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Lifeboat ethics and reflection

Reading The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten, a book of thought experiments illustrating philosophical and ethical problems, I found this lifeboat metaphor that goes something like this:

You are one of the 10 on a lifeboat that holds 15, fully equipped with food and resources. Since the rescue mission is already one its way and expects to reach your lifeboat within 24 hours, the captain of the lifeboat (if there is such a thing) suggests that all of you can just relax, and take your portion of supplies, or even a little more if necessary. While everyone is nodding in agreement, you see some distance away there are people still in the water waiting to get on a lifeboat. A good person that you are, you raise your hand and asked: “Why don’t we paddle over there and save a couple more people on our boat?” Some seem to be offended by your suggestion and look to the Captain. The Captain in his infinite wisdom replies, “Well, it is not our fault that they have not been rescued, nor is it our fault that caused the ship wreck in the first place. I say we stay put the way we are, and keep the extra for our own safety.”

To take this even further, even if the Captain, along with the rest of your shipmates agree to rescue, which of the five out of the 10, 100, or 1000 would you rescue, and why? And should you just rescue another 5? Or as many as your boat could fit even though there would not be enough supplies for all? And should you rescue until the boat sinks? That way, everyone is equal; and justice is served.

This metaphor hits home for me not only because it illustrates the injustice of rich and poor in our world today. Obviously, the people on the lifeboat with more than enough supplies represent us, the majority in the Western world; and those who are still in open water fighting for survival are the improvised, the poor, and the needy. While I appalled at the Captain’s response, I am convicted by the fact that I am the same. It’s not that I don’t have enough to give; I am not giving as much as I should because I am keeping the extra for myself.

“Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings.” -Joshua 7:11

In the Old Testament, the Lord is giving Jericho into the hands of Israel, with one condition: “keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted them you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction and bring trouble upon it” (Joshua 6:18). Though the situation is different, the moral is the same: Are we keeping things that are not meant for us to keep?


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