Human Jettison: Lifeboat Ethics and Economic Efficiency
29 Pages Posted: 1 Jan 1999
Date Written: December 2000
Central to the study of the criminal law of necessity are the nineteenth century "lifeboat" cases Holmes v. United States and Regina v. Dudley and Stephens, both being the trials of seamen forced to kill boatmates to ensure the survival of the others on the lifeboat. The seamen were convicted, although ultimately their punishment was not severe. However, in both cases public sentiment was on their side -- the general view seems to have been that the "custom of the sea" required actions consistent with the principle of the greatest good of the greatest number.
In this essay I reconcile the general perception that sacrificing one individual in such circumstances to save the many is a socially good thing to do with the economist's intuition that because a person would not voluntarily contract to be sacrificed, such sacrifices are necessarily involuntary and therefore not Pareto-optimal. Using a version of the original state-dependent preferences model of Eisner and Strotz, in which the alternative state, death, is represented in the present by a "bequest function," I show that as the probability of surviving in a lifeboat dwindles to zero, the minimum price a person puts on his life also dwindles to zero. Therefore, a custom of waiting until the last minute to sacrifice a person, and then making no payment to his estate, is Pareto-optimal. I further argue that the nautical custom (dating back to Old Testament times) of drawing lots to select the victim has an explanation consistent with economic rationality, in that when a lifeboat or other vessel is in such bad straits as to require a sacrifice, any deterministic selection method invites strategic behavior on the part of the victim, such as killing someone else, that would undermine the whole point of the sacrifice and actually increase the hazards faced by the lifeboat's company.
JEL Classification: K00, K14
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation