This is the lifeboat dilemma with a twist. You’re on a lifeboat with others. There’s a limited supply of water, not enough for everyone to survive until rescued. Some are hurt; others not. How do you justly allocate essential resources under scarcity?
The twist is that the lifeboat is the uncharted asteroid on which the first manned spaceship from earth has crash-landed. Eight landed, three survived, but the asteroid is hot and dry and there’s limited water. The survivors include one very injured astronaut, the captain, and two other astronauts. Should they, as the captain insists “operate by the book” or are these extraordinary circumstances – they aren’t even on earth – that call for extraordinary measures. One agrees with the captain. The other, named “Kory” thinks that what goes is anything that will enable them (him) to survive.
The first moral test is whether water should be given to the dying astronaut. Kory argues that it’s his water. It belongs to the survivors, and is just wasted on the dying. The captain asks Kory to adopt the point of view of the dying astronaut. Kory isn’t convinced. In his view, the circumstances trump all abstract moral reasoning.
The surviving astronauts believe that they are on an asteroid, that they are far from earth, and at least Kory believes that these circumstances are such game-changers that he is under no obligation to care about the welfare of his compatriots. Even from a self-interested standpoint, this is a questionable move. Kory may be more likely to survive by remaining part of a team of individuals who look out for each other.
The twist to the twist is that this first manned space vehicle did not land on an asteroid, but in Death Valley, 95 miles from Reno, Nevada. When Kory discovers that he’s made a bad inductive inference, we see the moral weight fall, as he begins to comprehend the nature and scope of his wrong-doing.
Does location matter to morality? Do the moral rules bend with change of place? This episode presents an argument for the invariance of morals across space. New locations may present new challenges, but so do familiar locations, as we learn at the end here.