J.D. Smith

On the Lifeboat: A Fantasia in Free Will

Something in us loves a lifeboat. While few relish the prospect of drifting for weeks of hunger, thirst and exposure, with no guarantee of rescue, we are drawn to the thought experiment of involuntary simplicity. With pretense and superstructure shorn off, where would our values “really” lie?
This experiment requires a willing suspension of disbelief, along with the dubious assumption that social experience, for all its pretense and superstructure, is not a reality in its own right, and one with a historical and evolutionary basis. A “primitive” setting with few inhabitants, a small number of roles to fill and starkly limited resources represents a qualitatively as well as quantitatively different experience than civilization and its discontents.
But the question has long been with us. The first records of lifeboats in the collective imagination include the stories of Noah’s Ark and its counterparts in several cultures. There is also evidence that analogous experience may have been crucial in shaping our species. At least some investigators interpret homo sapiens’ relative lack of genetic diversity—less than that of the mongoose, if memory serves—to a population crash induced by an Ice Age beginning around 195,000 years ago, followed by rebuilding from small bases of survivors.
The existence of a ready audience for such stories and the beginnings of mass communication converged in 1883 with the still widely taught and discussed case of Regina v. Dudley and Stephens. Though the particulars of the case were largely agreed upon, the meaning of those particulars is the stuff of academic texts filled with terms such as “sub-alterity,” raising disturbing questions of class and power in the Victorian era, when Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” could be construed as a justification of prevailing social arrangements.
Following the wreck of the Mignonette, an English yacht bound for Australia, the four survivors found themselves adrift in a boat with no prospect of rescue. Once the stores of food and water were exhausted, the men aboard found themselves thinking the unthinkable: who could be sacrificed to save the rest? Captain Tom Dudley and seaman Edwin Stephens, the eventual defendants, had families to support. Another sailor, Edmund Brooks, was implicated but never charged. Perhaps conveniently, cabin boy Richard Parker, 17 years and an inexperienced seaman without dependents, was already gravely ill and unlikely to survive.1 Reasoning that his blood could be more easily drunk if taken fresh than post mortem, the defendants dispatched him with a pen knife thrust into his jugular vein. Barrister Arthur Collins represented Dudley and Stephens’ actions as motivated by necessity, but the Crown changed the course of common law by invalidating necessity as a homicide defense, citing Christian principles of self-sacrifice. Thus directed, the jury found both men guilty of murder, though in the face of public sympathy their sentence was commuted from hanging to six months in prison.
Subsequent references have come more quickly. Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” published in 1897, only 14 years after Regina v. Stephens and Dudley, presents a vastly different (and indifferent) view of Man and Nature wherein the survivors are not culpable, elect or redeemed, only lucky.
The wreck of the Titanic alone has fostered at least three strains of thought. One holds that the ship should have carried enough lifeboats for all aboard, if not more. Like the Balkan Wars, that shipwreck suggested the imminent exhaustion of a touching, even naive Edwardian faith in capital-P Progress, embodied in the hubristic statement that “not even God Himself” could sink the vessel. Issues of ultimacy aside, an iceberg provided sufficient proximate cause.
A second current of thought elevates the sacrifice of those men who gave up their seats for women and children. Their heroism is honored by an obscure memorial placed for no apparent reason in Washington, DC’s Southwest quadrant, where one night every April a few gather to toast their memory and to leave a wreath. The structure itself consists of an outsized granite bench topped by a larger-than-life figure in the pose of foreshadowed crucifixion assumed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Titanic as he calls himself “king of the world.” In the shadow of that sacrifice lies the cowardice of men who allegedly dressed as women in order to take some of the limited seats. Though this urban legend has largely been debunked, its essence remains clear: death before dishonor.
A third and especially potent strain of thought involves lifeboat as metaphor. Garrett Hardin’s 1974 essay “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case against Helping the Poor” envisioned the world political economy as a lifeboat, though one with fewer nuclear-capable passengers than at present. Hardin conveniently did that envisioning as one safely onboard; as Ortega y Gassett observed, the suffering of others is so much easier to bear than one’s own.
“Reality” television more trivially works on the same premise. The lifeboat-like island of Survivor serves as the template for numerous other settings in which those eliminated are cast into the outer darkness of non-celebrity.
