Must the Captain Go Down With His Ship?

Italian cruise-ship Captain Francesco Schettino is in jail, following an incident that left 6 dead and (at present) 29 missing. Among the accusations levied against is that he fled the foundering vessel before it was empty. (According to maritime law, a captain doesn’t literally have to “go down with the ship,” but he or she is supposed to be the last one off after ensuring the safety of others.)

Legal requirements aside, is there an ethical obligation for a captain to risk life and limb to stay on board until the last passenger and crewmembers are off? The answer is pretty clearly “yes.” Like many jobs, the job of captaining a ship comes with a range of risks and benefits. As long as the risks were understood when the job was taken on, you’re obligated to follow through.

There’s a more general point to be made here about the nature of ethics, and about ethics education and training.

Ethics often requires of us actions that we’d rather not carry out. You should tell the truth, even when it would be more convenient not to. You should keep your promises, even when breaking them would be more profitable. This is necessarily the case: if ethics only ever required you to do things you already wanted to do, there’d be no need for ethical rules (or at least no need to think of them as rules in the prescriptive sense).

But there’s at least a superficial tension, here, with the idea that ethics should be useful. After all, if having and following an ethical code doesn’t benefit us in some way, why bother? Sure, it’s easy enough to say “The right thing to do is the right thing to do,” but a system of ethics needs some justification in terms of human well-being or it’s just not going to be very credible, not to mention stable. Indeed, some ethical systems are subject to serious criticism precisely because their implications for human well-being are negative. Yes yes, I understand that your code of honour requires you to kill the man who killed your brother, but don’t you see how crazy this all is?

So there’s got to be some connection between ethics and benefit. And it’s not enough to point to social benefit. After all, pointing out that the community benefits from me taking ethics seriously merely pushes the question of justification to a second level: why should I care about the good of the community, especially if doing so requires significant self-sacrifice?

None of this should engender skepticism or cynicism. It just means we need to think carefully about who benefits, and how, from a system of ethics.

It also means that we need to think about how we can help individuals keep the promises that it was in their interest, initially to make. Captain Schettino found it in his interest to make certain promises (albeit perhaps implicit ones) when he signed on to be captain of the Costa Concordia, but then all of a sudden found himself in a situation where it was not in his interest to keep that promise. Threats of punishment were understandably insufficient, here. Staying out of jail is no great incentive if you’re free-but-dead.

Organizations of all kinds — including especially corporations and professional associations — need to work hard to help members think of the relevant ethical rules as something more than the terms of a contract, to help members become the sorts of people who simply would never abandon ship when they are needed most.

7 comments so far

  1. Trish on

    Interesting article on a timely topic. The transcript of the discussion he had onshore is particular insightful!

  2. Kevin on

    I was thinking about this earlier today. Is there a parallel here with rescue workers? Firefighters, for example, are not obligated to enter a burning building to save the lives of those inside if the firefighters fear that their own lives would be put at undue risk. Likewise, if the situation on a sinking ship gets to the point where the captain believes that no additional passengers could be saved with his assistance, is he still obligated to stay on board and go down with his ship? Can he not make an attempt to save his own life at this point? I am not necessarily saying that this was the situation on this particular cruise-ship.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      I think the “last off the boat” norm is best thought of as aspirational; it’s generally obligatory for the captain, as the person responsible for the crew and passengers, to do his (or her) best to get everyone else off the ship first, to the extent possible. But that’s not a requirement that the captain (or firefighter) make a senseless sacrifice. (I can even imagine exceptions where the captain’s duty would be to get to a safe location from which to coordinate the evacuation. But I’m speculating, and that would be the “exception that proves the rule”.)

  3. […] — whether the captain is duty-bound to “go down with his ship.” The question, I said, bears not just on the obligations of sea captains, but on individuals in positions of […]

  4. Emily Laurie on

    The title of your blog, Must the Captain Go down with His Ship?” caught my attention. And quite frankly, I really had to put myself in the captain’s situation when reading through your post. At first, it was hard for me to think about dealing with this type of emergency, but after reading through the first paragraph, my conclusion was clearly made. The captain knew what he was getting into when he signed on to be captain of the Costa Concordia, right? Therefore, he should understand the risks that are associated with holding this position. Similar to the career of a pilot, a captain has the responsibility of protecting his people and keeping them from harm’s way. In agreeing with maritime law, I think that the captain should definitely be the last one off the ship in a time of emergency. In the book, Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference, the author states that our practices habituate without reflection; we generally communicate as we were taught, and we become accustomed to talking without deliberation upon our thoughts and practices. In most cases, if one has good ethical values, they would naturally have a human ethical communication (Kindle Location 297)…that is for the “Good of the well-being of others.” (Kindle Location 322.) You mentioned the justification question, “why should I care about the good of the community, especially if doing so requires significant self-sacrifice?” This type of scenario happens all the time, unfortunately where people do not think things through. It does seem that more times than not, it’s in a corporate environment where good ethics are sometimes scarce. All in all, if you are in the position of higher leadership or risk, you should ethically go down with your team and fight for them until the end.

  5. jenna on

    Yes the captain has to be the last one off according to the law of maritime

  6. Kerryanne Hopkins on

    I would think any captain given such a position would know the maritime law, that a captain is to be the last man to leave a sinking ship. But how many of them I wander actually believe their ship will be the one to go down and that they will be in the position to have to make the decision about whether they can save any more passengers or whether they should save themselves. I would like to think that ethically and morally I would do the right thing and try my best to get everyone off board, but if I actually put myself in that situation and the ship was rapidly sinking and there was not much more I could do for others, I think my ethics and morals may turn into survival and the intense want to stay alive so that I to could be reunited with my family. I think it is easy to speculate what one might and should do, but put in the same position, im not sure I could do what is ethically right. That captain is now sitting in jail, he has to live with the consequences of his decision to abandon ship for the rest of his life. He’s alive, but is he living?

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