Sophie’s Choice, Moral Dilemmas & 9/11 Research Design Issues – SDP#36

PODCAST-Moral dilemmas center ethical choices in rescue operations in which the grueling decision is between, at times, equally-deserving alternatives. Dr. Perrodin also critiques a safety response article comparing the actions of rescuers present at the Murrah Building and rescuers present at the World Trade Center – noting such comparisons hold great challenges to distilling information that can be generalized to other settings.

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Sophie’s Choice is the title of a 1979 novel by William Styron, about a Polish woman in a Nazi concentration camp who is forced to decide which of her two children will live and which will die. The phrase “Sophie’s Choice” has become shorthand for a terrible choice between two equally deserving alternatives difficult options.


Victor Grassian provided this example of a moral dilemma in his book Moral Reasoning. In 1842, a ship struck an iceberg and more than 30 survivors were crowded into a lifeboat intended to hold 7. As a storm threatened, it became obvious that the lifeboat would have to be lightened if anyone were to survive. The captain reasoned that the right thing to do in this situation was to force some individuals to go over the side and drown. Such an action, he reasoned, was not unjust to those thrown overboard, for they would have drowned anyway. If he did nothing, however, he would be responsible for the deaths of those whom he could have saved. Some people opposed the captain’s decision. They claimed that if nothing were done and everyone died as a result, no one would be responsible for these deaths. The moral principle involved with the deaths is a simple Utilitarian one: because of the decision, fewer people die later. If you had been on the jury, how would you have decided?


Cognitive Correlates of Improvised Behavior in Disaster Response: the Cases of the Murrah Building and the World Trade Center by Mendonca, Webb, Butts & Brooks (2014). Dr. Perrodin analyzes this study that compares improvised behavior in disaster response between the Murrah Building (OKC) and the World Trade Center (NYC). The study is built upon sound methodology and conducted by impeccable experts. Yet, it is an example of how research in this vein becomes patterned and ultimately struggles to offer fresh recommendations. Dr. Perrodin suggests that crisis events should be deeply examined as units with special attention to demographics, local, national and international contexts and identify how technology, or (soon) artificial intelligence & robots interfaced with rescue operations. The authors state that it is difficult to compare results within or across organizations over time or across events. David reasons that the two events should not be compared due to vastly different contexts and situations. Manhattan, for example, is an island.


The United States military went to DEFCON 3 following the attacks of 9/11/01? The DEFense readiness CONdition (DEFCON) system prescribes five graduated levels of readiness (or states of alert) for the U.S. Military.  The DEFCON level did not change after the Murrah bombing as it was deemed a localized event that was not going to escalate to a national, or international, safety event.