Friday, May 22, 2009

Ethics, part one: Is it okay to eat the boy?

Scenario #1 (true):

U.S. ship "William Brown" left Liverpool March 13, 1841 bound for Philadelphia.

April 19, 1841, it hit an iceberg and sank.

Two boats were lowered. On the larger boat, the first mate, 8 seaman (including a man named Holmes) and 32 passengers got on board the longboat. In the second, smaller, boat were the captain, second mate, 7 more crew and one passenger.

From the very beginning, the longboat was leaking. When the two boats separated, the captain told everyone on that boat to obey the orders of the first mate. The first mate told the captain straight out that the longboat was unmanageable, and unless the captain could take some of the longboat's passengers, it would be necessary to cast lots and throw some people overboard.

The captain (allegedly) replied: "I know what you will have to do. Don't speak of that now. Let it be the last resort."

During the night the sea grew heavier and the longboat began taking water over the bow. There were pieces of ice floating about. The makeshift plug on the original leak came out. The first mate, who had been bailing forever, suddenly stopped in despair and cried out, "This work won't do. Help me, God. Men, go to work." Meaning, throw some people overboard.

After a while, the Mate again exclaimed, "Men, you must go to work or we shall all perish."

Then he directed the crew "...not to part man and wife, and not to throw over any woman."

No lots were cast. The crew, including Holmes, threw into the water 14 male passengers and two women. No member of the crew was thrown into the water.

The next afternoon, the longboat was picked up by a passing ship and all still aboard were saved. Holmes was indicted for manslaughter on the high seas, in the case of United States v. Holmes. The case was decided in 1842.

If you were on that jury, what would YOU have done?

[The book I got this out of didn't say why the rest of the crew were not charged, or if they weren't. It only used Holmes as an example.]

Scenario #2 (true):

1884. Three able-bodied English seamen and a 17-year-old English boy survived a shipwreck 1600 miles from the Cape of Good Hope and were compelled to put out in the open seas in a lifeboat. They had no water. They had no food except 2 tins of turnips.

On the fourth day, they caught a small turtle. This was the only food they had for 20 days. On the 18th day, when they had been without food or water for many days (apparently they had caught some rain water, but had been without any water for at least 5 days), 2 of the seamen suggested to the third (who did not agree) that someone be sacrificed to save the other three.

On the 19th day Seaman Dudley, suggested they draw lots to determine who should be put to death. Finally, on the 20th day, Dudley, with Stephens' assent (but without the assent of the third seaman) went to the boy (without drawing lots), told him his time had come, and put a knife in the boy's throat.

Before being killed, the boy had been lying on the bottom of the boat, quite helpless, extremely weakened by starvation and from drinking seawater, and was unable to put up resistance.

The three men (including, of course, the seaman who had refused to take part in the killing) fed upon the boy and drank his blood, for four days. On the fourth day, they were picked up by a passing vessel.

Dudley and Stephens were indicted for murder (The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens, 1884.)

Knowing that they had no idea they were about to be rescued, and given their unreasonable state of mind from being starved and thirst-crazed, and also considering the boy was dying at the time, what do you do if you are on THAT jury?

I will tell you what the juries did on both cases next time, but what would YOU do? What are your reasoning processes?


  1. I can't give a definitive answer in either case. Stating the story is generally not all the story and, short of reading the court transcripts, I could never know what other evidence was weighed.

    I can tell you my inclination and why, but I won't say the juries were wrong if they responded differently.

    Scenario #1 - I tend to think it was manslaughter, but that the Captain was also culpable. The individuals sacrificed did not volunteer (according to your account) and the rules for sacrifice did not appear even or we would have lost crew as well. Nor do I find the leaky boat story compelling. IF people were asked to help bail and refused and that were used as rationale, it might change my answer. To be honest, I can't see someone refusing to bail when faced with death otherwise, so I'd probably still be skeptical. To me, it seems the first mate panicked and sacrificed others to his fear.

    On the second, I'd probably acquit or, at worst, convict on a lesser charge (like manslaughter) - again lacking the volunteering of the boy. The testimony of the third crewmember would be crucial to how I'd decide this, I think, because it goes to how close to death the boy actually was and the real state of mind of all concerned. I would not punish anyone for the cannibalism.

    It is a natural inclination to sacrifice others to save yourself. That does not make it ethical.

  2. I must say that I have never been able to condone premeditated murder and it does not matter how you dress it up in both scenarios there were other options the people could have taken. Maybe I am too black or white type of person and don't like "grey" areas.

    Better not make me a jury member, hey!!

  3. In the first case scenario, I'd most probably have been one of the people thrown overboard.

    There is no right answer to either of these, but in the first case, from the description, the boat is going to sink, If nothing is done, all will die. Why is it sinking? Because it is filling with water faster than it can be bailed. Can better plugging of the leaks be achieved, and if this is done, will it save the boat. It seems the mate has decided this can not be done. We assume, as mate, that he is a skilled seaman, and competent to assess the options. 40 people seems a lot for one lifeboat.
    From the story we do not know how imminent the sinking might have been. I think we must support the mate in his attempt to make sure some people survived. However, I would suggest the mate needs to pick a small core of vital crew, ascertain wheteher there is anybody amongst the passengers with abilities that will help assure survival (a boatwright, for instance, or a doctor). Ideally volunteers for self sacrifice should be sought, then lots should be drawn. Crew should be for the most part, on equal basis with passengers.
    In our tradition, we seek to save women, and children, so they are no part of the ballot.
    Without some such action, none of the folk on board will live.
    Can we have a debate in the lifeboat? Is it a democracy? Have we time to debate?
    We should adhere to the laws of the sea, and agree that, as the designated (by the captain) skipper of the boat, the mate is in command and must himself weigh the options, and decide the best course of events to ensure survival of largest possible number of persons.

    Whether it is right to use force and kill passengers depends on whether you think "some survivors" is a better outcome than "no survivors".

    As for killing the boy, no, it was not justifiable. Had he died of natural causes, his flesh might then have saved his fellows. Although it seems his death was likely, hastening it will always be wrong.
    The boat was in no danger of sinking in this case. Even if the occupants became comatose, they still had a chance of being rescued.

  4. It must be almost impossible to say how you would act on a jury without all the details, but my inclination would be to find guilty in both cases. In the first case I'd at least want to know just how badly the boat was leaking, and why no crew members were thrown overboard.

    In the second case they were surely never going to survive by drinking the blood of an already dehydrated person, but I'll grant that they may not have known that. I would still consider they were guilty of taking the boy's life.

    I can well imagine that being in a situation such as either of these could make you act in an uncharacteristic way - there, but for the grace of God, go I - but the deliberate taking of life? I can't see anything other than guilty verdict.

    Going off at my usual tangent (I know, sorry, can't help it), your illustration of The Raft of the Medusa is responsible for my wish to study History of Art some time in the future, and not as some think because the heir to our throne (once removed) studied the same subject.

  5. Thinking further, I realise I did not answer the question you asked... "If I was on the jury"
    The header question, "is it okay to eat the boy" Yes. It is okay to eat the boy. BUT, it is NOT okay to kill the boy.
    Vedict: Murder, on the two killers, but with diminished responsibility, due to their mental state at the time.

    On the overcrowded boat, we realise that there must be a lot more evidence presented. How many people was the boat supposed to hold?
    In a shipwreck, the crew's first duty, I would expect, is to the ship, then to the passengers.
    I imagine there is an internationally agreed procedure, which the jury would hear about from expert witness during the trial, without knowing for sure, never having studied maritime law, I'd expect something like this:- Each lifeboat would have an assigned crew, and master, these would board the boat anmbark passengers in the order of women and children first, then the elderly or infirm men. If after those have embarked, there are still spaces, then male passengers, family members of the women and children already aboard,
    and persons whose presence might optimise survival, i.e., doctor, boatwright, carpenter, nurse.
    Once these positions are filled, further male passengers fill the remaining places, then ships crew other than seamen, such as cooks, stewards, etc. Sailors, sadly for them, are at the bottom of the pile.
    The boat's master MUST stop boarding when the number of persons aboard equals the number for which it is designed. Allowing more aboard endangers everyone. His crew must be prepare to use force if necessary.

