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Moral reasoning in disaster scenarios
  1. Andrew Shortridge
  1. Correspondence to Andrew Shortridge, Faculty of Arts, Monash University, Clayton, VIC 3800, Australia; andrew.shortridge{at}

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In the midst of a calamitous disaster, a person might act in a way that would otherwise be considered uncharacteristic or extraordinary. Behaviours of this sort may be morally justifiable. We might suppose, for example, that our duty to aid others is reduced during a disaster. Perhaps, it is even permissible to save oneself rather than a family member or close friend. Satoshi Kodama explores the question of morality during disasters, focusing on tsunami-tendenko, the practice whereby individuals save themselves rather than assist others during a tsunami.1 He argues that encouraging individuals to save themselves, and discouraging them from taking risks to save others, may well help to save lives during disasters, and is a laudable social policy. In what follows, I focus on the issue of moral reasoning in disaster scenarios, offering critical comments on Kodama's analysis in a spirit of constructive elucidation.

Our prereflective sentiments may suggest to us that extraordinary behaviour may be morally justifiable in disaster scenarios. This is not surprising, since it seems that the action that is justified is often sensitive to the circumstances in which we are called upon to act. Many maintain that we have a duty of ‘easy rescue’, to aid imperilled strangers when provision of that aid costs us little. It is less clear whether we must aid a stranger if our aiding is at great cost. Where we can aid either a stranger or a family member, it seems (prereflectively) that we have greater moral obligation to aid our kin. Different circumstances call for different actions. It is reasonable to expect that any satisfactory ethical analysis would clarify the relationship between actions and circumstances.

Tsunami-tendenko prioritises self-preservation over provision of aid in times of disaster. Kodama addresses the charge that the maxim of self-preservation that is central …

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  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • iKodama reports that tragic deaths in attempted rescues were not uncommon during the tsunami of March 2011.1

  • iiThese moral theories are examples only. I take no stance on whether morality actually possesses this dual character, or what the true moral theory or theories might be.

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