The Lifeboat Dilemma and Morality

After a shipwreck, you find yourself in a lifeboat that has enough room and provisions for no more than 50 people. However, there are currently 75 people in the boat including yourself—men, women, children, old and young, rich and poor, passengers and crew members. In addition, there are another 100 people treading water around the boat for a total of 175 people. But only 50 can fit in the lifeboat. And the people in the water will be overcome by hypothermia in less than 3 hours because the water temperature is less than 50 degrees, so you do not have a lot of time to make your decisions and get people in and out of the lifeboat.

Since the ship sank in a remote area, the chances of a rescue anytime soon are poor, especially with no other lifeboats available.

That is all the information you have about the situation. You do not know where you are, whether there will be a rescue by another boat, or even whether the lifeboat itself will safely reach land—if it reaches land. At this point, you do not even know if the lifeboat’s locator beacon system is in working order or what supplies are stowed on the lifeboat.

For whatever reasons, the people in the boat, as well as those in the water, have agreed that you should be the one to make any decisions necessary to maximize the chances of survival for the 50 people who can fit in the lifeboat. You cannot get out of the responsibility; they are all looking at you to make the decisions. Everyone will indeed drown if you do not choose only 50 people, so you must choose a total of 50 people including yourself. And you have to do it in a hurry with no real information about the rest of the passengers except the obvious facts of sex and likely age.

You could decide to give up your seat, but who would you put in your place?

Remember, you cannot get out of making the decision; you must choose a total of only 50 people, and you have to do it in a hurry and with the information you have or can get very quickly, so do not get sidetracked with issues such as “What if we are marooned on a desert island for the rest of our lives?”


Although I am exceedingly grateful that it is unlikely I will ever find myself in this situation responsible for making this kind of decision, these types of mental exercises about moral questions are always incredibly difficult for me to make. Given that I have a limited amount of information about any of the passengers and I am ultimately responsible for their life or death, I would have to use the Principles of Utilitarianism in order to make incredibly difficult decisions and a very short amount of time.  Utilitarianism dictates that we, as members of a social species, “should always try to produce the greatest possible benefit for everyone who will be affected by our action” (Rachels and Rachels).  Utilitarianism as described in the book seems to mirror the humanist principles of striving to do the most amount of good and the least amount of harm to as many people as possible.  By minimizing harm and maximizing good, we can ensure the benefit and survival of our species to the best of our ability, even if we only effect a very small piece of the world and society overall.

According to Utilitarianism, three things need to be taken into consideration. We need to be aware and fully informed as to the consequence of whatever actions we take.  In the Lifeboat Dilemma, the consequences of the decision we have to make is the life and death of all 175 people who survived the shipwreck.  Since only 50 people can fit on the single lifeboat, the consequences of the decision we make will result in the death of 125 people.  Secondly, Utilitarianism dictates that we consider the benefits and the harm that will result from our actions and decisions, and indicates that the choices we make should be to the greatest benefit and the least harm.  Lastly, the principle of utilitarianism dictates that everyone’s happiness is equal without special consideration.

In the lifeboat dilemma, the first decision I would have to make would be the fate of myself and my wife. I would give up my seat on the boat to ensure that she had a place on it.  I cannot bear the thought of anyone suffering or dying because of me, but that is doubly true when it comes to her.  I love her more than life itself, and saving her is far more important to me than saving myself.  I think it would be selfish for me to want to save both of us at the expense of someone else’s spouse, father, mother or child.

Given that decision, there are still 49 more seats to fill, and I would have to consider the survival potential for those in the boat past a few days of floating on the open water. Given that, I would choose one crewman from the boat, who would be able to row/steer/navigate the lifeboat.  I would also choose 4 strong (preferably single so that they don’t have a pre-inclined bias towards the welfare of their family above the group) guys to help protect the other survivors in the event of landfall or other unforeseen circumstances.  That leaves 44 seats, which I would give to as many children and their mothers as possible.  Children, I feel, are the right choice because they haven’t had a chance to experience life yet.  While the rest of us may be young, at least we’ve had a chance, and we made the choice to be on the boat that sank.  The kids didn’t have a choice.



Rachels, James and Stuart Rachels. Problems from Philosophy, Third Edition.  McGraw Hill, 2012.

2 thoughts on “The Lifeboat Dilemma and Morality

  1. Although I passionately hate this exercise, the fact is that it’s not so much an exercise in utilitarianism as it is in reductionism (although I think it could be fairly argued that applied utilitarianism is by necessity reductionist.)

    If you’ve been selected to be the boss by those who willingly subordinate themselves to you (in real life it rarely works that way,) then all decisions made, in order to be “good” decisions, must be maximally reductionist and minimally emotional. I’m sure you agree that this is sound logic. And also that it’s much easier said than done. Nevertheless, a “good boss” is someone who not only makes the most logical and/or wisest decision but is also one who is I afraid to make those decisions, knowing that some or even all of the effected people won’t like that decision. And this particular exercise is a Kobiyashi Maru because you just don’t have the information. Because of that, what this is now is a device for causing unnecessary stress. If you have three hours then you can gather information, minimal though it may be. If you don’t have sufficient time to gather information then you can’t effectively guess what you would actually do in this situation.


    1. Agreed. It was a difficult exercise, with the time limit especially. To try to do the most good and give those selected the best possible chance at survival adds another layer, which is one reason I could not justify saving myself.


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