Back in the Lifeboat


Try this thought experiment:

You’re the captain on an ocean liner.  While en route to Europe your ship strikes an iceberg and starts sinking fast—so fast that the majority of passengers are drowned, and of the remainder almost all have panicked and piled into lifeboats that capsized or failed to launch or met some other tragic end.  A handful of passengers are left—twelve, to be exact—and one inflatable raft that will hold only seven (including you.)  Who would you choose to be in the boat with you?  There’s the brilliant but arrogant doctor, the young musician who speaks no English, the combat vet who hears voices, the muscular cage fighter, the alcoholic carpenter, the disabled tech genius . . .

Forget it.  As soon as that raft inflates there will be a mad dash for it, and you’ll be reduced to throwing out the weakest six.  Better bulk up, or you may be one of them.

Of course, the “Lifeboat Game, or Problem, or Exercise, was never meant to be a real-life scenario.  We heard about it back in the 1990s, when “values clarification” was an educational buzzword.  Nothing much was clarified, unless it was sneaking reinforcement for a utilitarian worldview, for the only objective criterion for a seat on the boat was the perceived usefulness of the passengers.  Take the drug-dealing doctor over the Baptist co-ed in a heartbeat, even if the girl was traveling to France for one last visit with her dying grandmother.  And what good is a twelve-year-old recovering from leukemia?  Unless you can eat him once he croaks.  Even as a theoretical exercise the Lifeboat Game was repugnant at best and destructive to human values at worst—if it’s still used in classrooms we don’t hear about it.

Women and children first! Oh wait–can they fix a leak? Fight off a shark? Perform an emergency appendectomy?

But a version of it recently surfaced in North Carolina, when a history teacher asked students to decide which four of the following they would allow in their bomb shelter during a nuclear attack:

  • A 35-year-old White male construction worker who is a racist
  • A 40-year-old Black female doctor who is a lesbian
  • A 50-year-old White male who is a Catholic priest
  • A 25-year-old Hispanic male who is a lawyer
  • A 30-year-old Korean American female who is a former college athlete
  • A 20-year-old white female who is pregnant, has a two-year-old son, and is on welfare

It’s the old “values clarification” shell game, this time with a racial/political edge.  Instead of, “Who’s the most useful?” kids also get to determine, “Who’s the least worthy?”  Because, obviously, if you pick the racist White guy (who might be helpful when it’s time to rebuild), what does that say about you?

The teacher only meant to provoke lively dialogue in the classroom, but real-life parents—both black and white—complained, quickly and loudly, and the exercise disappeared with apologies.  Parents rightly pointed out that there were better uses of classroom time, such as learning civics or algebra, but there’s also something creepy about activities that force us to assign value to people rather than ideas.

Because when we’re looking at functions, sexes, and colors, we’re not seeing people.

Because when survival is understood as the ultimate value, love, courage, and sacrifice take a back seat—or they stay aboard the sinking ship, to go down singing “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

But what’s the harm if it’s all theoretical?  Some theoretical alleyways should be avoided because bad things happen there.  When people are seen as units to be evaluated, not to help but to eliminate, pogroms and ghettos and extermination camps may not be far behind.  Not always, but never without the lens of functionality or race or creed.  We tend toward that kind of evaluation anyway; why encourage it?

Here’s an alternate exercise:

You love to cook, but your latest dinner party fell through when all the guests cancelled at the last minute.  Outside your downtown apartment are an Asian dance instructor, a Black single mom pushing a stroller, a homeless white guy, a gay couple waiting for the bus, a Hispanic nurse getting off her shift, and a white Christian homeschool mom with her ten-year-old son.  How will you persuade them all to come in and share your dinner, and what will you all talk about?

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