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Kimberly Thompson, program coordinator, Ethics in Society Program: (650) 723-0997,
John Sanford, writer, News Service: (650) 736-2151,

Here's a dilemma Dorothy Allison wants you to think about

You're in a lifeboat. The wind is rising. The sea is rising. There are 19 others in the boat, too, but it can only hold 12 safely. What do you do?

When Dorothy Allison was 17 and a freshman at a small liberal arts college in Florida, a professor posed this ethical dilemma to a core course in which she was enrolled with about 170 other first-year students.

The class was held in the school's chapel. The silver-haired professor walked back and forth in front of the students:

"'Time to make some decisions! Who goes over? Who stays in? You've got to calculate,'" Allison said, imitating him.

Some of her classmates were making lists.

"Some of them were being honest. They were saying, 'This sucks! I can't do this.' One woman in the front row was crying," Allison recalled. So what did Allison do?

"I hid in the bathroom," she said. "I walked out of core pretended that I had to go to the bathroom went to the bathroom, shut the door. And I locked it. I pulled my feet up on the seat, and I stayed there."

Last week, the 52-year-old author of the award-winning novels Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller spoke at Stanford as part of the 2001 Tanner Lectures in Human Values. Her first talk was titled "Mean Stories and Stubborn Girls." Her second lecture, in which she discussed the lifeboat dilemma, was titled "What It Means to Be Free."

The three-day event also included a discussion seminar featuring Allison; Katherine Newman, a professor of urban studies at Harvard; and Cherrie Moraga, an author, playwright and senior lecturer in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

Allison was born in Greenville, S.C., and now lives in Northern California with her partner and her son. Writer Toni Cade Bambara, who died in 1995, once told Allison that she sounded like a Baptist preacher when she read. The judgment stands in terms of her speaking style, too.

It was 1968 when the lifeboat dilemma was posed to Allison and her classmates. She was attending a Presbyterian college. The dominant liberal Christian theory of the time was situation ethics. The hypothetical boat contained women, children, men, a preacher, a doctor, a nursing mother and many others. But "too many" was the professor's refrain.

"Is this not truly how our lives are constructed?" Allison said. "Who gets to go to school? Who gets invited to a small, special institution [and] told they have the possibility of genius? Who gets nurtured led along and encouraged and shaped? Who has to stay home and watch the babies while mama cleans houses? ... Who gets a scholarship? Who does not? ... Is it a boat we live in? Is the lifeboat really much more pertinent than I wanted to admit when I was 17?"

Allison said if she could go back in time, she would drag herself out of the bathroom and return to class. She would walk to the front, and she would say:

"It's a lifeboat. It's your life. It's a nation. You are a citizen. ... You are good enough to put one hand out and take the arm of the other. The wind's rising; the boat's bouncing; the water's coming in: Some of us will have to hang over the side. Some of us will have to paddle. Because none of us is going down while I'm here. I'm giving up nobody. That's not an ethical choice."

But doing the ethical thing won't make life easy, Allison said.

"I accept that I'm going to be miserable. And it's gonna be hard," she said. "The absolute answer to all the questions is: You will be afraid. It'll hurt. There will be no simple way out. There will be no easy answer. You won't feel better when it's over."

Some people in the water may lose their grip on the boat and float away. "But you will not have thrown them over," she said. "You will not have made a pragmatic, calculated decision that your success depends on their failure. You will not have committed God's ultimate sin. You will not have abandoned the genuine responsibility you have. You will be free. Miserable, stubborn and very powerful."

The Tanner lectures take place at seven U.S. universities, including the University of California, Harvard and Yale, and two universities in Britain: Oxford and Cambridge.

Established in 1978 by Obert Clark Tanner, an industrialist, legal scholar and philosopher, the lectures are meant to consider human values and the human condition. "They serve as a forum for scholars, artists, scientists and writers to ask essential human questions questions about who we are, how we should act and how we should shape our common destiny," said Debra Satz, an associate professor of philosophy and chair of the lectures' steering committee at Stanford.

"These are questions for all of us, aimed at a broad public," Satz added. She quoted Tanner: "'I hope that these lectures will contribute to the intellectual and moral life of mankind. I see them simply as a search for a better understanding of human behavior [and] human values. This understanding may be pursued for its own intrinsic worth, but it may also eventually have practical consequences for the quality of personal and social life.'"

At the end of her lecture about what it means to be free, Allison said she wanted people at Stanford to answer the lifeboat question.

"I want you to figure out the cost of saving everybody on the boat and share it out," she said. "You are more free than you can imagine. You have more possibilities. You have more responsibilities. You have power you haven't put your hands on yet. So think it through. Don't let them give you pragmatic, evil answers. Don't let them force you to make hurried, rushed decisions. ... We need each other. We all of us need each other."


By John Sanford

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