Happy New Year.
Yesterday in a class my daughter, who attends an all girls school, was assigned to play a game typically known as lifeboat. It involves assigning roles or identities to each person in the room. The students were then told that there were only 10 spaces in a lifeboat that remains after a shipwreck. There were 21 girls in the room. The teacher’s assignment was for the girls to decide who should get a seat in the lifeboat, and who should not get a seat, based upon the roles each person was assigned. Those not getting a seat were being consigned to death. The teacher expected that the deliberation would take all of the 50 minutes or so of class time. It took 5 minutes.
Me: How could you all possibly have decided who would live or die that quickly?
Daughter: First, we all read our roles. Then, one girl stood up and asked: “Who thinks that they should die based upon their social contribution or importance?” Eleven people raised their hands. Perfect; we then assigned the people with their hands down to the seats in the lifeboat and we were done.
Me: Wow. It's interesting that the question was who should die instead of who should live. Did you raise your hand?
Daughter: Yes. The role that I was assigned was of somebody who didn’t seem to have any responsibilities to take care of anybody else; some peoples’ roles were described as healthcare workers or caretakers of relatives. My role had no information about whether I had those kinds of responsibilities. So it made sense to volunteer to die.
Me: I am not sure whether or not I should be impressed with how quickly you all resolved this. Do you think that your classmates, or you, would be that self-sacrificing in real life?
Daughter: I don’t know; maybe. On the whole I think we’re pretty caring people. And these girls seem to collaborate way better than when I went to a school that included boys. But I am sure that part of the reason we finished so quickly is that we understood that it was a game. The idea that anyone would sit there and rationally deliberate on life and death when there’s a lifeboat waiting is pretty unlikely to start with. As long as we are behaving in a way that is unlikely, we may as well behave in a way that comes out with the right answers.
Me: There were right answers?
Daughter: Mom, these morality games always have right answers, no matter what they say about choices.
My daughter's story left me in deep thought, consternation, and admiration. I think that whether or not they know it, my daughter and her classmates engaged in a powerful illustration of the ideas of public and private morality, efficiency, and ultimately on the nature of autonomy (is their behavior Kantian? I am still working it out.). Sure, these girls are in high school, so some cynicism is to be expected, and even encouraged. I still want them to play such games "in the blind," that is, without acknowledging real life constraints. But perhaps they are better off if they raise the blindfold.