Morality and Survival in the Lifeboat Case

The Queen vs Dudley and Stephens (1884) (The Lifeboat Case): In Victorian England, the Custom of the Sea deemed it acceptable for shipwrecked survivors to drawing lots, to see who would be killed and eaten so that the others might survive. This leading English criminal case became a Cause célèbre, and established a precedent that necessity is not a defence to a charge of murder.

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote that “right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Such was the scenario in The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens, a murder and cannibalism case that brought into question the mitigating circumstances of necessity and survival. Following the destruction of their ship in a storm, four sailors were left stranded aboard a small lifeboat with virtually no sustenance or hope of rescue.

Two of the four, Dudley and Stephens, conspired to murder the weakest of the group, a boy in his late teens. Because the intent was to cannibalize the young man, the defense claimed the murder occurred not out of malice, but due to necessity. “The [accused] were subject to terrible temptation to sufferings with might break down the bodily power of the strongest man,” and thus Parker was killed only under the pressure to survive.

Dutch Boats in a Gale Joseph Mallord William Turner

The major justifications of this crime were self-defense and probability. The three stronger men only benefited from their crime because their survival hinged upon the necessity for nourishment. Murder most often occurs as a result of evil intentions exacted upon the victim. In contrast, the defense in this case argued that the intention was simply to prolong the survival of the other men. It might even be argued that Dudley and Stephens did the poor boy a favor by quickly putting him out of his misery, thereby saving him from a slow and painful expiration from starvation and thirst. Furthermore, “the boy would probably not have survived to be so picked up and rescued and […] being in a much weaker condition, was likely to have died before them.”

Nevertheless, these extreme circumstances by no means provide exculpating excuses. Were the Crown to be incapable of finding Dudley and Stephens guilty of their crime on the grounds of necessity, dangerous precedent would indeed be established. This is because the definition of “necessary” lends itself to potential misinterpretation. Claiming that murder is excusable or perhaps even justifiable because it saves the life of the murderer would only perpetuate abuses of the legal system.

While an otherwise upstanding citizen may himself commit the crime of murder and cannibalism to safe his life, the law should not ignore this abandonment of morality simply because one might sympathize with the defendants. Ideals of justice and civility should not be abandoned simply because they are difficult to reach.

That the accused were granted special considerations because of mitigating factors is quite forgiving. On behalf of the Crown, the prosecutor had argued correctly that the only true justification for murder is self-defense. Though their lives were placed in danger after their yacht capsized, it was in no way because of any wrongdoing on the part of Parker. The boy posed no direct threat, a substantial factor that fails to exculpate the accused of their crime.

The Crown ought to have maintained that there rests an obligation within the justice system to support the law at the point of intersection between morality and legality. True, an American case proposed that a “passenger on board a vessel may be thrown overboard to save the others.” However, that a man may save his life by killing […] an innocent and unoffending neighbour” (sic) was by no means sanctioned by any legal doctrine.

The guilty verdict was completely justified, and while the punishment of death was too severe a price to pay, imprisonment for a mere six months was just disproportionate. Simply stated, the sailors were little more than admonished for their horrific crime because their situation was a dire one. Morality, as Lord Coleridge stated, should not be divorced from law, as the separation of the two would be of fatal consequence.” In this case, just as in the plights of war, the men should have adhered to their duty to moral conscience. The sacrifice of Parker to save the whole was made at the reprehensible cost of human dignity.

© NaturAdvocate, written December 2010

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