Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hole in the Ground

This post is a little bit off-topic, but I suppose it has to do with normative questions that arise when a small group of people is forced by circumstance to inhabit a particular place.

I am thinking in particular of the 33 men trapped more than 2000 feet below ground in a Chilean copper mine, who have already survived for more than two weeks in what The New York Times this morning described as "a hot, stuffy chamber about 33 feet by 20 feet."  The effort now underway to get them out may take as long as four months, though some have held out hope for completing the rescue in less than one month.

However long it takes, there is a kind of existential horror in the miners' plight.  I thought immediately of Jean-Paul Sartre's play, No Exit, and so did at least one other person to whom I've spoken about the story.  Even if all 33 men remain healthy and well, the heat, the darkness, the accumulating filth, the frustration, the inescapable lack of privacy, will certainly start to take their toll within days.

How, then, to remain sane and whole for four months in such a predicament? And what if one of the miners sickens or, heaven forbid, dies?  It hardly bears thinking about.

What most caught my eye in the Times article is that people on the surface have not told the miners how long it may take to rescue them.  The reason for this is fairly straightforward:
No one has told them, for fear of breaking their spirit.
“Psychologically, we have to try to keep them on the right track,” said Laurence Golborne, Chile’s mining minister. “They are miners, so they understand the situation they are living. They understand that we have to go through 700 meters of solid rock to rescue them.” But even so, he added, “we don’t want them to suffer ups and downs.”
Golborne is invoking the core principle of one of the main currents in ethical thought: Prevent Suffering. In this case, the idea is to prevent suffering by withholding information from 33 men trapped in a hole even if, given the choice, they might want to know how long their rescue might take.

Pulling against this is the core principle of another main current in ethical thought: Respect Persons.  In this case, the miners are adult human beings who are capable of making decisions for themselves about the terms on which they are to face their ordeal. They have a right to know everything they might need to know about their predicament. They can then work out for themselves, or collaborate with people on the surface, to figure out how to cope with whatever suffering arises from their knowledge.

The question of whether to tell the miners the likely timetable of their rescue seems, on the face of it, to be a genuine moral dilemma, the sort of thing that usually only exists in contrived little hypothetical stories concocted by philosophers to baffle their students.

For myself, I tend to lean toward telling the miners and sorting it out for themselves, but then I think: here are men in an unprecedented situation, who have already been trapped for more than two weeks in a small underground chamber; their autonomy, their ability to think clearly and choose for themselves may already be compromised by their circumstances.  Maybe it really is an act of mercy to keep them in the dark, figuratively speaking.

(In talking about this with my classes today, one student suggested telling them how long it may take to rescue them, then contriving to manipulate their sense of the passage of time so their imprisonment seems shorter than it is. From a respect-for-persons point of view, that seems to be giving with one hand while taking with the other.)

It occurs to me, though, that however difficult this dilemma may be, it may be insignificant in comparison to choices that will have to be made as events unfold, both on the surface and down in the hole.

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