David SimsEssays

The Overcrowded Lifeboat

lifeboat-john-scottby David Sims

THE BEHAVIOR of people in a situation of extreme scarcity, and the moral response to it, is the raw area where philosophy most closely joins with natural science. The story of the shipwreck of the William Brown, of Philadelphia, USA, and sailing from Liverpool, England, in March 1841, is one that nearly all priests and ministers like to tell, even if they don’t know the story in detail, and even if the moral lesson they attempt to draw is the wrong one.

The ship hit an iceberg and sank. The ship’s jollyboat (commanded by Cpt. George L. Harris) and its longboat (commanded by ship’s mate Francis Rhodes) were both crowded, the longboat dangerously so. In addition, the longboat was leaking due to its excessive weight, which portended the death of everyone aboard. The commanders of both boats decided to head for a landing in Newfoundland.

It became clear that the longboat would not go far unless it were made lighter. So the mate and some of his sailors started throwing some of the others overboard, both passengers and crew, but chiefly targeting males for getting the toss. It’s not that they were heavier, exactly, since among those ejected were two boys, one of them 12 years old, the other being 18 and skinny.* The older boy didn’t have to be tossed. When he was “chosen,” he cooperated, jumping overboard after being allowed to say his prayers. The younger of the boys saved his life by stealthily hanging on to the rear of the boat, keeping his head above water.

The first man to be thrown over was an obedient sailor named Riley. The mate asked him to stand up, and he did. Then the mate or someone assisting him grabbed Riley and tossed him into the ocean, where he drowned.

One man, a sailor named Charles Conlin, tried to appeal to the mate and his helpers through friendship, saying: “Holmes dear, sure you won’t put me out?” (Holmes was Rhodes’ main assistant in the toss party.) Conlin was tossed out.

One man, Frank Askin, tried to buy his life with gold, offering the mate five large coins as a bribe. But in that situation money was worthless, and Askin was grabbed and tossed overboard.

But another man, a sailor named John Messer, successfully prevented his own tossing by menacing the mate and his party with a knife. He had to be ever-vigilant, of course, and it turned out that Messer was the one who, the following day, first sighted the sails of the Crescent (Cpt. S.J. Ball), whereupon the threat to him ended.

By the time they were finished, the mate had thrown overboard 16 men and boys, and 2 women. The women were the sisters of Frank Askin, and it is said that they jumped voluntarily after the mate tossed their brother into the sea. All together, these sacrifices made it possible for the longboat to remain afloat, which enabled the other 23 passengers to be rescued.

Upon their return to civilization, a maritime court of inquiry examined the behavior of Francis Rhodes and sailor Holmes, but they were unable to find fault with them, given the circumstances.

There’s more than one lesson to be learned in that story, but I’ll examine the big ones first.

1. When it is not possible for everyone to live, the phrase “half a loaf is better than none” is as true for people as it is for bread. Fairness is irrelevant.

It is sometimes necessary that some die to save others, because the only alternative is for everyone to die and there be no survivors at all. However, when this kind of situation arises, each person will regard himself as having exceptional merit which puts him firmly in the class privileged with survival. Everyone else might be expendable, but not himself!

In an emergency, anyone who speaks of “fairness” and believes it is a fool (a bleating sheep). And anyone who speaks of fairness without believing it is a sneaky predator (a jackal). There will usually be bleating sheep, but the jackals will outnumber them.

2. When some must be sacrificed to save others, a dictatorship is necessary.

There are no other conflicts so intractable as those for which life for some means death for the others. Neither argument nor bribery, will persuade someone to sacrifice himself. An appeal to sentiments, such as patriotism or family love, will sometimes be successful in getting someone to volunteer to be a sacrifice, but not always. Perhaps not usually. When a substantial number of sacrifices is required, they must be taken by violence, and nothing else will substitute.

To supply the necessary violence to secure the number of sacrifices required to save the rest of the people, there must be an effective local government of a dictatorial nature. This government may not sacrifice themselves — at least, not until the very last — because then there would be no one with both the will and the ability to complete the required number of sacrifices.

In an emergency, a democratic process would be unable to make the required number of sacrifices in the available time. Although democracies are notorious for their characteristic of “two wolves and one sheep voting on what to have for dinner,” the slaughter of the sheep always involves deception. Some of the wolves, for example, are the kind of people who will eat meat, but don’t want to watch the butcher. Some of the sheep must be persuaded that the slaughterhouse is really a funhouse. And some of the sheep must be persuaded that they are wolves, at least until it is time for the real wolves to correct the misapprehension.

In an emergency, such as that on the William Brown’s longboat, the mate might have called for a vote on whom to toss — but there would be the equivalent of “nominations” and “caucuses” and “campaign speeches” and pleas of extenuating circumstances every time the next sacrifice was considered. And they’d have to be carried out one-by-one, or else those who were selected for tossing would revolt en masse.

Nothing must be done to warn the sacrifices in advance that they’ve been selected. If they were warned, they would join their strength and it might be impossible to sacrifice them. That’s why the William Brown’s mate didn’t offer to cast lots to decide who aboard the longboat would be tossed. Everyone who drew the short straws would immediately become a self-conscious subclass, and they would at once have engaged in defensive maneuvers. The struggle would have imperiled everyone in the boat.

