Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | July 30, 2011

Ethics of a Sinking Lifeboat: Abandon Ship! and the Case of the William Brown

By the wonderful powers of On Demand, last weekend Zanne, Bev, and I watched a movie that Zanne had been recommending for some time, alternately known as Abandon Ship! or, more poetically, as Seven Waves Away.  The movie stars Tyrone Power, a man in the same classic movie firmament as Flynn and with piratical cred to boot.  He crossed swords with Basil Rathbone in The Mark of Zorro; Rathbone claimed Power “could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat.”  He crossed wits with my favorite swashbuckling Hollywood redhead, Maureen O’Hara, in the essential The Black SwanAbandon Ship!, however, is a nautical movie but not an action movie.  This is a play on the water, a drama that takes place entirely in a lifeboat.  After their ship, the ocean liner Crescent Star, hits a rogue mine and sinks in seven minutes, the twenty seven survivors crowd onto a boat designed for nine.  Power’s character, Executive Officer Alec Holmes, is given command of the boat when the Captain passes away.  As the weather worsens, Holmes has to make a terrible choice:  If all stay on the boat, perhaps no one will survive, but in order for some to survive, passengers have to be sacrificed to the sea.  He opts to keep those both useful and more likely to survive; the wounded and the cowardly are, essentially, discarded.  Holmes also keeps his girlfriend, the ship’s nurse, and a sassy, sexy socialite portrayed by the elegant Moira Lister.  The movie is an exploration of moral dilemma.  It is also based on a real historical event, a key case in the annals of United States law, and a fascinating instance of ethics being tested by the harshest reality.

The facts were these (thank you, Pushing Daisies).  On March 18, 1841, the William Brown departed from Liverpool with 17 crew and 65 passengers, mostly (no surprise, really) Scottish and Irish emigrants.  On April 19, the ship struck an iceberg 250 miles southeast of Newfoundland.  In an hour and a half the ship was down.  The Captain, eight seamen, and one passenger made it to the jolly boat and were eventually rescued.  The Captain also placed a longboat of 22 1/2 feet under the command of First Mate Francis Rhodes, with nine crewmen and thirty two passengers.  The boat was leaky, had a plug that was eventually lost, and was so overloaded that water poured over the gunwales.  Those who were not rowing for their lives were bailing.  Then it began to rain, the wind picked up, and the sea grew heavier.  In those cold waters, some began to freeze; ice still circled the boat.  During that desperate night, the crew threw overboard fourteen male passengers, all the men save two still with their wives, and one young boy.  No crew were sacrificed.  The next day, the weather cleared, and all those still in the longboat were rescued by the Crescent.