What is the basis for that casting out?
Although my memories of an adequate elementary school education in the 1970s are murky in many ways, perhaps fortunately so, I believe I was asked or heard of others being asked who should remain on the small vessel and who should be consigned to death. That few grade-schoolers are cognitively prepared for such decisions, and fewer still called upon to make to make them, seemed not to enter into curriculum design. Also omitted was the advisability of building an ethical foundation for making decisions, first small and then great, before engaging in stress tests. Such questions were instead designed as a way of clarifying values, all equally valid consumer choices, like Pepsi or Coke, rather than transmitting any of them. Then again, this was a period in which the steely pacifism of Dorothy Day had given way to statements such as Bertrand Russell’s “I would not die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.”
What we would die, kill or live for may only be revealed in a moment of truth that never comes. Those who do “walk the walk” and pass such tests of extremity are often traumatized. It is a truism that the barstool hero recounting his campaigns has probably seen little or no action, while real combat veterans don’t often talk about what they’ve seen.
With or without the assistance of strong drink, untested young men and bombastic older men sometimes claim how they would resist a mugging or an attempted prison rape. The narrators of these scenarios in effect cast themselves as Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson rather than the stunned victim handing over his wallet (as I have done) or the tortured voice off-screen.
The rest of us are left with the unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question remains of What if? Besides clarifying professed and perhaps real values, however venal or poorly reasoned, the answer provides a portrait of the respondent. In my case that portrait is some combination of good intentions, a sense of rough justice, self-regard and fear cloaked in flippancy. Your answers may vary.
Although the first scenario is sometimes framed as a burning building dilemma, the lifeboat serves equally well. Near the limits of weight and space, do you take aboard a) an original oil masterpiece or b) a baby?
A case can be made for either alternative. The painting is a known quantity that has spoken to generations and entered the common knowledge of a culture and perhaps humanity at large. It is difficult to imagine our cultural history without, say, Las Meninas, Waterlilies, or Nighthawks. What are the odds that any given baby will make such a contribution? In a famous corollary by deliberately provocative and probably bourbon-soaked William Faulkner, “The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” Potentially making a contribution nonetheless depends on staying alive. Even Mozart did not compose “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” until the age of three, and many architects do not do their best work until the age of sixty or beyond. The painting’s realized potential is a known quantity.
To abandon the baby in favor of the painting is to eat a grain of our civilizational seed corn. Technology in this instance simplifies rather than complexifies the issue. Any work that comes to be seen as important—along with many that do not—is almost certain to have been reproduced so abundantly that the impression survives without the original. We get the idea, Platonic or otherwise. The sculptures of antiquity are known largely through reproductions. While a print of a painting cannot do justice to impasto, impasto itself does not suffer.
Attaching an absolute value to a work of art risks the same fallacies as any other form of absolutism, as art exists among rather than above or apart from other human concerns. Ars gratia artis has a nice ring to it, as many hollow slogans do, and its lofty aspirations have been hijacked as both a frame for the MGM lion roaring in celluloid mediocrities and for the public funding of dubious projects. Whatever the value of the artistic enterprise as a whole may be, any individual work of art is in some sense unnecessary, since life goes on without it. Many may not have known of its existence to begin with and are not immediately impoverished by its destruction.
Closer to subsistence level, more depends on the mirror realm of the replaceable but necessary. A bridge in a specific location is often vital to the lives of individuals and communities; its absence is immediately felt and must be remedied quickly if life is to go on as before. A usually false disjunction, like the question of who or what belongs on a lifeboat, might require a budgetary choice between artworks and bridges. In a more ideal world both may be sustained. Irreplaceable and necessary, an end in itself as some would say, the baby is one more person whom art is supposed to serve, and not the other way around.
Of course, we don’t know how the infant will turn out. Rather than a great artist or healer, he (or she, as we note in these enlightened days) may grow up to be the inventor of a new financial instrument, or some other sort of sociopath. But if anybody deserves the benefit of the doubt, it is a baby, who in ideal world or this one should be protected. To borrow the language of tennis, “Advantage infant.”
