Join 3,514 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Lifeboat ethics
January 7, 2006 5:09 PM   Subscribe

Lifeboat ethics. "Terror had assumed the throne of reason, and passion had become judgment." After the ship William Brown sank on a voyage from England to America in 1841, its longboat with 41 passengers and crew aboard leaked badly and began sinking. To stay afloat, the first mate ordered sailors to throw men and women overboard: those remaining were saved and eventually rescued. One sailor who followed orders, Alexander Holmes, was convicted of manslaughter after he returned to Philadelphia in 1842. This true story inspired a famous fictional case, many legal opinions, two movies, and a recent book. What would you have done in the same life-or-death situation?
posted by cenoxo (57 comments total)

 
What would I have done? Guess that depends if I'm on the list to be thrown off or not.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 5:16 PM on January 7, 2006


Now picture Planet Earth as the lifeboat.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:20 PM on January 7, 2006


Where is that longboat these days?
posted by Mr T at 5:37 PM on January 7, 2006


Anyone see The Office Thursday night?
posted by bardic at 5:38 PM on January 7, 2006


What would you have done in the same life-or-death situation?

Throw the Republicans overboard. Then the Democrats.

Or:

Ask for payoffs to NOT be thrown overboard, then throw the people who gave the most money overboard 1st. Comments asking 'so how does your lobbying money help you now?' for dramatic flair.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:38 PM on January 7, 2006


It would take me less than an hour to begin eating my fellow passengers.

I mean, when else are you going to have that sort of opportunity.
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:45 PM on January 7, 2006


The crew stays and they throw over the male and some other passengers? A life behind bars seems just.
posted by caddis at 5:53 PM on January 7, 2006


I'm guessing the water would be too cold, and the time until rescue too long, but perhaps rotate people - 30 minutes in the water, 30 minutes in the boat. If you're on the boat, warm up by helping bail water. Everyone was probably already soaking wet anyway.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:57 PM on January 7, 2006


Ooh, if everyone was soaking wet, then many layers of clothes weigh an awful lot. Relocate the lifeboat to waters closer to the tropics, and order everyone's clothes overboard.
:)
posted by -harlequin- at 5:59 PM on January 7, 2006


The crew and men go overboard. The hotties get to stay with Captain Horsewithnoname.
posted by horsewithnoname at 6:04 PM on January 7, 2006


The Holmes case is a pretty standard dilemma brought up in intro to ethics classes. I've taught it in section as a TA in two different courses. I didn't realize that there were any movies about the incident. I'll netflix them and see if they're worth recommending to students. Thanks!
posted by painquale at 6:04 PM on January 7, 2006


I just read the fictional case - fascinating. Great post, cenoxo.
posted by matthewr at 6:06 PM on January 7, 2006


Ask for payoffs to NOT be thrown overboard, then throw the people who gave the most money overboard 1st. Comments asking 'so how does your lobbying money help you now?' for dramatic flair.

I think it's amusing that you say that rough ashlar because Holmes was charged with the manslaughter of Francis Askin, who reportedly offered Holmes 'five sovereigns' to not be thrown overboard.

What would I have done? I'd like to think I'd handle the situation a bit more like Charles Conlin.

Coming to Charles Conlin, the man exclaimed: 'Holmes, dear, sure you won't put me out?' 'Yes, Charley,' said Holmes, 'you must go, too.' And so he was thrown over.
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 6:12 PM on January 7, 2006


Excellent post. I'm with caddis; if some people needed to go overboard to save the rest, some contingent of the crew should've been among them, or lots should've been drawn (the first link calls lots the 'rule of the sea'). Indiscriminate and seemingly random tossing doesn't cut it; Holmes doesn't even start with the sick. A 14 year old boy is tossed, though survives. Ethical action takes a little time and thought to calculate, and this seems to be far more spontaneous and without standard.
posted by moonbird at 6:18 PM on January 7, 2006


Having spent a lot of time at sea: no. You don't throw anyone overboard, you bail or you take turns or you do something but you stick together. Having said that, I have no specific problem with it being the crew banding together to ditch the passengers, it could just as easily have been the other way round I'd imagine- it's not like the passengers on the Titanic were giving up their places to the crew.
posted by fshgrl at 6:37 PM on January 7, 2006


