In this article, Stuti Mishra does a case analysis of R v Dudley and Stephens.


The widely famous case of R v Dudley and Stephens which deals with the taboo act of cannibalism asks the debatable question of having necessity as a defence. The case brings forth the beastly side of human nature and shows how it is triggered when faced with helplessness and proximity to death. The situation is that four men from an English ship, Mignonette 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 Stephans 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. In 1884, this procedure had long been neglected: it was specially revived for the occasion. By various procedural devices, it was decided to bring the case before a bench of five judges constituting the Queen’s Bench Division in London. They were found guilty of murder. They were sentenced to death but later their sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. It was held that necessity is no defense for a crime.

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Whether necessity can be claimed as a defense for murder and can it make the act permissible?

Whether killing of the boy to save one’s own life, in this case, be termed as an act of self-defense?


The case deals with a few important questions.

First, we encounter the question that how to weigh the value of one’s life against another? The very fact that Richard Parker was chosen to be killed suggests that his life was considered less important than the life of the others reason being that Richard was an orphan and had no family to look after. Even if it was essential to kill one person to survive, it is just immoral or unjust to kill the weakest and unresisting one. If this trend of picking on the weakest continues until the rescue arrives, then everyone would be justified in killing and thereby would not be guilty of murder.

Second, the case deals with the application of Self-defense. The law is that a person can be justified in taking the life of another only in case of self-defense against the one whose life was taken. This rule, however, has no application in this case as Parker, being ill, posed no threat to the men? So the man cannot claim self-defense as a justification because there was no provocation, implied or otherwise by the unresisting boy which may encourage the men to take such a drastic action. Moreover, self –defense which extends to defense of others, is sufficiently flexible to allow the pre-emptive use of force, provided the person employing the force believes his or her conduct to be necessary and the use of force is objectively reasonable taking into consideration the surrounding circumstances. The situation here is quite different as there is no involvement of Parker at any point in time.

Third, by the killing of the boy, which was itself an immoral act, the defendants with certainty deprived him of any chances of survival. If was possible that the men might be rescued the next day in which case it would be a “profitless” act to kill the boy.

Fourth, and the most important is the question whether murder is permissible when someone dons on the coat of necessity? Necessity, in simple terms is using violence to repel that is violence which is reasonable, justified and necessary to stop the illegal act towards oneself. Necessity which justifies homicide is of two kinds, 1. Necessity which is of private nature and 2. Necessity dealing with public welfare. The first kind which is relevant for the case, is self-defense which has already been dealt with. In the present case, however, there was clear murder as the temptation to which the defendants succumbed is not what law calls “necessity”. Necessity must be inevitable to justify homicide. Moreover, the concept of “necessity” should extend to everyone, not just the boy because he was in a disadvantageous position.


The court didn’t distinguish between justification and excuse properly. The classical view treats the defense of necessity as a powerful excuse whereas the modern view characterizes it as a justification but fails to capture the sort of justification it is. Although Aristotle’s Magna Moralia says, “what is done from necessity is involuntary not accompanied by thought.” It makes no effect in the verdict in the case. Necessity as an excuse would result in the defendant as criminal but not punishable. Using necessity as an excuse would gradually weaken the system, allowing the defense would encourage people to overrate the danger to which they are exposed and yield quickly to temptation. Moreover, necessity provides limited justification by just making the act morally permissible but will not ensure that the act is the best possible option to carry out in a certain circumstance. Secondly, the intrusion on the victim’s interests undermines his/her integrity.

The choice of killing the boy by the two defendants is based on the principles of Utilitarianism. Given by Jeremy Bentham, the principle suggests that “the just thing to do is to maximize utility” that is, the balance of pleasure over pain, happiness over sorrow. This principle bases morality on maximizing pleasure. It focuses on the greater good for the greater number of people. The morality of certain act consists in weighing the costs and benefits of the act. The consequentialist moral reasoning is along these lines, the right thing to do depends on the consequences of an act. The act of killing Parker is justified in the defendants’ view and is supported by these principles. The defendants were maximizing the pleasure or happiness for themselves and if in the way they murder someone, in their eyes they did no wrong as their actions had a good consequence i.e. their own survival, therefore their act is good. The principle, in this case, results in people taking the law in their own hands. There is a clash in this point. These principles are clearly violated if we look at things from the boy’s perspective. His death will not, in any case, maximize his pleasure or happiness neither would it fit for being a good action as the consequence for him is bad. Here we come across the concept of categorical moral reasoning. It is put forth by Immanuel Kant, which suggests that it is not just the consequence of an act but also its intrinsic quality i.e. certain duties and rights must command our respect and should be intrinsically wrong or right. The theory of Moral Absolutism runs along the same line suggesting that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged meaning that some actions are intrinsically right or wrong regardless of the beliefs and goals of the society and individual. Immanuel Kant was a promoter of this idea.  Dudley and Stephans had no right to kill the boy, denying him any chances of survival as well as choosing death on his behalf. It was wrong to succumb to temptation and then cover it all with the cloak of “necessity”. Question is why was Parker chosen? Just because he is weak and unresisting and “may” have died eventually. The defendants had no right to just use the situation to their advantage. If Parker had died a natural death the situation had been different. Even if Parker had consented to be killed, with or without a lottery, one questions the morality of the murder. If Parker had been consulted during the decision on drawing lots, it might be a different issue altogether because Parker would have exercised his right to have a fair procedure and equal treatment. During the 19th century practising cannibalism by sailors and seaman was quite a natural act but there were some conditions. There had to be a draw of lots to ensure fairness and there should be consent of everyone present. This was the proper procedure followed at that time- the right thing to do. Dudley and Stephens were not the first cannibals of their time. A tentative guesswork is that maybe that is why they were tried, they didn’t follow the procedure and cheated. After the verdict, everything changed. The savage, barbarous nature of cannibalism was widely condemned and the custom of the sea denounced as a blasphemous appeal to god to sanction killing.

The law laid down by this case is a good law. It strengthens the justice system by discouraging people to take the law into their hands. Necessity is never the defense for any crime. Morality is something more than just what is right, it is a general respect for another human being.

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  1. Very nice discussion of this case done by author. It was discerning, in lot of manner.
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