Board of Carnead

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The Board of Carneades is a philosophical thought experiment attributed to the Greek philosopher Karneades .

One imagines the situation of two shipwrecked people whose only salvation is a floating board, which only one person can carry. One of the two castaways kills the other in order to secure the saving plank for himself and then to be rescued.

At the center of the thought experiment is the question of whether the survivor should be sentenced for killing (to death) or whether the killing can be justified, and if so, with what arguments and within what legal framework.

The situation example raises basic ethical and legal philosophical questions that recur in different areas of life and are caused by the problem of the allocation of scarce resources. The dilemma is important as a criminal case study for the question of the legal assessment of the emergency problem - namely killing a person in order to save one's own life.

Transmission of the example by Cicero

Since Karneades did not write any writings, but only taught orally, his philosophy is only known from information in the works of later authors. The board example has been handed down to us by the Roman writer Cicero . Cicero deals with the question in two of his works: in De officiis , where he cites a (not preserved) work On the Duties of the Stoic Hekaton of Rhodes as a source, and in a not preserved part of De re publica that only is known because the church writer Lactantius quotes him. Only Lactantius mentions Karneades as the originator of the Brett example. Karneades is said to have taken the example in 155 BC. In a public lecture in Rome. In this lecture he argued against the assertion that there is a naturally given justice ( natural law ).

Cicero gives the example in the following words:

“But suppose there is only one board, but two castaways, and both are wise men. Should each of them try to usurp it or should one cede it to the other? It is to be ceded, but to the one who is more worthy of staying alive for his own business or for the sake of the state. But what if they have the same demands on both points? There will be no quarrel, but one will let the other go first, as if he had lost by drawing lots or by finger play. "

Reception and evaluation by Kant

Even Immanuel Kant took up the case study of Carneades. He comes to the conclusion that the act should not be judged as innocent (inculpabile) , but as impunibile , since the threat of an evil from the law, namely death by a judicial verdict, cannot be greater than the fear of the evil ahead, namely drowning. The motto of the emergency law reads: "Need has no command ( necessitas non habet legem )" - but nevertheless there could be no need that made an injustice legal. - Kant also refers directly to the board of Carneades: “But if someone who pushes another shipwrecked person off his board in order to preserve his own life is said: he has a right to do so because of his need (the physical) get, that's all wrong. Because maintaining my life is only a conditional duty (if it can be done without a crime); but someone else who does not offend me, does not even put me in danger of losing mine, does not take it, is an absolute duty. "

Extensions and modifications of the case study

Whenever scarce goods necessary for life are distributed among people, questions of evaluation and distribution as well as problems of justifying these assignments of goods to other people arise.

Examples: In English law in 1884 the problem of justification presented by the Board of Carnead arose on the basis of the seafarer-cannibal case " R v Dudley and Stephens ". Due to bad weather, a yacht capsizes and the four-man crew can only stay afloat with the lifeboat. After 12 days in which the crew could feed on two turnips and another eight days without food or drinking water, the captain suggests sacrificing the cabin boy to feed the others. So it happens and the subsequently rescued team is brought to court in Falmouth for the killing (in English murder ). The court sentenced the survivors because no one was allowed to decide on life or death on the basis of personally established criteria. In 1842, however, an American court ruled the opposite: According to this, murder in a lifeboat is justified if a fair trial, such as a draw, selects the victim.

In medicine, when there is a mass attack of injured / sick people, the question arises who should be helped and who should not. How should the few available aids be dealt with in the case of a large number of seriously injured people? Similar questions arise with all accidents or disasters with many people affected (who should be flown to the hospital first by helicopter?) And with the distribution of donated organs for the purpose of transplantation . With the help of the triage procedure , an attempt is made to classify treatment and care classes in order to provide an answer to the assignment question and to be able to provide help in an orderly manner.

In 2006, the problem of justification arose on the basis of the Aviation Security Act which the Federal Constitutional Court had declared null and void . The question that opens up is: Can you shoot down a passenger plane to save other people's lives? The judgment of the Federal Constitutional Court was "No". If uninvolved passengers run the risk of collateral damage from such a shooting down, the right to life enshrined in the Basic Law and thus human dignity is violated. If such a shooting had occurred, the Bundeswehr pilot would have acted illegally, even if he had done so on an order. Basically, illegal actions are prohibited even on command.

Answers to these questions must be found by those who think and act responsibly from an individual ethical and social ethical point of view .

Processing of the topic in the literature

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff takes up the board of Carnead in the ballad The Retribution . Here the stronger wins against the sick, weaker shipwrecked in the fight for the plank. The survivor is first rescued by a pirate ship, but the pirates are picked up and he is hanged with them.

Ewald Christian von Kleist writes in the poem The friendship about two shipwrecked friends. One of the two voluntarily renounces the plank in order not to expect the loss of his friend for the good of the world and in order not to have to spend his own life in agony without the other. However, the renouncing friend does not drown, but washes up on the beach, where he finds his friend again. With great gratitude, he then shares his riches, "And for a long time they were the good of the world".

Legal situation according to German criminal law

According to German criminal law , this would mean an unlawful act - namely manslaughter according to Section 212 of the Criminal Code . Action is therefore deprecated by the legal system . There is no justification for this act in criminal law. This also means that the other person who is pushed off the board may defend himself against this ( self-defense ), as there is currently an illegal attack.

However, the attacking perpetrator would be in an apologetic state of emergency under Section 35 of the Criminal Code, which would mean that the perpetrator would not be punished. The act of the perpetrator appears so understandable that there is no guilt in the legal sense.

In the event that several people need to be rescued , for example during triage , some assume a justifying conflict of duties in which the helper can freely decide who he wants to save.


  • Immanuel Kant: Metaphysics of Morals. First part: Metaphysical foundations of legal theory. In: Kant's works , published by the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences, Berlin, Volume VI, 1902, pp. 203–372, pp. 235 f. (= Immanuel Kant: AA IV, 235)
  • Immanuel Kant: About the common saying: That may be correct in theory, but not suitable for practice . In: Immanuel Kant: Works in twelve volumes . ed. Wilhelm Weischedel. Volume 11, Frankfurt am Main 1977, p. 156f. Immanuel Kant: AA VIII, 273
  • Christian Jäger: The ability to weigh up human life in the area of ​​tension between criminal law dogmatics and legal philosophy. In: ZStW 115. 2003, p. 765 ff.
  • Heinz Koriath: On the apologetic emergency. In: Legal worksheets. 1998, p. 250.

Web links


  1. ^ Cicero: De officiis. 3.89.
  2. Lactantius: Divinae institutiones. 16.10.
  3. ^ Text of the poem
  4. Immanuel Kant, Collected Writings. Ed .: Vol. 1-22 Prussian Academy of Sciences, Vol. 23 German Academy of Sciences in Berlin, from Vol. 24 Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, Berlin 1900ff., AA IV,  235/236.
  5. Immanuel Kant, Collected Writings. Ed .: Vol. 1-22 Prussian Academy of Sciences, Vol. 23 German Academy of Sciences in Berlin, from Vol. 24 Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, Berlin 1900ff., AA VIII, 273  / Weischedel 11, 156.