The Lifeboat Game
Copyright © 2005 by Jefferson P. Swycaffer. All rights reserved.
On Friday afternoons, Chet, Hal, and Didi took their only class together. Hal shared a chemistry class with Didi; Chet was in the same section of his geology class as she; Chet and Hal had archery and trigonometry together. Only in the one Friday philosophy class could the three compete in a full three-way race.
The course was entitled The Philosophy of Ethics. Eighteen students regularly filed into the classroom, turning their backs on the sunlit lawns. They passed into the energy-efficient classroom with its high, tiny windows. The room smelled new, and looked like every other room on the campus. The air-conditioning kept the room too cold in the summer, but uncomfortably warm in the winter. The chalkboards still had a bright, new sheen, as yet undulled by the erasure of knowledge. The bulletin boards were still smooth, not yet punctured with push-pins, staples, and map-tacks.
As unlike the campus itself as the campus was unlike the dry, dusty brushlands surrounding it, Professor Gower grimaced at the students. Old and crabbed, he held a suppressed bitterness that he could never hide. He oiled his hair, having never found a way to escape his generation’s approach to grooming. He smoked, sourly disdaining the ‘No Smoking’ signs that decorated the walls. One of his arms was a plastic-and-metal prosthesis, the plastic sheath ending in a bright silver hook. At the beginning of each semester he explained in three short sentences everything anyone would need to know about his personal life.
“I am Professor Gower. I lost my arm in a fire. The subject is closed.”
Once every semester some self-appointed wag referred to him as “Captain Hook,” and once every semester silence descended upon the classroom. Professor Gower had a remarkably cold stare.
Didi was fascinated with the man, for reasons that Hal insisted were feminine and illogical and which Chet dimly understood as originating in deeper, warmer instincts.
Professor Gower lectured harshly. Now and again, if one listened carefully, a tiny sparkle of wit showed through his dull facade; on most days he was as blunt and hard as the shatterproof plastic of his arm.
This afternoon, as the students came reluctantly to class, Professor Gower regarded them with a new appraisal. He strolled out among the tiny plastic-and-metal desks and passed one purple-mimeoed piece of paper to each student.
“Today,” he said, his voice as pinched as his face, “we’ll be playing the Lifeboat Game.”
“Isn’t that the one we did in high school?” Hal asked, without having looked at his paper.
Professor Gower saw in the lad the potential of becoming perhaps one of the greatest bricklayers the world had ever known. He eyed Hal with the expression ordinary people reserve for a man who deliberately belches during a wedding. He made no response other than that, and allowed the students to read their papers.
Chet smiled to himself. Yes. He, too, had gone through the same drill in high school. The Lifeboat Game.
“There are ten of you,” the paper read, “adrift on a lifeboat. The weather is bad. The boat is leaking, and it is dangerously overburdened. The boat can only carry nine passengers safely. Any minute the boat may sink. If it does, everyone will drown. Discuss with your classmates the ethics of what ought to be done, and formulate what you think is the most moral decision. The passengers are: a 46-year-old Priest, a 35-year-old pediatrician, a 37-year-old policeman with a gun, a 97-year-old widow, a 27-year-old art student who has cancer, a 4-year-old child, a 38-year-old salesman, a 41-year-old sailor with a head injury and a broken leg, a 39-year-old politician, and a 14-year-old mentally retarded child.”
Below, on the sheet, a column of numbers was spaced widely, one through eight. Clearly, Professor Gower would be asking questions, to which the students would write out brief answers.
Chet looked over the list and shook his head. The bias of the nineteen-sixties showed in the list of individuals, as well as in the deliberate vaguenesses. When the test was written, the art student’s cancer would have been assumed to be inoperable, and advances in medicine had not been taken into account. Chet also had to smile at the “39-year-old politician.” Liberal? Conservative? Economic Quick-Fix Techno-Libertarian? The word “politician” covered more colors on the spectrum these days than it had in 1967.
Professor Gower walked around and perched on the front of his desk. He ran his good hand through the oiled whorls of his hair. “You’ve all read it?” He looked left and right over the students. “Good. In a minute, I’ll have you divide up into four groups, and you’ll discuss the implications of what you’ve just read. Fifteen minutes later, we’ll compare our conclusions.
