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  • Reverend James Squire

Ethics in a lifeboat


Photo by Tim King


A friend gave me a book, The Stranger in the Lifeboat, by Mitch Albom for Christmas that is on the best seller list. The premise of the book is what would it be like to have the Lord God Almighty with you as a stranger on a lifeboat after your ship goes down. Reading the book reminded me of where a good many ethics courses start including my own. It is with a variation of the following example found in a book by Bishop James Pike called You and the New Morality.


Four men were on a raft in shark infested waters off a South Sea Island. In a rough squall, Joe is washed overboard. Walt stripped down, preparing immediately to jump in and try to save Joe. Jim and Milt struggled to restrain him. They had no less affection for Joe, but a quick exchange of words expressed their rapid but sincerely weighted decision that the odds were more than fifty percent that with the fury of the waves and the danger of the sharks, neither Joe nor his well-meaning life saver would emerge alive. But Walt felt there was a chance, tore himself free from his more prudent companions, and jumped in (even though he had a moment of guilty recollection of his wife and four small children and his inadequate insurance). What was the more moral decision, Walt’s or that of Jim and Milt?


This example or a variation is used to demonstrate the cluster of issues that go into making an ethical decision. Join me now in the classroom to identify issues that are pertinent to making your decision. As we make our way through the course the students will learn the different ways of approaching this life and death decision. Join our class now. What would you do and why? Then continue your reading of this blog. We will see how many issues you pick up on as a beginning student of ethics before reading further.


You will readily see that the decision is not clearly right or wrong. Both sides of the issue can be argued. You don’t really have a good clear choice which defines ethics as the discipline that deals with choiceless choices or choices you would rather not have to make. The statements below will reference choices that you make based on having time or not having time to decide.


You don’t have time on your side as you must quickly decide since sharks are in the water. Some decisions in ethics present you with no time or a good amount of time to make the decision.


A key player here is context. Context shapes decisions! For example, would you dive into the water to save a member of your family? Would you dive into the water to save a terrorist who you know has killed many people? Note how your relationship with the person in the water determines your decision. That is why you cannot study ethics without studying the nature and dynamics of relationships in psychology. Just as we have social psychology, we must also have social ethics. Is Walt a great swimmer? How close are the sharks to the life raft?


“Walt felt there was a chance.” Ethics also involves risk. Are you risk averse or high-risk tolerant? Think of other areas of your life where you were willing to take a risk and those areas where you were not willing to take a chance. (A study at Duke University discovered that there is a risk-taking gene).


Have you considered a lateral thinking solution where you look around the boat for an alternate way than going into the water such as extending an oar to Walt?


Let’s say that Jim and Milt were holding Joe back thinking that they weren’t making a decision. Not to decide to do something is just as much a decision as letting Walt go in. When have you faced a choiceless choice and decided not to do anything do you think that freed you from accountability? It doesn’t. Do you ever think of percentages in decisions? For example, a person with cancer may choose a treatment where their choice is related to benefit of survival. If you receive a certain kind of chemotherapy, you may have a longer life but the chemotherapy may make you miserable where another kind of chemotherapy will provide less chance of cure but be easier for you to endure.


How should Walt’s family be taken into consideration? The example indicates “four small children and inadequate life insurance.”


You may have a precedent to consider. Have you ever been in this kind of situation before?


Would you raise the question in your mind of what would my father do (or any other significant person in your life)? Is this situation such as I wonder what my mom would do? In other words, would you look to different people depending on the issue. If it is about money, you could ask a financial person. If it is a medical situation, you may choose a friend who is a nurse or doctor.


Have you made decisions where you had to act on your second nature or instincts?


What do you identify as your core values? Be honest with yourself. For example, if you’ are altruistic, you would be likely to support Walt going into the water? If your value is self-first, you will not. For example, would Donald Trump jump in? I don’t think so. Values are like a steering wheel that controls the direction of your choice. Values are sometimes referred to as what you would die for or what is of utmost importance to you.


What if it was four women on the boat? How would that change things?


Think about what additional information you would need to have to make hard decision easier?


Does your decision have long term or short-term consequences? Does it contain mercy or justice? Does it benefit just you or others (autonomy) or others (beneficence)?


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