How do we do the 'greatest good?'

We know for a fact that burning homes are not safe; in fact, they are downright dangerous


There is a dusty office lit by a sliver of sunlight reaching through the curtains. It's a tiny space full of books and knick-knacks from far away places. Its lone occupant is a bespectacled gentleman who wears a tweed jacket with elbow patches and has the habit of peering over his spectacles to read. He smells of stale pipe smoke, he does not smile, he thinks…

In the land of hypothetical reasoning (LHR), a large tour bus crashed today spilling people onto the highway. It was a gruesome scene. The first phone call to 911 was answered in 9 seconds. Within 60 seconds of initial call, the initial response was dispatched that included a mass casualty assignment. All LHRFD personnel are trained and re-certify each year in mass casualty strategy and tactics.

The first ambulance on the scene was overwhelmed. There were about 60 people on the bus. It was bad. The ambulance officer followed the rules and began to call for help and start triage.

As he moved through the bodies checking for pulses, he passed over those that did not have one including a darling little boy of about 6. He passed by arterial bleeders, by people pleading for help.

He was unable to provide even a word of comfort. What kept him moving was the idea that if he stopped to help one really hurt person on the edge of death, that he would lessen the chances for others. He was driven to, "do the greatest good for the greatest number."

In a few days he will wonder whether he could have done more for that little boy, "…if only I would have checked a few more seconds, would I have noticed a pulse…?"

Few of us would disagree with the idea that we have to do the greatest good for the greatest number. We could also say that maxim is the underlying moral imperative of fire/rescue service. But if it is, how does it work?

LHRFD is dispatched to an overturned propane tanker with active fire venting from a rupture point on the tank. The incident is on a remote stretch of highway with no readily available water supply, but there is a home for the elderly and infirm only 200 feet from the crash site.

The truck driver is trapped in the truck and resources are limited. Does the engine officer concentrate on rescuing the trapped truck driver who is burning to death in front of them or do they leave him to burn while they drive to the home for the elderly and begin to move the occupants to the far side of the building?

If the moral imperative is to do the greatest good for the greatest number, you have your answer.

It is a well-established fact that firefighters die in burning buildings. It may not be their leading cause of death but it is a significant factor in the annual tally. We know for a fact that burning homes are not safe; in fact, they are downright dangerous.

So when the fire department arrives at a burning house and Mrs. Jenkins meets them in the front yard pointing at a bedroom window, screaming that her son is still inside the house, can we "do the greatest good for the greatest number?" 

In this case, the greater number are the five guys and girls on the first arriving engine.  If I use a moral rule that we all agreed to at the beginning of this discussion, I cannot ethically ask five people to place themselves in harm's way to save one person. To search that home would be, by the rule, unethical.

The readers are thinking, 'Of course we would try to save that little trapped boy.' But if you do, you cannot do that AND do the greatest good for the greatest number unless:

  • The good for firefighters was sufficiently subordinate to the good for the public that the loss of a firefighter was somehow a lesser loss than the loss of the boy, which would imply that the humanity of a firefighter discharging his or her duties was somehow less than the persons who they aimed to save or
  • The notion of greater good is trumped by lives in need of saving. But it can't be that simple, or else we would have tried harder to save the apneic little boy trapped on that bus or,
  • The notion of greater good is of limited utility ( I think this is the answer)

…but if we do not seek to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number, what are we doing? I am not sure!

There is a fire in a 9th floor apartment. Fire dispatch is confident that there is an elderly occupant trapped in the apartment. On arrival, the LHRFD finds a minor smoke condition on the 9th floor with multiple people attempting to evacuate.

As they approach the door of the fire apartment, they can hear the dying gasps of the elderly occupant. It is hard to stretch the hoses because people with babies are trying to exit the fire floor.

The LHRFD does the "greatest good" and leaves the door to the fire apartment closed until they can get the floor clear of exiting civilians. Twenty minutes pass, they enter the fire apartment, the occupant is dead. They feel very bad. Sometimes the greatest good just does not feel right.

A tired old-fashioned alarm clock, the kind that winds up and has two bells on top begins to fill the quiet office space with a cacophonous reminder that its time to move to classroom, 102 and teach 30 less than eager students about the difference between utilitarian ethics and deontological ethics.

As he rises to leave he takes one last puff of the pipe, and wonders if firefighters should try something new and act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. 

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2020 FireRescue1. All rights reserved.