Worst Ethics Quiz Ever

 lifeboat test

A teacher in the Hillsborough County School District gave students a “Lifeboat Quiz” asking students to choose who lives and dies during a hypothetical sea disaster.

They were told 15 people need to be saved but there was only room for nine people on the boat. They then had to choose among options including “the black guy,” “the Hispanic woman,” “the pregnant woman, ” and also Barack Obama , Donald Trump, and, uh, Justin Bieber.

The students were 11; this was the 6th grade in the Giunta Middle School in Riverview, Florida . A mother of one of the students turned this into news by claiming the test was racist—she knew the magic word, all right. It’s not racist at all. What it is is incompetent and inappropriate. Naturally, the debate has been immediately detoured into issues like diversity, which have nothing to do with what’s wrong with the test. I could imagine an excellent teacher steering the discussion of a lifeboat dilemma into a useful general discussion of bias and ethics. I cannot imagine anyone who would think this quiz could support such a discussion being skilled enough to teach such a lesson.  If the teacher told students that their choices should consider diversity quotas, she should be fired. What are the odds, do you think?

To begin with, the whole set-up, in which one person has the power to choose life or death among 15 people is inherently unethical. Only some kind of cooperative decision-making process involving everyone, or, in the alternative, a random process treating each individual equally, would have any chance of  achieving an ethical result. Ask the students what criteria, if any, they would use in making a choice—past value to society, age, health, current importance or role, likely future value, or something else. Obviously race, ethnicity, gender and celebrity should be irrelevant, and maybe that was one of the points of the exercise. But this is way, way beyond the comprehension level of most sixth graders.

Survival hypotheticals are difficult in college, law school and advanced philosophy courses. They involve isolated situations devoid of law enforcement and rules, and involve inherently unfair choices. Absent a thorough understanding of Kantian ethics, the Golden Rule and Utilitarianism,  student would not have the tools to analyze the problem, as the above quiz sheet answers eloquently illustrate.

We often hear arguments that ethics should be taught in the public schools. If this is the level of competence teachers are capable of contributing to that task,  we need to abandon that fantasy.  They will do more harm than good.


Facts: Global News

29 thoughts on “Worst Ethics Quiz Ever

  1. “If the teacher told students that their choices should consider diversity quotas, she should be fired.”

    Have you seen the story of the middle school principle who nullified the student union’s elections because the outcomes did not reflect the diversity of the school?


    After the story broke, she backpedaled with the usual non-apologies, but the results still haven’t been posted. Last I heard she was pushing to shoehorn new positions into the council to make way for ‘diversification’.

  2. These kids are 11 years old and they’re supposed to make this kind of judgment? Ridiculous. The teacher is using this exercise to promote his/her own agenda. Note that Obama was saved, Trump was not…biased much? Absolutely unethical.

    • Yep. Just like during the 2012 elections- my daughter’s teacher (1st grade mind you) had a mock election.

      She told the students that the platforms were:

      Obama and the Democrats want you to be able to go to the doctor for free

      Romney, a Republican, used to put his cute little puppy in a cage on top of his car on trips

      I mean how do these people take themselves seriously anymore? They know perfectly well what they are doing.

  3. Yes, while these exercises are useful thought experiments in many ways (and one could possibly be constructed for 6th Graders) this one is not even constructed in any kind of useful way, much less in a way that is age appropriate for 6th graders. Apart from the doctors and police officer, we know nothing useful about anyone else. (And, the fact that you have a male doctor and a female doctor suggests that this WAS a diversity exercise designed to tech the children how bigoted they are.)


  4. I looked at the link:

    A statement released by the Hillsborough County School District says the quiz was intended to promote team-building and cooperation, and was not intended to be racist.

    “This school has a culturally diverse population,” the statement reads. “The test brought up good debates on how to work together, building relationships.”

    “culturally diverse population” is all you need to know about the statement to know what this was about.


  5. There’s actually a correct solution to this: Hagerman and Bobo are apparently the teacher and school principal, so you’re down to 13. Obviously, the black guy is the ex-con and the pregant woman is the Hispanic woman, so that’s 11. As long as the cop is aboard, the black guy, Barack Obama, and Justin Bieber will be scared to board, so you’re down to 8. The unborn child makes 9. Easy-peasy.

  6. I don’t remember which grade it was, when we schoolkids read and discussed the short story, “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson. I recall seeing a filmed enactment of the story as well – probably in the same class (English). But I am almost sure it was in 9th grade or higher. One or two girls in the class might have cried at the outcome, especially after seeing the ending of the film. This was at a public school. I did not participate in discussion of a lifeboat scenario until I was out of high school and in the military academy. I absolutely agree with JutGory that this “quiz” is not age-appropriate for kids in the 6th grade. Including Trump and Obama on the list is scandalous. Someone in the school district ought to be fired for subjecting the class to this mockery of an attempt to educate about teamwork and cooperation.

  7. I thought this stupid exercise in thought control went out in the 70’s. It certainly paved the way for the current tribal identity politics of today. Why bring it back? It’s thoroughly corrupt and corrupting.

    • Wyogranny,

      I think you hit the nail on the head. That was my thought, too. Including minorities, protected classes, and the President were clearly intended to guide the responses along ‘diversity group identity’ lines. I do think, though, that Justin Beiber had a better chance at staying on the raft than some of the others because he has contributed so much to our culture (THANKS, CANADA! You can have him back!)


  8. I notice a bias against anyone of a religious profession. I wonder what would have been the result if an Imam was on the list?

    Irrelevant, as everyone has already pointed out, but perhaps interesting.

  9. I was assuming the ‘minister’ was a minister of religion of course. If he was the Minister for Education who allowed this quiz; let him swim!

  10. My answer
    Pregnant woman guaranteed a seat.
    POTUS – whoever that might be at the time – guaranteed a seat.
    One seat reserved for a doctor (if not otherwise chosen)
    6 seats by lot.

    Only if neither doctor gains a seat by lot does a coin get flipped for which one gets the doctor seat. If one or both already in, seat not reserved, add to general pool.

    Why POTUS? Because when a Prez is AWOL, bad stuff can happen, as in nuclear war etc. Why pregnant woman? Possibility of “2 for the price of 1”. Why doctor? Lifeboats are dangerous, maximises survival chance.

    The rest are just people, equal.

    I suspect this would give me a failing grade, but honestly, I don’t give a (insert word of your choice here).

    • Clearly the Prez has to get a seat, though I wonder if his or her priority should diminish the closer he is to the end of his term. After all, there is always a President, and one stuck in a lifeboat is less useful than even Joe Biden. In fact, in this scenario, Biden would probably already be President because Obama couldn’t discharge his duties at sea.

      Now Michelle you’d want to keep because, with those wonderful arms, she’s be great with the oars…

      • I would argue against POTUS in any case, simply because chain-of-command would make the VP POTUS as soon as the incumbent POTUS disappeared.

    • But what if you are approaching this wrong. You are assuming they are going to be rapidly rescued. What if this turns into “Gilligan’s Island” and you need to choose people that will help the group survive? In this case Obama, Trump, and Bieber are toast. They have no useful skills and have egos that will be divisive to the group. Then you have to decide what are the odds that ‘a black guy’ or ‘a white guy’ will have more survival skills than ‘a rabbi’. Will the police officer cause problems by trying to assert authority merely because he is a police officer? We aren’t trying to be nice, here, we are trying to build a group that can survive.

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