Ethics Scoreboard Flashback: “Death on Everest”, a Real Life “What Would You Do?”

[ The discussion in the earlier post today regarding ABC’s revolting “What Would You Do?” convinced me that I should re-post this essay about a real-life “What Would You Do?”tragedy, which originally appeared on The Ethics Scoreboard in 2006.  Entitled “Death on Everest,” It has been lightly edited to bring it up to date.]

As 34-year-old mountaineer David Sharp lay near death on Mount Everest, over 40 other climbers trudged past him on their march to the peak. All had oxygen with them, and a few even stopped briefly to give Sharp a few breaths. But still they climbed on, and Sharp perished. His demise on May 15, 2006 has gone into ethics lore alongside the infamous death of Kitty Genovese on March 13, 1964. Genovese was murdered outside her apartment building in Queens while thirty-eight neighbors watched and did nothing.
The two incidents stem from very different causes, however. While Genovese’s death was fueled by urban fear and apathy, a mass failure of courage and the willingness to assume responsibility in a crisis, Sharp was the victim of that universal ethics-suppressant, the powerful non-ethical consideration.

Non-ethical considerations include all the goals, motivations and objectives that human beings care about. Some are good, some are not so good, and all are 100% human. Safety, health, love, lust, sex, food, shelter, ambition, fun, revenge, greed, fear; the desire to get that promotion, satisfy that client, impress your date, conquer a lingering self-doubt…the list is long, and any of the non-ethical considerations on it can act as a magnet pulling mind, heart and conscience away from the clear perception of right and wrong, like keeping the clapper from ringing an alarm. The climbers who left Sharp to die were not bad people—what would be the odds that among forty-plus mountain climbers there would not be one ethical one?—but they were each so focused on an all-consuming non-ethical objective that none were capable of perceiving that saving a human life had to take precedence over conquering Everest.

It would have been difficult to design a sociological experiment that demonstrated more effectively why good people do bad things. Mountain-climbers, by definition, have to be unusually dedicated and focused on the challenge of reaching the peak; anything less, and they will fail, and quite possibly die. They have already decided that their goal is worth both personal risk and sacrifice, so it is bound to be difficult to shock them out of a mindset that ranks nothing more important than completing the climb to the top. In effect, such individuals become immune to ethical reasoning until their goal is achieved.

David Sharp’s death is eerily reminiscent of a Princeton experiment recounted in Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book, “The Tipping Point.” Seminary students were told to prepare a lecture on a theological topic that would determine their grade, and then asked to walk across campus to deliver it to a filled amphitheatre. On the way to give their critical speech, each seminarian encountered a prone and bleeding man, crying for help. Only a small percentage stopped to help him, because they didn’t want to be late for their presentations. Even most of the seminarians whose prepared topic was the Bible story of the Good Samaritan failed to stop! Why? Because they were focused on their task, objective and the grade to follow. Ethics had literally been blasted out of their minds by  powerful non-ethical considerations: Grades. Praise. Success. Achievement.

As usual when non-ethical considerations take command, rationalizations came easy for the climbers who left Sharp to die. Typical was Australian climber Bob Killip, who told interviewers, “David was not left to die … he was as good as dead. Max [a Lebanese climber] and Sherpas had spent an hour trying to help him. But it was a hopeless situation. Some might judge it as being callous, but at another level, it was just reality.” Only the steady pull of a desperately desired non-ethical goal like conquering Everest could produce such logic. Do rescue workers just decide that an accident victim is “as good as dead” and go to a matinee of “True Grit”? Do bathers who see a child pulled from a pool turning blue decide that he’s “as good as dead,” and start a game of “Marco Polo”? If Sharp was 99.9 per cent dead, making the effort to salvage that one-thousandth of a life was obviously worth aborting an Everest expedition. But Killup couldn’t see that, and neither could any of his colleagues.

Sir Edmund Hillary, the famous mountaineer who in 1953 became the first to scale to the world’s highest mountain, was critical of those who abandoned Sharp. He told the New Zealand Press Association that his expedition “would never for a moment have left one of the members or a group of members just lie there and die while they plugged on towards the summit.” Maybe that is true; certainly Hillary believes it, and he is an extraordinary man. But it was deceptively easy for Hillary to say this long after his quest was safely completed. Would he really have stopped his attempt to become the first man on Everest’s peak to help a man who seemed “as good as dead?” We will never know, and Sir Edmund should count himself as fortunate that he never faced that choice. [Update: When Sir Edmund died after this was written, I learned more about his remarkable integrity, bravery, and exemplary ethical conduct throughout his life. I no longer have any doubt that he indeed would have stopped his historic expedition to save an imperiled human being, and I regret ever suggesting otherwise. He was a great man, philanthropist and human being,the epitome of an Ethics Hero.]

The significance of the David Sharp tragedy is not that the mountaineers did the wrong thing. Of course they did the wrong thing. Nor is it that they are callous or unethical people, for they are probably no more so than you or I. The importance of the story is that it vividly shows how difficult it can be to make even obvious ethical choices when powerful non-ethical considerations are in our sights. Every one of us has a goal or a dream or a desire that could make us walk by a dying man. It is our responsibility to recognize what those goals, dreams and desires are, and to force ourselves not to forget about right and wrong as we approach them.

4 thoughts on “Ethics Scoreboard Flashback: “Death on Everest”, a Real Life “What Would You Do?”

  1. Jack,

    Thanks for re-posting this. It was the first article that I read on your Ethics Scoreboard. It really touched a nerve, and it got me to think more deeply about the ethics of both everyday as well as difficult decisions. Thank you again.

    Scott Clark

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  3. I find it amazing how not one of those climbers stopped to help Sharp. Even though I would want to be able to achieve my dreams of climbing the mountain, I would have stopped to help Sharp. I feel like if there was someone in need of help and I didn’t help them then it would be partially my fault for their demise.

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