    So in the scenario here, there are too many crew members aboard at the start, therefore they should go. Too many passengers too, therefore they should go, until the badged capacity of the boat, or somewhat fewer, (given the known leaks in the hull) remain. The mate, as skipper of the boat has full responsibility, and the ship's crew must act only under his order.
    It may be, that an excessive number of seamen remained because the mate let it be so. It may be he was threatened by them, and had no power over them. Who was Holmes? Did holmes do something against the mate's order? without seeing the transcript of the trial, no verdict is possible. I understand, in law, that there is a category of "justifiable homicide" this instance might, or might not, qualify.

    Take the case of a person holding a hostage, and threatening lives. Or threatening to detonate a bomb. One carefully placed bullet, from a police sniper kills him, thus saving many. Is the police officer to be jailed for murder?

    Take the case of a house in a war zone, from which "insurgents" operate... An airforce plane, a bomber, or a gunship, or a distant artillery battery target that house.
    In the attack, neighbouring properties are destroyed, killing non-combatants, and children, Will the pilot, gunner, command officer be charged?
    Will the authorising commander, will the president be charged?
    The principle is the same. In a wartime bombing, when civilians are killed, we are told "It's very sad, a tragedy, but necessary for the greater good".
    Just as was the putting out of the boat the supernumary passengers.

  6. First, let me say thank you to all who commented. Second, let me admit in retrospect I did a poor job in framing the question and probably should have left the jury out of it entirely, because there are no real right and wrong answers here, and never are when you are dealing with ethics. So, since the point of the post was simply to stimulate conversation, I probably did a poor job in explaining that. Frankly, who's to say the original juries were right or wrong? Ethics depend on our own personal values.

    I did find it interesting when I was applying my own personal value system to the cases, that what I thought was pretty cut and dried wasn't that at all when it came down to actually trying to put myself into those situations.

    I, like Stephanie, found myself wanting to see the Captain shoulder more of the blame, even though he only made a brief appearance, and we are never even told if he and the smaller boat were even ever rescued.

    This came out of a book with actual court cases used as president, but I also wish they had given more details. For example, why was Holmes singled out? He didn't do anything the other crew didn't do.

    I also think I would have been more pragmatic about who got thrown overboard, like Sobriquet said, or who was even let in the boats in the first place. Well, it probably wasn't like the Titanic where they were loading boats. Back that long ago with sailing vessels, they probably were all in the water anyway and just got picked up in the boats.

    Anyway, I apologize for implying there was some sort of right or wrong answer here, rather than letting you know more clearly all I wanted to do was talk about what happened and what we all might have done differently.

    For the record though, since I did bring up juries and asked you what you would have done if you had been on the juries, here is what the book says happened in the cases:

    On the first one, where passengers got thrown overboard, Holmes was convicted of manslaughter. I found this less than edifying. What about the other crew? Do we assume they, too, were all convicted of manslaughter? Do we assume that the captain and those in the other boat were lost, since we have only the first mate's testimony that that is what the captain said?

    On the second case, where the boy was killed, cannibalism was never the issue, only the murder. Here we have their state of mind disregarded by the jury (the two men were both convicted of murder and sentenced to die.) But on appeal to her majesty (one assumes Her Majesty's higher court - I am doubtful Queen Victoria would have truly been involved in a criminal case proceeding), the crown commuted the sentence to 6 month's imprisonment. Well, that probably sucks. You British will have to tell me how much of that was really "the crown" and how much was simply a successful appeal to a higher court. The language is a bit ambiguous to an American, and when the book says "commuted by the crown", I don't exactly know what that means.