A second scenario more closely echoes Dudley and Stephens, though without a moribund boatmate. With fresh water aboard but no food, nor an imminent prospect of rescue, which passenger—if any—should be butchered to feed the rest? All might perish in a slow-motion suicide pact, or through a lengthy paralysis of judgment. Then again, the victim could be chosen by lot, which represents the fairest solution, all other things being equal.
All other things are seldom equal. The lightest passenger would offer the least nutrition in exchange for a human life, and selecting the heaviest passenger would maximize the return on loss of life. If two passengers seem to weigh about the same, however, what is an acceptable tiebreaker? For that matter, what if the heaviest passenger is a pregnant woman? Should her approximate weight be divided by two, or by, say, 1.5, depending on how one values the fetus?
The passenger who would offer up his own life might represent an easy choice, but that same passenger may better serve alive as a caretaker or morale booster. The passenger most vocal about being spared might provide another seemingly easy choice, since he may prove disruptive and dangerous if allowed to live. Schadenfreude and a sense of justice commingle in the prospect of bringing low the haughty. Yet if this passenger lacks nutritional value, with relatively little flesh on thick or lanky bones, some lives may have to be spared in spite of themselves. He may then have an incentive to be a team player if it is understood who will be served next.
A third possibility has haunted me since one of my intermittent bouts of graduate school, as I was going through the final spasms of my enfant terrible years as a one-time child prodigy who was no longer so prodigious in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps by way of penance, I found myself required to study with two professors who seemed arbitrary, discouraging of independent thought and otherwise unhelpful. I wrote scathing and sometimes profane evaluations, and my combination of poor penmanship and invective rendered them not so much anonymous as merely unsigned. I may have evolved since then, but I am now left with the question of dealing with the two professors as I remember them. One may no longer be alive, and I still hear far too much about the other.
Had we three found ourselves in a lifeboat built for two, what would I have done? Pushing either off, let alone both, would be murder, disproportionate even by my vindictive lights. With rare exceptions, the value of a life exists independently of the awfulness of the person possessing it. If murder had suited me, which one should I have pushed off? Lack of practice deprived me of a protocol (and, for the record, still does).
Yet a swift decision would have been required. I would not want to be stuck in an elevator for fifteen minutes with either remembered nemesis, so why should I endure a drift of indefinite duration with uncertain prospects of rescue?
Cutting my losses, I am mentally overboard and breaststroking away, consoled with the thought that they deserve each other.
A fourth lifeboat is fashioned from my petulance and the saying “Character is what you do when no one is watching.” It takes disturbingly little effort for me to imagine myself as the lone passenger on a lifeboat with provisions for more than one, while foundering overboard is a more recent workplace adversary—and one at a higher pay grade—who has withheld support on some projects, slagged my efforts before third parties without first giving me a chance to correct course, and attempted to make extra work for me without clear direction.
This time the roles are reversed. I have the power of life and death, means in the language of courtroom drama, in the form of an oar to grasp and a life preserver to toss out—or not. As for motive, I have not complained about him to a third party for ages. Bygones appear to be bygones. Opportunity presents itself in the form of deep water and an absence of witnesses.
Prosecuting attorney: What did you do to him?
Defendant: Nothing. Nothing at all.
Follow-up questions, of course, might become more pointed.
Prosecuting attorney: Did you engage in any attempt to rescue the deceased?
Defendant: Um. Um. This depends on what “engage” means. [Stammers, mumbles, commits perjury with a greater or lesser degree of elaboration.]
Depending on the jury or prosecutor it might be possible to prove—or necessary to plead—negligent homicide, depraved indifference, manslaughter followed by some number. In a civil action, an O.J. Simpson-style wrongful death finding could be reached, though really, what could I do? I am a small, middle-aged person in far from athletic shape. It would be nearly miraculous for me to save myself, let alone someone who outweighs me by at least thirty pounds. It would be quite nearly impossible, though, to provide evidence of murder in the narrow sense of premeditated homicide while cognizant of right and wrong. My skills do not extend to creating a storm or bringing about a shipwreck.
Yet if opportunity favors a prepared mind, years of seething in private have allowed me to determine precisely what I would do.