“I want to emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers. There isn’t a specific solution to this problem. Some problems have no solutions at all. Your decisions are your decisions. We’re more interested in the way you arrive at your conclusions. Are there any questions?”
Chet smiled to himself. Not a word had changed since high school. He felt young and almost frightened. A new thought came near him, and he groped for it, reaching for it with mental fingers.
In the classroom, Didi objected, her face pale. “I don’t understand what it is you’re asking. Do we have to choose someone to throw overboard?” Her voice trembled.
Chet frowned; he was sitting across the room from Didi, and she couldn’t see his face. Her words stung him. He moved his head back and forth as if he had been slapped. Was she truly ignorant, or just playing at it?
“That’s one option,” Professor Gower said. “Are there others?” He held up his hand. “Why don’t you move your chairs into the corners of the room…”
Didi shook her head. “It’s wrong. It’s all wrong. I can’t make that choice.”
Professor Gower took that the way he took all objections and dissent in classroom discussion: with a stone-faced neutrality. “Go and talk about it. You only have to treat it like a hypothetical — ”
Cutting him off, her face nearly in tears, Didi clasped her fists to her breast. “I can’t do this. This is wrong.”
Leaping to her rescue, suffused with pride at his heroism, Hal stood and took her by the shoulders. “Didi. It’s only a game. Nothing’s going to happen.”
Chet rested his chin on his fist and grimaced. Didi’s torment faded. Hal’s next words completed the job of banishing her fears.
“Hey, you know, it’s just like something on tv. It isn’t real.”
Didi smiled weakly. Chet’s face burned, as if he had again been slapped. He blinked, several times.
It isn’t real?
It wasn’t. It was only a game. The students would discuss it, going through their usual inanities. Didi would insist on saving the four-year-old and the cancer-stricken art student. Hal and some of the other guys would defend the policeman, not because of his profession, but because of his gun. The priest was sacrosanct from the start. The politician and the salesman were in some danger, and a minority would argue against the retarded child. In the end, over the edge would go the old woman, and everyone would feel that justice had been done.
Chet shivered. His neck muscles ached. Thoughts flashed through his mind. The Birkenhead Drill: women and children first, while the men stood back to make way. The suction of the great ship as it turned turtle, and the oily water littered with shards of ice. Yellowed newspaper pages, with engravings that were almost as good as photographs. The sharp underwater color photographs of the two halves of the Titanic at rest.
“Are you coming, Chet?”
Chet looked up. He hadn’t heard the scrape of the chairs, clattering as the students roughhoused them out of rank and file. He hadn’t noticed the way the students chose their teams, fragmenting along lines of friendships. His heart pounded. Hal and Didi were on one team. Didi smiled to Chet, and asked again. “You coming?”
He grinned weakly and waved. His legs weak, he wandered over to the other corner, where another team had only three students. Didi took the snub with good grace. Now that she’d protested publicly, and could take the exercise as nothing more than a game, she was willing to play. Chet listened, and heard her already drawing an absolute line of protection about the four-year-old child.
Chet might have gone on and played the game himself. He knew how he would vote: the priest had to go. It was a gadfly’s choice, he knew: he would enjoy the uproar he caused.
Then he caught Professor Gower’s eye, and was stopped.
Professor Gower had been injured in a fire. Had he stopped to see who should be rescued, and who should remain behind to burn? Had someone else made that choice? Now, he looked at Chet with a cool, not quite blank expression. He expected something.
Chet remembered the plane crash in Washington D.C. in January of 1982. He remembered the essay in Time magazine by Roger Rosenblatt: “The Man in the Water.” A helicopter repeatedly lowered a line, and the man repeatedly handed it to someone else, as the plane sank inch-by-inch beneath the ice-clogged river. The man was not among those rescued…
A flame rose in Chet’s throat. He understood, for a moment, the truth of the phrase, “Like a man possessed.” A momentary twinge of stage-fright burned in his face.
“Wait a bit,” he muttered, just loudly enough. Everyone turned to him.
“Why should we accept these terms?” He felt like a fool, but ploughed on. “We can increase flotation. Everyone can lie down in the boat, and we lower the center of gravity. We can put out sea-anchors, to keep the boat from pitching so much.”
He drew in a deep breath. Everyone was watching him. He was making an idiot of himself.
“There are four groups of us here. We can put the four boats together, and get more stability per passenger.”
