Moral dilemma: when killing is ok

In 1842, a ship struck an iceberg and more than 30 survivors were crowded into a lifeboat intended to hold 7. As a storm threatened, it became obvious that the lifeboat would have to be lightened if anyone were to survive. The captain reasoned that the right thing to do in this situation was to force some individuals to go over the side and drown. Such an action, he reasoned, was not unjust to those thrown overboard, for they would have drowned anyway. If he did nothing, however, he would be responsible for the deaths of those whom he could have saved. Some people opposed the captain’s decision. They claimed that if nothing were done and everyone died as a result, no one would be responsible for these deaths. On the other hand, if the captain attempted to save some, he could do so only by killing others and their deaths would be his responsibility; this would be worse than doing nothing and letting all die. The captain rejected this reasoning. Since the only possibility for rescue required great efforts of rowing, the captain decided that the weakest would have to be sacrificed. In this situation it would be absurd, he thought, to decide by drawing lots who should be thrown overboard. As it turned out, after days of hard rowing, the survivors were rescued and the captain was tried for his action. If you had been on the jury, how would you have decided?

Now, I don’t believe in utilitarianism and I don’t believe in doing evil toward a good end, but in a situation like this, wouldn’t the captain be justified in tossing some people overboard? If he doesn’t, there is serious risk that many, many more would perish. I mean, we’re talking about a boat that has 30 people, but it’s built for 7.

What is the Catholic response to this? Can the principle of double-effect be loosely applied here somehow? Some other moral principle?

This was done some time ago. And I didn’t realise that there was an actual event which was used as a hypothetical on the previous ocassion. Although circumstances like this must happen a lot.

I’ll just grab my popcorn and let you guys sort it out.

There was a plane crash high up in the mountains in Chile.

Many passengers survived.

To stay alive, the survivors ate the dead.

It became a book and a movie.

It’s easy to tell that the Captains actions were evil, simply by putting the Captain in the shoes of the most weakest who were to be thrown overboard, if he were in their shoes, he most certainly would not have justified such an evil thing.

I hope this has helped

God Bless You

Thank you for reading

I am literally just taking a break from writing a paper on the topic. No rest for the weary.

Here’s my conclusion from the discussion on this same scenario from “the thread to end all threads”…

No, you can’t select individuals for death, presuming that there is no reasonable hope that they would survive being thrown over.

To do such targets a non-combative person with lethal violence. This is always wrong, excepting the highest principle of charity (which means here self-sacrifice).

The ones who are thrown overboard were already in danger anyway, and yet they also were not sure to die, for any number of reasons. Suppose some people sacrificed themselves? Suppose all of a sudden another ship appeared and was ready to help? Suppose the boat just didn’t sink after all? Suppose the boat was closer to land than was thought?

Success is predicated upon reducing the person from being in a situation that is “potentially lethal” to one that is “almost certainly lethal,” even if some other solution came about afterwards. What I mean is, the captain’s action is a failure if he unsuccessfully throws someone overboard, but then the boat runs aground. The object is not merely the defense of the ship (or “preventing the boat from sinking”), it is the attack of the non-combative person. As such, it is wrong.

In terms of a juridical trial, he ought to get off easy. This is a highly complex case with tons of stress affecting decision-making. It is morally wrong, but not everything that is morally wrong ought to be punished by human law.

I watched the movie, the difference here I believe, is that the people they ate bits of died, they weren’t killed.

I hope this has helped

God Bless You

Thank you for reading

I agree with most of this, but I think he ought to be judicially tried. I don’t agree that it’s complex either. I think it’s fairly straight forward.

Had the Captain sacrificed himself, or one of the others sacrificed themselves, now that would be noble, choosing who to sacrifice (let alone the weakest and most vulnerable) and sparing themselves proves him to be a morally bankrupt coward, putting his life above theirs. The Captain chose the easy and morally evil option. Not noble or virtuous at all, quite the contrary.

I hope this has helped

God Bless You

Thank you for reading

It is easy to say it from an armchair, isn’t it.

