(Long) The Morality of the Overcrowded Lifeboat

The Morality of the Overcrowded Lifeboat

Part 1.

The behavior of people in a situation of extreme scarcity, and the
moral response to it, is the raw area where philosophy most closely
joins with natural science. The story of the shipwreck of the William
Brown, of Philadelphia, USA, while sailing from Liverpool, England, in
March 1841, is one that nearly all priests and ministers like to tell,
even if they don't know the story in detail, and even if the moral
lesson they attempt to draw is the wrong one.

The ship hit an iceberg and sank. The ship's jollyboat (commanded by
Cpt. George L. Harris) and its longboat (commanded by ship's mate
Frances Rhodes) were both crowded, the longboat dangerously so. In
addition, the longboat was leaking due to its excessive weight, which
portended the death of everyone aboard. The commanders of both boats
decided to head for a landing in Newfoundland.

There were 31 other passengers who missed both the captain's jolly
boat and the longboat with the first mate. They went down with the
ship. Imagine. 31 people looking enviously at the departing boats,
muttering angrily to each other "It isn't fair!" "Damn right it
isn't!" "What makes them better than us anyhow?" "I paid good money to
get back to Philadelphia, and the captain is going to hear from my
lawy...glub glub glub."

It became clear that the longboat would not go far unless it were made
lighter. So the mate and some of his sailors started throwing some of
the others overboard, both passengers and crew, but chiefly targeting
males for getting the toss. It's not that they were heavier, exactly,
since among those ejected were two boys, one of them 12 years old, the
other being 18 and skinny. The older boy didn't have to be tossed.
When he was "chosen," he cooperated, jumping overboard after being
allowed to say his prayers. The younger of the boys saved his life by
stealthily hanging on to the rear of the boat, keeping his head above

The first man to be thrown over was an obedient sailor named Riley.
The mate asked him to stand up, and he did. Then the mate or someone
assisting him grabbed Riley and tossed him into the ocean, where he

One man, a sailor named Charles Conlin, tried to appeal to the mate
and his helpers through friendship, saying: "Holmes dear, sure you
won't put me out?" (Holmes was Rhodes' main assistant in the toss
party.) Conlin was tossed out.

One man, Frank Askin, tried to buy his life with gold, offering the
mate five large coins as a bribe. But in that situation money was
worthless, and Askin was grabbed and tossed overboard.

But another man, a sailor named John Messer, successfully prevented
his own tossing by menacing the mate and his party with a knife. He
had to be ever-vigilent, of course, and it turned out that Messer was
the one who, the following day, first sighted the sails of the
Crescent (Cpt. S.J. Ball), whereupon the threat to him ended.

By the time they were finished, the mate had thrown overboard 16 men
and boys, and 2 women. The women were the sisters of Frank Askin, and
it is said that they jumped voluntarily after the mate tossed their
brother into the sea. All together, these sacrifices made it possible
for the longboat to remain afloat, which enabled the other 23
passengers to be rescued.

Upon their return to civilization, a maritime court of inquiry
examined the behavior of the Frances Rhodes and sailor Holmes, but
they were unable to find fault with them, given the circumstances.

You can read the story in even greater detail at these pages:


There's more than one lesson to be learned in that story. Here are the
big ones:

1. When it is not possible for everyone to live, the phrase "half is
better than none" is as true for people as it is for loaves of bread.
Fairness is irrelevant.

It is sometimes necessary that some die to save others, because the
only alternative is for everyone to die and there be no survivors at
all. However, when this kind of situation arises, each person will
regard himself as having exceptional merit which puts him firmly in
the class privileged with survival. Everyone else might be expendable,
but not himself!

In an emergency, anyone who speaks of "fairness" and believes it is a
fool (a bleating sheep). And anyone who speaks of fairness without
believing it is a sneaky predator (a jackal). There will usually be
bleating sheep, but the jackals will outnumber them.

2. When some must be sacrificed to save others, a dictatorship is

There are no other conflicts so intractable as those for which life
for some means death for the others. Neither argument nor bribery,
will persuade someone to sacrifice himself. An appeal to sentiments,
such as patriotism or family love, will sometimes be successful in
getting someone to volunteer to be a sacrifice, but not always.
Perhaps not usually. When a substantial number of sacrifices is
required, they must be taken by violence, and nothing else will

To supply the necessary violence to secure the number of sacrifices
required to save the rest of the people, there must be an effective
local government of a dictatorial nature. This government may not
sacrifice themselves - at least, not until the very last - because
then there would be no one with both the will and the ability to
complete the required number of sacrifices.