I would engage in a substantial effort, endangering myself if need be, to save the aforesaid miscreant. The logic is straightforward, as illustrated by boilerplate dialogue from the kind of cop movies whose previews intone “This time it’s personal.” At a climactic moment after the villain has lain down his gun, the protagonist still has his finger on the trigger and can save the judicial system a great deal of trouble and expense by avenging the death of a loved one or previous partner with one bullet—only to be prosecuted himself. Time stops and destiny is suspended in close-up for a seemingly interminable moment until the current partner or other voice of reason says in a low voice “Don’t do it, [insert name here]. He isn’t worth it.”
Neither is my nemesis. Even if he didn’t have children, who must see something in him that I don’t, and even if leaving him to the waves were to raise no suspicion at all, the momentary satisfaction of the abyss in my being would be more than offset by a lifetime of guilt, and dead or alive he’s not getting the last word. So he’ll get rescued all right, to the very best of my ability, even if in pain, cold or fatigue he begs to be put out of his misery.
Not on my watch. He will live, and he will get at least his share of food, water and shade. If all goes according to plan he will remain as healthy as possible until landfall or rescue.
Then his suffering begins in ways that lend themselves to neither prosecution nor litigation. Thank you cards and presents are returned, invitations ignored, an appearance at a hero’s homecoming missed. Handshakes and greetings are declined. I will snub him then as I do now. He can drown in his pent-up gratitude or burst with it. That’s not my problem . . . . si mangia freddo.
Even more improbable, sounding like the set-up for a joke, is a lifeboat with three open seats and three potential passengers other than myself: a priest, a minister, a rabbi. Responding to the highest impulses of their respective creeds, they might allow me to decide whose seat I should take. At least one may insist that I take his seat. What should I do before we are all swept up in the undertow of a capsizing hull?
As a Christian, if one who isn’t always clear on the concept (see Scenarios 3 and 4 above), perhaps I should act on what I profess and offer up my place. After all, I am just one childless man who is likely to help far fewer people than any of these members of the clergy. Besides, I am a writer, and as others have said of beetles and the poor, the Almighty must love writers, since He made so many of us. One fewer won’t invalidate that general principle, and my colleagues don’t need the competition for the small crumbs of money and prestige that are available.
If I absolutely must survive, my undoubtedly fervent protests notwithstanding, throwing the rabbi overboard is not an option. That choice would seem too much like a continuation of the last century, and centuries before that. Such an act would offend my vanity as well as whatever sense of decency I possess. Even the appearance of hatred is unoriginal, and I resent being backed into a cliché.
There is no obvious algorithm for choosing between the priest and the minister. A void of systematic thought is filled by untested impressions, visceral jerks toward doing the ever-elusive “right thing.” Perhaps a celibate priest should be cast off before a minister with a spouse and children. Single men have often represented the most dispensable segment of the population, turned to cannon fodder or explorers of uncharted regions. For this reason the Pony Express explicitly recruited orphans, and it has been claimed that the members of the Donner Party most likely to be eaten were single men without close relatives.
A cold if obsolete logic justifies this approach. From the standpoint of perpetuating the species, a goal we have long since overshot, most men are dispensable. One man can sire countless children over decades—and some have tried—while even the most long-suffering woman can bear only a score of children or so in a much narrower window of fertility. A society with a significant female majority is viable, if distressing to some of that majority.
At the other extreme, a society with a large male surplus is not. Besides the female minority’s limited reproductive capability, excessive sexual competition expressed through status-seeking or violence undermines social stability, producing communities more like a mining camp or prison block than a shining city on a hill. On a planetary scale, the full implications remain to be seen of China’s recent combination of a one-child policy with extensive female infanticide and abortion of female fetuses, which has produced a male surplus of as much as 100 million.
Then again, not all single men are alike. What if the priest’s work with refugees and the hungry has saved thousands of lives and may save thousands more, while the minister serves a prosperous suburban congregation, and may have let slip that he has taken indecent liberties with congregants and/or the collection plate?
The possibilities multiply as each consideration is added, and the scenario as a whole becomes increasingly far-fetched. It would be much more likely if we all walked into a bar. With an imam.
A final hypothetical vessel involves an update of the Titanic’s rumored cross-dressers. Some may state that they must stay alive to complete some great humanitarian task—and they may even be correct—but desperate circumstances don’t lend themselves to fact-checking. Skeptics might have pitched Jonas Salk into the water before he discovered the polio vaccine.
