Moral Dilemma: Saving Lives at the Cost of Others

What do we owe each other? This question is at the heart of all moral dilemmas and makes up the foundation of our legal system, so it is unsurprising that the question has been raised in courtrooms for centuries. One such example occurred in 1841 when Alexander Holmes was tried for manslaughter in Philadelphia. Holmes was a crew member on a cargo and passenger ship from Liverpool in the United Kingdom to Pennsylvania. The ship pulled a Titanic and struck an iceberg, leaving the crew and passengers in two lifeboats. The larger of the two contained 3 crew members, including Holmes, the first mate named Rhodes, and 34 passengers. After a day at sea, the lifeboat began to sink as it was overcrowded. Rhodes ordered Holmes and the other crew member to throw 16 of the passengers overboard, which allowed the rest of the people on the boat to survive. As soon as the lifeboat was rescued, Holmes was tried for manslaughter. So was he guilty? He did kill those innocent people, but in doing so saved himself and many others, including those he killed, from dying themselves.

To put this moral dilemma into a context more applicable to Belmont Hill, imagine that your teacher says that your next test will be in groups. You can form a group of any size, from the 5 kids who get As on everything to a group which includes the whole class. Everyone in the group gets the same grade, and if you get above a 90 you get an A and below a 90 gets an F. You are in charge of making the groups. Do you give yourself a group of everyone, which may fail due to disorder, or do you abandon your fellow classmates to certain doom and take the smartest kids for your own group, ensuring your own success?

Holmes was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six months in prison. Self-preservation, in the eyes of the US legal system, is not enough to justify the action, but it did lower the sentence relative to what it would have been for a full-fledged murder. The jury was obviously conflicted and their low sentence reflected this dilemma. Do you believe this is a just result or should he have been convicted for committing 16 cold blooded murders?

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