Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Queen vs Dudley and Stephens (1884) (The Lifeboat Case) -- My Thoughts

Before reading my post it would be very helpful to read this information on the case. If you don't have time to read that though I will quickly summarize the information. In 1884 there were 4 men, Dudley, Stephens, Brooks, and Parker a cabin boy  that got stranded on the open sea with very little food in only an open lifeboat after they had to abandon their yacht. For the first 3 days they ate the only food that they had brought with them, a 1 lb can of turnips. Then on the fourth day they caught a small turtle which they ate until the twelfth day. Then they went 8 days with nothing but the rain water that they occasionally caught. On the Eighteenth day adrift, the 7th day without food, and the 5th day without water Dudley suggested to Stephens and Bradley that they needed to kill one person in order that 3 may live, Brooks didn't like this plan. Then on the Nineteenth day Dudley said that if they couldn't see a ship by the next morning then they should kill Parker, who by this time was extremely weak because he had been drinking the sea water. The next day they couldn't see any ships coming to rescue them so Dudley cut Parker's jugular vein, killing him. They ate Parker until they were rescued four days later. When they got back to England they were arrested for murder, Brooks turned state's evidence, Dudley and Stephens were tried and convicted of murder, sentenced to death, and then their sentences were commuted to 6 months by the Crown. 

Before I read about this case I watched a Harvard lecture by Professor Michael Sandel (he talks about this subject in the second half of the video, but I recommend watching the whole lecture). In the lecture he asks 3 questions about the case which I thought I would answer here.

1. Do we have certain fundamental rights?
Yes, we do have certain fundamental rights and one of those is the right to live until we either die of natural causes or take our own life.
2. Does a fair procedure justify any result?
In this question he is asking if they had drawn lots to see who was going to die would that have made it morally acceptable to kill the person that lost. I would say yes as long as that person was still ready to die for the rest after his name was drawn. If he changed his mind at any time during the process I believe that is his right, but if he was willing to die then I wouldn't believe any crime took place, even if someone else killed him.  However, if after the person's name is drawn they decide that they don't want to die, like they originally agreed to when they put their name in the drawing, then that is their right. If they were killed after saying that they had changed their mind then I do believe that is morally unacceptable.

3.  What is the moral work of consent?
I kind of answered this in the question above. I believe as long as the person is of sound mind they should have the right to end their life, even if they no longer have the physical capability to do so, or don't want to do it themselves. 

In closing, I would say that there were extraordinary circumstances presented in this case and these are just my opinions based on the information I had. I decided not to say if I agreed with the verdict, because I don't know everything that was brought out during the trial. Through these answers you can tell which way I'm leaning.

How would you answer these questions? Do you agree or disagree with my answers? 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting case. It sounds like a folklore- or something that the Life of Pi is derived from. It does remind me of a political ethics class I took during undergrad. We evaluated John and the Indians (a thought experiment) and Deontology vs Consequentialism. I encourage you to look it up. There are a lot of convincing arguments for the utilitarian choice... but of course compelling reasons to cast a vote for fundamental rights.

    I haven't seen the lecture you've posted but I have pondered over the questions you've posted and here are my answers...

    1. Do we have certain fundamental rights?
    After a lot of soul searching, I realized that we do. I suppose that's what persuaded me to go the human rights route. I wouldn't have been able to do it if I hadn't convinced myself through logical inference.

    2. Does a fair procedure justify any result?
    I'm still trying to work out whether the right to life is something that one can give up. While many of us would willingly make the ultimate sacrifice by killing ourselves for our children, is this a human right? Can I sacrifice myself for a cat? How about a ten-year lease on a car- where at the end of it, I'll have to pay with blood? Can I self-sacrifice for an iphone? For my children to have iphones?
    Human rights are based on human dignity- can we sacrifice human dignity without violating human rights? I suppose free will can play into it but should we ever stop people from self-harming? A man who wants multiple piercings? A woman who wants to undergo FGM? At times we think it's justifiable to tell people what to do and at times we think we don't... both on the basis of human rights.
    Anyway, as you can clearly tell, I don't have the answers. I struggle with the right to die. While I am supportive of ill individuals who want to make choices about life termination... I have difficulty reuniting this with my own overall conception of human rights.
    So I suppose this means that I'm generally uncertain about whether a 'fair' procedure can justify an acceptable result. It's quite subjective.

    3. What is the moral work of consent?
    I think the root lies within the social contract, really. Consent plays so little into our daily lives, we hardly have a moment to think about it. As far as consenting to death goes, see above.

    Great questions. Food for thought.