent) people. One final adjustment to the trolley hypothetical occurred to me on the walk home: suppose in case A that I was a bystander facing a switch that would divert the train away from four innocent strangers and onto a side rail where, say, my girlfriend was tied to the tracks by a mustache-twirling Old Timey villain. What I probably *would* due, because of my personal attachment to the girl, would be to let the trolley hit the strangers and save the person I'm attached to. What my objective utilitarian judgment would reason that I probably "should* do, however, is flip the switch to save the many. (In a situation where I don't know any of the people on either track, this would seem to be the obvious moral decision among the choices at hand, including Maureen's option of doing nothing.)

    September 23, 2013

  • Divya

    Like all good discussions, this one left me a bit unsettled. I guess I do not have a stomach for the numbers game. Anyway, here's a quote from David Hume that is good to contemplate. "'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger."

    September 23, 2013

  • Merle R.

    I enjoyed the group and the discussions thoroughly. Rather than saying "good to see you", implying we met before, I can say "it was great meeting all of you and look forward to our next meeting"

    September 22, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Really good philosophy is priceless

    August 30, 2013

  • Siraaj K.

    Also, I just realized that I'm already booked for Sept 22nd :(

    August 21, 2013

  • Siraaj K.

    1st reaction, before reading the materials:

    Logically, this is a knapsack problem - order a set of people by their costs and values. We first need to decide how to formulate this "cost" and "value" for each person.

    We can imagine that, for each person, value can be a sum of their attributes, where each attribute is assigned a numerical value. While cost can be their dietary requirements and cost of killing them (e.g. what Dyutiman said).

    Value scale can begin with a simple +1/-1 and adjusted later to larger increments for certain attributes deemed more impactful than others.

    Now the attributes - do the above 2-3 word descriptions really provide us with sufficient data to assign any attributes to these people?

    Were the words to describe these people chosen with an intent to influence the sentiments? Very likely.

    Morally, one can validly claim that murder is not acceptable under any circumstance. Rendering the problem unsolvable logically -- we have to wait for volunteers.

    August 21, 2013

  • Dyutiman D.

    I'd think it would be very difficult to subdue the young violent criminal.

    July 28, 2013

  • Randall

    I think we all know it's going to be Justine in that lifeboat, with her mad lawyering skills. But it should be a good conversation anyway!

    June 22, 2013

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