I was on another website discussing Humanism, and someone posted this:

A moral question I'd like to ask humanists (who I think are really just in-the-closet Christians). If you start with the axiom "all humans have the same value"... What conclusions do you arrive at in practical scenario?

Example: if a boat is sinking, who should go first to the life boats?
1. random order (all are equal in all situations)
2. women and children (old gender prejudice)
3. the most moral of the people (all are equal, but the moral ones will contribute to more well-being, and so save more people e.g. more worth by their survival)

Now, aside from this guy claiming that I was an "in-the-closet Christian" (which I am not in any way), his question stumped me for a little bit. Upon further consideration, I gave the answer: "I would allow the women, children and aged to go before me, but I would let others make their own decisions regarding whether or not to be self sacrificing."

This is my first reaction, so I went with my instinct, but I'm not sure how it matches up against the ideals of Humanism. I'm still in the stage of studying Humanism, although I feel like I know enough to identify as a Humanist. So, I'd just like the opinions of other people here.


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First, this guy is obviously a Christian who doesn't really understand what Christianity and Humanism stand for.

Men and women most clearly do not have the same reproductive value. In the time it takes a woman to produce a child a man can father hundreds (thousands, if artificial methods are used). Women are, literally, the bottleneck of human reproduction. If all the men on Earth died except a handful but women survived, the human race would survive. This could not work the other way around.

Children represent an investment of time and resources and are society's future. For most of human history, their mothers were more important for taking care of the children as well. In addition, we are almost all hardwired by evolution to protect children. Even if you could live with yourself after allowing children to drown, the others who learn of it might not think much of you afterward.

There is the additional problem that arises from the fact that men tend to be larger. A general rush to the lifeboats would not only put the smaller women and children at a huge disadvantage, it would actually endanger them. They could be trampled before ever reaching the lifeboats.

Call me old fashioned, but "women and children first". I think it's just common decency. A person with no inclination to protect those weaker than he has no empathy.

The "most moral" option is ridiculous. Who would decide which people were the "most moral"? Is that just another way of saying believers first? Considering who posed the question, I suspect so.
There is no possible way to prove which of these three options is the most morally correct with the information supplied. I would go further and say there is no way to prove any of the infinite number of possible answers is able to be proven more morally correct than any of the others. There is no absolute moral yardstick in this scenario. My best answer would be, none of the above. My best solution would be to figure out, as best as possible, with available time, the combination of people on the lifeboats that would most likely save the most lives. I don't see how a Christian or other religious perspective would better inform a solution.
I am fine with who ever gets to the boats first. I would attempt to have my children first and then my wife. After that I will get in if there is room. No one will look after my children the same way that I will, and I think the ideal of sacrifice is absolutely asinine. I have carried enough dead weight already. I refuse to do it any more.
Who is John Galt anyway?

As usual, I'm late to this party. Nevertheless . . .


   I suggest the best solution to the lifeboat problem is for the person who has the power or authority to decide the order of boarding  ( "the Captain" )to make a selection based on the passengers value, as he is able to determine that.  If he has a young Einstein or Ghandi, they get on the lifeboat first because they are the most valuable in his opinion.  If a young Lizzie Bordon, although perhaps she she seems an attractive breeder, she would be among the last.  


  The Captain, like all of us is biased and has incomplete knowledge and insufficient wisdom to select by value accurately, and he is wise enough to recognize these limitations.  He does have the power to enforce his selections, therefor not to do so would be, for him, immoral.  It's absurd to select by any criterion other than anticipated future value.  Value is, of course, subjective.

I'd just tell him, "Screw the lifeboats, it's all about sea turtles, mate!"


If you can't beat em*, confuse em...



*make no mistake, you can't beat em when the question is a loaded hypothetical with infinite possibilities for moving goal posts.  i.e. you suggest women and children, they reply young Hitler is on board, etc. etc. ad infinitum et nauseum.

YES to the sea turtles!
Dr. Marc,
The approx. 7x10^9 of us (the "Inferior Animals" projected to reach 9x10^9 by 2050) suggest we're doing OK at staying alive so far. What proof are you suggesting? Certainly the Earth still outweighs us, but in terms of relative brain mass it seems quite deficient. What Magic am I missing?

"The most moral of the people" by making this distinction you are negating the statement,

"all humans have the same value." This is clearly an untrue statement, but it makes you feel warm inside doesn't it? Also who would decide who is the most 'moral' and what would the criteria be... volunteer hours? Now I would like to add a #4 to that list - those most likely to survive, with the greatest strength (in every sort of way) and most useful skills, especially teamwork.


I would then be stuck between choice 1 and 4... but I think #1 is the one, why? If a boat is sinking I don't think you would have time to fuss over who is most deserving of a place on a lifeboat.


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