Professor Gower’s voice was not loud, but it raised prickles of sweat on Chet’s back. The other students were all safe in their corners, huddled together, watching him, while he stood in the cleared space in the middle of the room. He turned to Professor Gower, a look of pleading in his eyes.
Professor Gower stood before him, his face implacable.
“Fundamentalist religious leaders hate this game,” Chet stammered. “They say it teaches situational ethics. One rabbi said — it was on television — that killing is always wrong, at all times. You can’t justify a wrong act by circumstances.”
“Chet.” Professor Gower spoke his name like the tolling of a bell.
“But that isn’t true,” Chet spoke on, his voice growing higher in pitch. “Soldiers kill, to preserve life. No religion asks us to disarm. We…”
He took a final breath, preparing, in his mind, to surrender and sit down to confer with his group. He had nothing more to say.
He whirled and pointed an accusing finger at Professor Gower.
“You’re God. You put us here. It isn’t a game. Not a game at all.” He turned back to his friends. He blushed so hard that his face hurt. He felt the sting of tears starting up behind his eyes.
“It isn’t a game. He’s God. He gave us the rough sea, the leaky boat. Our fight is with him. No one should go overboard to appease him. We don’t practice human sacrifice. We don’t feed Jonah to the fish.” His voice grew stronger. “What are we being asked to do? Plot a minimax optimization in game theory? My best chance is to throw you all over, and take the boat and provisions for myself.”
That thought shocked him as much as it startled them.
“Everything or nothing. All of us or none. We have a fight with God, for giving us this problem. We owe it to Him to struggle.” He looked about, although he dared not meet Professor Gower’s gaze. Then, slowly, he turned and glanced sidelong at the teacher. His heart pounding, he approached the older man. He faced Professor Gower, and with his face burning, he met the man’s eyes.
“Cure the girl’s cancer.” He waved his hand behind him, vaguely in the direction of Didi’s group. “Heal the injured sailor. Repair the birth defects that impair the retarded child.” He stared directly at Professor Gower. “Let the old woman live. Feed the starving. Banish the diseases you’ve brought down on us. We’re all going to die anyway, unless you do something!”
He turned his back on Professor Gower; he turned his back on God.
“Fuck it. I’ll jump overboard myself. That’s the easiest solution. And it’s the only moral choice that I can live with.”
He could no longer hold back his tears. Suddenly blinded by them, he raced for the door.
Half an hour later, he finally gathered up enough courage to return to the classroom. He’d washed his face in the restroom at the end of the building, and walked back slowly in the shade of the portico. He looked at the lawn, bright and well-tended, and tried to imagine what it would be like to be buried beneath it.
Every face turned toward him when he pulled the door tentatively open. No one said anything as he padded gingerly toward his desk. The discussion groups had reconsolidated; the chairs were constrained in their square, crystalline array of regular rows.
“They took your advice, Mr. Steiger.” Professor Gower’s voice was as crackly and unemotional as ever, but Chet wondered if he heard a hint of humor in it.
“They threw me overboard?” he said, knowing it would earn him a smile from Hal and Didi, at least.
Professor Gower stood in front of his desk, towering over the class like an ethical colossus. “They re-assessed the terms of the problem. They estimated the odds.” He twitched a weak smile. “One engineering solution came along fairly quickly: the healthiest passengers will take turns outside the boat, holding on with one hand, relying upon their own natural flotation.”
Chet lowered his gaze, terribly embarrassed.
“Every situation presents several problems,” Professor Gower went on. He addressed the whole class, and no longer singled Chet out for attention. “The first question to be dealt with is the determination of exactly which is the central, vital problem. In the lifeboat game, it is survival. Is that right?”
Didi answered. “We have to survive as people, not as mere animals.”
“Is that right?”
“The Donner party survivors lived as animals,” Hal tossed in. “But they lived.”
“Survival of men? Survival of ethics?” Professor Gower strode forward, his metal hand hanging by his side. “Survival of things or of ideas?”
He turned around, favored Chet with an unusually sharp glance.
“Class is dismissed.”
The students, more thoughtful than usual even for a philosophy class, began to gather up their notebooks and bags.
Professor Gower approached Chet, and spoke in a low voice. “I’d like to talk to you in my office.”
It seemed, to Chet, as if it were the voice of God that had spoken.