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.


Belief, Knowledge and Surviving Death

As we delve into the concepts of the soul, of death and the potential of an afterlife, I am reminded of how magnificent a thing the human brain/mind is, and how – although science has made huge strides in understanding the brain – we still have so much further to go to obtain a working understanding of its deeper complexities.

This week we are asked whether or not there is proof of life after death.  While certain things such as Near Death Experiences (Rachels and Rachels 41) can seem to provide convincing anecdotes about the human potential of surviving death, I have to say that they do not constitute proof – at least not in the empirical sense.  Some doctors have attempted to test Near Death Experiences to determine their veracity, and to try to come to some conclusion as to what happens after we die.  Nevertheless, all of these studies up to this point.  I think humanity’s best bet at finding out what happens during a claimed NDE lies not with the mystical or supernatural realms, but with the sciences.

One of the problems with NDEs is that they are as varied as the people who claim to have them.  They are not universal, and everyone who claims to have a NDE describes their experience in a varied and unique way.  People claim to see visions of religious figures but this in itself is suspect for a very simple reason.  Those who identify with Christian ideologies and cultures see Jesus, or similar figures.  Muslims see Mohammed, or similar figures from Islamic theology.  Hindus see one of the various gods from Hindu culture.  In other words, a Christian who has a Near Death Experience has never reported seeing Krisna or Mohammed.  Likewise, a Muslim or Hindu relating an experience does not see Jesus or Buddha.  These simple realities seem to point to the fact that Near Death Experiences are products of our minds, our biases and our cultures – not a genuine out of body experience that happens near death – or even when we feel that we are near death, whether or not we are (Choi).

Furthermore, several cases of famous near death experiences, such as the story behind The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven have come out later and admitted to making the whole thing up, prompted by the urging of a parent or family member (Hallowell).  Additionally, there is a reward set up by the James Randi foundation, offering a million dollars to anyone who can demonstrably prove a supernatural power or experience.   Needless to say, no one has been able to successfully claim that prize (Denman).

But one only has to consider the nature of Near Death Experiences to find problems lingering in their credibility.  Almost all people dream throughout their lives.  Remembering those dreams, and accurately relating them to others after they are over, however, becomes problematic.  Remembering them accurately without embellishment is impossible to determine, and with no possible academic method for verification or testing these stories are nothing more than personal anecdotes and cannot, therefore, be considered proof in any sense of the word.  They are stories – stories that may in fact have a great impact on the person relating them and those around them, but stories nonetheless.

This makes life after death an impossible question to answer, as no one that we know of has survived death to relate what happens.  They are, after all, dead.  Belief in the afterlife, then, becomes a matter of personal opinion.  It can be combined with a strongly and deeply held religious belief, as is the case with Christianity or Islam.  These beliefs can be engrained within the cultural milieu of the people that hold them, but beliefs – regardless of how deeply they are held – are still just beliefs.  Appealing to the number of people that hold them then becomes little more than the appeal to popularity – a logical fallacy.  Billions of people can believe something but those beliefs have absolutely no bearing on whether or not it is actually true – and with no way to test, verify or study the reality of the afterlife, this question has no possible answer.  This is not to say that answers may never be found as our understanding of our world, our place in it and our potential continues to evolve.  But for now, the belief in the afterlife is simply a belief.  It’s a belief held by many, but it is still a belief, and has no proof with which to increase or expand its basis in overall truth.  Nevertheless, it gives millions of people hope.  The idea of death is scary, and the belief that it is not the end of existence is a pleasant one.   For many it is absolutely essential.  Therefore, I think a belief in the afterlife is a personal one, whether or not any proof is possible.  The hope, in and of itself, is enough for those who hold a belief in a life after this one, regardless of what form that life may take.



Choi, Charles Q.  “Peace of Mind: Near Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations” Scientific American.  September 12, 2011.

Denman, Chip and Rick Adams.  “JREF Status” James Randi Educational Foundation.  September 1, 2015.

Hallowell, Billy.  “Boy Whose ‘Heaven is for Real’ Story Captivated the World Speaks Out After a Different Kid Recanted His Story About Meeting Jesus and Seeing Heaven.”  The Blaze. January 17, 2015.

