ETHICS & The Plank of Carneades: An Exercise Every Christian Leader Should Undertake

by Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., 8/30/15.

“The Plank of Carneades” is a classical ethical dilemma.  Read this abbreviated version, look at this ethical dilemma through the lens of Jesus’ words in John 15:11-15 and then answer five short questions.  This is an exercise every Christian leader should revisit every few years in their ministry.

Here is the scenario (described by Khalid Ghanayim in The Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, January 2006 Vol. XIX, No. 1):

“Should a person in a life-threatening situation have a defense when he saves his life by causing death to a person who was not involved in creating the life-threatening situation? Viz., does the perpetrator have an excused necessity defense that negates imposing the punishment? This issue – excused necessity defense – has fascinated the legal world since antiquity and has been described as one of the most complicated issues in criminal law. The well-known case is the ‘plank of Carneades’ or ‘two men and the plank.’

Two men, A and B, are shipwrecked on the high seas; as their strength ebbs and they are about to drown, they see a wooden plank that is just large enough to support only one of them. A reaches the plank first and grabs it, but B, faced with the prospect of certain death, pushes A off the plank, resulting in the death of A by drowning. B then grabs the plank and manages to save his own life. Should B have a defense if he is prosecuted for pushing A off the plank in these circumstances?”

Now, look at this through the lens of Jesus’ statement in John 15:11-15 (The Message):

“I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.

Now, for five questions.  Share a sentence or two about any.

1. What should the secular courts do with Person B?

2. What would you do if you were Person B?

3. What would you do if you were Person A?

4.  What do you think it means that, “the English case of R. v. Dudley and Stephens (1884) established that necessity is no defense against a charge of murder?” (Retrieved from

5. What does this tell you about the law and the Christian life?

Here is a bonus question.  Do an Internet search to discover what great philosophers such as Immanuel Kant have said about the “plank of Cardeades.”