In an emergency, a democratic process would be unable to make the
required number of sacrifices in the available time. Although
democracies are notorious for their characteristic of "two wolves and
one sheep voting on what to have for dinner," the slaughter of the
sheep always involves deception. Some of the wolves, for example, are
the kind of people who will eat meat, but don't want to watch or to be
the butcher. Some of the sheep must be persuaded that the
slaughterhouse is really a funhouse. And some of the sheep must be
persuaded that they are wolves, at least, until it is time for the
real wolves to correct the misapprehension.

In an emergency, such as that on the William Brown's longboat, the
mate might have called for a vote on who to toss - but there would be
the equivalent of "nominations" and "caucuses" and "campaign speeches"
and pleas of extenuating circumstances every time the next sacrifice
was considered. And they'd have to be carried out one-by-one, or else
those who were selected for tossing would revolt en masse.

Nothing must be done to warn the sacrifices in advance that they've
been selected. If they were warned, they would join their strength and
it might be impossible to sacrifice them. That's why the William
Brown's mate didn't offer to cast lots to see decide who aboard the
longboat would be tossed. Everyone who drew the short straws would
immediately become a self-conscious subclass, and they would at once
have engaged in defensive maneuvers. The struggle would have imperiled
everyone in the boat.

3. Neither money nor appeals to sentiment can buy your life when the
cost of maintaining it threatens the life of the one whom you would

Frank Askin and Charles Conlin learned these truths too late.

4. Obedience to authority can't save you, either, when the authority
already has a sufficient number of willing servants. Obedience, in an
emergency, sometimes kills the obedient.

Sailor Riley learned this lesson too late. He obeyed his senior
officer and thus collaborated in his own death. Riley knew that
somebody had to go, or the longboat would sink. He'd been discussing
that very subject with his fellow sailors during the past few hours.
Riley might have figured on being named one of the tossers, rather
than being chosen as a tossee, or perhaps the theory of tossing had
not yet been confirmed in his mind as a gory reality as yet. His fatal
mistake was in not being suspicious of authority's intentions when it
came to call upon him.

5. When you must, to save your own life, resist the desperate measures
of those who are also trying to survive, the only recourse that will
work for you is violence, or the creditable threat thereof.

Someone resisting sacrifice doesn't always need to be stronger than
the opposing group. Sometimes, he only needs to be strong enough to
make fighting him not worthwhile.

Remember the story about two men, running from a hungry bear, and one
man yells "Stop! I have an idea!" He stops running and begins to
change from his dress shoes into his running shoes. The other man,
confused, had stopped running too. The bear was getting closer and
closer. "Why are you changing your shoes now?" asked the confused man.
"Because," said the other, "I just realized that I don't need to
outrun the bear. I only need to outrun you," and he took off like a

That is the logic that saved the life of sailor John Messer. He wasn't
as strong as the group of men opposed to him, but he was strong enough
to convince them that they should choose other victims.

6. Not all lives are of equal value.

Suppose that the occupants of the longboat had not had the good
fortune to be rescued by the Crescent. They would have had to make
their way to Newfoundland, which was presumably the easiest landfall
available to them. In order to get there, the longboat would need
guiding by someone who understood the principles of ocean navigation.
The ablest navigator must not be sacrificed, since, if he were, the
longboat might wander aimlessly at sea until everyone aboard starved,
and, in that case, all of the previous sacrifices required to remain
afloat would have been in vain.

I reviewed the story of the William Brown disaster because it is very
similar in some ways to the approaching apocalyptic end of the
industrial age. The world will be an overcrowded lifeboat, and it
won't be possible for everyone to survive. The survivor to sacrifice
ratio for the William Brown's longboat was 1.28. Somewhat more people
lived than died.

That same ratio for the apocalypse will be much lower: only about
0.05. For each survivor, there will be 20 deaths. That's where
capitalism has taken us, Ayn Rand.

For the situation on the William Brown's longboat to be commensurate
to that of the world during the apocalypse, mate Frances Rhodes and
sailor Holmes would have had to keep tossing people overboard until
they, just the two of them, were the only ones left aboard.

There is some conflict among the several accounts of the shipwreck.
From the court records, it appears that the longboat was in the water
24 hours before the tossing began. Further, only male passengers were
tossed (says this document) and of the ship's crew none were tossed,
not even the ship's cook, who was a Negro. The sailors elected to
sacrifice two skinny White boys instead of a fat Black male who
outweighed both of them together. Now that was wrong.

