The Lifeboat Game – An Exercise in Ethics

This article is being reposted from January 11, 2013. It was originally written as advice to job seekers on making an ethical choice in their career. Julian Baggini, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Philosophers’ Magazine, is quoted as saying: “It may not have the virtuous ring of the golden rule, but the maxim ‘never say never’ is one of the most important in ethics.”

There is a classic exercise that is used in the classroom for teaching ethics called The Lifeboat Game. There are variations on the plot, but basically an ocean liner on a long voyage is shipwrecked and there are 15 people on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. It is soon learned that only 9 people can survive. This means that 6 human lives must be sacrificed so that the others may live. The dilemma given students is to decide which people are to survive and which ones are to be thrown overboard. The characters created for this exercise are intentionally given complex characteristics including religion, race, age, sex, known vices and other extraneous traits thrown into the mix to stir up conflicts. Some vague references are also present so that assumptions can be made on how different people would be of value to the survivors. After each individual has selected a slate of survivors and stated the rationale, a free flowing discussion, usually intense disagreement, becomes the main teaching point. Everyone has different ideas and values which makes ethics a relative thing.

A great deal of our career begins with a general plan and then becomes altered by circumstances as we move forward in time. There are places along this timeline that are critical decision points for us. After failing to survive the rough seas of economic hardships and even personal reversals, there is a need to take full life inventory and evaluate each aspect as to its value in moving on. On a more general scale, is the direction of travel still a wise course? What changes need to be made to fulfill the wants and needs of existence? The helicopter-view of our career at this point boils down to the question, “Would I pick myself to be saved in the lifeboat game?”

A wise mentor in my early career gave me this advice during a critical turning point: “Be a survivor when others are giving up. Survive by building things that are needed by others.” Part of my elevator speech is, “Hi. I’m Tom and I build things.” The curriculum vitae that I have planned and executed has been with one objective and that is to leave behind something unique created by me. Every job seeker that arrives at a turning point needs to seriously evaluate the legacy that will remain as a result of following each possible alternative. The ultimate goal should be to build something, support those who build things, or service those things that have been built.  

Failure is not an option. There may be varying degrees of success, but surviving to be proud of the results is the best part.

Photo Credit: Rettungsboot der Titanic, 15 April 1912, by Matthias Winterer. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.