A role-playing exercise for those interested in difficult ethical and sociological questions, or for instilling an interest in those not yet aware of them. A group of people takes on a variety of social roles and personalities, and then pretends to be in a situation in which some members of the group must die if the others are to live: for example, fifteen people are lost in rough seas on a lifeboat built for nine, so, if we naively ignore the practical question of what the "real" safe limit is in order to get at the ethical meat of the problem, six must be ejected to drown so that the other nine may survive. In general, each person is expected to argue that their own virtues outweigh their faults, and the whole group votes to rank each person in order of their value to society.

The roles are generally chosen so that there are certain obvious answers, but enough leeway is left that thorough consideration may reverse one's first impressions: what if, for example, the doctor is a gynecologist who (depending on the group's bias) performs many late-term abortions or browbeats young pregnant girls into carrying the product of rape to term? What if the "gangland killer" defends himself as one who assassinates only criminals, keeping order within the extralegal economy and, if only incidentally, protecting law-abiding citizens? While the prostitute is breaking the law, is she really hurting anyone? Does she, perhaps, provide comfort to the lonely? Does she wreck homes or merely provide escape from wreckage that is already there?

The lesson one is meant to take away from this is simple: life is complicated. We can't afford to dismiss others out of hand or venerate them blindly; rather, it is necessary to look at everyone (especially ourselves) critically and make judgments only after due consideration.

The most well known version of this game appeared as a classroom exercise in the 1972 book Values Clarification: A Handbook of Practical Strategies for Teachers and Students by Sidney B. Simon, Leland W. Howe, Howard Kirschenbaum (Ask any American who was attending school that year and they will most likely recall it). Teachers presented the following situation to their students: Imagine 10 people are in an overcrowded lifeboat. Students are asked who to sacrifice. There are no right answers. The exercise is meant for discussion.

While it seems intuitively obvious that a lifeboat would be a natural setting for such a scenario, some scholars suggest that the "lifeboat ethics" thought problem was inspired in the 19th century by a real life event. In United States v. Holmes (1842). 26 Fed. Cas. 360 (No. 15383) (Cir. Ct. E. Dist. Pa.), a member of the crew of the ship William Brown was tried for voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of several passengers. When the ship (bound for Philadelphia from Liverpool) hit an iceberg and sank off Newfoundland, 80 people tried to get into 2 lifeboats. 30 people (mostly children) didn't make it. 42 were in the longboat, 8 were in the jolly boat. The jolly boat, having sails, was rescued quickly. But bad weather threatened the longboat. Not only overloaded, with waves coming over the side, but it was leaking too. When the mate shouted to lighten the load, Holmes and another sailor starting tossing people over the side: six men and two women. The next day, two more men. After the ship was picked up near France, the survivors urged that the sailors be prosecuted for murder. Holmes happened to be the only one of the pair in town when the Philadelphia grand jury brought an indictment. In court, Holmes offered a necessity defense. He was found guilty, sentenced to six months and a $20 fine. He served his time but was pardoned by President John Tyler, and thus did not have to pay the fine.

A Google search on the phrase "lifeboat game" reveals it to be held up as the simplest example of values clarification in education (and as such, in both the religious and the conservative press, the scapegoat for both moral corruption in youth in general and the Columbine shootings in particular).


Howard Doughty, "Toward a Definition of Political Health and Pathology," The Innovation Journal 24 May 1997, <http://www.innovation.cc/discussion_papers/howard.htm> (26 June 2003)
Peter Suber, The Case of the Speluncean Explorers: Nine New Opinions, Routledge, 1998, online at <http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/writing/csepref.htm> (26 June 2003)

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