Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Lifeboat

Roger, the self-appointed captain of the lifeboat, proclaimed, "So this boat can hold twenty people, and there are only twelve of us on the boat, and we have plenty of rations to last us till the rescue team arrives, which won't be more than 24 hours. So we can safely allow ourselves to relax and enjoy on some warm cocoa. Any objections?" "Err...this is indeed a reassuring situation, but rather than enjoy on extra cocoa, shouldn't we try to rescue that drowning lady who's been shouting for help?", asked Mr. Mates. A few people bent their head down to avoid confrontation, while others couldn't care less. "I thought we had agreed that it's not our fault that she's drowning! If we picked her up, we wouldn't be able to enjoy our extra rations! Why should we unsettle the cozy set up here?" And there were surprising nods of agreement to this. Mr. Mates retorted angrily, "Because she is dying and it's our responsibility to save her!! Isn't this reason enough?" "Life is a bitch, if she dies it's not because we killed her", said a cold-hearted Roger. (Source: 'Lifeboat Earth', by Onora O'Neill, republished in "World Hunger and Moral Obligation", edited by W.Aiken and H.La Follette)

Quite a coincidence that I conjured up a similar scenario a couple of posts before, but of course the context in which I used it was different. But nice to know that even I can sometimes think like some well known people ;)

I know that this scenario is so appalling and I'm sure I will hardly come across anyone who might argue that the woman shouldn't be rescued. And the objective of this post/analysis is not to pour over reasons as to why one needs to offer help. This scenario is but an allegory - the boat can be likened to an affluent country with surplus resources, and the dying woman is a metaphor for the thousands of people from war-torn developing countries dying everyday of hunger. In a country like India, the disparity is so stark, that the boat can very well be compared to huge corporations and wealthy merchants. Put in such a manner, isn't it the moral obligation of such affluent sections to help the underprivileged?

Having expressed so, one can notice obvious undertones of communism/socialism. To me this was the biggest revelation. I have always discussed communism in the light of equality, but never from such a stern angle of moral obligation. Philanthropy is heralded as a righteous deed, praised and encouraged. But the above allegory suggests that it's one's mere responsibility, there's nothing to be praised! It's the duty of those people on the boat to rescue the woman; doesn't matter if the resources belong only to them, and was earned by them. It's a crime if they didn't rescue! So if we didn't actively strive to help those in need of help, are our occasional splurges of charity work, half-baked realizations of our moral code?

Is our life indeed such a plain comparison to the people on the boat? One might argue that we hardly get to witness someone suffer and die before our eyes. The reaction of seeing someone die in close quarters is different from seeing those heart-wrenching images on TV millions of miles away, that leave us with a sense of helplessness and disconnect since we don't have the direct means to offer fruitful help as in the case of the allegory, wherein the concrete solution is to jump into the waters and save. But in India we see these images right outside our comfortable homes, and yet there are still very few who actually venture out to at least offer a morsel of food... not leftover food that is "generously" thrown, but actual food. Also, these problems are not as simple and straightforward as a one-time offer of help with food, money or shelter. The problems in the real world require a long-term solution, a sustained effort at uplifting other lives, and a continued resolve to dip into our own resources without a feeling of possession. It requires long-term commitment to the cause. Reaching out and finding ways to help and to keep at it, are the main challenges. Such challenges are deterrents, but it doesn't seem fair if they are converted to comfortable excuses. If no one in the boat knew swimming, it still doesn't justify them not even trying to help.

Having argued that the lifeboat scenario presents minimal challenges as opposed to the real-world, do I still view philanthropic gestures to be nothing more than moral responsibilities? Yes, in a way I do. There are always levels of philanthropy obviously... it all depends on how much a person detaches from their possessions and ego. If I choose to share 3 of my 10 apples, I can't laud myself, but if I give away all 10 and choose to remain hungry a day without looking forward to any ego satisfaction, then that goes a little above moral obligation. Most of the Hindu scriptures prescribe the act of giving and sharing without expecting returns. Maybe in this jungle of a world it's a little too idealistic, but it's nonetheless a good exercise to discipline oneself to work towards more meaningful causes.


SecondSight said...

