The Moral Dilemma of the Lifeboat Case (Can Murder Be Justified?)

Sketch of English bark Mignonette by Tom Dudley (1853–1900)

Suppose that you are stranded at the ocean in a small boat with three others. You have no supplies of food or fresh water. It seems like there is no hope to be found or rescued. How far would you go to survive? Would you take one of your crew-mates life, and if so, how would you decide which one should be sacrificed? That was the situation in the notorious Lifeboat Case, better known as The Queen vs. Dudley and Stephens.

The year was 1884. Four English sailors were caught in a vicious storm in their yacht, Mignonette. They managed to escape the ship in a small lifeboat, yet they were stuck in the middle of South Atlantic, over a thousand miles far from any land in every direction. Only two cans of turnips and no supply of freshwater with them.

Their captain was Thomas Dudley, his first mate Edwin Stephens, and Edmund Brooks, a sailor. All dignified and noblemen, according to the media in that period. The other crew member was Richard Parker, a seventeen-year-old orphan who joined as the cabin boy. He was an enthusiastic boy filled with hope that this voyage will make him grow into a brave man. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the case.

For the first three days of the accident, they shared the first can of turnips. The next few days they ate the last can and a turtle, luckily caught. After that, they ate nothing at all for eight days. At that point Parker, the cabin boy, was getting sick already from the seawater he drank despite the warning of others.

On the nineteenth day of the accident, the captain offered to cast a lot to decide one to sacrifice himself to save the lives of the others. However, Brooks rejected this idea claiming it would be inhumane. Still, the captain Dudley has convinced Stephens that they should murder the cabin boy Parker, who was weakened and severely ill by that point. He cut the boys throat with a penknife. Against his judgement about casting lots, Brooks joined the other two while they fed themselves with his body for four straight days.

Arguments for the Defense

“On the 24th day, as we were having our breakfast,” wrote Dudley in his diary, the help came at last. A German ship coincidentally found the boat and rescued the three sailors. When the survivors went back to England, they were arrested and charged with the murder of Richard Parker. Brooks turned witness while Dudley and Stephens went to trial. They admitted the killing of the boy but defended themselves, claiming they have done it out of necessity. They argued if they haven’t eaten the cabin boy all four of them would have died. To save the life of three one had to be sacrificed.

Because the boy was in poor health conditions, he was the most logical one to kill. Also, they had family and relatives, people who are dependent on them, while the boy was an orphan and no one would miss him.

Objections

Many objections can be made to the arguments. First of all, is it right to take the law into our hands, even if it means saving your own life? What kind of societal consequences would this kind of behaviour brings along?

Second, even when we don’t consider the societal effects, isn’t it morally wrong to kill and eat a weakened, defenseless boy without his consent? Is costs and benefits the only thing that matters? Morality doesn’t seem like something that can be measured with only costs and benefits. Three lives against one.

This is the fundamental difference between the two approaches to moral reasoning. The first one is consequentialist moral reasoning, the utilitarian approach that measures morality solely on the outcome. What is good for the majority is the morally right thing to do. The second one, categorical moral reasoning, however, claims that somethings are categorically wrong even if they bring a good result for the greater good.

Assume that you are in the jury of this trial. What would your sentence be? How would you make sure you are making the most morally right decision?

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