Saving the Sentinelese

Updated: May 28

Because Google Adsense deemed this website to have too little content for ads, I'll be posting my top 25 undergraduate papers. Another paper from the ethics in science class. This one was about exploring the moral dilemma of what to do when we know a natural disaster is about to hit North Sentinel Island. The Sentinelese people would make headlines once again after this paper because a Christian misionary was brutally murdered after trying to talk to the tribe.

Dalhousie University


November 18th, 2018

The Sentinelese are an indigenous tribe that lives on North Sentinel Island off the coast of India. They are among the last tribes on earth who have not been formally contacted by other humans as our couple of efforts to understand their language has failed.(1) This tribe, especially in the most recent encounters, has been utterly hostile to outsiders trying to reach the island as they tend to murder almost all visitors brutally.(2) It appears that most people seem to perceive this tribe as a group of humans who don’t want anything to do with outsiders, but that’s not exactly a fair representation of this situation. This is a tribe that is virtually a time machine into the humanity of at least 55,000 years ago.(3) When people mention the tribe they often say something along the lines of “this tribe has made it clear they want nothing to do with us”. It appears they are incorrectly assuming that the tribe has an understanding of what “we” really are. It may instead be most rational to compare them to a sort of wild animal that aggressively defends its territory against any possible intruder, human, or otherwise.

In 2004, the island found itself in the pathway of a tsunami.(4) That situation ushered in a dilemma in science ethics for a variety of reasons. One of them being morally, as we needed to decide whether we were going to risk our lives to help this vulnerable group of humans who could have potentially been brutalized by a natural disaster they did not see coming. But also scientifically, given that if we decided we are going to help, we needed to make sure it was in a way that did not ensure any potential modern human illnesses couldn’t reach them. The main reason it is illegal to travel to the island is the threat of spreading illnesses to them.

Applying ethical theories to this situation is not difficult. The idea of minimizing disutility is very prominent in ethics. Much like if you see a wild animal in distress or potential danger, your empathetic side wishes to help potentially save their life, even if they are a hostile and aggressive creature in nature. However, when assessing the situation further it becomes apparent that anybody venturing into the island on foot would most likely cause more disutility to the situation as they are likely to be murdered. So what if we tried to help by dropping desirables such as food or a warning sign of what is to come by air? We could eliminate the threat of spreading illness in that case, although another problem arises. What happens if you further the disutility in the situation by dropping the item on a tribe member and injuring them by accident? Then again, what happens if you damage somebody by accident yet save a net amount of lives by successfully warning the tribe of what is to come? Clearly there is an explicit amount of complexity in determining what the ethical decision would be in a case of knowing a natural disaster is about to embark on this tribe of unsuspecting people.

Another prominent thought in ethics is that the role of consent is never something that should be discounted. If any living being is showing unwillingness to comply, does it make ethical sense to insist that we help it? Surely we are more likely to help domesticated pets in danger of a natural disaster than wild animals because we perceive domesticated animals to be welcoming to our presence. Is it irrational or unethical to ignore species that are unwelcoming in the face of natural adversity? The situation is undoubtedly complicated. When the tsunami hit in 2004, we had a helicopter fly over the island to see the aftermath. The tribe emerged from their huts in the thick jungle and began shooting arrows at the helicopter, which we took as a sign that they had survived and should probably be left alone.

Committees are always a useful tool in ethics as we must gather a wide range of voices and ideas to formulate ethical approaches. Luckily there is a group called “Survival International” which is devoted to helping indigenous tribes. This group recommends that the tribe be left alone at all times;(5) mainly due to the potential of spreading fatal illnesses to the tribe. Perhaps the most significant justification for such a position, even in the face of natural disasters, appears to be that the tribe has survived on the island long enough for the conclusion to be drawn that it remains a safe place for the tribe to live and withstand natural disasters such as tsunamis. That particular justification factors in the possibility of trying to signal the tribe by air of incoming danger. Although when it comes to climate change, surely nothing could prepare the tribe for the potential amount of rising sea levels. Humans ought to make sure they do not inflict such a problem on an unsuspecting tribe such as the Sentinelese.

1 - Westmaas, Reuben. "North Sentinel Island Is Home to the Last Uncontacted People on Earth." March 30, 2018. Accessed November 26, 2018.

2 - Gettleman, Jeffrey, Hari Kumar, and Kai Schultz. "Isolated Tribe Kills American With Bow and Arrow on Remote Indian Island." The New York Times. November 21, 2018. Accessed November 26, 2018.

3 - Indian Country Today. "Rare Footage Captures Sentinelese Tribe in India's Andaman Islands,." May 30, 2017. Accessed November 26, 2018.

4 - "Did Island Tribes Use Ancient Lore to Evade Tsunami?" Accessed November 26, 2018.

5 - International, Survival. "Survival International Statement on Killing of American Man John Allen Chau by Sentinelese Tribe, Andaman Islands." Accessed November 26, 2018.