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Going Down With The Ship

By Amy Brown
15 May 2015

The captain going down with the ship is a trope used in literature and movies, although it does stem from reality. Captain Smith’s decision to go down with the ship is focused on in Titanic during the chaotic sinking scenes, and captains of boats that are beginning to sink or could sink regularly exclaim that they will go down with their ships. While it could be a point of pride for some characters, or the ship is all they have and they do not wish to loose it, do captains perhaps have a moral obligation to stay onboard the vessel until everyone else is safe, even if it means that they will go down with the ship?

This piece in the Atlantic discusses the moral obligations a captain may have to go down with the ship, and psychological effects on a captain who survived when others went down on the ship. In periods of chaos or emergency, the captain’s leadership is certainly required to effectively manage the crisis in the best way possible. The captain should be able to keep the crew in line and prevent a panic.

Some of these moral obligations to maintain order and passenger/crew safety are now perhaps being written into law. Should these moral obligations of the captain be set in stone, so that the captain has to, in theory, go down with the ship? A section of international maritime law makes it possible for a company to write a statement that would then require the captain to go down with the ship, even though the language is vague.

There have been legal cases of a captain abandoning ship before the crew and passengers were to safety. An Italian captain who wrecked his ship and then leaped into a lifeboat and did not return to assist with evacuation was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to 16 years in prison; one of those years was specifically for abandoning ship prior to all passengers and crew being safely evacuated. However, cases such as these are relatively rare – the tradition of going down with the ship is strong, and the effects on captains who survive when the ship sinks with people on board are devastating, since many believe to have broken a deep moral and traditional code. Is it right to expect captains to go down with their ships, when that could result in their deaths? Should one be legally obligated to act morally? Should traditional expectations be passed into laws even when society has changed since the historically infamous sinkings?

Amy graduated from DePauw University in 2017, and was a Hillman Intern and the Digital Media Assistant Managing Editor at the Prindle Institute for Ethics. At DePauw, she was an Honor Scholar and Political Science major with a Russian studies minor. She has spent time abroad in the Czech Republic and now works in Washington, D.C.
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