I suspect that Frank Askin - the man who tried to bribe the mate for
an exemption from tossing - was a Jew. The attempted bribery itself
suggests this, and there's the fact that of all those tossed the only
charge against sailor Holmes, back in the US, was for the murder of
Askin. Not for Riley or Duffy or Charley or either of those boys. Only
Frank Askin was "special" enough to have a high-ranking prosecutor
seeking a posthumous vengeance. Imagine this Jew holding out five gold
sovereigns to Rhodes and Holmes, as if the peril to everyone were a
matter of secondary importance, as if his gold were able to buy him a
significance that no one else had.

It further appears that sailor Holmes was convicted of manslaughter,
but his punishment was much less than the maximum. He was sentenced to
six months in prison and a fine of $20. However, even this was
"remitted," which is this context means the penalty was commuted to a
suspended sentence.

Part 2.

MonteQuest wrote: You go to front of the "first to go" list. Sometimes
I thinking "culling the herd" will be easy. Obvious humor aside,
technology is what caused us to exceed our limits so soon. Didn't you
read the Tragedy of the Commons? There are no techno-fixes for this.

linlithgowoil wrote: You obviously have something against the human
race if you refer to it as a herd and think it needs to be culled. I
suppose you think you should be the guy chosing who dies then eh? And
obviously you wouldn't be one of the unlucky ones who have to die ....
thought so.

He might have been joking, since he said so. But I'm not.

When quantity must go, save quality. If disaster must come, then turn
it as much as possible to advantage. Who lives needn't be so much
decided as discovered -- in the same manner that the winner of an
honest sporting event is discovered, and not decided beforehand.

Let there be "Olympics," of mind and character, as well as body. Let's
see who is the most superior of intelligence, of ability to function
in danger/while hurt/under pressure, of sensory acuity, strength,
speed and muscle coordination. And of basic morals. The top 10% of
humanity will be found by competition, and they might earn with their
victories a place in the Lifeboat. The losers shall stay in the old
William Brown.

Because of the way heredity works, quality can replicate any desired
quantity faster than the reverse, and so when one must be sacrificed
to save the other, jettison quantity, keep quality, and the race will

gg3 wrote [comments in brackets by Jenab6]: Meanwhile, back to
"freedom to breed." Determine the sustainable population for Earth and
the number of years at most before that level must be reached in order
to avoid tipping the planet into more than a +2 Celsius scenario.
[check] Subtract that number from the current 6.5 billion, to arrive
at the population decrease needed. [check] Calculate, based on likely
death rates, the maximum number of births per year that will meet the
goal. [check] Divide births by households, to arrive at the
permissible number of babies [per household] per year. [ch... uh, NO!]
Ration the babies via a lottery in each locale. [NO!] You win the
lottery, you get to make a baby. [NO!] You can keep entering until you
win, and then you're not eligible to re-enter the lottery for some
number of years thereafter. Problem solved. [More like: Opportunity
wasted.] If only humans were quite so rational... [Sarcastic retort

When quantity must go, save quality. Do not apportion births by
lottery; apportion them by merit, as measured by competitive
challenges. You want the best people to breed, so that the humanity of
the future will be smarter, stronger, healthier, better coordinated,
and better behaved than was the humanity of the past. Heredity has at
least some influence on all these attributes, and quality can
regenerate quantity if it becomes necessary or advantageous to
increase the population later.

Wildwell wrote: The reason I mention immigration is because that's
where the rise in population is mostly coming from in the west. If you
argue that we must limit population growth, we must also limit
immigration. You cannot say to the indigenous population you cannot
have children, but we'll still allow people into the country.

Correct so far.

Wildwell wrote: The population question is a red hering. The vast
majority of the world's population use little or no fossil fuel
energy. It's far more sensible to look at the energy intensive
activities of people in the west, and I'm afraid that comes down to
personal transport and aviation as well as trading blocks,
globalisation and so on. As for the third world, they should start by
using renewable energy and not make the mistakes the west has.

Although the West must power down, it isn't true that the Third World
uses "little or no fossil fuel energy." Everyone who eats, except
those who eat only wild and homegrown organic foods, cultivated with
hand-tools by farmers with the same dietary restriction, uses fossil
fuel energy. The Green Revolution was all about using fossil fuels for
tractor fuel and fertilizers. It will be reversed as fossil fuel
supplies decline. More fossil fuels are used to transport foods across
oceans and across land to the people who end up buying and eating it.

