Killing an innocent life to save one’s own is no justification to murder even if it is under extreme necessity of hunger. : Queen’s Bench Division

In the case of R v Dudley and Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273, DC, Lord Coleridge, Justice Grove, Justice Denman, Lord Pollock and Lord Huddleston set a precedent was established throughout the common law world that necessity is not a defence to a charge of murder. It dealt with the act of cannibalism and put forward a debatable question of having necessity as defence.


The situation is that four men from an English ship face a storm and are trapped in a boat thousand miles from the land in the sea without sufficient food or water. After extinguishing their meagre food they are left with nothing but the vast sea without any sight of land. After going without food and water for seven days, the captain of the ship, Thomas Dudley decides that a lot should be drawn to sacrifice one of the four men so that the other three could survive by feeding on his flesh to which Edward Stephens agreed. Ned Brooks refused to follow the method and the cabin boy Richard Parker was not consulted. After some days Dudley and Stephens decided to kill the boy. After the killing, the three men fed on the boy’s flesh for four days and then they were rescued. Both the men were tried first at Falmouth then released on bail, and in November stood trial before a judge, Baron Huddleston, and jury at Exeter. There the jury, at the instigation of the judge, found a special verdict, setting out the facts and leaving it to the court to decide whether the men were guilty of murder.


It was held that the killing of Parker was murder. Stephens’s and Dudley were sentenced to death. “Stephens and Dudley were tempted to kill Parker but temptation itself is not an excuse for murdering him. Their unfortunate circumstances also do not lend leniency to the legal definition of murder.” The bench further observed that the necessity of hunger does not justify larceny, let alone murder. The principle of Utilitarianism was upheld in this case which bases morality on maximizing pleasure. It focuses on the greater good for the greater number of people. Stephens and Dudley chose the weakest and youngest to kill and it was not more necessary to kill him than any of the other grown men.

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