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Cannibalism in a desperate situation

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Wed Jul 20, 2011 12:09 am
tr3x says...



This is purely academic inquiry, and should not cause flame wars and irritation like certain other debates doing the rounds right now.
At a debate I participated in, we were given the following situation:
Three men are stranded on a life raft; they are the survivors of a shipwreck. After several weeks without food and water, and with no land in sight, two of the men kill the third and eat him to stay alive. Another day, and they would all have starved to death. However, the very next day, a helicopter picks them up, and it is revealed that they survived by resorting to cannibalism. On getting back to civilization, should these two men be charged with murder? If so, why?

Some points to note:
-All the men were in the same physical and mental state when the deed was done.
-The victim was chosen arbitrarily.
-The fact that they were rescued so soon after the deed should not be a factor in the case.
-The men are otherwise law-abiding, normal people.

I was on the side defending their actions, but I won't tell you who won.
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Wed Jul 20, 2011 11:25 am
Attolia says...



This is interesting, although the specific situation given is going to lend itself to a whole bunch of situation-specific arguments and "what-if"s. Overall I think I'd have to agree with you in supporting the action if no other option were available.

I'd support the two men's decision given that the situation assumes the next day, had they not eaten him, all three would be dead. Actually, I think the arrival of the plane vindicates their action in that way, as they were in fact eating him for a reason; rescue was a real possibility and his death enabled their survival by it, rather than all three dying out there. Quite simply, two live men are better than zero.

I think the debate in this argument revolves not in whether the act of cannibalism, the actual eating of human meat, was justified, but whether the murdering was justified. My opinion on this lies in your statement "The victim was chosen arbitrarily." That statement implies all three men were candidates, which then implies that all three men had agreed on the act before the choice of victim. (I'm sure the victim changed his mind once the decision was made.) In this case I support the two men's action, as it was a rational, impersonal means of survival.

Had one or even two of the men had been vehemently against the idea in the first place, nobly insisting they all should starve together, my opinion may be different, but your wording in that statement does not lend itself to this occurrence.

I suppose the great counter-argument to the justification of the murder would be that instead of actually killing one of their own, they should've waited until the first man died naturally and then eaten him. But I would defend their decision to kill by the reasoning that by the time the first man died, the others may've been in no shape to survive even with his meat - whether they would've been physically unable to prepare his meat or certain diseases/conditions would've set in by then that would've caused eventual death.

Basically, in my opinion, it comes down to the manner of their decision. If it was purely a logical, amoral, impersonal means to survive where they saw no other way, I don't believe it would be my right to dispute it, whether or not I would've done it, as I would have no idea what it had been like to be in their situation.

Murder is condemned by law and morality, but they had left civilization and thus the jurisdiction of law. And morality is based in the desire for well-being. The well-being of two trumps the well-being of one/none if it comes down to such a do-or-die situation. (And essentially, morality is opinion, and in my opinion it is the above.)

I've made this overly-complicated, but I think the regular rules of morality and law change when you enter into a situation such as that, and I personally rank survival over altruism. But it's all opinion. A better person than I will probably rank altruism over survival.
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Thu Jul 21, 2011 1:35 am
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Nate says...



That's not really a hypothetical; it's based on a famous law case in late 1800s England:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R_v_Dudley_and_Stephens

The Wikipedia article is all over the place, so there's a better description of the case here:
http://theoryofjurisprudence.blogspot.c ... phens.html

In short, the court found the men guilty of murder. The latter link describes the judgment as thus:
The significance of Regina v. Dudley and Stephens lies in the fact that the English courts, for the first time, decisively and absolutely laid down the common law concerning this issue and upheld the principle that human life is to be protected at all costs, that life shall not be taken or sacrificed even to preserve one's own life and that the defence of necessity is no excuse.




Another similar situation involved the whaling ship Essex out of Nantucket, Massachusetts in the early 1800s:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essex_%28whaleship%29

In that case, none of the cannibals were later charged with a crime. Nathaniel Philbrick wrote a great account of it titled In the Heart of the Sea. The Essex incident was also the basis for Moby Dick.
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Thu Jul 21, 2011 1:59 am
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Snoink says...



Nate, you scare me sometimes, lol.
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Thu Jul 21, 2011 2:48 am
tr3x says...



