Monday, November 28, 2011

Who do you save: Your daughter or your niece?

Based on the different philosophers we’ve studied thus far, I would like to present an ethical dilemma to everyone. I came across this moral dilemma on the web and I believe it’s an interesting one.
The dilemma is as follows;

You and your family are going away for the weekend. Your daughter is 7 and is best friends with your niece, who is also 7. Your families are very close and your daughter asks if your niece can come with you on your holiday. You have been on holidays together before and don’t see any problem, so you agree.

You arrive at your holiday destination and the house you are staying at backs onto a beach. The girls ask if they can go for a swim. You tell them that they have to wait until you have unpacked the car, but they can play on the sand directly in front of the beach. They run down to the sand, and you begin to unpack the car. After about 5 minutes, you hear screaming coming from the direction of the beach and it sounds like the girls.

You run down to see what the matter is, and you discover that they hadn’t listened to you and have gone for a swim. There is no one else on the beach and the girls are caught in a rip.

The girls are really struggling, particularly your niece who isn’t as strong a swimmer as your daughter.

You swim out quickly, but when you get there, you realize that there is no way you will be able to get both the girls back into shore on your own. You realize that an agonizing decision will need to be made.

You need to decide which of the girls you will rescue first, you have enough strength and energy to rescue them both, but you can only do it one at a time. You look at the two girls, and your niece is really struggling to hold her head above water and you know if you take your daughter back first, there will be little or no chance that she will survive.

Your daughter is struggling also, but is much stronger in the water and you estimate that if you take your niece back to shore first, there’s probably a 50% chance that your daughter will be able to stay afloat long enough for you return, but you simply don’t know how long she will hold on for. What do you do?


Please feel free to address this dilemma from your own philosophical view. Alternatively, you can use one of the philosophical perspectives studied in class to tackle this dilemma.
I’m looking forward to hearing your responses.


  1. This is a very interesting moral dilemma and it surely does not come with an easy answer. Both options are equally conflicting so neither answer seems to override the other. Even from the perspective of a majority of the philosophers we have studied, there seems to be no obvious answer. Mill doesn't help a lot for either way as the mom/aunt I am going to be very unhappy with either outcome, that is letting the daughter die or letting the niece die. Also, which decision is going to cause the least amount of pain for the least amount of people? This also goes for Kant, how does the categorical imperative help this situation and does your duty lie with your niece or your daughter?
    This dilemma is very tricky, but I suppose from my philosophical view I would have to save my niece first. Because I can see that my daughter is a stronger swimmer, I would have to save the one struggling first and hope that my daughter can hold on for a little longer. This is so difficult to choose though because the love and connection between a mother and her child tends to be unbelievably strong so to even take a chance with your child would be incredibly hard...

  2. Another very interesting moral dilemma, Emmanuel. Basically, we have to distinguish between two different facts that we have to consider. The first one is the question about the personal interests of the man and their order. According to Darwin, his main interest is always to rescue his own genes to make sure that they will survive. Granted, that sounds pretty rough and not satisfying for us, but is it not the case that this argument might weight most?
    The other fact that we have to consider is, what role the chances of survival of the kids play in this scenario. Is it really important to calculate them or is it just an excuse for us that allows us to save “our” daughter first, if we say that she might not survive otherwise? Certainly, the fact that we have a chance to save both of them causes our Reason to dictate us to make us of this chance, i.e. save the niece first.
    Personally, I don‘t like this answer, so maybe I would save me daughter first even if I have the risk the act immoral.

  3. From an emotional standpoint, I would have to say my first instinct would be to save my daughter. After reading more about the situation though, when you say that the daughter has a 50/50 percent of living and the niece has little or no chance of surviving, my initial view was challenged but not changed. Even though it would be a terrible decision to make, if it was my daughter, I'm not going to leave her life up to a chance, unless it was way higher than the flip of a coin. Plain and simple, i believe most people take their own children first, unless the chance was remarkably in their favor, instead of trying to save someone elses.

  4. This is definitely an interesting dilemma because both of the girls in need of rescuing are personally related to the rescuer. Neither of them are faceless strangers so automatically, no matter which one you choose to save first, there is going to be a great amount of guilt if it is not possible to make it to the other one and save her in time. That being said, I’d save my daughter first. Although she is the stronger swimmer, like Matt said, a 50% chance of survival is just not good enough. This dilemma has the possibility of leaving the rescuer with many levels of guilt as most moral problems do. Not only are they going to have to face themselves if they save their daughter and the niece doesn’t make it but they are also going to have to face their niece’s parents. Although different philosophical perspectives can guide us, when a situation like this hits, I for one would act purely on instinct. The connection between a child and parent is one that is way too great to overcome in a terrible situation like this. Even if it was the more immoral decision of the two, I’d be okay with acting in an immoral way because not saving my child would not be an option.

  5. When reading through this post and the comments, I have to agree with Matt, in that my immediate emotional response woud be to save my daughter first. However, I agree also that it seems more rational to choose to save the niece first and then go back for the daughter when looking at the survival percentages. While this may be the most logical decision, I think that in this case the person making this decision would probably not take the time to make a logical comparison, and I think that most likely a parent would go for their child first regardless.

    That being said, if one were to reflect for a moment on the ethical codes proposed by the philosophers that we've studied in class, there are a number of different answers that would come from the dilemma. When thinking back to Kant, it seems that it would be, because of the percentages of survival, that the choice to save the niece first would be the most rational, since that would provide a universal law that allowed for a greater survival rate (since it is possible that both will survive).

    When looking at someone like Mill, and his Utilitarianism, it gets more complicated however. If the most ethical choice was one that created the greatest amount of good, I suppose one would have to take into account the number of people each child's death would affect in a negative way. Which immediate family is larger? How many people would grieve if the daughter died instead of the niece, and vice-versa? Furthermore, would Mill say that since there is a possibility for both children surviving if the niece is saved first, does that not play into the amount of greatest good?

  6. As a mother, my first instinct would tell me to save my daughter; yes, my niece need helps to but it is my duty to save my own offspring. The role of a parent is to protect their own

    Although it is logical/rational to save your niece because she cannot swim, one's instinct overrides the rational decision.

    Like Hannah mentioned, when taking a utilitarian standpoint in this situation, it would be hard to decide! Which family is bigger? who would be more devastated?


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