Cannibalism and the Necessity Defense in Regina v. Dudley & Stevens (1884)

In the case Regina v. Dudley & Stevens (1884), the jury’s finding was that the defendants were unlikely to have survived to a point of being rescued had they not killed the boy and eaten him. Moreover, the victim was also the weakest person among the four of them and he was likely to have died before all of them. The fact that there was no sign of rescue at the time they decided to kill the victim can be used as a cause for justification. However, the jury failed to establish whether the defendants were guilty of committing murder, assuming that a necessity to kill has no greater necessity to kill the victim and leave any other man (Hojeckd, 2017). As such, although the sailors would have died had they not engaged in cannibalism, I do not believe that their conduct can be excused on necessity grounds.
The law of necessity states that the action taken has to promotes a given value of higher degree in nature compared to the value that would result from the literal compliance with the prescribed law (Steinhoff, 2019). This implies that in this case, the defendants would have easily defended their actions based on necessity grounds as the victim was about to die and was the weakest member among the group. However, sometimes necessity law can be abused in the sense that criminals who have knowingly and intentionally violated a given legal statue may claim to have not committed any crime. Such an argument can be used to describe the defendant’s actions in this case.
In conclusion, the defendant’s conduct cannot be excused on necessity grounds because it would be applying the idea of self-preservation to defend murder. Moreover, it would be in violation of the principle which suggests that no individual person’s life can be held to be worthier than another (Steinhoff, 2019). Based on these grounds, the defendants had the opportunity to exercise the self sacrifice duty by one of them volunteering to die for the sake of the other and the victim. Instead they opted for self preservation though murder.
Hojeckd, P. (2017). Regina v Dudley and Stephens – Common Law Review. Retrieved November 3, 2019, from
Steinhoff, U. (2019). Emergency Justifications (Including Necessity and Lesser Evil). Self-Defense, Necessity, and Punishment, 285–318. doi: 10.4324/9780367814441-4
In the case of Regina v. Dudley & Stevens (1884), the court held that the sailors’ conduct of cannibalism could not be excused on the grounds of necessity. The court stated that necessity cannot be relied upon as a defense when the act is illegal and the necessity is not “immediate and pressing”.
Reasons for the decision:
The defense of necessity cannot be used to justify illegal acts.
The necessity in this case was not immediate and pressing as the sailors had been adrift for three weeks before resorting to cannibalism.
Reasons against the decision:
The sailors’ situation was dire, and they may not have had any other options to survive.
The act of cannibalism was likely motivated by survival rather than any malicious intent.
This case presents a difficult moral dilemma and raises questions about the limits of the defense of necessity. A video that does a good job of illustrating the dilemma is “Regina v. Dudley and Stevens” by The School of Law, University of Southampton.

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