A different fellow traveler comes to mind because of the last century’s explosion of research in psychology and psychiatry, and popular culture’s more enthusiastic than accurate embrace of those young sciences. That passenger is superficially charming but manipulative and ultimately devoid of conscience and empathy: a sociopath. Those who aren’t mental health professionals cannot recite a checklist of associated traits and behaviors, let alone discuss causation, but most of us have seen the type: dead in the eyes, lacking empathy the way others lack a limb. That person may be the hitchhiker one looks over and accelerates past. It may also be the gangster who walks straight into a restaurant’s kitchen of a restaurant as if he owns the place—which in some de facto sense he does in collecting protection money—or holding court in some other public place, his malign glitter both attracting attention and discouraging a closer approach. More recently that person may be the financier with an innovative derivative product and a metaphysical certitude of being the smartest person in the room. At the extreme, we are forced to look into the abyss of serial killers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, who view others as backdrop and means of gratification. In all cases, something in our evolutionary heritage of being prey as well as predator says “unclean” instead of “clean,” “raw” rather than “cooked,” not “sacred” but “profane.”
If we do not fully understand the origins of such amorality, we more surely fail to understand how that amorality can be eliminated or even treated. How does one implant a conscience like a prosthetic, or transplant it like bone marrow? Generally one doesn’t.
Yet sometimes change takes place. The back story of the hymn “Amazing Grace” offers an example. John Newton was working as a slave trader, a sociopath’s dream job: confining human beings and treating them as cargo, throwing the dead overboard as a matter of course. He “got religion,” however,—or religion got him, when he saw a fellow crew member swept off deck in a storm—and he wrote the words on board. On land he followed through on what could otherwise have been dismissed as no more than a typical bargain with God or jailhouse conversion, eventually becoming an Anglican priest. (It took him decades, though, to publicly renounce the slave trade.)
Short of having a lengthy shared history with someone—and even then—it is difficult to say how a crisis will change character, or reveal it. Some panic, and others find hitherto unknown depths of savagery in their being; others still might be forged into new creatures. Indeed, some have claimed the worst thing one can do to another person is to give up on him, and allowing someone to die is a radical form of giving up. That such a person seems capable of casting aside others for his own survival if not entertainment, or has demonstrably done so, does not necessarily foretell the future. As noted in the fine print of a prospectus, past performance is no guarantee of future results; Newtons happen. The issues are both interesting and significant, and they can be considered at great length.
But the waves are growing rougher, and the small boat must be lowered and shoved off from the mother ship soon, lest a slim chance of survival turn to none. Do you take the path of the saints and sages, the avatars of compassion and ultimate self-realization, of the incarnate angels of mercy and sometimes of the martyrs?
Or, looking at the dark water and the faces of your companions, do you go with the odds?

1 Richard Parker is also the name of a character in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), who finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with other shipwrecked sailors. Having suggested that one be sacrificed to sustain the rest, he ends up drawing the short straw. In the editorial process it has been brought to my attention that the human protagonist of Life of Pi, the latest major addition to lifeboat literature, is likewise named Richard Parker. It seems not unreasonable to assume that this was a deliberate choice on Yann Martel’s part.

Publicity Photo, J.D. Smith, December 2010J.D. Smith’s essay collection Dowsing and Science was published by Texas Review Press in 2011. His other books include three poetry collections, most recently Labor Day at Venice Beach (2012), the humor collection Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth (2013), and the children’s picture book The Best Mariachi in the World (2008). In 2007 he was awarded a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work in several genres has appeared in American Book Review, The Bark, Boulevard, Chelsea, Gastronomica, the Los Angeles Times, Nimrod, Pleiades, Slice and Tar River Poetry. His one-act play “Dig,” produced in London in 2010, was adapted for a short film of the same title in 2011.

He works as an editor and lives in Washington, DC, with his wife Paula Van Lare and their rescue dog Roo. Presently working on a variety of projects, he is also circulating two poetry manuscripts, one consisting entirely of formal poems and the other in free verse. He tweets @Smitroverse, and samples of his work are available at jdsmith.contently.com