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The lifeboat scenario

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My 9th-grade English teacher, Mr. Emil, gave us a surprise in-class writing assignment one day in 1983.

He told us (I'm paraphrasing from long-ago memory): Each of you, imagine that you personally are in a lifeboat with nine other people. But this lifeboat isn't a very good one—it was designed by people from [our rival high school]—and it can only hold eight people. You personally have to decide which two people will go overboard so the others will survive. The people are: [list of brief descriptions of nine people—one is a doctor, one is a mother, one is a small child, etc]. Don't think of this as some kind of fantastical scenario; imagine this taking place in the real world—you can't have a superhero or something show up and save you. This is just you, as you are right now today. Write an essay about what you would do.

That assignment horrified me.

In retrospect, I imagine that what he wanted was for us to make some kind of rational and supported argument about the abstract philosophical question of who's most deserving to live. He probably didn't care who we picked, as long as we structured our essays well; this was English class, after all.

But even if I had been able to recognize what he was looking for (which is usually something I'm good at; I won an Americanism essay contest in fourth grade by writing what I figured they wanted to hear), his repeated emphasis on the idea that it's happening to you-as-you-are-in-real-life would still have undone me.

I had been calling myself a pacifist since sixth grade, when Mr. Northcott had a quote on the wall: “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” (I'll write more about pacifism at some point; this is not meant as a full discussion, just an in-passing note as to one of the aspects that upset me.) I was not a physically strong person; even if I wanted to force someone overboard, I didn't think I could physically do that. And I certainly knew that I couldn't handle it emotionally. And I was just a teenager; why should anyone else on the boat listen to what I said even if I had a useful argument?

I sat there in the classroom, in tears. We were supposed to write a first draft in pencil, and then a final draft in pen, during the 45-minute class period. As time ran out, I slowly and painfully wrote a few sentences in pencil; I don't remember what I said, but probably something to the effect that I had no idea what to do, and that I guessed I would try to convince one other person to jump overboard with me, and if I couldn't convince them, then I would just jump myself and hope someone else would too.

I had come up with several possible clever ways around the problem as stated (like having people take turns swimming alongside the boat), but Mr. Emil had made clear that he wasn't going to accept any answer that didn't involve killing two of the people in the boat.

At the end of my few sentences, halfway down the page, I wrote, in bigger letters: I HATE NO-WIN SCENARIOS.

And the bell rang, and I handed in my paper.

I think I got a D on it, which had never happened to me before (nor since). I tearily told my father what had happened. I don't remember whether he wanted to make a big fuss about it or whether I did and he convinced me not to. One or the other of us came up with the idea of telling the teacher that it was against my religious principles to kill people, and that the assignment was therefore religiously discriminatory and the grade therefore unfair. But I didn't follow through on that.

Instead, I just sat through the rest of the school year quietly but intensely disliking Mr. Emil. I think he was otherwise an okay teacher—I don't remember much else about his class—but that assignment made clear to me that I couldn't trust him.

(The only other thing I think I remember about him is that another kid pointed out that he had a hammer-and-sickle belt buckle. I don't know whether I ever saw that myself.)

That incident obviously had a big effect on me, but it gradually faded. I haven't thought about it in years.

But the other day, Foz Meadows posted about a horrible team-building exercise that candidates for a government job were forced to engage in. The gist of it is that they were supposed to pretend that the world will imminently be uninhabitable for a five-year period, and that they were a committee given the task of choosing eight people, out of a list of twenty, to survive and “repopulate the world.” There are two or three sentences describing each of the twenty people: a teacher who's a “suspected alcoholic,” an artist who has a hearing impairment, a devout Muslim, a Scientologist, a two-year-old kid, and so on.

Foz gave an excellent analysis of various of the many problems with the exercise. (Btw, I should note that there's one very explicit sexual photo that appears partway through the Twitter discussion.)

And a bunch of people responded that they had been given the same exercise, or a similar one, by teachers or potential employers, dating back to 1989.

And I got all tense, because it's basically the same exercise as the lifeboat exercise. (Different in various ways, but some strong similarities.) And although I can see why someone might think it would be a cute fun light-hearted exercise, it really isn't.

So if you ever find yourself in the position of requiring people to engage in an exercise like this, please take a step back and ask yourself what you're really trying to accomplish, and whether your exercise is a good way of accomplishing that. Ask yourself whether you're perpetuating various forms of injustice. Ask yourself whether it's appropriate to lightheartedly require people to decide who lives and who dies, and to defend those choices.

If you're teaching a philosophy class, I can imagine this kind of exercise (if framed appropriately) leading to interesting and fruitful discussion. But even there, keep in mind that the original lifeboat ethics scenario was explicitly posed as a metaphor.

And if you're not teaching a philosophy class, please just don't use an exercise like this.

(...and if you use this exercise anyway, then definitely don't be dismissive of people like Foz who raise concerns.)

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