Law in Contemporary Society
What is intriguing about the public's admiration of Dudley and condonation of his act is the heroic role they cast him in. He is a decisive and fearless Captain who bravely saves drowning 17-year-old Portuguese runaways, fearlessly remains in the sinking yacht to retrieve supplies, and boldly beats away sharks. In this light, Dudley had "done what a man must do. Confronted by the dictates of necessity, he had risen to the occasion and steeled himself to the terrible act of killing the boy when his companions shrank from the deed. He had fulfilled a captain's role" (85). It is precisely this idea of having done what must be done that is telling of the public conception of the crime. It suggest ultimately a lack of choice. It was the dire conditions that necessitated the act - "the unparalleled extremity to which they were driven" (82). Insofar there is no genuine choice, there is no requisite mens rea. The public ultimately disagrees with Lord Coleridge that there is a higher duty to sacrifice one's life than to preserve it by taking another's.

Presumably, the killing could not be justified on utilitarian grounds of killing one to save three. It might be if there was 100% certainty that three would be saved. Not knowing if feeding on Parker would have sustained the three long enough to be rescued, the lives to the three must be discounted by the probability of being rescued in time. Given the probability of rescue was so low and perhaps the discomfort of choosing to kill without much certainty, a utilitarian calculus does not seem to explain the public's intuitive acceptance of the act.

Further proof that the issue isn't utilitarian balancing, but choice, is the situation where there is certainty in the outcome. Take for example, Sophie's Choice. Assuming we know the Nazi officer will keep his promise, there is still some natural discomfort with choosing who to live and who to let die (condemn to death) even when one life saves more than one life. The discomfort from a hypothetical of choosing one to die for the lives of many lies in the choice. No one wants to make this choice, because there is culpability even in letting someone die. Insofar as people are more comfortable with the Dudley situation, it shows that when one's own life is severely threatened, the fundamental necessity to live obliterates free choice. The implication of one's own life erases choice. Choosing between the lives of two strangers (or one's children where the interests of one's own life is equally represented in them and thus balanced) is still a choice.

The question is how far the interest in one's own life can be pushed and at what point utilitarian balancing comes back in. It is ok for Dudley to kill Parker because the circumstances necessitated it. But what if they had not been rescued and the circumstances again necessitated killing, this time Stephens ("The grim thought must, however, have occurred to Stephens that he, as the weakest, was likely to be next on the menu" (69))? What if Dudley was not rescued until he had killed all three? I certainly get a little uncomfortable with this. This is a much harder question than the actual case which involved in hindsight clear utilitarian support. The situation where Dudley has to kill three forces the issue of which bears more on culpability - freedom of choice at the instant or overall balancing of lives. It will be interesting to see if details on the custom of the sea helps to answer this question.

-- AlexWang - 10 Apr 2012

I don’t see how utilitarianism and choice are that separate from each other conceptually. Based on a utilitarian theory, one will choose the course of action that brings more utility. In other words, the choice is grounded in a costs/benefit analysis. So whether the life at stake is a stranger or one’s own children will factor into this analysis.

Out of all these characters, I was most interested by the choice that Brooks made in killing Parker. Dudley, of course, took the lead in plotting Parker’s death from the start and really had no guilt in pursuing this course: “What is to be done? I believe the boy is dying. [We settled in class this wasn’t really the case.] You have a wife and five children, and I have a wife and three children. Human flesh has been eaten before” (61). Even after reaching land, Dudley had no problem detailing what happened on the dinghy and thought the subsequent legal proceedings against him were “unjust and pointless” (88). “No harm can come to me,” he wrote to his wife. Basically, he paraded his actions and took the fall, rightfully so, along with Stephens. By contrast, the depiction of Brooks at trial is that he took “no active part in the killing” (90). In order to get a witness to testify against these Dudley and Stephen, Brooks’s role in the whole incident was now described like this: “Brooks, staring like them, nobly held out against the temptation to which [Dudley and Stevens] succumbed” (91). Yet, the evidence shows Brooks was hardly an innocent party. He knew Parker would be killed (63), he never dissented to this decision, and he never protested when he was killed (14). For me, any notion that I had of Brooks as a “passive” bystanders was gone when he confessed 22 years later that “he knew [the drawings of lots] was rigged against the boy but could do nothing to alter it being too weak himself to care much” (65). It just baffles me that Brooks wound up scotch free for choosing not to care about Parker’s death. Whether or not Dudley and Stephens deserved the ultimate punishment from the court, it seems to me Brooks should have been dragged through the whole ordeal along with them.

-- LizzieGomez - 10 Apr 2012

I think Brooks plays an important role in convicting Dudley and Stephen. Without Brooks in comparison, it would be even harder to condemn Dudley and Stephen’s killing, which was then widely considered to be not only legitimate but also morally justified. The prosecutor needs to show the public that a normal person with ordinary resolution can choose to scarify himself instead of taking another’s life. It’s only one of the many tricks he exploited in the whole proceeding.

-- MeiqiangCui - 13 June 2012


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