    If you want to talk about it as a group discussion, as was my original intent, I think I have many of the same questions that Stephanie raised, such as why weren't the others bailing? Or were they? I know I sure as hell would have been bailing if I were a passenger!

    Then, too, I think the first mate was simply saying that bailing was no use -- that they just weren't staying ahead of it. At least that's what I think the old language "this work won't do" meant.

    As for the boy, I can't imagine myself being a party to killing him rather than just allowing myself to die. But that is my own values and is not the final say here.

    Drinking blood is the same as eating and would not quench one's thirst. Just an observation.

  7. @A. - Yes, A. The raft of the Medusa. Sigh. To me only a picture of a shipwreck survival attempt. :)

  8. The Crown is an abstract and doesn't mean the monarch. Criminal cases are prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service, for instance "The Crown vs. ...". Jury trials are held in Crown Courts. Many government workers are called crown servants.

    Sigh again. You are supposed to follow my every train of thought, no matter how much it wanders. The picture was a style that didn't appeal to me so I didn't take much interest in it. It wasn't until the details and structure were explained and discussed that it became interesting. This topic, on the surface, didn't much appeal to me. I hate disaster movies. But reading it and other commenters' opinions have shown me the error of my ways. I will not stray from the straight and narrow again.

    I wouldn't like to say the captain should take the blame on the evidence given here.

  9. As for the raft of the Medusa, 147 men boarded it. 15 remained when it was found.
    "Many of the barrels of provisions were soon knocked overboard by men crowding for space to sit, or waterlogged by seawater. But the real danger wasn't starvation; the pressing threat came from the men themselves. As night fell, they began to realize how bad things really were. Unfortunately, as the parties responsible for their plight weren't around, the men starting fighting with each other. They stupidly threw barrels of wine and flour overboard. They hacked at each other with machetes; they tried to unlash the raft. By dawn on the first morning, the raft was lighter by more than 20 men, all lost through suicide or murder.

    Hungry, sleep deprived, and without hope, the sailors only got nastier with each passing day. Slaughter was common, especially after dark, and rations were becoming increasingly scarce. It became a war between soldiers and officers. Factions appeared, the Africans against the Europeans, the workers against the officers. Every night the madness would grip them all and they'd fight it out till dawn, then recount their numbers, distribute rations and prepare themselves for death. Although numbers decreased rapidly, rations decreased more so. Finally, with unbearable thirst and hunger overcoming them, some of the men started tearing flesh from the corpses littering the raft. Many resisted this outrage, but it soon became apparent that those who had eaten were feeling stronger for it, and one by one, soldiers and officers alike, consumed the dead."

  10. Dammit, Max, I thought you had the answers.
    First: what the captain said, "I know what you will have to do. Don't speak of that now. Let it be the last resort." is far from being an instruction to murder, if those are his only words. he has given the boat into the command of the mate. after that time all decisions rest upon the mate's shoulders. We might say the captain might have taken a few more in his boat, but we do not know if that was possible. The captain is external to this case.
    Holmes is the crux. Why was he alone charged? Did he act against the mate's instruction? If only Holmes threw people overboard, why did not those opposed to him overpower him? By not stopping him, surely they abet him, and share a common purpose? How did he go on to be the greatest detective of all time? Was Doctor Watson in the boat? Was the Captain Moriarty?

    As for appealing to her majesty, the commution to the deathnsentence may well have been signed by Victoria, the appeal is to the crown, the embodiment of state. All british cases brought by the state are labelled "Crown v (Defendant)". However, commutions and pardons are exceptions to the law, and are effectively ratified by the monarch.

