Student Question

If you were a captain of a sinking lifeboat with more passengers than it can hold, how would you decide who stays and who goes, and why?

Quick answer:

I would choose by lot. It is fairer than choosing by age or gender, but it is entirely fair. I think that this is the best decision in this situation and it is entirely moral.

Expert Answers

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This is, in some ways, a variant on the "trolley problem" in philosophy. One of the main issues here is that it forces a choice in a way that may not be entirely realistic. Thus my response would be to return to the flaw in the premise of the argument and use it to suggest how I would approach the problem.

A key part of the premise is that the lifeboat is an absolute dictatorship in which all authority is ceded to one person. I think that in this sort of situation that authoritarianism is a morally problematic approach to the issue. I do not support dictatorship. In a situation in which everyone is affected by a decision, everyone needs to have a voice in the decision.

The first step would be to ask for volunteers. In the crisis in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear power station disasters, many elderly people volunteered to expose themselves to radiation to help save others. As many people are willing to sacrifice themselves for the common good, this would be the ideal solution.

If volunteers were not sufficient, one good way to choose would be by lot. Because this is random, it would be ultimately fair. I would still want to vote on whether people accepted this method, though. Even if I thought it fair, I would not consider that I had a right to impose my will on all the other people in the lifeboat.

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