Rachels, James and Stuart Rachels.  Problems from Philosophy 3rd Edition.  McGraw Hill, 2012.

Socrates and the Crito

Socrates and the Crito

While Socrates left behind no work of his own and all that we know of him is via Plato, he is known as one of the most famous early philosophers of all time.  Socrates’ life, however, came to a tragic end as he was sentenced to death by the Athenian government for both corrupting Athenian youth as well as impiety towards the gods of Athens. (Rachels and Rachels, 1)  While Socrates could have easily escaped his fate, he chose to remain in Athens and accept his fate.  Socrates uses 3 different arguments in his Crito to justify staying in Athens and facing his own execution, all of which I think present flaws that are explored within this module’s reading.  The flaws in these arguments are surprising, given what an astute philosopher Socrates was – at least in the way that he is portrayed by Plato, since Socrates left no work of his own.

The first argument that Socrates put forth was the argument against the destruction of the state, in which he proposed that the state of Athens could not exist if its laws were not followed by its people.  As the text points out, a single act of disobedience would not cause the collapse of the state.  What would destroy the state of Athens (or any state, practically) is a habitual and constant disregard for the law, which Socrates may have intended to imply by inserting himself and his possible act of disobedience into a broader context and subsequent meaning (Rachels and Rachels 5).   The problem I see with the proposed strengthened argument about habitual rather than rare disobedience is where the line of disobedience would then be drawn, as it seems overly subjective.  If all citizens who faced potential disobedience of an Athenian law saw themselves as the rare exception, disobedience would then become habitual making the state collapse as a result.  While an argument could be made to justify Socrates’ exception as an extreme case, the same argument could be applied to others, thereby triggering habitual disobedience and causing the state of Athens to collapse as a result.

Socrates’ second argument for facing his legal execution was to compare the state to person’s parents, implying that obedience was thereby required.  This I view as his weakest argument for accepting his fate and drinking the hemlock.  In some societies, obeying one’s parents is a sign of respect where obedience can be obligatory, but it is hardly universal and I think the analogy fails on several points.  As children, it may be appropriate to show respect and deference to our parents, but we are not bound to that ideology as we mature and reach adulthood.  Furthermore, we should not obey our parents blindly if they ask us to do something we oppose for personal, moral, legal or even religious reasons.  My parents and I see the world very differently now that I am an adult, and I do not need to obey them if doing so would go against my own conscience.  For example, I am on the opposite side of my parents politically, so I would have no obligation to vote for a political candidate just because they told me to if doing so would violate my own principles and ideals as an adult.

Socrates’ final argument was the argument from the social contract, which I found to be the strongest, although I can still find flaws in its practical application as well.  As a society living among others that we all depend upon for survival and mutual good, we do as individuals agree to certain things to ensure that society’s survival.  Although the contract is largely unspoken, we enjoy certain privileges and freedoms when we, as a social species, adhere to it.  In the modern world we have a sense of cooperation for the greater good.  We pay takes to ensure that we have resources available to help us if and when we need them.  Because of that, we are protected and granted freedom to live our lives as we choose within the confines of the law that freedom requires.  While it is true that we are, in many ways, “born” into this system and we do not choose it of our own volition, we do enjoy the benefits of being a part of it.  Choosing to act against it can have expense consequences both individually and at a societal level.  Personally it can cost us our freedom if we choose to break the law and are incarcerated.  Socrates went on to say that to break the social contract, one must also give up the benefits that would result from keeping it (Ibid).  Under the circumstances that Socrates found himself under, however, I would think that the Athenian state has already broken its side of the contract by sentencing him to death, thereby depriving him of the benefit of being held by the social contract and negating the need for him to uphold his side of it.  There is also nothing under the social contract argument that prevents someone like Socrates from moving from one society to another – by running away, the Athenian society would lose nothing, as exile was often an option in lieu of death, but another city-state would gain a valuable asset in Socrates who could then continue his work.




Rachels, James and Stuart Rachels.  Problems from Philosophy, third edition.  McGraw-Hill, 2012.