On July 5, 1884, Dudley, Stephens, and Brooksâ€” â€all able-bodied English seamenâ€â€”and a teenage English boy were cast adrift in a lifeboat following a storm at sea. They had no water with them in the boat, and all they had for sustenance were two one pound tins of turnips.
On July 24, Dudley proposed that one of the four in the lifeboat be sacrificed to save the others. Stephens agreed with Dudley, but Brooks refused to consent – the boy was never asked for his opinion. On July 25, Dudley killed the boy, and the three men then fed on the boyâ€™s body and blood. Four days later, a passing vessel rescued the men. They were taken to England and tried for the murder of the boy.
If the men had not fed on the boyâ€™s body, they would probably have died of starvation within the four-day period. The boy, who was in a much weaker condition, would likely have died before the rest.
(a) The basic question in this case is whether the survivors should be subject to penalties under English criminal law, given the menâ€™s unusual circumstances. Were the defendantsâ€™ actions necessary but unethical? Explain your reasoning. What ethical issues might be involved here?
(b) Should judges ever have the power to look beyond the written â€œletter of the lawâ€ in making their decisions? Why or why not?