There was even a film about this situation. A ship goes down (in WW2 I believe) in a violent storm; there are not 30 in the boat, but only 10, but the Captain believes that it won’t hold so many bodies; he pulls his gun to force others to help him throw people out. They of course drown at once in the icy waves.

He is subsequently judicially tried.


It is, am I wrong though?

I pray that I am never tempted with such an evil idea and if so, that I could resist such an evil temptation.

Had it been the Captains life in question, I’m sure he would have found another way or attempted something else.

I hope this has helped

God Bless You

Thank you for reading

You are correct in your final evaluation of the act as wrong. You are wrong in saying it is not a complex scenario (just take a look at the thread I referenced). You are wrong too if you think that he ought to be tried and sentenced as a plain old murderer. Fear, stress, and confusion all mitigate culpability, both in terms of knowledge and of freedom.

You can read about the shipwreck and the lifeboat here:
Alexander Holmes Trial: 1842 - Part 1
and the trial here:
Alexander Holmes Trial: 1842 - Part 2

After the prosecution and the defense had rested, Judge Baldwin (historical records do not indicate his first name) gave his instructions to the jury. Although he recognized the principle that self-preservation was a defense to homicide, he stated that there were some important exceptions. One of these exceptions was when someone had accepted a duty to others that implied that he or she would put his or her life at risk before risking the lives of the others. Judge Baldwin held that seamen like Holmes had accepted such a duty, and that therefore self-preservation was not an adequate defense to the charge of manslaughter:
“[W]e must look, not only to the jeopardy in which the parties are, but also to the relations in which they stand. The slayer must be under no obligation to make his own safety secondary to the safety of others.… Such … is the relation which exists on shipboard. The passenger stands in a position different from that of the officers and seamen.… The sailor… is bound to set a greater value on the life of others than on his own.”
After 16 hours of deliberation, the jury found Holmes guilty [of manslaughter] on April 23, 1842. As the official court report notes, the verdict was given “with some difficulty,” and was accompanied by the jury’s recommendation for mercy. Judge Baldwin sentenced Holmes to six months in prison and a $20 fine.

Sorry, this does not exactly address the Catholic response. :o

Perhaps that film is Abandon Ship!

The Catholic response to this?

“I volunteer to go overboard for the sake of the rest. God have mercy on us all.”

This similar to what Jonah did.

+The terrible flaw . . . clearly reavealed . . . within the ethical test of original poster’s scenario . . . and the subject Captain’s approach to the problem at hand . . . is that the Captain appears to have had a completely . . . Godless . . . soul without even a . . . whisper . . . of . . . faith or trust in GOD . . .

No prayer:gopray2:fulnes is mentioned anywhere . . . and there isn’t even a . . . [FONT=“Arial Black”]whisper[/FONT] . . . of any Judeo/Christian :bible1: Scriptural formation of his soul’s conscience . . .

The Captain’s approach is rather founded upon “self-sufficiency” and “self-centeredness” . . . and further evidence of the state of his utterly . . . “bankrupt” . . . sad soul . . . is the tyranny of the strong over the weak . . . and the heinous sin . . . of the arbitrarily sacrificing of the weak in order to personally stay alive . . . and the fact that the Captain evidently survived the ordeal and was justly tried for murder in a court of civilized law based on Judeo/Christian civil law . . . is clear evidence of his dreadfully immoral acts . . .

Clearly . . . “self-sacrifice” . . . like unto our LORD’S deep woundedness and profound suffering sacrifice on the Holy Cross for the saving of all our lives was . . . not . . . present in this Captain’s “self-centered” immoral soul . . .

Our Faith and our Church lore . . . abounds . . . in miraculous interventions by our Wonderful God in times of human crisis . . . but the spiritually dead and dreadfully bankrupt soul of this Captain seemed to believe that he was . . . *“on his own entirely” *. . . and his corrupt and immoral actions provide clear proof of same . . .

[INDENT]**Notes from Wikipedia

[size=]"**[/size]Roman Catholic Doctrine

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, asserts that the prohibition of murder stems from man being created in God’s image and recognizes the principles of bloodguilt as being necessary for all time.[51] Life is portrayed as sacred, and no one can claim the right to destroy an innocent human being. The sin of shedding of innocent blood cries out to heaven for vengeance.