I have no specific problem with it being the crew banding together to ditch the passengers

If you are going to sacrifice, all should participate. If those who are participating decide to paternalistically exempt a certain population such as women and children then that is fine. I would hope that they would. However, the population from which the departing are chosen should include the crew. Leaving one crew member behind with superior survival skills would be fine, as long as the rest get deep sixed along with the passengers.
posted by caddis at 6:47 PM on January 7, 2006


It's pretty cool that one of the movies starred "George Raft".
Nice post!
posted by Aknaton at 6:57 PM on January 7, 2006


I would nobly volunteer to jump overboard, but as my last deed I would swim under the boat and stick my cold blue shivering hand through the hole in the bottom of the boat and give everyone the finger.
posted by parallax7d at 6:59 PM on January 7, 2006


parallax7d, you're awesome - truly, an inspiration to us all :)
posted by kaemaril at 7:08 PM on January 7, 2006


"Not one of the crew was cast over. One of them, the cook, was a negro."

Affirmative Action at its finest.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:09 PM on January 7, 2006


Given a cannibalistic scenario, as a (at least) chubby, non-athletic sort, with a decently high stress/fear threshold, I figure I'll be one of the first on the spit, as I am incompetent at self-defense and also suspect I am tender and juicy to boot.
posted by Samizdata at 7:10 PM on January 7, 2006


Well, if they'd used a Mac instead of Windows, the ship wouldn't have sunk in the first place.
posted by fandango_matt at 7:11 PM on January 7, 2006


mmmmmmmmmm..... fresh Samizdata.....
posted by Elpoca at 7:56 PM on January 7, 2006


Aknaton said: ...one of the movies starred "George Raft".
Samizdata said: Given a cannibalistic scenario...

Which together bring up a similar, but cannibalistic, shipwrecks in 1816 and 1888: The Raft of the Medusa and the Australian yacht Mignonette:
They were driven to drinking urine. Parker also made the fatal mistake of drinking seawater, which weakened him further and made him delirious. When the turtle meat was exhausted, they considered drawing lots to see which of them should be killed and eaten so the others could survive (as in Poe's story[*]). But they decided that Parker couldn't survive anyway, and that he would be more nutritious and his blood more drinkable if they killed him than if he was left to waste away.
*The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838)
posted by cenoxo at 8:03 PM on January 7, 2006


Speaking of cannibalism and ethics, there's also Regina v. Dudley and Stephens, in which three crewmembers survived by killing and eating a third, then were charged with and convicted of murder despite the court's acknowledgement that they probably would not have survived otherwise.
posted by dilettante at 8:25 PM on January 7, 2006


It's funny that people can usually got for a few weeks or more without food, but they tend to cannibalise each other in much less time. Sometimes, you just feel peckish.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:30 PM on January 7, 2006


First you ask for volunteers.
Then you draw lots.
If the person who draws the shortest lot refuses to accept their fate, you fight.
posted by Tarn at 9:00 PM on January 7, 2006


How long is it?
posted by longsleeves at 9:32 PM on January 7, 2006


I would have gotten on my satellite phone and posted the question on ask.mefi, then scrupulously followed their advice.
posted by craniac at 9:38 PM on January 7, 2006


The difficulty with placing a moral onus on the crew to proportionally share the fate of the passengers is that the crew are necessary to the survival of the boat.
posted by dhartung at 10:01 PM on January 7, 2006


Becaue, you know, they needed that cook... in case the rescue was delayed and someone needed to cook up some faux HuFu
posted by edgeways at 10:09 PM on January 7, 2006


I'm with fshgrl. The law of the sea is that all survivors should strive equally for survival. Arbitrarily choosing some to be cast overboard is a panicked decsion. Who knows what talents or skills were so callously jettisoned? Other options were available. For example, if the vessel truly were over-laden, some survivors could swim in alternating teams alongside the vessel, say four at at time, secured with lines.

Brute force won in this case, but there really is no ethical dilemma.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 10:13 PM on January 7, 2006


I read about this in Cannibalism and the Common Law which I highly recommend, especially for the gruesome sea shanties at the end of the book.

