What Good are “Crippled” Children?

What Good are “Crippled” Children? January 15, 2013

I commonly teach an introductory sociology course each semester to approximately 200 students. I run it mostly as a lecture, although I regularly ask them questions—including opinion questions—in part because I want them to participate but also because I’d like to know what and how they think. On the first day of class I typically spend about half an hour talking about the kinds of questions we’ll cover over the course of the semester. Among those questions are ones like these:

  • Who do we trust? Who are your authorities?
  • Why is it so hard to change the way things are?
  • What or who determines what is “normal?”

Students (and I as well) often like to hear others’ answers to these questions. And then to introduce the idea of stratification—to be touched upon later in the semester—I pose this dilemma to them:

If there were a lifeboat adrift at sea, and in the lifeboat were a male lawyer, a female doctor, a crippled child, a stay-at-home mom, and a garbageman, and one person had to be thrown overboard to save the others, which person should we choose?

I then walk around the classroom asking particular individuals for their response and the logic behind it. Different semesters have produced different clusters of answers to the question, which makes sense. But I pressed this group a bit longer than average. Some didn’t wish to weigh in; others said they ought to “draw straws.” One nobly—in my mind, at least—said simply that it should be a male, which led to a discussion of whether complete egalitarianism is optimal in emergencies or whether “women and children first” ought still hold. (They didn’t seem much into tradition.)

Plenty, however, did offer their opinion. The modal answer is always “crippled child.” The female doctor is never chosen. The other three tend to be selected in roughly comparable numbers. I ask them for their rationale, and it typically consists of this:

  • A crippled child cannot survive on its own.
  • A crippled child isn’t productive.
  • A crippled child’s future isn’t as bright as that of the others.

They often dislike hearing themselves say such things, but nor do they wish to actively deny them. The first “crippled child” response almost always used to generate grumbling among other students. It hasn’t for the last several semesters, if my memory serves me. While I don’t consider that there are obviously right answers to the question, some answers and logics seem more or less concerning to me. (And the simple existence of stratification is understood.)

The value of a university education is, of course, increasingly tied to credentialing, the promise of a good job, a lucrative career, etc. Economic productivity. Indeed, a career path is an assumption made of all students. To hear someone say they’d like to be a stay-at-home mother is now unheard of, even if some—a decreasing minority—will still elect that pathway in the future.

And that reminded me of Wendell Berry, who could use a bit of better press among conservatives than he earned the other day. Generally I much respect his perspective. When once criticized for noting that his wife helped him edit his work, and was not in the paid labor force, he struck back:

…what appears to infuriate them the most is their supposition that she works for nothing. They assume—and this is the orthodox assumption of the industrial economy—that the only help worth giving is not given at all, but sold.

I worry about my students, about the world they’ve inherited from their parents, the one they are reproducing. Dignity is a foreign word, and personhood nearly as much. A strong egalitarianism will come with a hefty price tag. I fear many won’t be productive enough to afford it.

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  • grinnbearit

    Hmmm … my answer would be the lawyer, regardless of sex, because lawyers just make life harder for everyone else. Something about the way law school teaches lawyers to think, which is not natural nor moral. Doctor is obvious, garbageman is your muscle, mom is your civlization-creator. … the child is an innocent, so worth saving for that alone …

    • Dan

      The crippled child, of course.

      Darwin should be our guide here. The fit survive, the weak perish.

  • Daniel

    Does anyone ever refuse to throw anyone out, i.e. to ‘all go down together?’ Just curious if that answer ever comes up in defense of solidarity and dignity.

    • Kristen inDallas

      That’d be my answer as well. Or if the hypothetical involves a weight in the boat issue, then everyone BUT the crippled child takes turns treading water. Not only because he might have the hardest time doing so but also because a child (generally) weighs less than adults and kicking him out of the boat, even for a short time, would be the least effective. Too bad they don’t have a philosopher/logic theorist on the boat who could have figured out there is usually a viable alternative to one-person-must-die.

  • christa

    the crippled child could easily become any of the others if his/her life were spared.

