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Morality

The Dudley and Stephens lifeboat case is a well-cited English case that happened in 1884. Three English sailors and one boy were stranded on a lifeboat and due to extreme hunger, one of the men, with the consent of another killed the boy. The question is whether the murder is legalized by necessity. Michael Sandel well articulates the caseon the Justiceharvard.org website (Sandel). Alfred Simpson in his book “Cannibalism and the Common Law” provides more details on the case and the trial proceedings(Simpson). Even though the murder of Richard Parker helped preserve the lives of the prisoners, the act is morally unlawful and unwarranted.

Thomas Dudley, Edward Stephens, and Brooks, together with a boy, Richard Parker, were cast away in a storm and took refuge in a lifeboat where they had no food and water.The only food they had was two tins of turnips, and a turtle they caught(Sandel). By the 12th day at sea, their food sources were depleted, and they proposed, without consulting the boy, that one of them should be killed that the others may live. Brooks dissented to the act but on the 20th day, the boy was killed, and the three survived on his flesh till they were picked up four days later(Simpson, 58). The prisoners argued that the killingwas necessitated by their having families to feed. Furthermore, the boy was too weak and would have died ultimately. In analyzing the case from an act utilitarianism viewpoint, the murder is justified. In justifying the killing, act utilitarianism alludes to the consequences of their actions. If a deed produces more utility and the total outcome is the best possible, then it is justified. The prisoners had families, and their feeding on the boy ensured their survival. The murder of Parker is thus, according to act utilitarianism, justified.

Kantian ethics states that certain actions are prohibited, including murder. In looking at the above case, Kant will proffer two questions to the prisoners. The first is whether, if in the boy’s position, they would have preferred the act of murder being committed on them. Second, if their actions valued and respected human life instead of merely being for their benefit. The actions of the prisoners fail to meet the moral criteria set out by Kant. The prisoners, by killing the boy, wanted to satisfy their urge to live. They, however, did so to the boy’s detriement. In measuring moral worth, Kant opines that if a person’s emotions or desires drive them to orchestrate a certain action, then that action deprives them of moral worth. While Kant recognizes the need for happiness and self-preservation, the acts that occasion that happiness need not be immoral. Kant finds the actions by the prisoners as being immoral.

Self-preservation is a fundamental drive for all humankind. People are motivated to perform actions that while detrimental to others, aid them in achieving happiness and utility. The two prisoners exemplify the selfishness innate in all humans. It is a fact that the two were dying of starvation. It is also true that the young Richard was severely ill and dying. However, their decision to kill the boy, and not anyone else, is unjustified. First, the prisoners had no idea when, if at all, they would be rescued. Killing the boy might have ultimately been in vain. Second, the two should have involved the lad in their decisions, and cast lots on who was to be sacrificed. Third, it is the moral onus of the elders in society to preserve the rights and lives of the young. The ultimate moral obligation of humans is to sacrifice one’s life so that others may live, a duty the two failed miserably in upholding.

Works Cited

Sandel, Michael. “The Queen vs Dudley and Stephens (1884) (The Lifeboat Case).” 2011. justiceharvard.org. Document. 16 March 2015. <http://www.justiceharvard.org/resources/the-queen-vs-dudley-and-stephens-1884-the-lifeboat-case/>.

Simpson, Alfred William Brian. Cannibalism and the Common Law: The Story of the Tragic Last Voyage of the Mignonette and the Strange Legal Proceedings to Which It Gave Rise. Chicago: University of Choicago Press, 1984. Print.