At the Top of Everest, Physical Triumphs and Moral Failings

The BBC reports of a double amputee’s climb up Everest and the ethical cliff he fell off of along the way.

Experienced climber David Sharp, 34, of Guisborough, Teesside, was on his way down from the world’s highest mountain when he got into difficulties.

New Zealander [and double amputee] Mark Inglis, said his party saw Mr Sharp as they climbed the 29,028ft (8,500m) peak.

He said there was nothing they could do for him.

Sharp apparently managed to get to a cave before dying. The “ethicist” Daniel Sokol (who knew Randy Cohen could look so good) offers some strange thoughts on the decision, which mostly consist of distinctions to be kept in mind when making moral evaluations, although not much by way of which ones really apply in this instance and the reasons they do. Instead he offers a simple defense: they really, really wanted to reach the top of the mountain. In the BBC:

At 8,500m and -38C, in considerable physical and emotional discomfort, in a group of 40 climbers whose life ambition is to reach the top, and with maybe only enough oxygen for a direct climb to the summit, it is perhaps excusable that no-one volunteered to stay behind.

These extreme meteorological, psychological and social conditions should be taken into account when evaluating the climbers’ decision. It is too easy to lay blame on the climbers by appealing to abstract moral principles and high-sounding virtues.

Decisions are not made in a vacuum, but in specific circumstances, and few can be as adverse and traumatic as those faced by the climbers.

(The current issue of Democratiya reprints Judith Shklar’s famous piece on cruelty and liberalism, “Putting Cruelty First“, which for some reason the whole Everest story reminded me of.)