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The Queen Versuse Dudley And Stephens

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2369 words Published: 21st Apr 2017

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In this report, I will be using the sited case – The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens (1884) with reference to the relevant moral philosophies to anlayse what are the possible options that people would decide when they are in the same situation as Dudley.

Four English sailors were trapped at sea in a small lifeboat in the South Atlantic, over a thousand miles from land. They had only two cans of preserved turnips and no fresh water. They had been without food and water for several days. And finally, Captain Thomas Dudley suggested killing Richard Parker so that they could feed on him. Dudley and Stephens ended up killing Parker, and ate him to survive. They were rescued four days later and went to trial. They were sentenced to death penalty; however, their sentence was reduced to six months imprisonment later.

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2 Utilitarianism and Categorical Imperative

According to Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832), the utilitarian philosophy states that the right thing to do is whatever will maximize utility. He meant utility as whatever produces pleasure or happiness and whatever prevents pain or sufferings. He had made the assumption that human are governed by the feelings of pain and pleasure and that human like pleasure and dislike pain. This doctrine said that the right thing to do is whatever produces “the greatest good for the greatest number”.

On the other hand, Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) provides us with another alternative philosophy – Categorical Imperative. He said that categorical locates morality in certain duties and right regardless of the consequences. He regards morality not as to maximize happiness but rather regard people as an end, and never as a means to an end. We should treat people with respect and not use them as mere instruments.

3 Moral and Ethical Issues Raised

Some moral issues raised from this case would be that ‘Would it be morally justified to kill an innocent person out of necessity in order to prevent many other innocent persons from dying?’; ‘Would it makes a difference if Parker gave consent to be the one being killed?’ and ‘Will it be morally justified to feed on Parker, assuming he died naturally?’

Some may argue that it would be essential to kill one person in order to save three lives. In this case, they support Bentham’s utilitarianism. While others might oppose the idea of utilitarianism and argue that Parker would have the right to live and to kill a person is considered as murder regardless of the reason which suggests the doctrine of categorical imperative.

4 Viewpoints of Captain Thomas Dudley and Edwin Stephen

Both Dudley and Stephen claimed that they killed and ate Parker. Under the extreme situation, they had no choice but to kill someone out of necessity.

Why is necessity so important to the extent that someone will kill another person in order to save the many other people? According to Oxford dictionary, necessity is defined as a thing that you must have and cannot manage without. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that you have to fulfill the basic physiological needs before other needs. Physiological needs refer to food, air, water, breathing, nutrition, etc. Dudley and Stephen were faced with the situation without food and water, which are considered as their basic needs.

I believe that in this case, the fear of dying (without food and water for several days) makes them do anything in order to survive for a short while longer to sustain hope of rescue. Their own lives and families motivated them to kill Parker. The decision made might be unacceptable by others. During near-death experience, Parker was regarded as food to them; they would not think that it is morally wrong by eating him. Majority in the same situation as them would have probably done the same thing.

For instance, people suffering from famine, often turn to practice cannibalism as a last resort. During the famine period (1609 – 1610) in colonial Jamestown, colonists turned to cannibalism. One man was confessed to have killed and eaten his pregnant wife out of necessity (Colonial Williamsburg, 2007).

They figured out that the best decision that will benefit most of the people would be to kill Parker, the weakened and ill, since he is the most likely to die before them. I have made an assumption that they had used Bentham’s idea of utility – a common currency of value to evaluate the benefits. They had translated human life into monetary terms. They had families to support unlike Parker who had no dependents. Therefore, the death of Parker will not only benefit Dudley and Stephen, but also their families in terms of financial support and no grieving over lost of their families.

They do not regard this as morally incorrect as they think that the decision made was for “the greatest good for the greatest number”. Professor Michael Sandel’s example – The Runway Trolley shows that most of the people would turn the trolley car onto the side track, killing one person instead of five persons for the first scenario. This is similar to the case of Dudley and Stephen where they killed one person in order to save more people except that in the trolley case is not cannibalism. They have made the same decision as what the majority will do.

5 Viewpoints of Dudley and Stephen’s Families

Their interests would be that Dudley and Stephen ought to have the right to live. I supposed they supported utilitarianism where Dudley and Stephen would be considered as morally justified to have eaten Parker out of necessity. I think that the idea of “the greatest good for the greatest number” is supported by their families. Without this, Dudley and Stephen would be deem as criminal and maybe sentenced to death. They considered their welfare as a whole would be more beneficial than having all four sailors to die, leaving their families with grieve and no support.

6 Viewpoints of Richard Parker

Dudley and Stephens disrespected Parker’s individual rights. Everyone have the right to live, however, utilitarianism only concerns about the sum of satisfactions. In Parker’s viewpoints, I think that he would favour impartiality, where he gets the right to choose. Impartiality would mean that each person’s interests are equally important; from the moral point of view, there are no privileged persons. We must recognise other people’s welfare as important as their own.

Another issue raised is that he is an orphan and he had no dependents, does this mean that they could violate Parker’s individual rights? The United States Declaration of Independence declared in 1766 that all men are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that “among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. I think that Parker prefers categorical imperative than utilitarianism. Categorical treat people as end instead of treating the person as a tool to achieve something else. It would be morally wrong, to use Parker as a tool for their own survival.

