I’ve started watching the Harvard University course on Justice with Michael Sandel. It’s a multi-part set of lectures that are available free to watch on YouTube. Each episode is made up of two 30 minute lectures on the topic of Justice (or ethics really).

Part 1a was a basic introduction via Trolleyology which is something I was quite familiar with. However, part 1b was much more interesting.

In the second lecture Mr Sandel gave a good covering of the case of R vs. Dudley and Stevens which was new to me. In brief it was an incidence of killing and then cannibalism when 4 men were stranded at sea.

The lecture covers thoughts on consequentialism, Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism and very briefly touches on Kant’s catagorical imperative (something I suspect will be gone into in much more depth later on). 

Utilitarianism is defined by Bentham by the phrase "The just thing to do is to maximise utility" where utility is defined as the balance of happiness over suffering. In a standard trolley example, where a trolley-car is hurtling uncontrolled down a track and you have an option to switch it onto a side-track to kill one person rather than leave it alone to kill 5, it is quite easy to decide what to do. However, when you have an example where one healthy man could be killed and his organs harvested to transplant into 4 other men to save their lives the opposite conclusion is immediately seen. In short it doesn’t take long to see the utilitarianism taken on its own is flawed.

The case on its own is very interesting for a number of reasons. Purely from legal principles the case, which took place in 1884 overseen by Judge Baron Huddleston, was the first time since 1785 to be based around a Special Verdict where the jury agrees the facts of the case but leaves the judgement up to a panel of judges from a higher court. It would be interesting to know from legal scholars reading this if any more have occurred since then. Judge Huddleston was determined for the men to be found guilty of murder but then have their sentences commuted for clemency. In the end both men were found guilty but served only 6 months in jail.

From a point of ethics there are several potential standpoints covered by Mr Sandel in his lecture:

  1. Cannibalism is fundamentally wrong and there is never any acceptable reason to partake in it (supported by a surprisingly very small number of students)
  2. Killing the cabin boy would have been acceptable if he had opted for suicide
  3. Killing the cabin boy would have been acceptable if he had asked to be killed
  4. Killing the cabin boy would have been acceptable if there had been a lottery and he had lost
  5. Killing the cabin boy would have been acceptable if he was unconscious and they had good cause to think he was going to die even if they were subsequently resqued
  6. Someone had to die for the others to survive and the cabin boy, being unconscious, was the most obvious choice (this is what happened)

Personally, I think I would agree with scenarios 2, 3 and 5. Quite a few students agreed with scenario 4 but I simply don’t believe that anyone would accept that outcome willingly if they lost.

For me it comes down to removing the active agents ability of choice as being the most important thing. In 2 and 3 he has choice and in 5 his ability to have choice has already departed.

I’d be very interested to hear what other people think – please comment!

Lastly, some years later the case enabled someone to win a competition for "most striking coincidence". Thirty years before the incident Edgar Allan Poe wrote a novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket in which a strikingly similar incident took place except in that case the person who originally proposed committing the act ended up being the victim. His name was Richard Parker – exactly the same name as the cabin boy killed by Dudley and Stevens.