A horrific scenario

A horrific scenario February 9, 2015

Imagine that you are a passenger on a ship, that your ship sinks in a major thunderstorm, and that you manage to put out into the open ocean in a lifeboat with three other persons. But then the waiting ordeal begins. Suppose that you know, based on your ship’s position in the thunderstorm when it sinks, that you are more than 1500 miles from the nearest body of land. You have no food or water in the lifeboat, except two 1 lb tins of turnips which you and your companions quickly eat. Maybe after a few days you catch a small turtle. But then the turtle is scarfed up too, say, on the twelfth day, and for the next eight days you have nothing to eat. You have no fresh water except the rain which you from time to time catch in an old t-shirt.


Suppose that one of your three companions at this point suggests that one of you needs to be sacrificed to save the rest. Suppose also that one of you – maybe the ship’s assistant, a seventeen-year-old boy – gets sick from drinking seawater. The companion who first suggested that one must be sacrificed for the rest, knowing that the boy is sick from seawater, asks you privately if you would be complicit in killing the boy for the sake of food for yourself and the others remaining in the boat. Maybe all of the rest of you have families back home who are awaiting your return, and the boy has none. Would you agree with him and help to kill the boy? All of you are near starvation. What if the companion who made the suggestion then tries to kill the boy himself? Would you try to prevent him from taking the boy’s life? What if the companion succeeds in killing the boy – would you then be a willing participant in eating the boy’s body? Suppose you know for certain that you would have no chance of surviving, none at all, if you do not feed on the body and blood of the boy – would you do it then?


This horrifying ethical scenario really happened, in 1884, to some English seamen named Dudley and Stephens. It’s one of the scenarios that I use in my classes with my students. On one hand, there is the duty of respecting innocent life – after all, the ship’s assistant has done nothing deserving of death. On the other hand, one must also consider the good consequences that will result for the community as a whole (i.e. those of you who are alive and remain in the lifeboat) if the ship’s assistant is not killed and if everyone starves to death. Duty vs. Consequences. What should be done?


In reality, Dudley and Stephens, the two men who did in fact kill their ship’s cabin boy in the lifeboat, were convicted of murder. But Queen Victoria (this was 1884) commuted their sentence to less than a year of imprisonment, out of fairness in light of their extenuating circumstances. Is this what you would have done? It’s easy for me to say, from the comfort of my armchair, that I would not have killed the ship’s assistant if I had been in that situation. But if I were, I do not know what would have been going through my mind at that point. I only wish to God that if I had been in that scenario I would have done the right thing.

Browse Our Archives