The Queen v Dudley and Stephens, Redux

This is a cross post from my personal blog, Under the Ocular Tree. I post it here as I think it is a very interesting subject to discuss. 

An interesting news item from Russia has appeared in the press. The basics of the story are that four fisherman disappeared in remote and inhospitable areas of the country in August. Two of the four have since been discovered as well as the remains of a human body including chopped up bones. The news article leads one to conclude that the two men located are suspected  of murder and cannibalism to stay alive. A murder probe has been launched and the two men are on the run.

One of the reasons why this case is interesting is the facts as stated will lead lawyers in many countries to recall one of the most famous cases in English criminal law: R v. Dudley and Stephens. The full judgement, from 1884, can be read, but the basic elements of the case were that four men jumped into a lifeboat with very little food. When the food ran out, and after a number of days, some in the boat came to the conclusion that the only possibility of staying alive was to eat one of the passengers. While a decision to draw straws as to which one was eaten was ultimately abandoned, at one point after 19 days adrift, a prayer was said, and the cabin boy, Parker, who did not give his permission, was killed for his flesh and blood to eat and drink. The men were ultimately rescued and Dudley and Stephens were tried and convicted for murder. The reason the case is so well known is that an important principle of law, one still in existence today, was established via the judgement: necessity is no defence to murder.

Dudley and Stephens is also interesting to students of philosophy as it is can be used as a real life example to those studying utilitarianism. The Harvard philosopher, Michael Sandel, uses it both in his Justice lecture series (Episode 1, part 2) and his  associated book,Justice: What’s the right thing to do? (Penguin, 2010) for precisely this purpose. It is Jeremy Bentham’s axiom (A Fragment on Government, 1776, preface)  whereby “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong,” that is often taken as the basic principle of utilitarianism. It is not the actions themselves which matter but the consequences of the actions. In the case of Dudley and Stephens, the consequences of killing the cabin boy was that three survived and one died, whereas had the cabin boy (or someone else) not been killed, all four could have died. Moreover, Parker was an orphan and had no dependants who would miss him. The others had families. Based on this, for the greatest happiness to the greatest number, taking into account people’s families, then the death of the cabin boy would cause the least amount of pain.

Bentham went so far as to envisage (An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1781, Ch. 4) that values could be ascribed to pain and pleasure. Intensity, duration and other factors would all be measured. The correct action to take would be the one that produced the highest utility: the difference between the sum total of the pleasure values less the sum total of the pain values. This whole idea was ridiculed in an amusing fashion by Steven Lukes in his book, The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat: A Novel of Ideas, (Verso, Second Edition, 2009). The author invented a fictitious place known as Utilitaria where “Everyone treasured pocket calculators” (p.43) and many used them at all possible occasions in order to decide how to act.

“A critique of utilitarianism,” was written by Bernard Williams. (It is contained in J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For & Against, [Cambridge University Press, 1973], pp.75-150). In this essay (pp.98-99), Williams uses a thought experiment whereby twenty captured people are to be shot but Jim is offered a gun and if he agrees to shoot dead one captured person, the other nineteen would go free. Williams explains that the captured men and all other villagers are begging Jim to accept. He poses the question: “What should he do?”  He correctly states that for the utilitarians, not only is it correct for Jim to shoot someone dead, it is “obviously” correct. The right thing to do is to maximise the value of pleasure over pain, and if that means shooting an innocent person or killing someone and eating them, so be  it.  In a damning conclusion, Williams states: “utilitarianism, at least in its direct forms, makes integrity as a value more of less unintelligible.”

I am very aware that it is easy to sit in a comfortable home in London with plenty of food available to eat and moralize as to how others should behave in a desperate situation. I have never been starving to death in a lifeboat or in inhospitable areas of Siberia and quite frankly I do not know what I would do if I were in that situation. What is known is that when people are starving to death and the only food they have to eat is other humans, then they resort to cannibalism. There are a number of examples. In his recently published book, Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine, (Allen Lane, 2012), Yang Yisheng cites (p.135)  a 1961 report on what happened in Mao’s famine:

Cannibalism occurred in many places. Among 41 production brigades in ten communes in Lixnia City, 588 people ate the remains of 337 others. In Hongtai Commune alone there were 170 people who ate 125 corpses as well as killing and eating five other people. Cannibalism occurred in six of the eight production teams of the Xiaogoumen brigade, with 23 households eating 57 people. In some cases individuals barbarously consumed their own parents, children, spouses and siblings…. In Qiezang Commune’s Tuanjie production brigade, a poor peasant couple, Ma Yibula and his wife, killed and ate their fourteen-year old daughter, and after Ma died, his wife ate him.

On and on it goes. I have little to say about the specific actions of those that I have listed that resorted to murder and cannibalism; my issue is with utilitarianism, an ethical theory of which some of its adherents would get out their calculators, determine that the greatest difference between pleasure and pain was reached by killing and eating people and judge that not only had nothing been done wrong, but that that the murderers were morally correct to act in the way that they did. While they ultimately only received a short sentence, it was right that Dudley and Stephens were found guilty of murder. If it is accurate that the two men on the run in Russia did indeed murder and eat a third man, then the fact that they are on the run is indicative that they might be aware that they have done wrong; they are not, at least at this stage, declaring that they acted for the greatest good for the greatest number.

Hat Tip: M.R.

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