Divine command theory and the sinking lifeboat

Julie asked:

What would a Divine Command Theorist do or say in a “Lifeboat Ethics” situation?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

First off, I want to say that this is a really good example of a type of scenario that poses a serious challenge to divine command theory — although one that can be met if we are prepared to bite the bullet.

What is divine command theory? You can start by looking at these three answers:




I am going to assume that we are dealing with the version of divine command theory defended by Peter Geach (first answer, above). If you can get hold of it, I recommend reading Geach’s chapter, ‘The Moral Law and the Law of God’ in his book God and the Soul (1969) which is the best I have seen on this topic. (I found this on Google, but the link seems to have disappeared.)

What would be an example of a ‘lifeboat ethics’ situation, as you call it?

Here’s one possibility. The ship has gone down, survivors are in the water clinging to bits of debris. You are in charge of a lifeboat. You can’t rescue everyone — the boat is too small, there is not enough time — so you have to make hard choices. The obvious course of action is to go for the nearest survivors first. That’s the plan that promises to maximize the number of lives saved.

Now, we can tweak this by supposing that you know the identities of the survivors. All lives are equally valuable, according to divine command theory, regardless of whether there may be beneficial consequences in saving one individual, say, a famous scientist working on a cure for cancer, in preference to another, say, the ship’s cook. If the cook is nearer to the boat, then you go for him first, even if that risks the scientist’s life.

But maybe you would do this anyway, regardless of whether or not you subscribe to the divine command theory of ethics. At least, it’s not clear. Regardless of which course of action you choose, you are doing good, you are saving lives.

So let’s look at a different case. The lifeboat is overfull and about to sink. The only way to save the lives of the people on the lifeboat is if at least two of those on board go back in the water. If they do that, their death is inevitable. You might consider sacrificing yourself, but that still leaves one to go. You have to make the decision. But, as divine command theory states, taking the life of an innocent individual is absolutely forbidden regardless of the consequences.

Draw straws? That would be acceptable, provided all those on board are willing to abide by the draw. However, it only takes one recalcitrant individual to scupper that plan. ‘Look, you agreed to draw straws and you got the short straw. So, jump already!’ Would you?

Divine command theory forbids taking the life of an ‘innocent’ individual. The person holding the short straw, quaking with fear, is ‘guilty’ only of breaking a promise — to commit suicide. That seems insufficient ground for the use of lethal force although the point could be debated.

At this point, it is possible — indeed, highly likely — that the other survivors on the boat will take the law into their own hands. If they do, and despite your best efforts you are unable to stop them, then the problem is solved. There’s no blood on your hands. But there is no guarantee that this will happen.

The only remaining possibility is to persuade just one person to sacrifice him or herself. You’ve already made the decision to go overboard. Maybe, at the last possible moment, before the boat starts sinking, someone will jump. But if they don’t, then the lifeboat sinks and you all die.

I am not putting this forward as a ‘refutation’ of divine command theory. It is simply what has to happen, if one makes the decision never to do wrong — never to do an action forbidden by divine law — regardless of the consequences.

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