3. Neither money nor appeals to sentiment can buy your life when the cost of maintaining it threatens the life of the one whom you would bribe.

Frank Askin and Charles Conlin learned these truths too late.

4. When you must, to save your own life, resist the desperate measures of those who are also trying to survive, the only recourse that will work for you is violence, or the creditable threat thereof.

Someone resisting sacrifice doesn’t always need to be stronger than the opposing group. Sometimes, he only needs to be strong enough to make fighting him not worthwhile.

Remember the story about two men, running from a bear, and one man stops to change from his dress shoes into his running shoes. The other man, confused, stops running too. The bear is getting closer and closer. “Why are you changing your shoes now?” asks the confused man. “Because,” says the other, “I just realized that I don’t need to outrun the bear. I only need to outrun you.”

That is the logic that saved the life of sailor John Messer.

5. Obedience to authority, in an emergency, often kills the obedient.

John Messer resisted and lived. The sailor Riley obeyed his senior officer and died. Riley knew that somebody had to go, or the longboat would sink. He’d been discussing that very subject with his fellow sailors during the past few hours. Riley might have figured on being named one of the tossers, rather than being chosen as a tossee, or perhaps the theory of tossing had not yet been confirmed in his mind as a gory reality as yet. But his fatal mistake was in not being suspicious of authority’s intentions when it came to call upon him.

6. Not all lives are of equal value.

Suppose that the occupants of the longboat had not had the good fortune to be rescued by the Crescent. They would have had to make their way to Newfoundland, which was presumably the easiest landfall available to them. In order to get there, the longboat would need guiding by someone who understood the principles of ocean navigation. The ablest navigator must not be sacrificed, since, if he were, the longboat might wander aimlessly at sea until everyone aboard starved, and, in that case, all of the previous sacrifices required to remain afloat would have been in vain.

Here, again, I find an opportunity to point out that democracy is inferior to the dictatorship of the wise. A hundred ordinary people do not one navigator make. Any decision regarding a lifeboat’s course that emerges from a vote among a hundred untrained passengers has less worth than the opinion of someone who really does know how to read the signs of the sky by night and by day, by the sextant and the clock. And countries follow this same general principle. Although not everyone who claims to know what should be done really does know, the masses never do.

*I have since learned that aboard the longboat was a fat Negro who’d been the ship’s cook. The tossing party that selected two light-weight boys for death passed him over, sacrificing two lives rather than one, and lightening the boat less thereby. Whatever the reason was, it probably wasn’t a moral one. Dictatorships can be corrupt, too.

* * *

Source: David Sims

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Thomas Plaster
Thomas Plaster
25 July, 2017 11:19 pm

I just finished reading the book “The Wreck of the William Brown: A True Tale of Overcrowded Lifeboats and Murder at Sea” by Tom Koch. The author writes a well-readable book. Due to the ethical question(s) involved, he covered the history of sailing mishaps throughout the 19th century and up to the Titanic. According to this book, the (shorter) jolly boat contained the ship’s captain and a few passengers while the longboat contained the ship’s mate and several other crewmen plus passengers. The rest of the ship’s passengers were left to drown with the ship. The passengers of the long boat, who survived both shipwreck via iceberg collision and then the drownings committed in the longboat, complained at the trial of one of the longboat crewmen (a Swede) that the… Read more »

Antonio Robateau
Antonio Robateau
18 October, 2019 12:43 pm

Did you say “negro” in a moral essay on ethics and the value of lives?

Reply to  Antonio Robateau
18 October, 2019 3:15 pm

Greetings Antonio.
What is your preferred description for a black African person? What do you believe the black African person wished to be called? Negro means black, as you know. Would you be objecting if instead he was described as a black African? Are you objecting to him being given privilege to remain alive whilst two other young whites were selected for death? He was probably saved because he was fat. Do you object to someone being called fat? Please elucidate.

Antonio Robateau
Antonio Robateau
Reply to  Truthweed
18 October, 2019 8:53 pm

Hi! I loved reading your essay. I have my own opinions as to the immorality of their actions. But I was referring to the reduction of his character to a color. This is the 21st Century. Others were distinguished by nationality, however the cook was reduced to not only a color (in which black to an african is grossly innacurate as black is even darker) but also to a derogatory term associated with slavery and opressed slaves at that (“the negro over there”… not “the gentleman over there”). I am of relatively dark skin complexion but do not suffer from “racial identity disorder” based on skin complexion. Nonetheless, the term is more offensive being used by a non-member of the group being classified there. To be fair, I wasn’t sure… Read more »

18 October, 2019 3:25 pm

Both captains illustrated reckless management and poor seamanship by knowingly leaving the dock in overcrowded offshore vessels. The man who saved himself with knife in hand understood the situation. He wasn’t going to die for those who did not prove their leadership skills from the beginning. A mournful memorial for those who went under at the hands of hard-case authoritarians.