    • Meredith

      Indeed. Guess those kids haven’t heard of Steven Hawking.

  • Scott

    I think the lawyer fits the above. Throw a lawyer into the sea and their future isn’t as bright, if we maybe go by stats.
    The child’s future is very bright if being thrown into the sea. Jesus attends the funeral of every sparrow.
    In a nanosecond the child would be with Lord Jesus.

    I know what you are saying above. But this early, everything is black and white till I get my coffee in me.
    Good morning everyone.

  • M

    How well-known is Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Oliver Twist’, and the musical ‘Oliver’, based on it, in America?
    The crippled child immediately brings Tiny Tim to mind. I think what your students’ response shows is the effect of legal abortion on their ethics.
    Also, didn’t anybody suggest that the able-bodied passengers could take turn to swim alongside the lifeboat?

    • Meg

      I believe Tiny Tim is in A Christmas Carol. Hard to say how familiar that is to people in their teens/early 20s these days. Probably more familiar than anything else by Dickens.

  • Kristen inDallas

    I find it interesting that if you allow sentiment in to overrule throwing in the child, then the utilitarian value of everyone else on board gets flipped from how we currently value them in society (in terms of $ anyway). If a disabled child is in the mix, the thing you need most is a day-to-day caretaker, the mom. The second would be someone to help lift or move him, an orderly, PT, or in a pinch the garbage man. Third you’d want to keep the doctor, in case a complication arises, but in terms of day to day she’s really not that useful unless she is ALSO a good caretaker, which I’m more likely to assume because she’s female (or if she were a pediatrician) but not necesarily my expirience with more specialized doctors (the higher paid she is in real life – brain surgeon, etc, the less useful she probably will be on the boat). The lawyer’s skills would be the least useful.

  • Wendy

    Do any students respond from the Christian perspective that short term survival in this world might not be the correct priority?

    • tacitus

      My guess would be remarkably few. Since the scenario doesn’t identify the religious beliefs of those in the lifeboat, then (as another commenter has said) the most logical answer from a Christian point of view would be to throw the child overboard, since the vast majority of Christians believe that children (below the age of accountability) will automatically go to Heaven.

      Now, what would be interesting is if you added one “Bible-believing Christian” to the mix. Surely, then, since this person is a true believer and assured of their heavenly reward, not only would they be the right choice, but they should be champing at the bit to volunteer, given that they would be minutes away from eternal Paradise as soon as they went overboard.

      In theory an eternity in Heaven (or Hell) should immediately overrule any other consideration as to who should die to save the others in the boat. What value is a few uncertain years of life on Earth when measured against countless trillions of years of paradise?

  • Nathaniel

    If students today are more concerned with the economic viability of their chosen educational paths, then perhaps less do with youth being less moral than your generation, and more to do with our generation being much poorer, with more debt, less pay and less jobs. Something that people of your generation spawned.

  • Antigone10

    We live in a capitalist society. I don’t like it, I wish we could change it, but we do. Being a stay-at-home mother is the biggest gamble you can take if you want to be healthy, mentally and physically.

    You risk that the pregnancy will go smoothly.
    You risk that your partner will be able to afford a family.
    You risk that your partner will not divorce you/ dump you.
    You risk that you are actually good at being a mother.
    You risk that motherhood will not give you mental health problems.
    You risk the sicknesses that children bring in.
    You risks losing all your friends.

    It is a perfectly legitimate calculation to run a cost-benefit analysis and go that the risk is not worth it. A woman’s life has to be at least equal to the potential life that may come into the world.

    • Ted Seeber

      I’d be fine with equal, but modern feminism states that the born adult woman is a *superior* life form to the fetal human, and should always be chosen. Especially over a crippled child.

      To which I respond that there is no difference between a modern feminist and any other genocidal maniac.

  • Fish Jones

    My first thought was “the lawyer”–oh, I’m supposed to think ‘handicapped kid’. Okay…

  • CarolHS

    Why can’t the strong take turns treading water while holding on to the side of the boat, thereby keeping everyone safe until rescue?