The Plank of Carneades – Ethics Thought Experiment [1:40]


Is killing in self-defense murder?  Around 200 BC Carneades of Cyrene proposed this short thought experiment in ethics to help us think about this question.  Today many refer to these kinds of hypothetical scenarios as life boat ethics.  Given extremely few resources, like Carneades’ single plank needed to stay afloat between two sailors, is it permissible to kill the other person or do we have an obligation not to?

Discussion Questions

  • You both make it to the plank, can you kill the other sailor?
  • What if he made it to the plank before you?  What if he wasn’t going to kill you or fight back?
  • What if he had kids and a wife to support?  What if he was the President of the US?  Or a criminal?  Or your parent or sibling?
  • The video ends asking about stealing others’ organs.  If you could save your own life as well as five others by chopping up one, should you?  How is it similar or different from the plank?

Keywords: ethics, moral theory, thought experiment, Carneades, murder, self defense, harm,


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