The environment in which this ethical dilemma case is based on is in Nepal, in the slopes that rise towards the village of Muklinath. During the occurrence of the event, the author was in a party that was half way to the destination, at an 18000 foot pass that they had to traverse to reach the village. In his company were his anthropologist friend and three other different climbing parties of New Zealanders, Japanese, the Swiss and the porters and guides who were assisting them in their climb. In their climb towards the crest, the party encountered a half naked sadhu, an Indian holy man who was apparently on his way down the mountain after visiting a holy place higher in the mountain. The man was apparently suffering from hypothermia and was unconscious, and only a carotid artery test confirmed that he was alive. The New Zealanders who were ahead in the party dumped the man to the second party and left to continue with their climb. The options available to the climbing party were to leave the man to die in the cold, to help him by clothing him and feeding him to recovery or to help him recover and help him back towards the villages lower on the mountain where he would be confirmed to be out of danger.
In the case of the sadhu, there were several groups of people that were affected. The author of the case was the leader of one of the expeditions and he had with him. By choosing to leave the man on the trail after providing him clothing and food, he was acting as the boss since he was the head of the expedition. He chose to limit his obligations to the dying man only to the provision of clothing and food, and once the man was recovered enough to indicate that his motor skills were working well, he felt no further obligation to him. His colleague however felt that more was needed to be done for the dying sadhu, and he made an attempt at convincing the porters and guides in the group to assist the man back to a village, a request which they declined.
In such a scenario, my decision would be based on various factors, principal of them being the preservation of the man’s life. Personally, helping the man find his way back to the village lower on the mountain and from potential death by hypothermia would be costly in terms of failure to reach the summit, a venture which was expensive both in financial terms and in time. It would also mean the loss of a possible once in a life achievement of reaching the summit. The party that was travelling would also be affected in that they would also fail to reach the summit and would also lose in terms of money and time spent towards the enterprise. This decision would affect only the sadhu positively since his chances of survival would be increased with the care and guidance given. It would however affect my colleague, the porters and guides negatively since it would hinder the achievement of the goal of climbing to the summit that day.
My obligation to others is only second to my obligation to myself. If my own immediate personal safety interests are protected, I feel that I should seek to ensure that the safety of others is also protected. In this case, the Sadhu would have my immediate support to ensure that the risk of death due to exposure is eliminated. In prioritization of conflicting duties, I prioritize those duties which involve the preservation of my life and safety and the lives and safety of others before any other duties. Those other duties are secondary to this.
In play in this scenario is the fundamental principle of human empathy. It is important to place oneself in the shoes of another person who is in a difficult situation, as in this case. This is in challenge to the established practice in the modern world of centrism, where individuals think only of their self interests alone. In this situation however, there is a challenge in that my belief of safeguarding my own safety first is not parallel to the act of helping the Sadhu since in the process I may come upon personal harm. However, in the helping the Sadhu save his life, I do not feel that I am being asked to do something I do not believe in nor do I feel that I am ignoring something that I feel must be addressed.
In this situation, helping the Sadhu to save his life is the decision I will take. The quest for the summit would be put on hold since the preservation of human life is paramount to all other goals and it is necessary to empathise with his situation. I will help him find shelter and health by guiding him lower to the mountain where he would be safe from exposure to cold.
Through this decision, I will not be haunted by a wrong decision of leaving a fellow human being to his possible death. I will have taken responsibility for my actions, done the right thing and remained with a clear conscience. In this regard, I will also be spared the need to create excuses as to why I left a fellow human being to a possible harm or loss of his life. The quest to the summit can actually be completed at a later date, but the death of a human being will be an event which cannot be reversed at any point in the future.
McCoy Bowen, The Parable of the Sadhu. Harvard Business review, 2012. Harvard University Press