Situational Ethics – To Kill Or Not To Kill

Sketch of English bark Mignonette by Tom Dudle...

Sketch of English bark Mignonette by Tom Dudley (1853-1900) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s Daily Prompt asks us to look at a question of morality. “Read the story of Richard Parker and Tom Dudley. Is what Dudley did defensible? What would you have done?”

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.


5 thoughts on “Situational Ethics – To Kill Or Not To Kill

  1. I’m thinking this issue through, too, Tony. Nicely summarised. Have you ever read / do you remember a short SF story about a man coming out of a cyogenic deep freeze a couple of centuries past his time and finding out that the ony meat being farmed was human. He had to decide quicky which camp he was going to belong to. Also, have you read Harry Harrison’s ‘Make Room, Make Room’? It was made into a movie called ‘Soylent Green.’ That’s some of the stuff that came to mind when I read the prompt.

    • Yes, I remember Harry Harrison’s story and I have recently watched “Soylent Green”.

      They didn’t spring to mind for me as they are more about a society’s choices than personal ones. I think at a personal level the decision making is different.

      • That second story I mentioned. Can’t remember the author but I’ll hunt it up was all about one 20th Century human being who begins by being sickened at the thought of farming fellow human beings and ending by his deciding that he’d rather belong to the dominant group. You say society’s choices, but society is made up of separate human beings.

      • Tony, it’s been years, but I seem to remember that in the Soylent Green / Make Room Make story, society did not know what it was being fed. Our hero, who did couldn’t get past a wall of corrupt politicians. I suspect that if the teeming masses found out they would probably not have rejected this brand new product that made life easier. The question we should be asking, surely, is what will an individual or a society do or justify in order to survive?

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