To preserve one’s life is generally speaking a duty, but it may be the plainest and the highest duty to sacrifice it. War is full of instances in which it is a man’s duty not to live, but to die. The duty, in case of shipwreck, of a captain to his crew, of the crew to the passengers, of soldiers to women and children, as in the noble case of the Birkenhead; these duties impose on men the moral necessity, not of the preservations but of the sacrifice of their lives for others, from which in no country, least of all, it is to be hoped, in England, will men ever shrink as indeed, they have not shrunk. It is not correct, therefore, to say that there is any absolute or unqualified necessity to preserve one’s life. “Necesse est ut eam, non ut vivam,” is a saying of a Roman officer quoted by Lord Bacon himself with high eulogy in the very chapter on necessity to which so much reference has been made. It would be a very easy and cheap display of commonplace learning to quote from Greek and Latin authors, from Horace, from Juvenal, from Cicero, from Euripides, passage after passages, in which the duty of dying for others has been laid down in glowing and emphatic language as resulting from the principles of heathen ethics; it is enough in a Christian country to remind ourselves of the Great Example whom we profess to follow. It is not needful to point out the awful danger of admitting the principle which has been contended for. Who is to be the judge of this sort of necessity? By what measure is the comparative value of lives to be measured? Is it to be strength, or intellect, or what ? It is plain that the principle leaves to him who is to profit by it to determine the necessity which will justify him in deliberately taking another’s life to save his own. In this case the weakest, the youngest, the most unresisting, was chosen. Was it more [p. 288] necessary to kill him than one of the grown men? The answer must be “No” –
“So spake the Fiend, and with necessity,
The tyrant’s plea, excused his devilish deeds.”
It is not suggested that in this particular case the deeds were devilish, but it is quite plain that such a principle once admitted might be made the legal cloak for unbridled passion and atrocious crime. There is no safe path for judges to tread but to ascertain the law to the best of their ability and to declare it according to their judgment; and if in any case the law appears to be too severe on individuals, to leave it to the Sovereign to exercise that prerogative of mercy which the Constitution has intrusted to the hands fittest to dispense it.
It must not be supposed that in refusing to admit temptation to be an excuse for crime it is forgotten how terrible the temptation was; how awful the suffering; how hard in such trials to keep the judgment straight and the conduct pure. We are often compelled to set up standards we cannot reach ourselves, and to lay down rules which we could not ourselves satisfy. But a man has no right to declare temptation to be an excuse, though he might himself have yielded to it, nor allow compassion for the criminal to change or weaken in any manner the legal definition of the crime. It is therefore our duty to declare that the prisoners’ act in this case was wilful murder, that the facts as stated in the verdict are no legal justification of the homicide; and to say that in our unanimous opinion the prisoners are upon this special verdict guilty, of murder. [n. 1]
THE COURT then proceeded to pass sentence of death upon the prisoners. [n. 2]
The above statement is from the court ruling on the case of The Queen Vs. Dudley and Stevens (1884). It’s a very famous ruling, and taught in law school. At issue is the question of whether a person, confronted by inevitable death, may break the law in order to save his own life.
No one disputes the basic facts: the men in the lifeboat were all going to die if they did not eat. There was nothing to eat, except a man, and they choose the weakest and most vulnerable to kill and eat. Richard Parker, the cabin boy, had fallen into a coma, partly, probably, from drinking sea water. Euphemisms abound in the retelling of this case, but let’s dispense with them: they killed and ate Richard Parker to save their own lives.
The men, Captain Tom Dudley, Edwin Stephens; and Edmund Brooks, were saved by a German ship and returned to England where they, believing themselves to be fully justified, made no effort to hide what they had done. It is safe to say that they assumed everyone would understand and sympathize with their motivations. I doubt they would have formulated it so carefully, but they essentially argued that a man’s first duty is to save his own life. They professed horror, but, well it had to be done. You can see that, can’t you?
In a world full of people determined to get other people to kill for them, they could not have imagined how utterly subversive the idea was.
They were arrested and tried for murder, and sentenced to death. That lengthy quote at the beginning of this post is from the ruling by a panel of judges who heard the case after what can only be described a series of shenanigans by Baron Huddleston who was determined to get convictions, though public opinion was decidedly in favor of the sailors.
It appears to me that he tricked the jurors into believing they were finding the defendants not guilty, by forcing them to make no ruling. Instead, through a technicality, they inadvertently allowed the judge to make whatever ruling he wanted.
Richard Parker, 17-years-old, was the cabin boy, and had no experience sailing.
There something obscene about this idea, that it is a honor to give up your own life for others. The obscenity lies in the fact that this is not a selfless gesture: it would be really great if you would die for me.
A devout Christian with a certain orientation might buy it: your reward will be in heaven so the person asking you to die for them is not really as selfish as all that.
I leave aside the issue of Richard Parker, for a moment. Huddleston had one legitimate point: by what principle do the men select someone in a coma to die for their benefit? There have been similar situations in which all of the men agreed to a procedure by which one of them is selected to die and be eaten. But I want to go back to the judge’s speech in which he insists it might be a man’s duty to die for his country.
By what right does anyone ask someone else to give up everything– and I mean everything– for someone else? What is the point? If you no longer exist, you can’t possibly obtain anything in exchange for giving up the most valuable thing you have: your own life. When a soldier is asked to do that, the person asking it is a criminal in the most universal and absolute and uncompromising sense. How can anyone possibly gain anything by giving up his life? Unless he is deceived?
Willful ignorance (it’s for your country, it’s for honor, it’s for Jesus, whatever) is no excuse. Asking someone to die for you is a criminal act, whether it is committed by a mafioso or a president.
But how, the exasperated citizen exclaims, could we ever have a war if people believed that? Yes, exactly.
Where would we be without young men willing to do it? It’s really not all that different, when you think about it, from demanding that people kill for you. Either way, you want someone else to die as a favor to you. Thank you very much and good bye. The monument we erect is not for you– you’ll never know a thing about it. You will never, ever know a thing about it. That monument is our way of trying to persuade the next victims.
Back to Richard Parker, one of the men had proposed– in unimaginable desperation– that they cast lots to see who would make the sacrifice. It would have been interesting if they had– what then could the court have ruled? Surely, that court, would have still ruled murder? In their unique circumstances, they made a perfectly rational, if appalling, choice (except that one of them, Brooks, wouldn’t go along with it). Either we do this appalling thing or we will all die. Life is better than death. It is better for three families to have their loved ones return to them and one mourn a death, than for four families to mourn four deaths (and destitution, probably). You can’t run and hide from this equation and say, oh, it’s just too awful to think about. It really happened– not just in this case in 1884– but in many other instances.
The judges, in this case, asserted, vehemently, that all four of you men in that boat should have died, rather than choose to kill Richard Parker.
It is not unimaginable that the judges would have ruled otherwise if one of the men had volunteered to die for the others (or if they had cast lots, in which sense one of them “volunteers”). In fact, there was an earlier case from the 17th century, near Saint Christopher, in which lots were cast, and the victim (who happened to be the one who suggested lots) consented, and was eaten, and no legal action was taken.