Wow, Nate, I didn't know there was actual precedent for such a case. This was an impromptu bill, so we did not have access to any information other than our own general knowledge. The first example that came to me was the Andes plane crash incident. Of course, in that event the menu items were already dead, so it wasn't murder.
So basically to refute Attolia, desperate survival situations do not place one outside the realm of the law. Leaving civilization does not condone acts of murder. Also, human beings are defined by their morals and altruistic tendencies, so abandoning them to survive would be the act of an animal, a primal creature not to be trusted in human society.
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Thu Jul 21, 2011 8:47 am
Attolia says...



Nate you should go on Jeopardy.

Essentially, I don't think you can condemn people to certain death for the sake of morality.

So basically to refute Attolia, desperate survival situations do not place one outside the realm of the law. Leaving civilization does not condone acts of murder.

Well, if you're on a unclaimed island outside of civilization, it's kind of like going back into the wild, and I would say you definitely are outside the jurisdiction of any law, at least until you reenter civilization. I'm not saying that leaving civilization makes murder acceptable, I'm just trying to separate the context of this killing from those that take place in the world we know.

Also, human beings are defined by their morals and altruistic tendencies, so abandoning them to survive would be the act of an animal, a primal creature not to be trusted in human society.


Although I disagree with the first part of that (rather a generalization. Ironically, Rousseau actually separates civilized humans from the rest of animals in the exact opposite way.), I understand what you're getting at with that point, that they should be jailed to prevent further such instances back in civilization, now that they've shown what they're capable of.

However, I don't think you can read anything more into the cannibalism than what it directly was. You can't say that because they killed once, they will kill again once they reenter society. You could only say that if you put them in another situation where the killing of someone already fated to immediate death was necessary for the survival of any, they would again take that action. The fact that "the victim was chosen arbitrarily" disputes notions of primitiveness/animalism. It was a logical choice, made with a clear head, enacted as the only means of survival.

I understand the flip side to this, that the type of people who made this choice may be the same type of people more disposed to "play God" in very sick, dangerous ways and choose for themselves when is okay to kill for higher purposes, but you can't infer that these cannibals ARE those types of people just from the actions given. They could just be very practical, amoral (not immoral), logical people, not prone to any kind of cruelty or even lawbreaking.

I don't believe what they did is morally right, but I don't think you can jail them for it.

Interesting question I would like to put out there: what would you guys do in such a situation? Or to extend it more generally, could you guys ever kill to stay alive?

I would definitely not be above eating human meat to stay alive, but I don't think I could ever kill someone to get it, even if it were such a "we all agree the three of us won't survive another day without human meat, so let's draw straws to chose the unlucky one" situation as this. I have too heavy a conscience for my liking, too heavy to even live with it like that, I think.
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Fri Aug 12, 2011 10:10 am
Pigeon says...



Wow, this is really tricky.
I think I would feel a lot better about it if they'd waited for one of them to die and then eaten him. That being said, letting someone starve to death and waiting to see who dies first is in no way more merciful than putting one person out of their misery in order to extend the lives of the others.
It would have been interesting for the scenario to continue without rescue, too. Would the surviving two eventually have had to decide which one of them was going to die to let the other live?

Attolia wrote:My opinion on this lies in your statement "The victim was chosen arbitrarily." That statement implies all three men were candidates, which then implies that all three men had agreed on the act before the choice of victim.

I think I pretty much agree with Attolia here. If they'd all agreed, it's probably justifiable.

Attolia wrote:Interesting question I would like to put out there: what would you guys do in such a situation? Or to extend it more generally, could you guys ever kill to stay alive?
I'm not really sure. :/ I don't think I could kill. I'd be more likely to volunteer to be killed actually - coward's way out. So, in that situation, no, but in answer to your more general question: in a self-defence situation, like a fight, maybe. Another thing with the cannibalism situation is that I'm not sure I could eat human meat. I don't actually have a problem with other people doing so in survival situations, but I struggle to eat any meat at all. I feel physically sick walking past butchers shops and I would kind of like to go vegetarian. That being said, if I was starving to death I'd probably be willing to eat almost anything.

Gah. I'm confusing myself. The thing about these hypothetical situations is that it's really hard to know what you'd do until you're in the actual situation.
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skwmusic says...



