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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 May 2006, 12:52 GMT 13:52 UK
The ethics of climbing Everest

Climber Mark Inglis
Mark Inglis said his was the only group to stop
The triumph of mountaineer Mark Inglis, who last week became the first double amputee to climb Everest, has been soured by the news he left a dying climber to his fate. Ethicist Daniel Sokol asks whether he was right to do so.

One of Malcolm Bradbury's novels is entitled Eating People is Wrong. In normal circumstances, it is also wrong to abandon dying people.

Yet, as the saying goes, "circumstances alter cases" and it is not clear whether New Zealander Mark Inglis, a double amputee, and the 39 other climbers who passed him committed a moral wrong by abandoning the expiring David Sharp on Everest.

Were they right to leave him behind? The answer depends on the circumstances. Clearly, there are times when it would be plain foolish to attempt a rescue. A lifeguard cannot be expected to dive into shark-infested waters to save a imprudent swimmer.

One factor in the decision-making is thus the probable risk to the rescuers. Would the attempted rescue have posed a serious risk to the climbers? The answer appears to be no.

The main defence put by Mr Inglis is not that the rescuers would have put themselves at risk but that Mr Sharp was "effectively dead". Frozen, he could only move his eyes. If this diagnosis is correct, it is extremely unlikely that he would have survived the descent. No amount of help would have saved his life.

Hour of need

Yet it seems that the climbers viewed the decision as a choice between leaving him behind and attempting a rescue.

An act is morally justified if you can show it was the right thing to do, but excusable if the circumstances were such that you cannot really be blamed
Daniel Sokol
There was a third option: to stay with him until the end. If saving his life was impossible, then surely the second best option was for some of the 40 climbers to comfort him in his last moments. This would have been a compassionate solution.

At 8,500m and -38C, in considerable physical and emotional discomfort, among 40 climbers whose life ambition is to reach the top, and with maybe only enough oxygen for a direct climb to the summit, it is perhaps excusable that no-one volunteered to stay behind.

These extreme meteorological, psychological and social conditions should be taken into account when evaluating the climbers' decision. It is too easy to lay blame on the climbers by appealing to abstract moral principles and high-sounding virtues.

Decisions are not made in a vacuum, but in specific circumstances, and few can be as adverse and traumatic as those faced by the climbers.

Fair weather saw many attempt the peak last week
Moral philosophers sometimes make a distinction between a justifiable act and an excusable one. An act is morally justified if you can show that it was the right thing to do. An act is excusable if, even though what you did was wrong, the circumstances were such that you cannot really be blamed.

So, for example, a liar can claim that he only lied because he was forced to lie by a threatening and powerful friend, or because he was talking in his sleep, or because he feared the truth would cause his beloved wife to leave him. In some cases, it is difficult to distinguish the justifiable from the merely excusable.

Although few people know exactly what happened on Mount Everest that fateful day last week, it seems that the decision to abandon Mr Sharp was, if not justified, at least excusable. Only an exceptional person would have willingly chosen to stay behind to comfort the dying man. Blame is not an appropriate response to this tragedy.

Daniel K Sokol is a medical ethicist at the Imperial College Faculty of Medicine, London.

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