Lifeboat ethics is a term to describe a very interesting metaphor for the age-old philosophical problem of to what degree the rich and secure are ethically obliged to help the poor and needy. Historically this debate posed no problem as existing religions codified specific amounts of charity required (example: tithe giving) and it was assumed this absolved any guilt felt through inequality.

However in an increasingly secular society and a world where increased migration due to social, economic and political pressures is occuring, the philosophy of the argument becomes all the more relevant and palpable.

The argument is best described as follows

  1. The world is a large ocean, of finite size
  2. On the ocean are self-sufficient lifeboats, of finite capacity
  3. Each of these lifeboats holds securely and in comfort 50 people and in insecure conditions 60
  4. Lifeboats sink with more than 60 passengers, with the loss of life
  5. For every lifeboat 100 additional people float in the sea
  6. These displaced people will die without direct intervention from the passengers of the lifeboats
The argument follows that if you alone captained and had sole responsibility for a lifeboat, would you admit additional passengers and to what degree. For the purposes of the argument you must presume you have total control over the lifeboat and existing passengers will not become prejudiced towards you as a result of your actions.

Responses to this argument are diverse. Popular as an essay question to many university students, some possible responses include

  • Admit people until the lifeboat sinks = total justice and total failure
  • Admit nobody and maintian the safety margin = no justice, complete security
  • Admit until an arbritary value between 50 and 60 = marginal justice, some security
  • Jump overboard, admit your place to somebody else = injustice, highest nobility

Additionally one must consider to what degree it is appropriate to resist any boarding parties - is passivity in failing to save life more palatable than actively resisting the saving of life?

It is important to be aware that clasically this argument makes no distinction between passengers - they are to be considered faceless individuals, each of equal value. This is not the classical selection argument as to who you would choose to save given limited resources. Indeed that argument predates this one, probably to the dawn of philosophical inquiry.

Depsite the immediate simmilarity of the argument to the current world geopolitical situation some cautionary facts must be acknowledged and further considered:

1. The world can support all of its population in security
Each lifeboat would now hold 200 people, with 50 on board and 100 in the water. Only if the 50 people on board demand an exceptionally high standard of living will the 100 in the water perish.

2. It assumes that one individual can control a lifeboat
In reality no one individual can control the destination of a country (read: lifeboat). To assume no dissent from citizens (read: passengers) is naive. The argument loses a lot of its purpose if it allows you to hide behind a facade of ethics by commity, where no individual can subsume complete responsiblity.

3. There are standards of living between the polar opposites of survival and death
The metaphor would need to be extended to include yatchs, cruise ships, tankers, lifeboats, flotsam and much more. The argument becomes too complex when ethical decisions must be made as to how much quality of living must be sacrificed to others.

In summary, an interesting argument, but not one you should get too hung up on. However it is the ultimate expression of utilitarian principle, and through its debate it is possible to get a clear idea of precisely where you stand, ethically speaking.