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Ethical Issues for the Chilean Miners

On August 5, 33 miners went down into the San José copper-gold mine; over two months later, 33 entrepreneurs emerged from the mine. They were labourers once. Now they’re businessmen, and celebrities. Their fame is already being used by major corporations for public relations purposes. The New York Times reported, for instance, that Apple has […]

On August 5, 33 miners went down into the San José copper-gold mine; over two months later, 33 entrepreneurs emerged from the mine. They were labourers once. Now they’re businessmen, and celebrities.

Their fame is already being used by major corporations for public relations purposes. The New York Times reported, for instance, that Apple has sent each of the miners a brand new iPod.

But the miners themselves will have decisions to make, about how (and indeed whether) to make use of their new fame. Hollywood will surely come knocking, for instance. Book deals have already been announced. How will they (and how should they) handle fame and fortune? And the miners have already made a good start on their entrepreneurial careers. While still down in the mine, they drew up a contract “ensuring they will equally profit from the lucrative media deals they expect to secure for sharing the story of their two month survival in the hope that they never have to work again.”

But a question arises about such a contract. Is it, in fact, legally binding? To get an indication of why that’s a real question, see this piece by Andrew Potter: Chilean miners: That far down, who decides what’s law?

What is striking about the situation in Chile is how much it resembles one of the most famous thought experiments in the philosophy of law, known as “The Case of the Speluncean Explorers.” Written by the Harvard law professor Lon Fuller and published in 1949, the paper explores the fictional case of five men who embarked on the exploration of a system of caves in a country known as the Commonwealth of Newgarth. When a landslide covers the entrance and traps the men, they sit down to await rescue….

In Fuller’s thought experiment, the miners are eventually driven to cannibalism, in order to survive. Fuller’s article is about whether such cannibalism would rightly be considered illegal, under those circumstances. Fuller makes the case that it is (at very least) possible to argue that it would not be. Laws are social artefacts, and miners trapped underground for an extended period are effectively cut off from, and hence no longer part of, any particular society. Andrew notes:

…trapped miners are living in what amounts to a mini society of their own. All sorts of problems could arise in such a cramped space, from disputes over the allocation of food and medical supplies to rules over respect for privacy to procedures for dealing with crimes like theft or assault. If sovereignty is defined by the ability to exercise a monopoly over the use of force, then whatever legal authority currently exists in the San Jose mine, it is not the Chilean government.

Now, Andrew’s hypothetical is about the reach of Chilean criminal law. As it turns out (as far as we know) no significant violence erupted among the 33, so that question remains hypothetical. But, as I noted above, other kinds of legal questions arise, including the bindingness of the contract the men made while down there.

I won’t speculate further on the question of legality, but even if the legality of the contract were to be successfully challenged, the question of whether the contract is morally binding would remain a live one. After all, 33 men gave their word, and honourable men should want to keep their promise. On the other hand, if we consider the circumstances under which the contract was arrived at, we quickly see that those circumstances were very far from the ideal circumstances for giving free and informed consent. Many things can render a contract both legally and morally suspect, including such things as undue influence and duress. It’s easy to imagine that men trapped, in close quarters, half a mile underground being subject to both of those.

At any rate, my aim here is not to cast a pall over what seems, so far, to be a happy ending to the miners’ ordeal. My aim is simply to point out that, as newly-minted celebrity-entrepreneurs, “los 33″ will face a range of ethical issues. What they have to learn, and what we have to learn from them, did not end when the last man finally saw the light of day.

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