The battleship Northern Spirit is torpedoed, and its crew launch the few lifeboats that remained undamaged.  The captain is aboard of the  overloaded lifeboats, which is surrounded by screaming sailors destined to perish in the icy waters.  They beg to be hauled aboard, but the captain fears the boat will sink.  What should he do?

A young cabin boy finally manages to grasp the boat and begins to pull himself aboard, as the boat tips dangerously.  The ship’s cook, Bert, is nearest the boy, and the captain orders Bert to push him back into the sea.  What should Bert do?

Dilemmas 1 and 2 in 101 Ethical Dilemmas by Martin Cohen.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

One response »

  1. John Hooker says:

    Ethics discussions often begin with extreme dilemmas like this one, and Martin Cohen’s book is no exception. Even more popular are the trolley car scenarios in which you can divert a runaway trolley car toward one person to prevent it from killing others (in fact, Cohen introduces these as Dilemmas 9 and 10). This is unfortunate, because it gives the impression that ethical dilemmas are deep conundrums that nobody can resolve.

    To my knowledge, nothing in ethical theory tells us, in any convincing way, when to sacrifice one life for the sake of others. On the other hand, many ethical issues — including most that arise in everyday life — are easier than this and can be resolved. I think we should start with these and take on the hard ones after we build some skills.

    Suppose we were to introduce people to mathematics by presenting Goldbach’s Conjecture. It states that every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two prime numbers. No one has been able to determine its truth for 270 years. This could give the impression that mathematics is a field of unresolved questions, even though mathematicians have proved countless powerful and useful results. Like the trolley dilemmas, Goldbach’s conjecture is interesting but would have little practical application even if resolved.

    So I am going to set a few unanswerable questions aside. If you are confronted with a lifeboat or trolley dilemma, I can’t help you. But check back in a few years. Maybe, by then, we will have figured it out.


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