Well first let me say I think they should be charged with murder. They killed another human being. And no matter what their reasoning is, that is murder. But i think the more interesting question is was it right? Well it depends on several things and what priorities you have. First, was the man killed killed consensually? Did he agree to die for the survival of the other two? If in fact the act was consensual I think they did the right thing. If cannibalism occurs, all parties must be in agreement before it happens.
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Jas says...



I think that technically, they should have been charged with murder.

If they killed the man, then five minutes later someone came to rescue them and they didn't have the chance to eat the man, that is murder, plain and simple. The act of eating someone and the act of killing someone are entirely different. This is assuming, that they of course, killed him first and didn't just start gnawing at his arm. Regardless of whether they ate him, they killed him first and that's not right.

If they had waited until he died of starvation first then ate him...well, that's different. No, I don't think it's murder, because they didn't murder the man did they? They ate him and in a situation where eating a corpse or becoming one yourself, it's excusable. It's not like the corpse is any more dead when eaten.

Personally, it really depends. If there's a choice of eating my mother's dead body or starving, I would starve but if it was a stranger, I'd probably become a cannibal. It's disgusting and barbaric and vulgar and I wouldn't be able to go a day without thinking about it, but people do much worse to survive.

Well, I thought it over for a while and realized that I would never ever eat anyone because I'm too scared of God. I'd prefer to die pure then live knowing that I consumed human flesh.
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Sun Jan 01, 2012 10:39 am
inkwell says...



Putting my lawyer hat on, I'd probably argue that the situation was a kind of suicide pact (which really hinges on the arbitrary selection), in order to let them off the hook with manslaughter. However, I can't imagine these survivors actually being honest and explaining that they ate the guy. That adds to their suffering, the victim's family's suffering, and puts them in legal trouble. But assuming they did offer testimonies that they did it then yes I'd say they legally deserve to be charged with manslaughter.
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Mon Jan 09, 2012 11:08 pm
Confictura says...



I would charge them for murder, since it was murder. If one of the men had died of natural causes and then the other two feasted upon him to save themselves, that's not murder, that's simply doing what's necessary to survive.

Some could argue that they murdered the third man because it was necessary to survive, but it's still murder.
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Mon Jan 09, 2012 11:45 pm
Aet Lindling says...



With the specifics you've provided, I see it as simple: the choice between potentially saving two lives, or killing all three. They did the right thing.
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Tue Jan 10, 2012 1:47 am
fictionfanatic says...



What I have found is that in some murder cases, the murderer is found, not really but basically, innocent, even though they most definitely 100% committed the crime and there is no doubt about it. They do not get jail time for this, or any consequence in the very least, because they are declared certifiabley insane. Also, in cases like these, the insane murderers had no point-blank, good reason for their murder.

Now, you said that they did have their wits about them when they did this act, so they would not be waved off because they are insane. However, in a time of dire need, especially when it comes to ones life, people will do anything. Starving and parched to the point of near death, because at the point in time you're suggesting they would have been maybe a few days away from death, people WILL resort to things they never thought they would.

Point blank, people will do ANYTHING to stay alive, to save themselves - it is human nature to have the will to live - it goes all the way back to primitive man.

My point, if you're still following what I'm talking about, is that if someone can be found "innocent" for murder due to insanity, why should someone not be found innocent for fending themselves against death? For going back to their primitve roots and doing the deed? As depicted in Lord of the Flies, man WILL revert to primitivity if they have no restrictions of society. They WILL do what it takes to live. Not only is this portrayed in Lord of the Flies, but simple storied everyone knows - the stories of Remus and Romulus, Mowlgi, Max in Where the Wild Things Are, so on and so on.

To sum it all up, it is a natural thing that happens to a person when staring in the face of death. People will do the unthinkable on the brink of death - but to them, it is completely logical and makes all the sense in the world in that moment.


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Wed Jan 11, 2012 1:36 am
PixieStix says...



Well, Being simple Is all you need to be perfect right? For me there is no other reason to be a caniball then to just survive, it's better to do the right thing, thats Just my opinion. :)
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Wed Jan 11, 2012 3:07 am
Fishr says...



Murder cannot be justified. But there are different degrees of murder. The key information we are missing is if the victim died of natural causes which would not warrent murder; it was after the person's life. If the two men preyed and killed the third party regardless if the third party "Gave in," it's still murder and the two survivors should face third degree charges.
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