 A year later, in Philadelphia, Holmes, the only crewman from the longboat to be found, was brought to trial for the murder of one of the passengers, Frank Askin.  The court documents are available online and show in fine detail the arguments in a case that had no precedent in United States jurisprudence.  The firsthand witnesses were naturally limited to a few young women who had survived.  The Captain made a deposition strongly supportive of Holmes as a man of the sea.  “I never had a better man on board ship,” the Captain stated.  “He was a first-rate man.”  Various acts of bravery were described, including Holmes braving the vortex of the sinking ship to rescue the daughter of a Scottish woman who had been left on board.  The attorneys, however, having no prior cases to cite, turned to what is essentially philosophy.  This is where it gets interesting.
The prosecution’s argument rested upon the supposition that the duty of the sailor is to his passenger, not to himself.  They cited a Latin proverb–“Necesse est et ut eam; not ut vivam“–which I can’t seem to get a clear translation of.  However, the words of Gnaeus Pompeius (attributed by Plutarch) work just as well:  “Navigare necesse est, vivere non est necesse“…”To sail is necessary, to live is not necessary.”  They quoted as well Sir Francis Bacon:  “The duties of life are more than life.” In short, Holmes and his subordinates had no right to sacrifice any of the passengers.  It would have been more ethically sound to sacrifice themselves, but recall that no crew were put overboard.  The immediate danger, the prosecution argued, did not relieve the crew of their responsibilities and did not negate the hierarchy of master and servant.  “The passenger stands in a position different from that of the officers and seamen,” they stated.  “It is the sailor who must encounter the hardships and perils of the voyage.”
The defense argued that context was everything.  “This case should be tried on a long-boat, sunk down to its very gunwale with 41 half naked, starved, and shivering wretches, the boat leaking from below, filling from above, a hundred leagues from land, at midnight, surrounded by ice, unmanageable from its load, and subject to certain destruction from the change of the most changeable of elements, the wind and the waves.”  Everyone aboard was reduced to “the law of nature.”  For their definition of natural law, the prosecution turned to the work of Samuel Rutherford, a Scottish Presbyterian theologian; keep in mind the era, the early 19th century, so don’t be so surprised that a cleric is quoted in court.  For Rutherford, natural law boiled down to self-defense in an extreme situation.  The defense quoted:  “I see not, therefore, any want of benevolence which can be reasonably charged upon a man in these circumstances, if he takes the most obvious way of preserving himself, though perhaps some other method might have been found out, which would have preserved him as effectually, and have produced less hurt to the aggressor, if he had been calm enough, and had been allowed time enough to deliberate about it.”  To be more succinct, Holmes did what he had to in a pinch, which according to natural law is justifiable.  
The idea of natural law, however, needs to be put in a broader philosophical context that reaches back to Plato and Aristotle.  For a long time, “natural law” was the same thing as “divine law,” i.e. God’s Will.  The Catholic church (my coworker Joseph, who grew up Catholic, confirmed this) still defines natural law as it was set down by St. Thomas Aquinas, in which human nature ‘naturally’ can distinguish between good and evil, and common sense dictates that “good is to be sought, evil avoided.”  Thomas Hobbes removed the religious trappings and argued that natural law is simply how a rational human being would act to survive and prosper.  Hobbes made an important distinction:  Natural law is to be distinguished from “positive law,” that law which is created and imposed by man, whether by sovereign or society–in other words, what we would now call the legal system.  This served as a subtle background to the case of the William Brown, because, lacking precedent in positive law, the defense of Holmes turned to natural law as means to make the defendant ethically and therefore legally right.  It is also worth noting the critical place in American history of John Locke, who, of course, laid the philosophical foundation for the revolution by turning natural law into natural rights, written into the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson less than a century before the sinking of the William Brown.  Can the actions of Holmes be justified by his “unalienable Right” to life?
In the end, a philosophical compromise of sorts was reached in the verdict.  On one hand, the jury found Holmes guilty.  They acknowledged natural law but simplified it to “fundamental principles of justice” and made their decision based on the stance that, while “the law of nature forms part of the municipal law,” civil law is the only basis upon which a court decision can be reached.  The court pronounced, “Everywhere are civilized men under its protection; everywhere subject to its authority.”  To be blunt, the social contract prevailed, and that contract holds that Holmes’ duty was not to himself but to those in his charge.  On the other hand, not only Holmes was convicted not of murder but of manslaughter–as there was neither malice nor criminal intention–but also, given the “many circumstances of the affair,” the sentence of three years and $1,000 was reduced to six months and $20.  The movie further complicates the ethical landscape:  “Alec” Holmes also orders some of his crew mates overboard.  Now it is not just duty but, perhaps, Utilitarianism, what (OK, shoot me) is so succinctly described by Mr. Spock in Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan as “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”  There are more twists and predicaments in Abandon Ship!…but I don’t want to spoil the movie.  Rather, I urge you to go find this classic film, to read about its historical basis, and to consider this ageless question:  When faced with the dangers of the open sea, and possibly with inevitable destruction, what is right, and what is wrong?


  1. In fact, there was precedent, the analogy was apparently lost on the court at the time, however. Triage has been practiced in extreme medical emergencies, such as war time, since the dawn of humanity. This was, in fact, no more than medical triage involving decisions to save one life, but not another.

  2. Over the last thirty days, my post Ethics of a Sinking Lifeboat has skyrocketed to the top of the charts. In only a few days time, the post received almost 300 hits. In the all-time history of the Journal, it has quickly gained almost double the number of visits as the old popular contender on Somali piracy. All of this is due to Curtin University in Sarawak, Malaysia, where my post is a thread on some kind of discussion group. While attention and fame are not to be belittled by an old swag-bellied pirate such as I, I do want to know WHY. If ye anonymous hundreds care to speak, can ye let me in???

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