Ah, I've left a rather confused, cross-blogged comment on my own blog about this one :). Technically, the people on the boat did something right to land up on the boat- either learnt to swim, or held onto the right objects.. They did something that the woman in the water didn't. So haven't they 'earned the right' to relax and have that cup of cocoa, instead of being forced to share it with the poor schmuck who landed in the water?
(I'm not advocating either view here, so no worries about getting into a boat with me ;))

Neeraja said...

SecondSight - Well, in this case it's more a matter of chance than doing the right thing or working hard, isn't it? Not knowing how to swim due to valid reasons, not finding enough life jackets etc, are not really morally wrong as opposed to copying and wanting to take credit. Perhaps you mean it's all the game of the survival of the fittest, but I think we have evolved enough to show compassion. If it were indeed survival of the fittest, many of us (meaning me) would have perished by now :)

And if we are on a boat together, anticipate that I will be that poor schmuck who would have clumsily fallen off the boat, tripping over a box or something... so please don't ignore me! ;)

SecondSight said...

Well, I was thinking of this in terms of a book I just heard about ;)- It's about how 'experts' subconsciously pick up cues from the environment that help with their decision-making. From that angle, wouldn't you say the people that had 'trained' themselves to survive such situations had actually 'worked' to be in that boat ?:)

Neeraja said...

True, if you look at it from the standpoint of experts, then the woman was a novice. But there are two parts to this - 1)If we assumed this to be an ordinary commuting vehicle, then none of the passengers are expected to be "experts" in swimming nor would they all have received any "training", 2) The book also has a dedicated chapter on Human Errors :)... and it's a big field by itself. Humans make mistakes, and these mistakes most often are due to cognitive limitations - memory lapses, involuntary motor behavior etc. Even experts make mistakes. Expert typists can accidentally press a key, a driver may make a wrong turn without intending to... So in such cases people deserve some compassion, second chance, especially in a case when someone shoots themselves in the foot :)

SUMI said...

a question we come across all the time in various walks of life, I suppose. I don't know if I regard philanthropy as a moral duty/obligation and communism/socialism is based on that ideology, obviously. But I can't get myself to begin to understand someone who'd not want to save that drowning woman, and I would make a judgment about such a person. I look at it more as being "human".
Regarding giving away all 10 apples and starving yourself, the Randian question would be "do you have a moral duty towards yourself?" Well, I think one can never find absolute answers to any of these questions. One has to live and act as per what helps them be "at peace" with themselves and the world around, ultimately.
Another interesting question is, what's more commendable- a person helping others out of a sense of duty or a person not thinking it's a duty but wanting to do it anyway?
Yet another question, when people help, is it out of just pure compassion? What part of their actions revolve around their preventing feeling guilt later on, because of not having helped the other person?

oorjas said...

nice Metaphor.. true we are comfortably sitting in the boat drinking cocca.. there is a moral obligation to help those who are underprevlidged.. but unfortunately most of the people think like the ones in the boat that they did something right to deserve to be there.

but even so.. there is no question that we must extend our hand of help to those who need it. there is some reason that you are on the boat and that is to help the drowning one.. ok you might not want to create an imbalance by taking them onboard with you but you can always throw a life jacket their way..

Neeraja said...

Sumi - Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree with the Randian question on how much moral duty we have towards ourselves. And is it even fair to ignore our needs? Our philosophy insists on such renunciation of ourselves, our ego, to start viewing everything in nature to be a part of a holistic spirit that we're also a part of. But yes, there are no absolute rights and wrongs.
Duty versus being self-driven is interesting. In our current society charity is not enforced as a duty, yet most self-driven people never accept any praise and brush it off with humility saying it was just their duty. So I guess it again revolves around ego to some extent. Making people view good deeds as mere duties, is against trying to satisfy one's ego.

Guilt surfaces when "good" is enforced and forced down people's throat in the name of hell and punishments. In a way it is a result of viewing charity as a moral duty. Compassion on the other hand would be the driving force behind those who want to help anyway. And I agree that compassion should be the driving force rather than guilt or fear. But sometimes, its practical (but not ideal/fair) if guilt serves the purpose and compassion might surface after being exposed to the satisfaction/consequences of such deeds?

Oorja - Thanks for sharing your views. I agree with you, to each his own. Trying to help in any meager way would suffice.