South Africa and Rhodesia used to feed Africa. Now the USA and
Argentina do. Soon China will outbid everyone else for food on the
global market, and Africa will starve. Subsequently, shortages of food
in the countries that once supplied it to the global markets will
force them to stop doing so, and China will starve - though it might
try a conquest of the countries to its south, west, and northwest, to
steal their food and farmland.

EnergySpin wrote: Wildwell If you want to talk about immigration by
all means start the conversation yourself. I chose not to talk about
immigration because securing infrastructure world wide will require
people to move from the West to the developed world and probably vice
versa. We are in this together. Permit me to have a more liberal view
on this subject...

We are "in this together" in the sense that we are on the same planet
and must draw on the same pool of global resources to sustain our
existence. But that doesn't mean that everybody has the same access to
those resources. Access varies. It must. That is how it should be.
Fairness isn't a moral imperative; it is a moral luxury that we can no
longer afford. The result of apportioning resources in "equal
shares" (e.g., of calories), if that could even be done, would only
result in everyone starving, fairly, together.

Think of Earth as a sinking ship with too few lifeboats to get
everyone away. An attempt to save all will kill all when the
overcrowded lifeboats sink, too. So some must die. When quantity
cannot be sustained, preserve quality, or at least try to do the best
you can in that regard.

MonteQuest wrote: [When a population overshoots its resource base],
the organism starts to lose the ability to reproduce.

Some of that is the result of women delaying their first attempt to
conceive until college and career establishment are accomplished. The
fertility of women is greatest between the ages of 14 and 19, trailing
off thereafter. The ability of a woman's body to deliver a first baby
safely reaches a maximum at about ages 17-21. If she has a first baby
about then, her body will "learn" how to give birth and she will gain
the advantage of easier delivery for her later children.

zensui wrote: do you have citations to this fertility claims?

Prof. S.J. Holmes wrote: "The liability of women to conceive falls
off quite rapidly after the twentieth year... Galton has established
the fertility of women marrying at the ages of 17, 22, 27, and 32 as
roughly in the ratio of six, five, four, and three, respectively. An
increase of the average age at marriage, therefore, would have a
potent effect in lowering the birthrate." [S. J. Holmes, Studies in
Evolution and Genetics, New York, 1923, pp. 117-8, and Human Genetics
and Its Social Import, McGraw, 1936, p. 197. ]

See also: Prof. Ellsworth Huntington & Leon F. Whitney, The
Builders of America, Morrow, 1927, p. 117-120.

Anthony M. Ludovici wrote: "The more closely they [medical
reports] approach the present age and the modern scientific view...
the more inevitably are we driven to the conclusion that labour before
20 is more favorable than after, and that the decline in efficiency is
rapid after the twentieth year." [A. M. Ludovici, The Truth About
Childbirth, Dutton, 1938, pp. 76-8, pp. 136-153, pp. 154ff.]

G. Nicola wrote: "Delivery [before age 20] is normal and of short
duration. Surgical intervention in pregnancy, delivery or afterbirth
are rarely necessary. The vertex presentation is the most frequent in
deliveries at full term. Transverse and other abnormal presentations
are unusual. Pelvic abnormalities are rare. The joints of the pelvis
of young girls have a great mobility and the contractions of the
uterus are energetic." ["Pregnancy and Parturition in Early Youth," by
G. Nicola, Annali di Ostetricia e Ginecologia & (digest) Journal of
the American Medical Association, 1938, p. 196.]

Dr. Hugo Sellheim wrote (translated by Ludovici): "This transient
function [childbirth] in which an adequate passage has to be made for
the foetus by stretching the muscles of the pelvic floor to the limit
of their elasticity-i.e., without damage to their essential and
permanent function of keeping the pelvic outlet closed-can be
performed by the pelvic floor only in normal, healthy, and fully
developed girls, in whom the muscles are still resilient. In older
primiparae, not only is the extra tissue growth in the birth canal
necessary for the function defective, but there is also imperfect
resilience, and defective increase of elasticity at the critical
moment. To compensate for the fefects the tissues are stretched beyond
the limit of their resiliance, with tears and lacerations as the
result. In the youthful elastic primparae, however, this extreme
compensatory sacrifice is only exceptionally called for, and on a much
smaller scale. Only female organisms just attained to full development
seem capable of further bodily development during pregnancy. For this
is precisely what is necessary to secure perfect functions in
motherhood, more especially in forming the birth canal without damage.
An organism, which has already waited a long time in the developed
state, is no longer fit for this function... In the woman who has had
her first child in youth, the pelvic floor retains its capacity to
form the birth canal for later births without damage, because this
capacity is acquired with her first birth, provided this occurs at the
right time." [Dr. Hugo Sellheim, Prof. Doctor of Medicine, Medical
Adviser and Director of the Women's Clinic of Leipzig University, in
Wer Ist's, Berlin, 1935. See Zeitschrift fur Soziale Medizin, Leipzig,
1910, vol V, Heft 1, pp. 128-130, quoted by Ludovici in The Truth
About Childbirth, pp. 159-160.]

