The case of ‘R v Dudley and Stephens’, also known as the ‘Lifeboat Case’, is arguably one of the most notable cases in English legal history, covering a wide range of legal and philosophical issues to be discussed through the ages. In its essence, this case raised debates on the morality of using necessity as a defence to murder, and questioned when it was ethically and morally justified to murder someone, let alone eat them without consent.
Facts of the Case
The year was 1884. 1,300 miles from the cape, the Mignonette yacht was hit by a wave, leaving four crew members stranded on a small and fragile lifeboat. Of the four, Dudley was the captain, Stephens was a crewmate, Brookes was the sailor, and Parker was a cabin boy. Parker was the only ‘boy’ out of the rest of the adults on the lifeboat. 17 years old, Parker was an orphan without a family waiting for him back on shore, and this was his first and last long voyage at sea.
When the four crew members found themselves on the lifeboat, the only food they had were two cans of preserved turnips, and no fresh water. On the first three days, they ate nothing. On the fourth day, they opened a can of turnips and shared it little by little amongst each other. The next day, an unlucky turtle was caught and cut — the members ate the turtle for a few more days, then consumed nothing for eight days after that. After almost over two weeks from being stranded, Parker was lying at the bottom corner of the lifeboat as he had drunk seawater and had become ill, even appearing to be dying as he did not respond to the others’ words and attempts to get him conscious. So on the nineteenth day, Dudley suggested that they should all have a lottery to see who would die in order to save the rest from starvation. Brookes strictly refused this idea, and after some quarrel, the lottery never occurred. However, Dudley and Stephens soon decided that Parker should be sacrificed for their survival, thus stabbing him in the jugular vein with a pen-knife and killing him without consent. For the next three long days, the remaining crew members fed on Parker until they were rescued by a nearby German ship who brought them back to England. Upon their arrest, Brookes became a witness, and Dudley and Stephens were the two defendants of this would-be-infamous case.
Whilst Dudley and Stephens did not dispute the facts of the case, they claimed that they had acted out of necessity, and ultimately argued that one of them inevitably had to die in order for the other three to survive. On the other hand, the prosecution argued that murder was murder, and that the defendants had pushed their behaviours to the very limit of morality with the act of cannibalism. Thus, the issue of the case came down to whether the killing of Parker was murder, and if so, whether there was any justification in committing the crime.
The court ultimately held that the defence of necessity was not a justification for the murder of Parker, and therefore that it is not justifiable to sacrifice one life to save another. Dudley and Stephens were sentenced to death, along with the ruling that killing the youngest (and orphan) was not any more necessary than taking the life of another grown man on the lifeboat. This judgement also implies that Dudley and Stephens’ desperate and unfortunate circumstances also do not act as excuses or points of leniency to the legal definition of murder.
A common question which arises from this case is whether the value of one life weighs more than another. The actions of Dudley and Stephens make us consider whether they would have killed Parker even if he was not unconscious due to drinking too much seawater. The very fact that Parker was killed shows that the defendants thought that Parker’s life was indeed of a lower value than their own, and this is perhaps due to Parker being an orphan and therefore having no family to look after, unlike the other men on the lifeboat whose families were waiting for them back on land. This brings up an idea paralleling the ‘survival of the fittest’, which was eventually ruled to be immoral and unjust when it comes to sacrificing the powerless for the starving. This is because if this act was moral and ethically correct, everyone would be justified to kill those who were weaker than them, and society would transform rapidly into daily killing sprees and unregulated violence.
The case also raises a question challenging utilitarianism. Dudley and Stephens, in their trials, essentially argued that one person had to be sacrificed for the good of the majority, coinciding with the theory of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism which aims to maximise the happiness and wellbeing of the majority of individuals. This theory is also reflected in the famous ‘Trolley Problem’ which many educational institutions utilise in introductions to philosophy classes. The utilitarian in the ‘Trolly Problem’ would favour the option where the trolley runs over the single person rather than five, because a greater number of lives would be saved. The utilitarian would therefore argue that the moral value of an action is not in its intrinsic nature, but rather in its consequences, making it justifiable for the individual to turn the lever, directing the trolley to the rails with the single person lying down helplessly. This is not to say that utilitarianism is always morally incorrect, but rather to point out the interesting viewpoint of the judge and jury of this case which ultimately decided that Dudley and Stephens’ utilitarianist argument did not justify their murder of the boy.
Whether the court’s decision was made easier because cannibalism was committed is debatable, but it would also be enlightening to discuss and question what makes cannibalism an immoral or unethical act. After all, morals concern the individual conception of what is right and wrong, whilst ethics focus on the social framework on which a communal sense of morality is built upon. This case allows us to question whether we can separate morals from ethics (as seen by the defendant’s actions) and whether a sense of self-agency is achievable, where the maturity of the individual is sufficient enough to assert their own moral frameworks to alter social norms and expectations. Clearly, the latter was not achieved in this case, but would there ever be a scenario where necessity would indeed justify the killing of an individual?
As explored throughout this article, the case of R v Dudley and Stephens have provoked thoughts from philosophers, lawyers, politicians, and alike for over a century, yet raises numerous debates on whether the defendant’s actions were truly unjustified or not. However, despite these debates, it is important to point out and thus conclude that the resolution that murder and cannibalism must never happen again has been breached time and again in various places, various times, and in various forms across human history. Although this case may seem far-from-human and out-of-touch at first glance, there is nothing more human about us than acting out of necessity and desperation for life, whether it is murder, cannibalism, or worse.
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