Last modified on April 15, 2019, at 20:32

Lifeboat ethics

Lifeboat ethics, or the lifeboat problem, is the moral dilemma created by imagining the following situation:

You are the captain of a lifeboat that can only hold 15 people, but there are currently 20 in it. The boat will sink unless several people leave. How do you decide whom to throw off?

This lifeboat problem is often taught in public school in order to persuade students to accept utilitarianism, or situational ethics. Increasingly the hypothetical scenario includes specific traits of lifeboat passengers, such as a physical handicap, and old age, or other perceived "defect" to be considered in your decision. Often the student is simply told that he must expel a certain number of passengers and he is to pick which passengers, with which characteristics, to throw off.

The solution is to ask for volunteers and, if not enough people volunteer, then announce that the lifeboat will sink with its selfish passengers. At that point a mutiny may be attempted, whereupon the wrongdoers should be forced to "walk the plank" (i.e., tossed overboard) and the innocent are thereby saved with the boat.

Fallacies of the Lifeboat Problem

There are several fallacies to lifeboat ethics, or the lifeboat problem. These include the following hidden flaws:

  • the future is never known with the degree of certainty required by the problem. There is, for example, a real chance that the lifeboat will hold more, or that help will arrive, or that people will volunteer to leave the boat, or that other solutions will be found by ingenuity or prayer.
  • no one is likely to be in the situation described, any more than it is likely that a UFO will land in 5 minutes and demand a parent to choose which child will be taken away by it.[1] It's silly to speculate on a scenario that will never happen.
  • a shortage of lifeboat space is due to the negligence of someone: the captain, the shipowner, or someone else. There is no shortage of lifeboat materials and supplies in the world that require this scenario to occur.
  • it is unlikely that too few people would volunteer to leave the boat. When the Titanic sunk, men volunteered to give lifeboat space to women and children, for example, and there was no ethical dilemma.

Biblical Solution

There is a passage in the Gospels that suggests that a lack of faith is the cause of the dilemma, and greater faith is the solution:[2]

Then Jesus got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, "Lord, save us! We're going to drown!" He replied, "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, "What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!"


  1. In the movie Sophie's Choice, a Nazi officer makes precisely this demand.
  2. Matthew 8:23-27 (NIV).

See also