The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Crises and Conscience – Preparing for Choices

with 3 comments

1. A number of survivors from the Costa Concordia either woke up, or should have woken up, with slightly troubled consciences this morning.

2. According to survivors, attempts to prioritise women, children and the infirm in boarding the lifeboats were obstructed by able-bodied men insisting on remaining with their families.

3. Those who succeeded in forcing their way into life-boats may never know whether, or to what extent, they were responsible for others’ trauma, injuries or even possibly death.

4. Perhaps they won’t think about it or care; or perhaps they will justify their actions to themselves.

5. And it is, of course, easier for me to hope and imagine that I would have behaved better in the same circumstances, than to be sure of it; as the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) say, don’t judge someone until you stand in his or her place (which is of course impossible).

6. But thinking about all this does remind me of what I believe to be a central purpose of religion; to learn how to control myself in trivial ways and at unimportant moments so that I will be able to display self-control in significant ways and at times of crisis.

7. The Chofetz Chaim said that no choice in life is difficult to make – but it is often very difficult to know when I am making a choice, or what choice I am making.  To analyse my own behaviour, and the options open to me, carefully and critically at a time of crisis requires a habit of self-examination and self-discipline.

8. People who behave like animals at the best of times are unlikely suddenly to discover human decency at the worst of times.

9. People who, through religion or in other ways, aim during “normal” times to rise above the purely animal instincts and to direct their behaviour through self-control and thought for others, have at least a chance of being able to behave decently under pressure.

10. If I push through a bus-queue today, I am more likely to push through a life-boat queue tomorrow; if I think about decency while waiting for the bus, I increase my chances of behaving decently while waiting for a life-boat.

11. That may not affect my success in life – many people who behave like the worst kind of animal appear to achieve the best kind of material success; but I believe that it will affect my chances of nurturing inside me something that is not too closely bound to the purely material world to live on after my physical death.


Written by Daniel Greenberg

January 15, 2012 at 5:01 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Although in some people, sometimes a crisis can bring out their best. Oskar Schindler was supposedly a bit of a selfish exploiter in peacetime, but he stopped being so selfish and starting helping people when it really mattered.

    Will Truth

    February 7, 2012 at 9:46 pm

  2. Who says they were wrong for forcing their way into saving their lives? Why is a woman’s life worth more than a man’s? Who gets to decide these morals? Does the Torah say anything about it?


    December 26, 2012 at 11:37 am

    • Good point – yes, the Torah says a good deal about it. In particular, the Talmud discusses priorities in emergency situations in the context of people who find themselves in the desert with limited quantities of water. You are quite right that people have a right of self-preservation; but it is far from clear that it amounts to a duty of self-preservation where a person chooses to protect others. I agree there is no question of women’s lives being worth more than men’s; but the concept of men regarding themselves as generally more hardy than women and therefore under a duty to protect them is consistent with Torah values, to say no more, although I accept that it is not regarded as congenial by everyone today.

      Daniel Greenberg

      December 26, 2012 at 11:48 am

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