Friday, September 16, 2005

Another Dilemma

Yesterday I wrote about an ethical dilemma. Today, I'll write about another incident, that illustrates the difference between black and white thinking and thinking in shades of grey.

One man approached a problem adhering to the letter of the law. The other man, adapting to the particular needs of the situation at hand, attacked the same problem with the spirit of the law.

In April of 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. It soon became apparent that the ship was going to sink in a short period of time and would have to be quickly evacuated.

Captain Smith assigned two of his senior officers, First Officer Murdoch and Second Officer Lightoller to supervise the loading of the lifeboats, each taking a different side of the ship. Before releasing the men to carry out their tasks, he reminded them "Women and children first."

Murdoch took Smith's words at face value. He loaded women and children first, but added men if he did not see any more women and children nearby waiting to board. Realizing that time was of the essence, he knew he didn't have the time to go hunting down more women to fill the boats with. Filling and safely lowering the boats as quickly as possible was his first priority.

Lightoller interpreted Smith's command as meaning "Women and children ONLY". Like Murdoch, he filled his boats with women and children waiting to board. Unlike the First Officer, however, if there were no more women waiting to board a particular boat, he sent it down to the water not completely occupied, rather than allowing any men to board.

One man from Second Class was traveling under an assumed name with his two toddler sons, having kidnapped them from his estranged wife. He approached a lifeboat on Lightoller's side, waiting to board with his children. Lightoller wouldn't allow him to get in the boat, telling him it was women and children first (only).

But as far as anyone on the Titanic knew, he was all the little boys had in the world and if not allowed to board, the children would become orphans. Lightoller was adamant, however: rules were rules, no exceptions.

The man perished in the sinking and his toddler sons were taken to New York, with no one knowing their real name, where they were from, and that their mother was alive. A woman who'd survived the sinking took both boys home with her, prepared to adopt them and give them a new life.

Meanwhile, the boys' mother in Paris happened to see a photo of them in the newspaper with the caption "Titanic Orphans". She was soon reunited with her sons, but if she'd not happened to have seen that photo, no one would have ever known who they really were.

Though there was a happy ending for these children, I can't help but think of how differently things would have turned out if their father had indeed been a widower. By following the letter of the law, Lightoller would have needlessly made these boys orphans.


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