They were doomed. Over a week had passed since their last meal and Tom Dudley couldn´t recall his last drink of water. Tom glanced across at Richard Parker, the 17-year-old boy. The rest of them had warned Richard about drinking seawater, but in desperation, Parker had succumbed and was now seriously ill.
Richard was dying anyway; why should the rest of them perish? Suddenly, Dudley took his penknife and decided to put Parker “out of misery”. The end came quickly; the remaining 3 men were able to eat and drink that day. Rescue arrived around a week later, on 29 July 1884.
Perhaps this would be their salvation. If Parker died, then the remaining 3 men in the lifeboat could take advantage —they would eat him. Yes, this was cannibalism, but what other choice did they have?
As Dudley contemplated this, another thought came to mind. They also needed water, food along would not save them. They would have to drink Parker’s blood. But this act would have to happen soon after death, before the blood coagulated. Would Dudley have his wits about him to do this in time?
On returning to Falmouth, Dudley found himself on a murder charge. His defence was that he had followed the Custom of the Sea: extreme circumstances had forced him into cannibalism. Necessity had driven him to murder Parker. In a landmark case, Dudley was found guilty. Today, in UK law, “necessity” continues to be no defence in a murder case.
This case was long time ago, in circumstances that we are never likely to face. However, big moral questions do arise from time to time in extreme circumstances. Perhaps we hope that we will never have to face such difficult dilemmas.
Yet, the ethics of “necessity” do often appear in lesser, everyday matters. Has anyone ever condoned something to you on the basis that “the end justifies the means”? Examples could be bullying others at work to achieve a deadline, or overstating a product´s benefits in order to make that big sale. Can a “good” outcome ever excuse wrongs committed?
Many ethical codes of conduct draw attention to the Golden Rule, summed up as “do to others as you would have them do to you”. If someone had a position of power over us, how would we want them to treat us? The answer should then dictate how we treat others. This altruistic principle is found in many faiths and cultures but, unfortunately, it is often just an ideal. We all come across situations where the Golden Rule has been dumped and someone justifies their actions through the end achieved.
There is an even stronger version of the Golden Rule, as expressed by Jesus: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. This statement moves us beyond a moral code, where we seek no harm to others. The challenge becomes much more personal: do we genuinely care about the other person´s welfare?
The dilemma of Tom Dudley was extreme, not something we will ever face. However, life is full of other ethical decisions. We can decide to always put self-interest first, justifying our actions as “necessary”. Or we can choose to love our neighbour. What shall it be?
Let´s turn it around and consider how we want to be treated.
Why not go and do likewise?
(London, UK. 2018)