COVID-19 and real-life lifeboat ethics

Before there was the “Trolley Problem,” ethics classes would commonly haul out “Lifeboat Ethics” scenarios to stimulate class discussion. In my years of teaching ethics, I never used either because I dislike them both. They both ask the wrong questions, and they lead the Stephen Millers of the world to invoke horrendous “Lord of the Flies” government policies like caging refugee children and confining 3500 people on a “virus percolator” cruise ship.

Lifeboat Ethics

For more about the “Trolley Problem” in ethics, see my later note. The “thought experiment” of “Lifeboat Ethics” is usually credited to a 1974 Psychology Today article by Garrett Hardin entitled “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor.” [1] As you might surmise from the title, Hardin was a lifelong anti-immigration advocate and an alleged white supremacist. The “lifeboat” class discussion typically goes something like this:

Imagine you are on a lifeboat with twenty other people and the rescuers are not coming. Water and food are running out. If you can hang on for another week, rescue might be possible, but there are not enough resources available to keep you all alive for another week. What should you do?

Inevitably, the discussion devolves into questions of which fellow passengers get heaved over the side first, or even whether we need to eat one of them in order to stay alive. Students often get emotional over this discussion if you can gin up the fear, and tempers will likely flare. Classroom success!

The Grand Princess

As of March 7, over 3500 passengers and crew were confined to the cruise ship Grand Princess off San Francisco. When a passenger from a prior voyage on this ship died from the COVID-19 virus, the ship was denied entry into the United States. Of 46 people on the ship who were tested by March 7, 21 tested positive for the virus.  This containment strategy copies the Japanese government’s earlier action of keeping the smaller cruise ship Diamond Princess at sea for days off Yokohama Harbor.

Put yourself on that boat for a moment if you can. The rest of your life now depends on the moral maturity of Donald Trump and his “advisers,” and they have just raised their middle finger at you from on shore. How is your stress level doing?

Cruise ships are notorious (though likely overstated) “Petri dishes” for infectious diseases in the best of times, such as the less serious but nasty norovirus. President Trump candidly admitted that his primary goal in keeping the Grand Princess from docking was to keep the reported number of U.S. cases of COVID-19 low (“I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault,” he said).

Failing to get the passengers off these ships and instead “isolated but unconfined” is bad ethics, bad economics, and bad policy. Scientifically, one study suggests that the “basic reproduction number,” which is the average number of new “community spread” infections for each reported case of this virus, climbs from an estimated range of 1.7 to 7 in normal populations all the way up to 11 on a confined ship (shades of Spinal Tap! [2]). In other words, failure to get these passengers out of such a confined space is possibly a death sentence for a much larger “dice roll” of passengers.

From the perspective of economics, this policy of quarantining entire cruise ships could be the death knell of the cruise industry if the economy crashes. I am not a great fan of cruises anyway, but even my most rational self will not go on a cruise vacation where the illness of one passenger means that I may be sailing on the “Hotel California.” [3]

The bad ethics of the lifeboat

The best way to understand why Lifeboat Ethics is a horrible model for thinking, let alone public policy, is to recognize that there is not just “one correct ethical decision,” rather our brains are simultaneously processing at least four different “decision projections” of future outcomes for the choices that we call “moral” or “ethical.” And these four “probability models” are always competing biologically to see which one wins over control of your actions.

I have simplified these “Big Four ethical brain models” (there are likely more) like this:

  1. The biggest part of your brain creates thousands of “duties and rules” for all types of potential actions, but (as in the Daniel Kahneman model) relatively slowly: “Let’s get this boat organized!” [4]
  2. The evolutionarily oldest part of your brain acts much more quickly to propose an optimal “end goal,” especially for life-threatening situations: “Let’s eat the big guy!”
  3. Several parts of your brain perceive the stress of other people and use emotion to propose solutions involving empathy: “Think of the baby!”
  4. If you have the luxury of time, a small part of your brain is reading and contemplating “meta” analyses like this one, “thinking about thinking about ethics” to develop esoteric concepts like “principles” or “virtues.”

In the lifeboat, three of these brain processes go out the window and instead fear reigns. And so, the lifeboat decision is usually something like “Kill Piggy!” as in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, or “Keep those people on that cruise ship and let them infect each other so we can keep our statistics nicer!” The worst of human nature comes out in these situations.

When you are asking, at the last minute, “What should I do?” then you have likely already lost the thread. The better question is “Who ought I be?” Do you really want to be a Donald Trump here?

A side note about the Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem is an ethical thought experiment that is actually older than Lifeboat Ethics, although it has come into vogue in the U.S. ethics classes in more recent years, at least in my experience. In the usual framing of this dilemma, you see a noisy runaway trolley coming down the tracks headed toward five unsuspecting workers who will be struck and likely killed. However, you can throw a switch to direct the trolley toward a side track where only one person will be killed. What should you do?

The trolley problem

Source: Wikipedia

There are many variants to this dilemma, but most of them are just testing your logical versus your emotional modes of ethical decision-making, as noted above. Fortunately, you will most likely never encounter a Trolley Problem, although your Tesla automobile might.

For a follow-up to this post see Lifeboat ethics #2 – Ventilators and PPE.


  1. Hardin, Garrett. ”Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor.” Psychology Today, Sept. 1974.
  2. From the 1984 “documentary” This Is Spinal Tap by Rob Reiner, about the fictional rock band whose amplifiers “go up to 11” rather than just ten.
  3. From the 1976 song by The Eagles, about the hotel where “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!’
  4. Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

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3 thoughts on “COVID-19 and real-life lifeboat ethics

  1. Pingback: Kids, can you say Fecundity? – When God Plays Dice

  2. Pingback: Lifeboat ethics #2 – Ventilators and PPE – When God Plays Dice

  3. Pingback: The ethical theory of “Sucks to be you!” – When God Plays Dice

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