Human life is sacred’’ because from its beginning it involves the creative action of **God **and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, Who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being … The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator. The law forbidding it is universally valid: it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere… The fifth commandment forbids direct and intentional killing as gravely sinful. The murderer and those who cooperate voluntarily in murder commit a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance.[52]

Legitimate Defense

Legitimate defense is depicted as justifiable, even if the defender deals his aggressor a lethal blow. However, a man should not use more force than necessary to repel an attack. The legitimate defense of persons and societies should not be considered as an exception to the prohibition of murdering the innocent: the preservation of innocent life is seen as the intended outcome. Injury or death to the aggressor is not the intended outcome, it is the unfortunate consequence of using necessary force to repel an imminent threat.[53]

Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others.[54]

The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.[55]

The Catholic Catechism teaches that legitimate public authority has the right and duty to punish criminals proportionally to the gravity of the offense to safeguard the public good. Nonlethal means are preferred, if these are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety. However, recourse to the death penalty is not excluded.

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. — Catechism of the Catholic Church[56]


51.^ Catechism of the Catholic Church §§2259-2260

52.^ Catechism of the Catholic Church §§2258,2261,2268

53.^ Catechism of the Catholic Church §§2263-2264

54.^ DeGrane, Susan. “Thou shalt not Kill?”, Chicago Reader, September 18, 2015

55.^ Catechism of the Catholic Church §2265

56.^ Catechism of the Catholic Church 2267" [/INDENT]

[RIGHT]. . . all for Jesus

From the little bit I was able to read of this post (seriously, please reconsider how you format what you post, it is very unhelpful), I’m going to offer a counter-thought.

Moses allowed for people to kill an intruder in their house. How much more important are the lives of a dozen or two dozen people compared to one’s house?

The problem is very subtle. One can easily imagine a generally good-hearted person trying to save the most people he could by throwing some overboard. The question is, “What is the object, and is that object licit?”

The way one can try to wiggle out of it is to say that the object is “removing people from the boat,” with no intention to harm them, which only comes from the effects of the ocean. So, it is a good act with a double-effect, the one good and the one bad.

This is a very clear and complete exposition. I would probably just go with the basic principle involved (from a Catholic, not a judicial perspective), which is, “You may not do evil that good may come.”

I find that basic principle helps in a lot of situations. I have read a very complete discussion of the principle, much of which I have forgotten, but one point which stayed with me is that if you perform an evil act in order for something good to come about, the evil is certain, while the good is still only possible. Which is to say that you have added to the actual evil in the world for certain, but possibly no good result will come. In this example, if he throws people off the boat, he can’t know for certain that anyone will actually survive to be rescued. (There are other reasons why it is wrong, of course, but I just thought I’d mention that one.)

Of course, this is a moral analysis, not a legal one. From a legal standpoint, I think the actual result was probably correct: he was convicted, but the sentence was not harsh, and the reason he was convicted was that as the captain, he had the responsibility to put the lives of the passengers ahead of his own. Of course, if it had been someone besides the captain, it is hard to see how he would have had the authority to throw people overboard, so maybe that is why his responsibility was greater. I mean, if random passengers just started throwing each other overboard, it seems like that would be at least manslaughter as well. If you get to put your survival ahead of others’ just because you are stronger…

So basically, he would definitely need to go to confession, but only possibly to jail.

I wonder what happened to the man after he got out of jail. I think it must have been a very difficult decision, and also his circumstances would be well known, so he may have had to deal with not only feelings of guilt, but also with social ostracism. Which is a shame, because whatever he did, he did appear to be acting with good motives–IMO it was only his judgement that was at fault.



The objector though would come back and say it is not evil, in fact it is “neutral” or “good” to lighten the boat, and that putting people in the ocean is not intrinsically evil, that their deaths are not willed as means or ends, and so on.

It’s slipperier than it first appears. It really comes down to insisting that non-combative persons can’t be put into presumably lethal danger by selecting them for it.

I suppose it can also be argued that the captain was trying to save as many lives as possible.

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