When we were kids, we were usually taught that an action is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. This philosophical essay from Dr John Danaher argues that morality is contextual, and the exponential rate of change in modern society – driven by technology – is posing enormous challenges to our traditional moral belief systems and theories. Dr Danaher is a breath of fresh air in philosophy, applying age-old concepts to cutting-edge contemporary developments. His writing is highly erudite, yet surprisingly readable. Great for GP students to read the philosophical pieces on his blog to develop the ability to reason and argue critically, cogently and systematically.
Holmes knew that killing people was wrong, but he faced a dilemma. Holmes was a member of the crew onboard the ship The William Brown, which sailed from Liverpool to New York in early April 1842. During its Atlantic crossing, The William Brown ran into trouble. In a tragedy that would repeat itself 70 years later during the fateful first voyage of The Titanic, the ship struck an iceberg off the coast of Canada. The crew and half the passengers managed to escape to a lifeboat. Once there, tragedy struck again. The lifeboat was too laden with people and started to sink. Something had to be done.
The captain made a decision. The crew would have to throw some passengers overboard, leaving them to perish in the icy waters, but raising the level of the boat. It was the only way anyone was going to get out alive. Holmes followed these orders and was complicit in the deaths of 14 people. But the remaining passengers were saved. Holmes and his fellow crew were their saviours. Without doing what they did, everyone would have died. For his troubles, Holmes was eventually prosecuted for murder, but the jury refused to convict him for this. They reduced the conviction to one of manslaughter and Holmes only served six months in jail.
I discuss this case every year with students. Most of them share the jurors’ sense that although Holmes intentionally killed people, he didn’t deserve much blame for his actions. In the context, we would be hard pressed to have done differently. Indeed, many of my students think he should avoid all punishment for his actions.
Holmes’s story illustrates an important point: morality is contextual.
Website owner Steven Ooi, a First Class Honours grad from NUS, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as an English and GP tutor in 2016. He continues to blog on issues of concern to GP.
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