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Rescues on the Sea: Moral duties to the Titan and an old fishing boat

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The “rule of rescue” describes the imperative people feel to rescue those in imminent danger. That kneejerk reaction is distinct from the ethical imperative that is described as a duty to rescue. The firm territory of the moral duty to rescue involves rescue that puts the rescuer at little inconvenience or cost and does not endanger the rescuer, i.e., the duty of easy rescue. The many situations to which the duty could apply has led to lots of philosophical debate. For example, many say the duty applies to saving someone in close proximity rather than saving strangers in a foreign land through humanitarian aid. And some say the moral duty should persist even if the rescue has associated financial costs, while others argue it does not. Some also argue that the duty to rescue requires a special relationship, for example a parent rescuing a child or a fire department employee or volunteer rescuing strangers in imminent danger of death. Others yet debate whether the duty applies to those who have imperiled themselves. One more consideration is whether the rescue attempt is somewhat a lost cause, sometimes weighing the difficulty of the task against the chance of success. Of course, many people engage in rescue above and beyond any such moral duty. We sometimes label them “Good Samaritans” and all 50 states have laws to protect them when the rescue goes wrong, leading to property or financial damage or injury the subject of the attempted rescue.

The case of the Titan submersible, owned by OceanGate Expeditions, with five people on board, has captivated a global audience. A fishing boat sank on June 14 and approximately 650 people drowned. There were a few boats to the rescue, including a large, private yacht. There are so many ethical questions and comparisons to be made. First, this short essay will look at why we rescue people. Second, it explores the elements of distance, special relationship or duty, lost causes, the victims’ role in bringing about the danger, and risk to the rescuers. Third, it analyzes the role of wealth overall, arguing that saving human life is a worthy endeavor, and while the (presumably failed) rescues of the Titan and the sunken fishing boat miss the mark terribly as to the amount of private and public response, there is some moral value in both.

Why Rescue?

We rescue people for a lot of reasons. Human life is considered intrinsically valuable, special, and to many, sacrosanct. People may also rescue for instrumental value if they know the victim, and especially if they have a familial relationship. People may rescue for morally questionable reasons too: for example, instrumental value if the person rescued is an indispensable employee or employs many people who would lose their jobs without her. There may be other distinctly financial reasons. Perhaps one might rescue someone only because the person has a trade or military secret. For example in prisoners’ hunger strikes, a government might force-feed someone close to death for the chance at collecting enemy secrets. It is quite likely that most people who are not in the business of rescue, i.e., not firefighters, police, EMTs, lifeguards and the like, rescue others to do good or do the right thing, living out their set of social norms and the values of human life to which they are accustomed. Often, without thinking they simply rush in to save people in the heat of the moment. For example, would-be bystanders often help out in car accidents, shark attacks, and near drownings. And sometimes they do not. Some people also may rescue for the sake of acting heroic. Minnesota, Rhode Island, Louisiana, and Vermont have laws that codify a duty of easy rescue. The laws generally punish a failure to act, but do not require someone to risk life and limb. They tend to require putting in a call for help or other easy acts. They prevent bystanders from doing nothing.

The Parameters

  1. The Titan

In the case of the Titan, while there was someone noting the lost communication, there was no rescue plan in case of emergency. The equipment and rescuers were not in the vicinity. To many, that itself negates any moral duty to rescue. However, the duty to rescue at sea is imposed by treaties and customs in international law and includes some search and rescue. While, arguably, for many reasons, this mission was outside any international legal duty, the tradition of search and rescue in bodies of water may have fed the robust response. It does not seem like any government entity should be seen as having a special relationship to the people on board that would generate a special duty to rescue. Although the same is not true of wealthy relatives of the five on board. The rescue, which is now really at best a recovery mission, is considered highly dangerous. It may have been a lost cause from the beginning as the many levels of ocean and possible locations of the submersible were so vast. It is also expensive, at just over $6.5 million as of this morning. The victims brought about the dangerous situation. Arguably some people on board did not know of the many safety warnings. But all were engaging in very dangerous luxury adventure travel, an industry that is known to have accidents. From Mt. Everest to volcanoes in New Zealand, adventure tourism contributes to tourism death and injury. I suspect if waivers of liability were not legally recognized (and many are not) that corporations running adventure travel outlets would be more cautious or exit that line of work. It is some combination of company and adventure tourist (businesses and customers) that led to the Titan problem. Despite knowing that all five people on board assumed a great deal of risk for the sake of the adventure, nonetheless the United Stated, Canada, and France together attempted rescue. Most of the parameters for a duty to rescue (proximity, risk to the rescuers, chance of success, financial commitment, and victim participation in engaging in the dangerous activity) came down against a duty.

Yet beyond a duty, there are still many reasons to engage in the rescue. Clearly saving lives is a positive action in which many people want to participate. The media attention to the Titan, the helplessness of its passengers, the youth of one of them at age 19, and the pure tragedy make it like a trainwreck from which people have trouble diverting their attention. There is a special tragedy associated with the wealth itself. $250,000 could have fed or educated so many people, but it was spent chasing adrenaline. That mistake leads to mixed emotional responses. In some ways we feel even more pity at the poor decision making. Plus, most people have some relationship to tight spaces. What is often labeled claustrophobia is also a survival instinct telling us not to get in tiny spaces. The general public is feeling that fear of small spaces or low oxygen. Five human beings are being declared dead and despite the lack of a duty to rescue, the three countries and the millions of dollars are to me a sign of Good Samaritanship. It also signals an international gesture of goodwill to the people on board, a sign of some common humanity. To not try at all would be morally worse. I do not find it hypocritical to say adventure tourism is morally questionable, especially when it is this unsafe. I find the passengers’ decision to pay money and engage in this adventure unethical in itself. It would be a severe ethical lapse to require rescue.

