The Lifeboat Game – An Exercise in Ethics

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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.”

A classic exercise used in the classroom for teaching ethics is called The Lifeboat Game. There are variations on the plot, but an ocean liner on a long voyage is shipwrecked. There are 15 people on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. They soon learn that only nine people can survive, and they must sacrifice six human lives so that the others may live. The dilemma given students is to decide which people are to survive and which ones to throw overboard. The characters created for this exercise have a complex array of characteristics, including religion, race, age, sex, known vices, and other extraneous traits that are thrown into the mix to stir up conflicts. Additionally, vague references include a list of assumptions 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 the point that ethics can be 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 a full life inventory and evaluate each aspect as to its value in moving on. On a more global scale, there is a question of continuing in the current direction of travel. Is it still a wise course? What changes are necessary to fulfill the wants and needs of basic 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 others have 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, April 15, 1912, by Matthias Winterer. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.