Sometimes I like reading casebook opinions…

Especially when the opinion reads like good prose, and says something valuable. Like in the later opinion of Queen v Dudley and Stephens in our Crim Law book:

To preserve one’s life is generally speaking a duty, but it may be the plainest and highest duty to sacrifice it. War is full of instances in which it is a man’s duty not to live, but to die. The duty, in case of shipwreck, of a captain to his crew, of the crew to the passengers, of soldiers to women and children . . . ; these duties impose on men the moral necessity, not of the preservation, but of the sacrifice of their lives for others, from which in no country, least of all, it is to be hoped, in England, will men ever shrink, as indeed, they have not shrunk.”

This case was like the ultimate hunger games. In 1884, a group of sailors wrecked quite a distance from the coast. They hadn’t seen a ship pass in days and started to fear for their lives from the extreme hunger they experienced. Two of the sailors discussed killing one of the others in order to prolong their chances of survival. They solicited the advice from a third party and then the two decided to vote to see who they would choose. They ended up choosing the youngest, weakest boy of their crew. They killed him in cold blood and ate him, only to be rescued a short while later. It was contested as to whether they would have survived without resulting to cannibalism, but ultimately (thankfully) the court held that was not an issue. Dudley and Stephens received the death penalty, but had their sentences commuted by the Crown to six months’ imprisonment. I personally felt that if the sentences had to be commuted,make it a year at minimum. The boy deserved at least that.

The first time we read the case (it was a different section of the opinion and focusing on a different topic for class discussion purposes) our class was split on whether we felt the defendants should be punished for their actions. Half of the class felt like they shouldn’t be punished because they were acting to preserve their own lives and it was highly doubtful the boy would have survived until rescue.

However, I was with the half that thought the defendants should be punished. One, because eating humans is wrong, and that should just never be ok. Two, because they killed an innocent young boy. Why? Because he was weak. Because he wouldn’t put up a fight. He was an easy target and they were hungry. They didn’t care anymore that they were killing a young boy or that they ate his body. They were predators; they saw easy prey and they attacked.

In a different part of the opinion the judge remarked that it was possible they could be rescued the next day (and probably that they all would’ve survived, even the boy) or that they could never be rescued at all (in which, killing the boy would not serve their ultimate needs). And with that argument, the defense that killing the boy was necessary to survive starts to disintegrate into nothingness.

Also, the judge remarked that it is better to sacrifice your own life than to take the life of an innocent person. I wholeheartedly agree. Murder in the name of self-preservation against a non-aggressor is wrong and always should be. Another thing that is wrong and always should be: cannibalism.

“[F]or he ought rather to die himself than kill an innocent.”


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