The Titan points to an issue of a sort of northern boundary to the ability to rescue – when is rescue distinctly unethical? Many are professing that this rescue, which uses public funds, is unethical in light of other uses of those funds, and the nearly complete lack of international rescue response to the migrants crossing the Mediterranean June 14. I think instead there is an element of human life that perhaps deserves a moment of compassion. The global community understands how awful it would be to be trapped and suffocate. Compassion is appropriate.

2. The migrant fishing boat

Of course, that brings us to the migrant scenario. About 50 miles of the coast of Greece (much closer than the Titan was to Canada’s coast), hundreds of Pakistani people died in one fell swoop. (The death toll is not yet official, and some estimate it at 300-600.) It would have been more but for a luxury yacht in the area. The passengers on the boat were in distress throughout the day although merchant boats delivered water to its passengers. The boat sank in the middle of the night presumably due to engine failure or lack of fuel plus the overcrowded conditions and passenger movements. Authorities are trying to identify the failure and lack of rescue effort. The boat called for help but is also said to have denied help. There is mixed testimony as to whether a Greek ship tied a rope to pull the vessel prior to its sinking.

In that case, an expectation that other boats in the area could have reached the fishing vessel in time is reasonable. And other boats had delivered water, so we know there was awareness of the problem before the boat sank. The duty to rescue throughout that day would have been very strong as the conditions made the passengers desperate and the overcrowding was apparent, in view, and documented in pictures. Arguably, had Greece or Italy’s Coast Guards made more effort, they could have helped people disembark before the boat sank yet after the boat reached out in distress. At one a.m. when the boat sank, it is unclear other than the luxury yacht that did save people, what the governments of Italy and Greece did. Furthermore, it is apparent that the United States did not lend a hand. I would argue that no special relationship would be relevant or necessary to justify rescue as morally compelled. While the duty on the nearby countries fits a duty to rescue more squarely, many other countries may have had boats in the area. Article 98 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) outlines a duty to rescue at sea. Coastal states must engage in search and rescue. Private vessels also have a traditional duty to rescue at sea. The International Maritime Organization asserts these duties specifically apply to migrants. (There is also a question of whether EU law required rescue outside the scope here, which is limited to ethics.) The moral duty to rescue seems more apparent for several reasons. Distance off the coast was not so great. The migrants arguably endangered themselves, but they were specifically seeking economic opportunity for themselves and for their family members. Reasons for migration may feed into the ethical analysis. The luxury Titan travelers arguably have a weaker moral claim to rescue than those going to extreme measures to flee poverty, violence, or war. While it is surpasses the weak moral requirement of easy rescue, nighttime water rescues not entirely uncommon. Experienced ship captains and Coast Guards may have the skill set that limits the dangers although there would definitely be some risk. International human rights,  politics, and economic situations that lead to migration arguably shift burdens among international players as well.

All things considered, the arguments for rescuing those migrants on June 14 are compelling. It is conceivable that the deaths were entirely preventable as anyone observing the pictures of the overcrowded boat would agree the people needed rescue. It is beyond “easy rescue”. Yet there are more justifications for finding a moral duty to rescue, especially for government entities equipped with coast guard boats, planes, and helicopters.

Certainly the luxury yacht, which was able to save over 100 people, is in the Good Samaritan category or perhaps motivated by the international duty of UNCLOS, with a stronger basis for a duty depending on proximity and ease of rescue.

Common humanity

Wealth should not inform rescue. The two stories here are failed rescues except for the lucky migrants who made it to the luxury yacht. The difference in the rescue price tags is alarming people who do not want their taxpayer dollars going to a very few wealthy people. But the dollars are not going to them, and even if the rescue succeeded, it would not be for them. It would be an important gesture of rallying around common morality that saving lives is a worthy venture. Mathematically, lots of dollars were spent on a longshot rescue of very few people. That is due to the nature of the Titan, not a commitment to favoring the wealthy. It would also not be a nod to equality to fail to help altogether. Lending a hand is generally a good thing. Migrant search and rescue would arguably be less costly and better preparation could allow for more international participation. Migrants feel pressure to risk their lives, and when they do, there is arguably a duty to rescue them that is robust. It could be better spelled out through additional international treaties and local laws. There have been various accidents and drownings involving unsafe boats bringing migrants to the United States. Lebanese migrants died off the Syrian coast last September. The migration issues are huge and significantly more should be done to protect them and provide safe passage.

The circumstance of billionaires endangering themselves (to me, by their own stupidity) does not in any way equate to migrants dying in dire straits searching for a better life. There is not much morally legitimate explanation for why the media seized on the Titan but not the migrants. There is an obvious commercial explanation. People are watching the story. It is relatable due to claustrophobic feeling, how unusual the story is, and the trainwreck-style appeal. Trying to save the Titan passengers sets a good moral example. The migrant story, with the more robust moral standing, has the opposite media appeal. People do not want to watch news or read about it. It dredges up feelings of guilt: how can we keep letting migrants drown in the Mediterranean? For others, it could even spark nationalism and a desire to close borders. There is a difference in how the public views the lives of billionaires and poor migrants. But these are all human lives. Homelessness, war, mass kidnappings, and global human rights abuses abound. But a weird, small vessel and some billionaire daredevils – that is a story.

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