Dr. M. Fetzler, a student of Dr. Sellheim, wrote: "The chance of
incurring disability were almost three times greater in primiparae of
28 than in primiparae of 20, twelve times treater in primiparae of 30
than in primiparae of 19, and before 19 the chances were nil."

Pogma wrote: What a bizarre thread, if taken seriously one might
consider suicide. The world or the economy isn't about to end or run
out of ANY fuels for godsakes.

Yes, we are, Pogma. The trouble starts before we run out though, i.e.,
when the power supply falls too far below power demand. But don't
commit suicide. Surviving the die-off is the ultimate challenge.

Think of it as a game where you have lots of possible moves: tricking
your neighbors into leaving you alone with false rumors that someone
in your house has the Black Death, telling the sheriff who comes to
confiscate your hidden food that two guys claiming to be his deputies
carried it all away last week, etc. And then there's the pure
schadenfreud, the smug sense of superiority, that you have the means
of survival and others don't because you prepared wisely while they
laughed at you for being a "conspiracy theorist." Now it's your turn
to laugh. Enjoy it!

Pogma wrote: There's nothing wrong with necesary killing {eg, self
defense}, but some of you people seem to be suggesting that we MURDER
55m a yr....is this your position?

Nobody's going to murder 55 million people per year. They're going to
die because there's no food for them to eat. The reason there will be
no food for them to eat is that there won't be enough fuel for all the
tractors and harvesters, not enough artificial fertilizer, not enough
pesticide, not enough fuel for the distribution to the market of the
food that does get grown, etc. They're goNNA DIEEE! But we aren't
gonna kill 'em. We're just going to laugh (quietly, in our basements)
as they stumble around the neighborhood like zombies piteously hooting
"food, fooooood!" and fighting over a bean that somebody dropped on
the sidewalk.

Eustacian wrote: This is definitely not far fetched. Here in the
Seattle WA area there are charities who already pay women (mostly
homeless, drug addicted women) up to $500 for sterilization or other
long term birth control. There was even a period where men were
offered the option of vasectomy for the cash. There was lots of news
in the lefty media about how they were buying a womans god given right
to reproduce. The liberals were in an uproar to say the least.
Nonetheless, the program is still in operation. Of course the motive
is not to reduce the population as a whole but to reduce babies born
to people who cannot support them, or who are drug addicted.

It has been my opinion for a long time that irreversible sterilization
should be required in order to qualify for public assistance, such as
AFDC, food stamps, and other welfare programs. I also think that no
food relief should be exported except such as will render anyone who
eats it permanently infertile.

Eustacian wrote: I wanted to add just one more thing to this post. A
few messages back someone indicated they felt the population could be
maintained at a high level with 1984esque big brother control over the
populace, to prevent riots, distribute basic necessities, etc. It is
amazing that anybody would actually promote a big brother situation to
be a blessing. One thing we have to realize of course, is that in
"1984" the government had to maintain a constant war in order to
maintain control over the population. Maintaining that level of war
will deplete our remaining energy during the hardest period of
decline. A centralized, big brother regime is not going to save
America - it is the exact opposite of what I think is needed -
localization, tribal/communal living arrangements, etc.

You aren't going to save any sort of continent spanning state by any
means. Dictatorship isn't the problem. Scale is. The bigger a state
is, relative to the time required for information and troops to get
from one side to another, the more difficult it is to suppress
rebellions. So in the far future (post 2100) I expect at least
political balkanization - "states" the size of one or a few counties/
parishes, and some of them may be dictatorships, and some of those
might be well-run.

Jerry Abbott

Relevant Pages

  • Re: Make a CD?
    ... Cheers mate ... Paul ... > William Li, MS PSS, resolved an issue I raised about not being able to ...
  • Re: Make a CD?
    ... Cheers mate ... Paul ... > William Li, MS PSS, resolved an issue I raised about not being able to ...
  • Re: 40 In unicycle
    ... Pics or Vids of you riding it mate? ... "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" 'William ... Shakespeare' ... mr_charm's Profile: http://www.unicyclist.com/profile/15748 ...