Blog – The Lifeboat


The following is from a presentation I gave at the Hong Kong Philosophy Cafe recently on the subject of moral obligation…

“Right,’ said Roger, the self-appointed captain of the lifeboat, ‘There are twelve of us on this vessel, which is great, because it can hold up to twenty. And we have plenty of rations to last until someone comes to get us, which won’t be longer than twenty-four hours. So, I think that means we can safely allow ourselves an extra chocolate biscuit and a shot of rum each. Any objections?’

‘Much as I’d doubtless enjoy the extra biscuit,’ said Mr Mates, ‘shouldn’t our main priority right now be to get the boat over there and pick up the poor drowning woman who has been shouting at us for the last half hour?’ A few people looked down into the hull of the boat, embarrassed, while others shook their heads in disbelief.

‘I thought we had agreed,’ said Roger. ‘It’s not our fault she’s drowning, and if we pick her up, we won’t be able to enjoy our extra rations. Why should we disrupt our cosy set-up here?’ There were grunts of agreement.’ Because we could save her, and if we don’t she’ll die. Isn’t that reason enough?’

‘Life’s a bitch’, replied Roger. ‘If she dies, it’s not because we killed her. Anyone for a digestive?’
Source: ‘Lifeboat Earth’ by Onora O’Neill’, republished in ‘World Hunger and Moral Obligation’, edited by W.Aiken and H.La Follette (Prentice-Hall, 1977)

If the people in the boat are grossly immoral – than so are we.

The Lifeboat story is a metaphor – the boat being the affluent West and the drowning woman being those dying of malnutrition and preventable diseases in the developing world. The attitude of the West on this issue is as callous as Roger’s. We’ve enough food and medicine for everyone but would prefer to enjoy luxuries and let others die than forfeit our ‘extra biscuit’ and save them.

In another version, the lifeboat can also represent the whole of the world with some of the people on board refusing to distribute the food to others also on board. Some may suggest the analogy neglects the importance of property rights. Goods are placed on a lifeboat for those who need them; no-one has a greater claim than anyone else. Anything other than equal distribution is unfair unless proven otherwise.

However – in the real world – food and other goods are not waiting around to be distributed. Wealth is created and earned. If I refuse to give my surplus to someone else, I am not unfairly appropriating what is due to them; I’m simply keeping what is mine. But even if the story is altered to reflect this fact, the immorality does not disappear. Even if the supplies on the boat belong to the individuals in it, it would still be wrong, when on the boat, to say ‘let the woman die, these biscuits are mine’. As long as there is surplus, the fact that she is dying should make us give up some of our privately owned provisions.

The UN has set a target for developed countries to give 0.7% of their GDP to overseas aid. Few have met it. For the vast majority of people, to give even 1% of their income to help the impoverished would have a negligible effect on their quality of life.

How do we morally justify overlooking those on the brink, is it because they are out-of-sight-out-of-mind? How do we react when we encounter impoverished and desperate people when we travel to developing countries? Are we more morally obligated then?

Most donate the occasional few pounds to charity to perhaps relieve our guilt, but the lifeboat analogy suggests that it is not so much that we would be good people if we gave up some of our luxuries, but that we are terribly wrong not to.


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