So we have three men and a youth adrift on the sea many miles from the nearest land and close to death. When they decide to resort to cannibalism are they right to do so? Are their actions defensible?
There are definitely several questions here. Are their actions legally defensible? Are their actions morally defensible? Finally, are their actions right.
When it comes to the question of law we have to look at two things. The first is that the three survivors defended their actions as a ‘Custom of the Sea’ and could cite precedence in the case of the American whaleship ‘Essex’. Then their lawyer brought up the matter of the defence of murder through “necessity”.
The problem Dudley, who actually wielded the knife that killed the youth Parker, has is that he was Captain of the vessel and therefore had a responsibility to his crew member Parker.
The final legal problem he had was that the question of the common law defence of ‘necessity’ was being questioned while the English were attempting to codify their laws and the Judge who heard his case had decided not to allow the defence.
So while it was possible to mount a defence of his actions in the end Dudley (and Stephens) were found guilty of murder. Notice that the act of cannibalism is not part of the charges against the two men, this is why the other man in the boat, Edmund Brooks, was not charged. He took no part in the murder and denied that he had assented to it occurring.
This leaves us with the morality and ethics of the actions taken by the men.
I am sure we can all agree that both killing and cannibalism are not desirable actions. These are not desirable means so we are left to consider the old question does the end justify the means?
If you believe in Utilitarianism then the moral worth of an action is not fixed but determined only by its outcome. As the philosopher Jeremy Bentham puts it “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. There is a similar concept in recent Christian ethics called “situational ethics” – sometimes other moral principles can be cast aside in certain situations if love is best served.
If we look at the actions of the men in this light then they are certainly defensible. By some reports Parker was already comatose and the likelihood of him surviving was low, his death would allow the other three to survive. Both Dudley and Stephens were family men and their families would be damaged if they died. Given the situation the two men did one of the few things that would improve the chance of the desired end.
Would I do the same thing? There are two actions here; first, the killing of Parker, second, the act of cannibalism.
While eating another human feels like it should be ethically repugnant it’s hard to argue that I wouldn’t do it since I eat other meat all the time and given the situation it would be the only way of keeping myself alive. The small health risks from eating another human are also small compared to the risk of starvation and thirst.
That leaves the killing of Parker. Several times people who have found themselves in this sort of situation have decided to draw lots to decide who should die for the greater good. I would certainly feel better about doing this than just deciding to kill the weakest member of the party. However Parker was the weakest member and by all reports he was incredibly ill even if he wasn’t entirely comatose so least likely to survive.
It’s a hard decision and I really have no idea how I would decide. In all probability I would come to the same conclusion as Dudley and Stephens. I think it likely that the two men together made the decision easier, if there had only been one man convinced of the action would he have been capable of carrying it out, two together almost certainly made it easier.
- Shipwrecked (tenwordstory.wordpress.com)
- Daily Prompt: Shipwrecked – Cannibalism (marilyndavies.wordpress.com)
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- Daily Prompt: Shipwrecked! (daddysnaughtylittlegirl.wordpress.com)
- Shipwrecked! (liquidmatthew.wordpress.com)
- Daily Prompt: Shipwrecked! (thebeltanedaily.wordpress.com)