You Can Only Save One – Who do You Choose?

This lesson discusses utilitarianism and how it can be used to decide between saving two groups of passengers in an interstellar disaster, considering their age and the amount of life they have lived. It also touches on the idea that those who are worse off should be given priority, and the suggestion to flip a coin in order to give each individual an equal chance of being saved.

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Lesson Article

Mallory 7

You are the captain of the Mallory 7, an interstellar cargo transport on its way to the New Lindley spaceport. Suddenly, you receive a distress call from the Telic 12, which has suffered an explosion and is running out of oxygen. Upon checking the manifest, you learn that the Telic 12 is carrying 30 middle-aged individuals from some of Earth’s poorest districts to the labor center on New Lindley. Before you can reach the Telic 12, you receive a second distress call from a luxury space cruiser called the Pareto, which has lost a thruster and is careening towards an asteroid belt. The Pareto is carrying 20 college students headed for vacation. With only enough time to save one ship, you are faced with a dilemma that is representative of a broader class of problems where life-saving resources, such as a donated organ or vaccine, are scarce. There are many schools of thought on how to approach these problems, an important one being utilitarianism.


Utilitarianism is an influential ethical view first developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. According to this view, one should choose the action which promises the greatest sum of happiness. However, defining and measuring happiness is a difficult task. Hedonists might argue that a happy life contains the most pleasure and least pain, while others might suggest that it is the life in which one’s desires are most fulfilled.

Life Expectancy and Happiness

In order to determine which action would generate the most happiness, one must consider more than just how many lives would be saved. For example, if we assume a life expectancy of 80, saving the lives of students, with an average age of 20, saves 1,200 life years, while saving the lives of workers, with an average age of 45, saves 1,050. All things being equal, a longer life should promise a greater sum of happiness than a shorter one. Therefore, saving the smaller ship may actually generate more happiness than saving the larger one.

Giving Priority to the Worse Off

If we want to generate the most happiness, we may want to consider a different approach. Philosopher Derek Parfit suggests giving priority to the worse off, as benefits to those groups matter more than equivalent benefits to the well-off. It is more urgent to help those whose basic needs aren’t met, even if they are harder to help than those who are flourishing.

Complications in Determining the Worse Off

Determining which group is truly worse off can get complicated quickly. In our case, Earth is still beset by drastic inequalities in wealth and opportunity. Those able to afford a vacation on New Lindley and transport on a luxury cruiser are among the most well-off people on the planet, while the workers are among the most disadvantaged, traveling away from home for months at a time to perform service work. With fewer resources and opportunities, it is likely they have experienced more hardship in their lives than the vacationers, so maybe they are more deserving.

Each Person Deserves Equal Concern and Respect

On one hand, there is the question of which group of passengers should be given priority in terms of rescue; the students, who have experienced less life overall, or the elderly, who have experienced more life but are more vulnerable? On the other hand, John Taurek argued that in these types of cases, the numbers don’t count. Each person is deserving of equal concern and respect, so the best way to decide which passengers to save is to flip a coin. While this might seem arbitrary at first, it is a fair approach as it gives each individual an equal chance of being rescued. It is difficult to say whether any of the passengers could argue that they are being treated unfairly by a coin flip, but it is possible that they, and you, may feel differently about the result.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you decide which ship to save if you were in the same situation as the captain of the Mallory 7?
  2. If you were to choose based on utilitarianism, how would you define and measure happiness?
  3. What are your thoughts on Derek Parfit’s view of giving priority to the worse-off?
  4. Do you think it’s possible to give each individual an equal chance of being rescued without using a coin flip?
  5. How do you think the passengers in the situation would react to having their fate decided by a coin flip?
  6. What do you think the implications are of making decisions based on utilitarianism?
  7. What criteria would you use to determine which group of passengers is worse off in a situation like this?
  8. Do you think it’s possible to come up with an ethical decision in this situation that everyone involved can agree upon?

Lesson Vocabulary

UtilitarianismAn ethical philosophy that claims that the best action is the one that maximizes overall utility, or wellbeing – Example sentence: Utilitarianism dictates that the most ethical decision is the one that benefits the most people.

HedonismA philosophical school of thought that holds pleasure as the highest good – Example sentence: Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain as a way of life.

Derek ParfitA British philosopher and author of the book “Reasons and Persons” – Example sentence: Derek Parfit’s theory of personal identity has been discussed in many philosophical circles.

Jeremy BenthamA British philosopher and founder of utilitarianism – Example sentence: Jeremy Bentham argued that the right action is the one that produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

John Stuart MillA British philosopher and proponent of utilitarianism – Example sentence: John Stuart Mill believed that human morality should be based on the principle of utility.

Mallory 7A planet located in the Mallory galaxy – Example sentence: Interstellar Cargo plans to deliver a shipment of goods to Mallory 7 this week.

Telic 12A planet in the Telic galaxy – Example sentence: Space Cruiser is planning to launch a mission to explore the planet Telic 12.

ParetoA 20th-century Italian economist and sociologist who developed the concept of Pareto efficiency – Example sentence: According to Pareto, a situation is considered efficient if no one can be made better off without making another worse off.

Interstellar CargoA space transport company – Example sentence: Interstellar Cargo delivers goods to planets in the Mallory and Telic galaxies.

New LindleyA planet in the Lindley galaxy – Example sentence: Space Cruiser is planning to launch a mission to explore the planet New Lindley.

Space CruiserA space exploration company – Example sentence: Space Cruiser has explored many planets in the Mallory and Telic galaxies.

VacationA period of leisure time away from work or school – Example sentence: Mark is excited to go on vacation next week and relax.

Life ExpectancyThe average amount of time a person is expected to live – Example sentence: The current life expectancy for humans is about 78 years.

Life YearsA unit of measurement used to quantify the number of years a person is expected to live – Example sentence: Mark is expected to live for about 60 life years.

Basic NeedsThe fundamental requirements that must be met in order to maintain physical and mental health – Example sentence: All people should have access to basic needs such as food, shelter, and healthcare.

InequalitiesThe lack of equality between people or groups of people in terms of access to resources or opportunities – Example sentence: Inequalities in access to education and healthcare can lead to disparities in economic opportunities.

WealthA large amount of money, goods, or property – Example sentence: Mark’s family has accumulated a large amount of wealth over the years.

OpportunityA chance to do something – Example sentence: Mark is excited about the opportunity to go on vacation next week.

Service WorkWork that involves performing services for others – Example sentence: Mark has been doing service work as a waiter for the past few years.

John TaurekA philosopher and author of the book “Should the Baby Live?” – Example sentence: John Taurek’s work on medical ethics has been widely discussed in philosophical circles.

Coin FlipA method of making a decision by randomly selecting one of two options – Example sentence: Mark and Sarah decided to let the coin flip decide who will get to go on vacation this year.

RespectA feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements – Example sentence: Mark has a lot of respect for his parents and their hard work.

FairnessThe quality of being just, equitable, and impartial – Example sentence: Mark believes that everyone should be treated with fairness and respect.

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