    The jury in britain does not decide the sentence. All the jury does, is weigh the evidence, and decide whether, on the evidence heard in court, the defendant is provd guilty, or not proved guilty of the crime with which they are charged.
    The jury foreman has no speech to make, nor can he propose a harsh or lenient sentence. All he can say is whether the jury decided guilty, or not guilty, or whether it was unable to reach an agreed verdict, and whether that verdict (ver=truth, dict=say)was unanimous.
    Furthermore, it is often erroneously said that a journey found a person innocent.... That is never so, a jury finds only whether the evidence presented proves guilt "beyond reasonable doubt", the jury's verdict is upon the evidence presented, not upon the person in the dock.
    If the jury finds guilty, then the punishment for a person found guilty of murder, was then hanging.

    In this case, the court of appeal has considered the case, upheld the guilty verdict, but overturned the sentencing, of course, we do not know when this appeal was held, but the commuted sentence of six months would include time already served, so the likelihood would be that they were freed immediately, still labelled guilty, not exonerated, but also not reviled, it would seem that the court must have agreed them not to be responsible for their actions.

  11. Ah those were the good old days.

    Cannibalism has always been at the bottom of the list of food sources, but it is all there, them people will eat other people. I have always found this need to eat a bit of a design flaw anyway.

    It is always easy enough to sit back from the comfort of normal life and think-well, I would never do that-but what would any of us do if we were really in such a situation? I get grumpy when I miss my morning coffee, so it is impossible for me to imagine what I would be willing to do after days without food or water.

    I'm reminded of John Cleese as he made a guest appearance on Third Rock from The Sun-In the event of a water landing the person sitting next to me would become my personal flotation device.

  12. As is often the case with Relax Max' posts, it was food for thought for one of my own where I was exploring YOUR point, Descartes.

  13. Oh, what horrible scenarios for the people involved. I think I would've found the accused guilty in both these scenarios had I been on that jury.

    Quite an interesting blog btw!

  14. @A. - Crown is abstract. A carry-over from the good old days. Ok. At least in this usage. I get it. But if the monarch still can have some say-so (as head of state), for example pardoning someone as our President sometime does, then the term "crown" would still sometimes refer to the monarch, no? Moving along...

    The picture had no interest to you? Get real. You saw it one time in the Louvre and swooned. The guards had to carry you out at the end of the day. You could teach an art class on this picture.

    I'm glad you absolve the Captain. All he did was run into an iceberg. :)

    @Soubriquet - I, too, have lost much sleep over Seaman Holmes being singled out and, like you, can only assume it was the court's jealousy at his worldwide detective fame. I can find no other reason for this obvious judicial prejudice. Or for his later commutation (one assumes by the crown, behind closed doors) either. Great point, and one which lends greatly to the seriousness and gravity of this ethics example. Thank you.

    Dr. Watson was undoubtedly there, since he never left Holme's side, but, unless Holmes had told him, he probably had no idea he was even in a life boat.
    Juries in the U.S. don't always prescribe the penalty either. It depends on the state, and the crime within that state. California, and probably others, in capital cases have the juries determine whether the newly-guiltified may be sentenced to death. This is done in a separate sequential trial which considers only that subject, and is called the "penalty phase" trial. The same jury is used, of course. Their verdict is not binding on the judge absolutely; he is still supreme, but seldom overrules the jury. But it gives him a "Pontius Pilate" escape route to wash his hands of it and do the will of the people rather than take responsibility himself. This has always been confusing to me, since I am an advocate of immediately taking the condemned out of the courtroom and stringing him up on the flagpole and charging admission. I favor the more simple "sort it out later" school of thought.
    You probably think I don't know who/what the Medusa was, just because I am an American. I do. She was a Gorgon. What the fuck this has to do with a raft of people, that I can't tell you.

  15. @Ettarose - Pithy. Thoughtful. Insightful.

    Hi! What's up?

    @Descartes - I was surprised that the cannibalism was discussed more, since that is an ethical thing too. But it got little attention, here or in the actual court. I like your story about John Cleese. Funny.

    @Stephanie - Just keep linking to me and I'll be happy. :)

    @Ailurophile - Thank you for stopping by! Yeah, tough situations and no real answers. Thank you for the compliment. :)

    I like cats too.



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