Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Lifeboat Conundrum

I imagine that many of you have seen one of the exercises in lifeboat ethics. It's a favorite in college Philosophy classes and I've even used it myself. Basically, a ship is sinking and there is only one lifeboat, which will hold only 10 people. There are 30 people on the ship. How will you choose who gets a place in the lifeboat? I don't remember ever having even two people in a class choose the same 10 people.

I bring this up now because I can see how it relates to my previous posting on the money crisis that is coming up in frum Klal. Let's say that there are 1000 institutions being funded through private donations. The economic "ship" is sinking. The "lifeboat" will only hold 300 of these institutions. Who is going to choose which institutions remain "living" and which may whither away? Based on what criteria? Will the donors make the decisions of where their money will go? Will the institutions have to fight it out among themselves? When you've spent your whole life railing against X, despising X, haranguing X, do you really suppose that X is going to vote you a seat on the lifeboat and vice versa?

Sometimes students don't take the lifeboat exercise very seriously because they are very sure that they will never have to make such a decision in real life. Frum Klal had better take the exercise very seriously, because their ship has already sprung some mega-leaks, and what was an exercise in philosophy is going to become reality in the foreseeable future. Either come up with a workable, permanent fix to the leaks now, so all the passengers get saved, or prepare to decide who will "live" and who will "die" a short piece down the road.


G said...

Why do I get the feeling that "women and children first" won't be the order of the day?

Anonymous said...

One problem with looking at the situation that way, is it focuses on choosing among existing institutions, rather than how to structure institutions to meet communal needs within the communal budget. A proper solution to a problem needs a proper view of the problem.

ProfK said...

Presumably, hopefully, in deciding on which institutions would remain there would be a restructuring of those remaining institutions such that the financial "sinking" would not arise again in the future. I would imagine that one criterion for getting into the "lifeboat" would be how flexible/amenable/capable is the institution in accepting inevitable changes to its structure.

I'll grant your premise that we have to "structure institutions to meet communal needs within the communal budget." But we are not talking about a utopian ideal, a new world constructed from a blank slate. We have to face the reality of what we have now and ask which of these institutions could be adapted to a better way of doing things. The concept of "survival of the fittest" has also had as a basic premise adaptation to new circumstances.

Anonymous said...

The answer to who would get into the lifeboat is probably no one. They would all be so busy pointing fingers at each other and bogged down in deciding what the rules should be in making a decision and whose kavod gets them the first seat in the lifeboat that the ship would sink. And as they were in the water drowning you would still hear them yelling it's all the other ones fault.

Anonymous said...

If I remember the exercise correctly one of the pieces of information for each person on the ship was what their main accomplishment was or what they were best known for doing. One was a cancer specialist who had discovered a new cure. One was a woman who who watched out for the elderly people in her neighborhood. Would be really interesting to see what some of our institutions would put down for themselves. Singlehandedly drove a store owner to remove pictures from his store window? Responsible for confusing more jews about what a halacha is then any other group? Protected more perverts then any other group? Endless possibilities here.

Orthonomics said...

One could write a thesis trying to answer this question. A few ideas:

1. Save big buildings that are multi-functional first.
2. Save only tzedakah organizations that function at the highest level (helping people get on their own two feet).
3. Change entire structures by eliminating duplication.
4. Only save organizations that are willing to think outside the box.
5. If an organization isn't open to advice, isn't transparent, etc. . . no need to save it. Sunk costs.

Mike S is correct, we need to create the most functional organizational structures possible.

Anonymous said...

This is a very easy question to answer, and it is the same answer as any question of limited public resources (money) and unlimited public needs.

Politics. Politics, both "small" and "large" is what decides where the limited resources are used, and where they aren't used.

Sometimes it works out the way you and I think it should, and sometimes it doesn't, but in the end it roughly works out the way the overall community thinks (i.e. "votes", "supports", etc). And that is rarely the optimal solution.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous that politics is a huge part of how we decide on what gets the funding and what doesn't. But it sure would be nice if when we came down to voting there was a choice that said "none of the above."