7 Viewpoints of General Public

General public would be interested to know how this verdict would impact future similar cases. Precedent becomes binding and must be followed by courts of same rank. If judge allows the use of necessity as a defence, then there will be a higher risk of more atrocious crime. And the problem rise with who should decide what is considered as necessity.

8 My Stand as Captain Thomas Dudley

If I were Dudley, I would not kill Parker and rather wait for rescue under the same circumstances. I would define moral as the principles of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong. I would support categorical imperative in this situation. The reasons for my choice are as below:

Individual rights

I believe that human have certain fundamental rights. Kant mentioned that “every person is worthy of respect, not because we own ourselves but because we are rational beings, capable of reason; we are also autonomous beings, capable of acting and choosing freely”. We should take into account of individual needs. However, utilitarianism would argue that by taking account of individual needs rather than the overall needs would produce greater unhappiness over happiness. Utilitarianism requires us to promote the general welfare which results in no priority given to our own interests. It stated that every person’s life and interest rank equally with everyone else’s.

For instance, if a parent thinks that by sacrificing his child to be burned in a building, thinking that someone else in the building should be saved as their future contribution to the general welfare seems greater than the child’s. (Cyndi Banks, 2004) I would think that the parent’s act as immoral. This is because family and friends are not just members of humanity, they are special to us and if we were to show no more concern for their welfare than others, it just does not seem right.

I think to put a common currency of value to human life would be inappropriate. Human life is beyond calculations and assigning monetary terms to it does not suffice. This is because money could not buy health (life).

Murder is murder, innocent

Moreover, I think that murder is considered as fundamentally wrong, no matter under what situation; murder is still not morally permissible. No doubt that sometimes murder is use as self-defense, but it would still be morally wrong. If they were to do so, then what is the difference between them and the person who is causing danger to them? For example, in the case of terrorists, they killed thousands of people so as to achieve their purpose. When these terrorists were caught by the police, they interrogated and tortured them. In this way, the police are acting like the terrorists where they use others so as to achieve their goal.

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Kant said that we should not use people as instruments to achieve their own goals. I would agree to his idea that individual has the rights to live and it is unfair to make use of them to achieve their goal. Some may say that the terrorists deserved for what they have done. However, Parker is innocent, he did not do anything wrong to Dudley and Stephen nor did he choose to die.


This raised another issue of whether consent were given by Parker, would be morally justifiable for Dudley to do so. I think that the consent given by Parker would be a good reason (but not necessary the morally right reason) for Dudley to kill him. This merely lessens Dudley’s guilt, but still morally incorrect.

It does not mean that the permission given to do something would be morally correct. For example, if A were to give permission to B to kill C, does this mean that B is correct? I believe that everyone would agree that B is wrong.


Parker had no family whereas Dudley and Stephen had families at home. They were without food and water for numerous days and the decision to kill Parker might have save the rest. I understand that under extreme situation, the fear of dying would make someone do something that he or she would not have done previously. However, this does not permit them to kill parker. I think that under no circumstances that someone has the power to voluntary take another person’s life.

Lord Denning laid down the general approach from the case of Southwark London Borough Council v Williams (1971) that necessity should be denied as a defence otherwise anarchy and disorder would follow. He add on that if hunger was allowed to become the basis of necessity, any poor person might seek to justify burglary to steal food by saying that he or she had reasonable believed that this was a response to the threat of malnutrition.

As a rational person, I believe that this would not be what the general public would want. Therefore, even in Bentham’s point of view, to measure the overall happiness, I think it would be more appropriate to consider the general public instead of just Dudley, Stephen and their families. It would be morally wrong for Dudley and Stephen to kill Parker.

Die naturally and feed on parker?

9 Conclusion

I think that people will determine the right thing to do (whether involved or as onlookers), and decide based on different philosophies for different situations. They tend not to follow one particular philosophy at all times.

For example, the case of ticking time bomb, where torturing of terrorist is required to reveal the bomb’s location (Michael Sandel, 2009). I believe majority would support the idea of torturing the terrorist to save thousands of lives even we are uncertain of whether he knows about the location. I still think that it would be morally wrong to torture the terrorist because I do not want to act like a terrorist. However, I think that it is not about right or wrong but rather you must do it even though you knew it was wrong.

The difference between this case and Dudley’s case would be the impact. In the terrorist’s case, not only thousands of lives are involved, the impact is greater where other countries might also be affected as well (financial and tourism).

Secondly, I think that guilty does not equate to morally incorrect and vice versa. Similarly, law and morality are not the same, and many things may be immoral which are not necessarily illegal. If these men were to be found innocent, it would signal the divorce of law from morality.

Lastly, I think that it would be a wise decision for not allowing necessity to be used as defence. Just like what Lord Denning had said, by allowing necessity as a defence, disorder would follow. Then what is the purpose for having law and justice? Law is to uphold the justice in society, if necessity can be used as defence, and then there would be a lot of excuses of the wrongdoer.


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