Oddly, the equally arbitrary act of not allowing latecomers to board the lifeboat would probably not be considered a crime. Another instance where passive versus active decision making means more to us than the substance of our ethics.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:34 PM on January 7, 2006


Astro Zombie: Maybe they're just not experienced cannibals, okay?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:44 PM on January 7, 2006


Thanks Alvy, I had totally forgotten that, and it was one of my favorite kids in the hall sketches.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:15 PM on January 7, 2006


I also love the Mark Twain short story in which a trainload of congressmen get snowed in on a train and use the legislative process to decide who to eat.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:26 AM on January 8, 2006


From Twain's story, Cannibalism in the Cars (1875):
After breakfast we elected a man by the name of Walker, from Detroit, for supper. He was very good. I wrote his wife so afterwards. He was worthy of all praise. I shall always remember Walker. He was a little rare, but very good. And then the next morning we had Morgan, of Alabama, for breakfast. He was one of the finest men I ever sat down to, -- handsome, educated, refined, spoke several languages fluently -- a perfect gentleman -- he was a perfect gentleman, and singularly juicy. For supper we had that Oregon patriarch, and he was a fraud, there is no question about it -- old, scraggy, tough, nobody can picture the reality.
It would be one way of enforcing term limits...
posted by cenoxo at 1:07 AM on January 8, 2006


Great post, I had read the fictional work years ago and never realized it was based on this case.
posted by allen.spaulding at 2:53 AM on January 8, 2006


cenexo, there was also a famous (at the time) but now largely overlooked Alfred Hitchcock film, Lifeboat.
posted by alumshubby at 6:18 AM on January 8, 2006


Lifeboat is a wonderful film with a great cast. Ironically, the problems of its survivors are caused by who they bring aboard the boat.

Tom Godwin's classic science fiction story The Cold Equations (1954) is another lifeboat scenario that explores the question of sacrificing the one—however innocent—to save the many.
posted by cenoxo at 8:57 AM on January 8, 2006


++ to longsleeves for the Monty Python drop.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:03 AM on January 8, 2006


if the vessel truly were over-laden, some survivors could swim in alternating teams alongside the vessel, say four at at time, secured with lines.

This would hasten the death of everyone. Survival at sea depends on staying out of the water as much as possible. Being immersed in salt water, while the sun's effects on your skin are magnfied, is acutely dangerous, causing dehydration and 2nd to 3rd degree sunburn. In addition, the bodily energy expended to stay afloat -- even if being dragged by a line -- would increase the calorie demand required to support life. Not to mention sharks. So this solution would be unwise; even if the burden of being in the water were equally shared, it would reduce the amount of time likely for the group as a whole to survive.

Also, I think all discussions of this sort should limit themselves to theory. We can certainly talk about historical examples, and recommend good/successful strategies from the past. But "what would you do?" is really impossible to predict. People react weirdly to disasters. No one really knows what they'd do -- or what anyone they know would do -- until something happens.
posted by Miko at 9:24 AM on January 8, 2006


Seems obvious to me the oldest should be sacrificed first.
posted by beth at 9:56 AM on January 8, 2006


The sparing of the cook is interesting when compared with the cannibalism by the crew of the whaleship Essex, in which the first four men to be eaten were African-American.
posted by amber_dale at 10:13 AM on January 8, 2006


If there's a way to communicate secretly (can we whisper? can we move about?), I would start with the weakest people and try to warn everyone that eventually there may be some insane plot to eject or eat some of us and that, if we want to be safe from the bastards, we have to remember to stick together and fight like hell if any of those big tyrants threatens to hurt anyone else.

Then after I organize them like that, I tell the smaller folk that I heard the biggest one or two plotting against "the little skinny weak bastards" and convince them that they need to help me get rid of those murderous big bastards so we can save our innocent selves.

Lull them to sleep, maybe with sex, and then put sharp stuff (knives? high heels? pens?) through their eyes and into their brains. Butt steaks for everybody.

Eventually, of course, I want to become king of the boat and I want the most attractive woman to become queen of the boat. Then we make the people we don't like hang off the back and kick their legs because we're bloody tired of sitting in the middle of the fucking ocean with them as the only company and we want to get home. We remind them that sharks tend to bite the legs that move slowest.

