Essay:Lifeboat ethics

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A rebuttal of crtical thinker Andy Aschlafly's attempt to bash both public schools and utilitarianism. Although located in Conserva-ME-ME-ME-dia's mainspace, it is an unencyclopedic entry that at best should be deleted in its entirety or at worst be relegated to the status of an essay.

Andy Schlafly's article on "Lifeboat ethics"


Lifeboat ethics, or the lifeboat problem, is the moral dilemma created by imagining the following situation:

You are the captain of a lifeboat that can only hold 15 people, but there are currently 20 in it. The boat will sink unless several people leave. How do you decide whom to throw off?

This lifeboat problem is often taught in public school in order to persuade students to accept utilitarianism, or situational ethics. Increasingly the hypothetical scenario includes specific traits of lifeboat passengers, such as a physical handicap, and old age, or other perceived "defect" to be considered in your decision. Often the student is simply told that he must expel a certain number of passengers and he is to pick which passengers, with which characteristics, to throw off.

Andy's description of Lifeboat Ethics appears to be a conflation of two different things; an old-fashioned balloon debate where a sinking hot-air balloon carrying an assortment of usally notable figures, requires one be jettisoned in order to save the rest, and the Lifeboat Ethics dilemma described by Garrett Hardin[1] where a lifeboat is almost full and the question is who to let on, not who to throw off.

Hardin's essay (subititled The Case Against Helping the Poor) is basically an anti-liberal tract concerning things like immigration and resource distribution. So rather than condemning Lifeboat Ethics doesn't Andy actually support them? I am 95% certain that Andy's stance on immigration is actually to keep most of the rest of the world out of the USA, rather than allowing them unrestricted access and relying on ingenuity and prayer to circumvent any problems. After all, if the future is never known with the degree of certainty required by the problem, why not allow unrestricted immigration and let God deal with it? I mean, prayer works, doesn't it?

Fallacies of the Lifeboat Problem

There are several fallacies to lifeboat ethics, or the lifeboat problem. These include the following hidden flaws:

Actually the fallacies and flaws all lie in the warped mind of the writer.

  • the future is never known with the degree of certainty required by the problem. There is, for example, a real chance that the lifeboat will hold more, or that help will arrive, or that people will volunteer to leave the boat, or that other solutions will be found by ingenuity or prayer.

Here we have the argument of someone who denies there is even a problem in the first place (c.f. global-warming denialism). Lifeboats and liferafts are rated to a maximum capacity for a reason - so that they can remain seaworthy with a certain complement of personnel. Every extra person compounds the risk of sinking or capsizing the craft and there is a physical limit to the number of people who can actually occupy a given space. While a lifeboat in calm seas may hold a greater number of people, adverse weather conditions will quickly turn this scenario into a disaster. I bet a lot of people who relied on prayer to save themselves in extremis were sadly disappointed. The sad fact is that sometimes some sort of utilitarianism is often necessary to avoid a greater disaster. If Andy is so concerned about loss of life and is anti-utilitarian, then why does he support the war in Iraq where 3886 US servicemen[2] have already lost their lives compared to the less than 3000 civilians who perished in the 9/11 attacks, if he didn't believe that it was for the future benefit of the United States? I see no reliance on prayer to prevent further Al Qaeda attacks. This is not a fallacy of lifeboat ethics but is total hypocrisy by a self-centred, selfish man.

  • no one is likely to be in the situation described, any more than it is likely that a UFO will land in 5 minutes and demand a parent to choose which child will be taken away by it. It's silly to speculate on a scenario that will never happen.

A classic "I can't imagine it happening, so therefore it could never happen" claim, a favourite of those creationist/ID critics of evolution. The UFO reference is a red herring intended to discredit the whole notion of there being any dilemma in the first place. Of course the question is faced in the novel/movie Sophie's Choice where it is a Nazi officer who makes the demand. Although such an incident may never have happened, it is not too far-fetched enough for people to recognise the possibility that it could happen and empathise with the anguish of the title character. Andy's claim is completely flawed.

  • a shortage of lifeboat space is due to the negligence of someone: the captain, the shipowner, or someone else. There is no shortage of lifeboat materials and supplies in the world that require this scenario to occur.

Another argument of ignorance. First of all we have the lawyer's "Let's sue someone" mentality that it must have been someone else's fault, and even assuming that the situation arose because of someone's negligence does not preclude the possibility of the situation occurring at all.

The claim that "there is no shortage of lifeboat materials and supplies in the world" is utterly bizarre. The global supply of lifeboat materials is irrelevant to a particular incident. Any one vessel or aircraft can only carry a limited amount of survival equipment. Reputable merchant vessels will carry a minimum of 100% spare lifeboat capacity split between both sides of the vessel. Taking into account lifeboats and rafts there is typically 150% to 200% spare capacity. But in the event of a fire the total capacity can easily be halved. Human error could reduce this even further as a badly launched boat or raft may be sunk or blown way before it could be used. (Within my own limited experience of the sea I know this to have happened several times in recent years even among supposedly trained personnel.) This claim is holed below the waterline and is sunk without a trace.

  • it is unlikely that too few people would volunteer to leave the boat. When the Titanic sunk, men volunteered to give lifeboat space to women and children, for example, and there was no ethical dilemma.

Ah, altruism! But in the case of the Titanic, not all true. There may have been a few men who voluntarily gave up lifeboat space for women and children but there were certainly not enough to make up for the shortage of space. Indeed there was violence. [3], coercion[4], panic[5] and deceit[6] as many men tried to save themselves. How can we expect rich white men, who are not even prepared to pay a little bit more tax to help those less fortunate than themselves, suddenly decide to give up their lives for people that they may very well despise, such as lesbians, Muslims or atheists? Although a man may give up his own life to save his family, there are few who would do it for complete strangers. The chutzpah of this claim beggars belief and can be dismissed.

Biblical Solution

There is a passage in the Gospels that suggests that faith is the solution to the dilemma[7]:

Then Jesus got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, "Lord, save us! We're going to drown!" He replied, "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, "What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!"

Unfortunately Jesus is no longer around to sort out all our problems. We may already have had a second coming or it might just be someone with a messiah complex, so don't hold your breath.

However, by relying on prayer as the way out, Andy commits the sin of tempting the Lord[8].


  2. Total as of 5 December 2007
  3. The stokers rushed up from below and tried to beat a path through the steerage men and women and through the sailors and officers, to get into the boats. They had their iron bars and shovels, and they struck down all who stood in their way.
  4. A number of steerage passengers were yelling and screaming and fighting to get to the boats. Officers drew guns and told them that if they moved towards the boats they would be shot dead.
  5. Fully ten men threw themselves into the boats already crowded with women and children
  6. He scuttled to the stateroom deck, put on a woman's skirt, a woman's hat and a woman's veil, and picking his crafty way back among the brave and chivalric men who guarded the rail of the doomed ship, he filched a seat in one of the life-boats and saved his skin.
  7. Matthew 8:23-27 (NIV).
  8. Matthew 4:7 (NIV) - Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test'".