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« One UFO That Was Launched | Main | Poems About Art »

May 26, 2006


Excellent question and a hard one to answer. The fact is that we do not really know.

Moral positions are much easier to assume when we consider them in the abstract. When faced with them in real life juxtaposed with our self interest, the picture becomes less clear. Especially in situations of extreme physical hardships our ordinary moral sense often deserts us.

The disturbing thing about the Mark Inglis case is that although the decision was made under very strenuous circumstances such as you enumerate, the object of the expedition was "glory" and nothing more. It was not one of desperation such as when someone escaping from sure death or disaster some times will abandon another fellow human to save his/her own life. I feel that the fact that Mr. Inglis had made it as far as he had as a double amputee, was commendable enough. Aborting the mission to turn back and save (or at least try) a dying man would have counted as much greater glory in my books.

For more insight into what happens to the human body and the human mind at the rarefied and unreal world of high altitude, I strongly recommend reading Jon Krakauer's fantastic book Into Thin Air about the 1996 weather and human disaster that unfolded on Mt. Everest. Before reading the book, I used to think that the greatest danger in mountain climbing was "falling off" an icy or rocky ledge! The account of the highly competitive and now expensive hobby of mountain climbing is also described by Krakauer in disturbing details. While most climbers do co-operate with each other, there are evidences of the same callousness of leaving the dying and the injured in the book.

I agree with Sir Edmund Hilary. In all athletic and physical pursuits (and mountain climbing is just that) we have to pause and remind ourselves that no matter what the reward is at the end, it is just "a game."

If it is of any consolation to any one, on the way down, Inglis's group found that David Sharpe had found a cave to die in - hopefully with an illusion of shelter in his dying moments.

Sujatha, I'd caught this story as well and had felt the same outrage at the callousness of the climbers who left Sharpe behind.

What was more telling was the comment of the one individual who did decide to stop and help him. He called for help but was told that since Sharpe had been without oxygen for an extended period, there was almost zero probability of his survival and hence the a rescue attempt would be futile and a waste of his resources. I guess such situations have a cruel way of reducing everything to hard, cold rationality.

As you said, I too would like to think that I'd have it me to do the right thing. But reality is very different from convenient and self-satisfying thought experiments.

As far achievements go, a few years back, an American named Erik Weihenmayer became the first blind person to reach Mt. Everest. What an awesome feat!

Apologies for these repetitious comments on the same post, but is there an "About" page for you, Sujatha? Just out of sheer curiosity, that's all.

Perhaps that should be my next project - to add an about page for the guest bloggers.(I am somewhat limited in my expertise with web pages) I began A.B. as a solo enterprise in October 2005. See my first post where I explained the motivation. Three other bloggers have come on board in the last couple of months. Sujatha is the newest one. To find out a bit more about her, see her very first post here which will give you an idea.

Thanks for the links, Mrs. P. I'll be spending the weekend reading a few of the old posts.

Ruchira and M.W.
Thanks for the perspectives. It's indeed an absorbing thought experiment to carry out, in that, given our limited/second-hand knowledge of the actual hardships of climbing, we would tend to take the high road and turn back, attempting a rescue even if it were doomed to failure. Others, who claim first-hand knowledge of how thought processes can change with oxygen impairment, find it more understandable that the expedition pushed on and left the dying man.

A little off topic, isn't a similar decision made when multiple people are injured at the same time and taxing a hospital's resources- they use a medical triage system with trained personnel who evaluate the chances of survival and concentrate on those who have the best chance of making it through. I think that must be a difficult field to work in, definitely not for dilettantes.

Speaking of thought experiments and ethics, I remember reading these two very interesting posts at, an academic blog with a few philosophers on board, sometime back. I think you'll also find them elucidating and quite apposite to this discussion.

And by coincidence, Yahoo is running a story on another mountaineer who was initially thought to be dead but now could be alive, again while attempting Everest.

Thanks for the links to the excellent discussion on Crooked Timber (a blog I used to read quite regularly before I started blogging myself. I should read it more often).

It is extremely interesting what those thought experiments suggest about our moral decisions. In the case of the violinist most people would walk away without a sense of obligation to keep him alive for nine months. We are thinking about a stranger - "his life vs nine months of mine." But the opinion changes abruptly when the question is about abortion or a mother carrying a fetus / child to term for an equal amount of time. That is when we think "me, my baby" and come to a different ethical conclusion. In the runaway trolley question, most people would flip the switch to kill one person from a distance but won't push the fat man standing beside them on the bridge to achieve the same outcome. Again, it is much easier to kill a faceless adversary (or a demonized one) than to kill when looking into his eyes. Which is why "Shock and Awe" by aerial bombing is so much easier than hand to hand combat.

It is telling how we personalize ethics.

Those were eye-opening links that you posted. They really show that the ethics of dealing with a situation devolve upon each person's individual thinking.
This is from today's news in the WaPo.
I guess what is described is another breakdown of ethics- the overreaction of the Marines which led to killing of families, including even the children, just because they lived near the spot of the IED explosion.

Strange how Everest is getting so much coverage- One rather weird news article today :
Naked climber sparks outrage

These articles about Everest remind me about the time when there was a smiliar spate of stories about shark attacks, a few years ago!

And another climber was found alive. There have been 15 deaths so far this year.

In to Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
A very interesting read!

More detailed article about Sharp's plight

Oops. Looks like I didn't enter the links properly. Here they are again:
Sharp's plight

Into Thin Air

Has anyone seen the movie "Alive"? It's based on the true story of the stuggle of the members of Uruguayan soccer team for survival, after their plane crashes in the Andes. I saw it long ago but some of the scenes were grisly enough to have left permanent memories. In order to make it, the survivors had to resort to, among other things, cannibalism.

An update on the David Sharpe story- He made his ascent and aborted descent on 14th May and had people pass him twice the same day without attempting a rescue. Inglis' expedition passed him on 15th May and was one of the few that stopped to try and help a bit. Read the story for more sad details of what could have been.

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