We all die in the end, but I've had a marvelous time. Or we don't die, and I, the Sex-mad Cannibal King of the Lifeboat, plead insanity and make lots of money with interviews and memoirs.
posted by pracowity at 12:53 PM on January 8, 2006


pracowity
Wow, I mean *wow*. . . I want to be on a lifeboat with you!

I guess what I would do is get rid of the heaviest first to try to make the boat lighter, then of course one would have to get rid of the oldest, then work one's way down to women and children, fittest and weakest. Hypothetically of course. . .

As far as the crew goes, they should have to share equally in the misery of the situation, so equal ditching for all.

And if anyone offers to pay money to avoid the ditching, take their money then over the side they go. No second thoughts on that one.

Of course, if it were me being tossed overboard, a quick swim under the hull, rip open the area that is causing the boat to sink and . . . everybody floats down here. . .
posted by mk1gti at 1:06 PM on January 8, 2006


The sparing of the cook is interesting when compared with the cannibalism by the crew of the whaleship Essex, in which the first four men to be eaten were African-American.

Not really. If people are starting to eye each other hungrily you want to be part of a group for protection: the obvious first division is crew vs passengers, then it would probably start to break down by sex, race, nationality, officer vs enlisted men and so on. Anyone "different" is likely to be eaten or tossed overboard first.

They didn't have the Coast Guard back then either and the crew were probably more acutely aware of the slim chance of rescue than the passengers. These days the situation is totally different, especially if you have an EPIRB (sat device) on your life boat you can expect rescue in a matter of hours to a day or so tops.
posted by fshgrl at 1:30 PM on January 8, 2006


the oldest should be sacrificed first.

Maybe, but what if he's the most experienced navigator or the strongest leader?
posted by Miko at 2:41 PM on January 8, 2006


the oldest should be sacrificed first.

Maybe, but what if he's the most experienced navigator or the strongest leader?
-------------------------
Well, taking everything into consideration, of course. You wouldn't just toss over anyone without first assessing their overall worth to the survivability of all.

Take pracowity for instance, now here's someone who's figured all the angles. If anyone's going to survive, who better than the Sex-mad Cannibal King of the Lifeboat and his servile, sexy, scantily clad handmaidens?
posted by mk1gti at 3:54 PM on January 8, 2006


I, for one, welcome our Sex-mad Cannibal King of the Lifeboat overlord.
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:22 PM on January 8, 2006


Brute force won in this case, but there really is no ethical dilemma.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 1:13 AM EST on January 8 [!]


Hmmm. At least, if I am ever on a lifeboat with this bozo there will be no guilt when he goes into the drink first to save our asses.
posted by caddis at 6:12 PM on January 8, 2006


So, a priest, a rabbi and a lawyer were on a sinking lifeboat full of orphans they had rescued from the ship, without a spit of land in view.
As they're going down, there's talk of who can be thrown over.
"Such a thing to discuss!" says the rabbi. "Will no one think of the children?"

The lawyer says, "Fuck the children."

The priest says, "You think we have time?"
posted by klangklangston at 7:01 PM on January 8, 2006


Miko writes "Being immersed in salt water, while the sun's effects on your skin are magnfied, is acutely dangerous, causing dehydration and 2nd to 3rd degree sunburn."

Remember they aren't in the Carribean, sunburn is probably low down on the worry list in the North Atlantic during iceberg season.
posted by Mitheral at 9:55 AM on January 9, 2006


To the contrary, it's exacerbated. The sun's rays are more direct in the winter. Add to that the additional reflective effects of snow and ice, and you've got intense danger of sunburn.
posted by Miko at 10:10 AM on January 9, 2006


What if they wear sunscreen, waterproof of course?
posted by caddis at 10:49 AM on January 9, 2006


If it's coconut sunscreen, I'm going to eat them just for the sake of sheer deliciousness.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:31 AM on January 9, 2006


Depends on if I’m captain. I’d meet the requirements for survival (navigator, etc.) then work from the children up - for staying in the boat. As a crewman I’d volunteer to go over. As a passenger as well. Of course, I’m not sure that’d be accepted, since my survival skills are good, I’m strong, have a decent fat layer and am pretty serious about fair play. Probably make sure all the assholes are out of the picture before I throw myself over.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:42 AM on January 9, 2006


« Older Quake done Chopped....  |  What is it, Mulder? This websi... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments