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Rower's dilemma

Once upon a time, in some imaginary history there was a big lake. On the one side of the lake there lived a tribe of hunters. And each spring the other side of the lake got visited by foreign traders who wanted to buy furs, exchanging them to all kinds of valuables, high-quality metal tools and other such items the hunters couldn't produce themselves. Each spring the hunters crossed the lake with their boats to do the barter. The tribe of hunters didn't have a strict hierarchical structure, but it was more like each family taking care of themselves. And so begins our story;

One winter it so happened, that a family Whitehair managed to catch so much animals that all the furs made such a load that an ordinary boat could not carry the load. The Whitehair family thought what to do; they could stash some of the furs, and cross the lake with that much fur their boat could carry. Maybe they could trade the stashed furs the next spring? But maybe the quality of furs would degrade, and they would get lesser price for old furs? Hmm... Well maybe then trade the excess furs with some of the neighboring families who didn't manage to catch that much? But in that case they'd also get lower price, for sure. So, to get the maximum profit for the plentiful catch they'd need a way to transport all the furs to the other side of the lake. They'd need a bigger boat. Hey, but isn't it so that the Longbeard family has a really big vessel? Let's go ask if we could load our furs in their boat, and give them a share of the profit?

With these thoughts the head of the Whitehair family went to meet the Longbeard family. When she arrived there, there was a negotiation going on. It turned out that the heads of Blackhair and Redhair families were already there, with the exact same kind of proposal. So, the Whitehair family started by asking if the Longbeard boat would be big enough to carry the combined load of furs from Whitehair, Blackhair and Redhair families. What if they join their forces, cross the lake together with the Longbeard boat, and the Longbeard family would get a small share of the trade profit from the three other families? The Longbeard family agreed, for their boat was big enough, and for them this deal would yield the most profit. Instead of having to bargain which family was offering bigger share than other families, they could just reap all the shares offered.

The head of the Longbeard family said: "This winter we didn't have time to hunt fur animals, we were only hunting for food, and spent most of the time repairing and upgrading our boat. And now it turns out this was a good decision to make. The boat is big enough to carry all of your furs. It has three pairs of oars, each pair is operated by two persons. And one person is needed as a lookout, in the front of the boat watching the lake, navigating and giving instructions to the rowers so that the boat won't hit rocks nor get stuck on shallow waters. And this is what I propose: We, the Longbeard family provide the boat and the lookout person, for we know the best where it is safe to go with this big boat - you only have experience of your smaller boats, but they behave differently and can easily cross areas which are too shallow for our boat to go. You, the three families, each provide two rowers, manning a pair of oars. At the market each family can trade their furs as they wish, but each will give one tenth to us, the Longbeard. I think this is a good deal - for if you stash some of your furs to trade them the following year, their value will be down by more than one tenth. So, by agreeing to this deal each family wins." It was not a problem, all the families agreed to the deal and shook hands to confirm the deal.

They loaded the boat with furs, they manned the oars and set off to cross the lake. The journey would take four days of rowing, and then they all would be rich. They journey back home would be only three days, for with a lighter load the boat would move faster. The Longbeard lookout was very skilled, navigating the boat so that the journey went safely. At the marketplace the three families bartered good and there was much rejoicing. They merrily loaded the boat with all the traded riches and went rowing back home. The three days journey shouldn't be a problem.

On the first night one of the Whitehair rowers woke up hearing some noises. Without moving he just sharpened his ears, listening carefully. He overheard the Blackhair pair or rowers whispering to each other: "Now when this boat is not so heavy any more, what if an accident happens, and the members of the other families just somehow happen to drown? Then we could row the boat to the Blackhair cove and keep all of the riches to our family! - Hehe haha hoho hehe! That is a good plan, let's do that tomorrow, you use your oar to knock down the Redhairs, I use my oar to knock down the Whitehairs, and then we together deal with that stupid greedy Longbeard lookout!". The Whitehair rower pretended to sleep. And after a moment it sounded like the Blackhairs fell asleep. But the Whitehair rower couldn't get sleep, he felt nervous pondering what he should do - alert the others, so that they could contain the Blackhair nullifying their plans? Or maybe first wake up his pair to discuss the options? And, if he'd tell the others what he heard, would the believe him? With these thoughts he couldn't fall asleep, and soon he overheard the Redhair pair of rowers whispering to each other, essentially having the same kind of plan. The Whitehair rower decided to wait until the Redhairs felt asleep, then tapped the shoulder of his pair until she woke up, and informed his fellow Whitehair of the evil plans of those other two families. Together they decided that the best they can do is to stay prepared - for if they are the only ones who know of the evil plans, they have the advantage, so that they can quickly launch a counter-strike, knocking down the Blackhairs and Redhairs, and then rowing back home either with or without the Longbeard lookout, depending if they'd love to have all of the profit or only seven tenths of the profit to the Whitehair family...

The morning was peaceful as usual, after a good tasty breakfast the rowers grabbed oars and went rowing. But there was a certain sense of suspense in the air, the rowers being less talkative. They rowed in silence. But soon the Longbeard lookout shouted: "Storm clouds ahead! It looks like a very severe storm, bringing big waves, great big waves which will capsize our boat. You all need to row as fast as you can for the rest of the day and we can make it home tonight, on the second day, before the storm hits us!" Nobody said anything, the rowers just kept on rowing at their usual pace. The wind grew stronger, the waves grew bigger, there was white foam riding on the waves, the cold water occasionally hitting the faces of the rowers. The Longbeard lookout kept shouting: "What is the matter with you! Can't you feel the storm coming? You all need to row as fast as you can, now! It is still possible to reach safety, if you all row at maximum speed, now, I mean now, at maximum speed!". At first there was no reaction. Then a Blackhair rower yelled back: "Shut up you besserwisser! We are tired of you telling us what to do!". The Longbeard replied: "Listen, the thing is that if you all don't row at maximum speed, we all drown, the boat will sink taking all the riches with it, and we all die. You want that to happen?". A Redhair rower shouted back: "Don't tread on me!". And a Whitehair rower hollered: "Don't listen to that alarmist Longbeard who is just trying to induce panic to control your minds!"

For a moment the Longbeard lookout tried to figure out what to do. Maybe if he'd explain the situation once more? Or maybe they will understand once the storm is closer and the wind is strong enough to feel really dangerous? But then it would be too late to row to safety, but maybe he could navigate them to that one small islet which is a half a day journey off their route? Maybe they could shelter of that islet, hoping for the storm to pass so that they can safely return home, everyone alive, with all the riches? But his train of thought was quickly stopped by an unexpected sight: Instead of rowing as fast as they could the Whitehair and Blackhair rowers had started to fight each other, apparently trying to push others into the lake. The Redhairs watched the struggle, opportunistically offering a small extra punch on which ever side if they saw a moment they could help getting rid of anyone. The Longbeard lookout shouted angrily: "Now you idiots better stop, or we will all die! I can see you fighting over who gets to keep the riches, but listen, the situation is so that either we all row together, or no-one gets the riches for we all die when the boat capsizes!"

That is the background story. And then a game:

Imagine you are one of the characters in this story. What would you do?

251 users have voted.


I’d start rowing, no matter who I was.

OK! If you have time to reply, I'd like to ask, just to clarify so that I understand correctly; the boat in the story is so built, that each pair of oars is operated by two persons. Which means that if there is only one person rowing, operating either the port or the starboard oar, the boat will go in circles, so not really moving anywhere. To go forward it is necessary to have at least two persons rowing - one on the port side, another on the starboard side. I'm not sure but I'm assuming you understood that aspect in the story, and your reply goes on the line "I'll do the right thing, no matter what the other persons are doing, not calculating the potential outcome, just doing the right thing for that is what morality is about" - or does your reply imply something like "wishing to lead by example, hoping if I do the right thing, someone other will also calm down and grab an oar?"

Telling the others and confronting the first pair of mutineers at the night before feels like the most reasonable thing to do, but it could have bad outcomes anyway, and of course that would break the set up and it's not how dilemmas work; Instead, personally, I feel like I would go into flight/freeze/fight mode, so I would either try to separate the fighters and help to calm things down, or freeze in place while thinking about helping, just to run away for my life when the storm finally hits and things go bad. Most likely a combination of those, trying to stop the fight and maybe going into freeze mode if nothing can be done about it, and then finally flee if no one else decided to change their ways and cooperate too. It sounds rather bleak, but it's how I've seen myself react to those sorts of situations in my life, so it's the most realistic answer I can give to this.

I appreciate you pondering what you, as a person you are, would really do in that kind of situation - instead of escaping into the fictional thought-experiment setting where people often tend to think something like "what is an ideal moral person supposed to do in this situation?".

I also have my own answer on what I would do in this situation, but I'm not (yet) writing it here, for to me it is more interesting to hear what other people feel and think about the situation described.

And, I like the way you think about possible action taken earlier, before the dilemma takes place. I mean, I have this dream of making a philosophical game, or a few of them, where the player would face this kind of situations, given multiple choices at various stages of the story, and each decision would greatly affect the future options available. I hope one day I'll find myself in a situation where I can make such games. (If the boat doesn't capsize, that is...)


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