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The Queen vs. Dudley and Stephens

THE FACTS OF THE CASE: The English yacht Mignonette was a 52-foot cruiser built in 1867. In 1883, Australian lawyer John Henry Want paid a crew to sail it from England to Australia. Due to the nature of the journey, the yacht was not suited for the high seas, so a crew was hard to find. Finally the crew of four was found: Tom Dudley, the captain; Edwin Stephens; Edmund Brooks; and Richard Parker, the cabin boy, Parker (an orphan, 17 years old and an inexperienced sailor). The crew set sail on May 19th 1884. By July 5th, they made it to the Cape of Good Hope South Africa with a strong gale. Shortly after leaving port at Good Hope, the ship was struck with a strong wave that took out the bulwark. The captain knew the yacht was doomed to sink and called everyone to abandon ship and get on a 13-foot lifeboat. The crew was only able to gather some navigational equipment, two tins of turnips, and no fresh water. The first night they had to fight off sharks with their ores. They ate their turnips within four days and caught a turtle to eat but that was all they had to eat. The crew first discussed eating one of their own on July 16th and continued on until July 21st with out a resolution. They avoided drinking the sea water, but Parker was suspected of drinking sea water as he became sick and unconscious. In order to preserve blood and meat, Dudley and Stephens signaled to kill and eat Parker on July 25th. They were saved July 29th.

Drawing of the Mignonette by Captain Dudley

Humans have a collective common set of natural and evolutionarily developed morals that help us to make decisions in a group setting, and these sets of basic standards assist people in judging most actions quickly and without question: murder is bad, stealing is bad, suffering is bad and so on (Shermer, 2019). But those instincts evolution equipped us with do not answer the complex situations people sometimes find themselves in. Complex situations like the case of The Queen vs Dudley and Stephens where a crew was forced to make the decision of eating a crewmate in hopes that the rest may survive. It is a situation like this which stretches the concepts of fairness, justice, and ethics and brings to light that, in some extreme situations, survival is most important even if it means committing horrible and unimaginable acts. Additionally, the extreme decision making shows how the legal, religious, and cultural pseudo-ethics of a society are not strong enough to give people the tools they need to make the correct ethical decision.

Fairness is the ability to judge without bias and is also “used to refer to the ability to make judgments that are concrete and specific to a particular case” but is often ruled by the feelings of the individual and the time of the judgement (Valasquez, et al., 1). That is, the concept rests on the perceived standard of rightness and justice for that point in time. Justice is a similar and often interchangeable term for fairness but refers to giving people what they deserve. The fundamental principle of justice is that “individuals should be treated the same, unless they differ in ways that are relevant to the situation in which they are involved (Valasquez, et al., 1). Ethics, on the other hand, refers to the code of standards that is meant to govern the behaviors of a person by the group or community they are in. But the bottom line for ethics is that because human behavior affects those around them, and because humans can understand the situations and suffering of others, the welfare of others is the utmost importance (Paul and Elder, 4). As with any ethical decision making, and especially in such extreme and unimaginable cases, one must put themselves in the position of the actors in question to determine is what they did was truly ethical, fair, and just. In the case of The Queen vs. Dudley and Stephens, any judge must consider what they, themselves, would do in the situation and then make a judgement on the actors involved. To do so, we will look at this case in terms of justice, fairness, and ethics from the perception of those on the boat, and the officials judging the case.

First, justice and fairness. The case has an interesting twist on the situations one normally finds themselves in. As noted above, justice generally holds that people should be treated differently unless something differs in a relevant way. Those differing situations are understood because people have the ability to empathize and put themselves in other people’s positions through a “moral sense of fairness” that is evolutionarily “hardwired into our brains” and is an emotion shared by humans (save psychopaths and other mental illnesses) (Shermer, 11). That ability tells us that in most situations, most of the time, it is ok to treat people differently when in-group altruism, kin altruism, need, contribution, and effort effects the situation in a meaningful way (Shermer, 125) (Velasquez, et al., 2). It also tells us that it is not just to treat people or situations differently based on age, sex, race, and the like. Additionally, it seems to be inherent that it is not just to punish someone or harm them for something out of their control or without reason or compensation (Velasquez et al., 2).

Given this basic and broad definition of justice, one can take a few things away from the case. First, no one was being judged or given special or different treatment based on who they are. The crew are acting on need and survival. Those onboard also argue that those with families should be allowed to live, displaying the very natural and human tendency to value their own families above individuals. But otherwise, they are leaning toward drawing lots to see who will die so that the rest should live. One of them dying, no matter who it is, would be punished for something they have no control over making it inherently unjust to them. The special condition in this case is that no one had to be picked to die because the young cabin boy, Parker, was dying already and killing him would ensure that the sustenance was fresh and beneficial to save the rest of the crew. The choice was unjust to Parker but saved the group. The judgement from the court will be discussed later, but the take away so far is that in this situation, the crew acted in a way that satisfies the basic principle of justice of treating people equally. Even in the extreme situation they were in, people were treated equally and in a way that was not arbitrary or irrelevant. Justice can also be described as a reservation of human dignity, and though cannibalism is definitely not a dignified way to go, the judgment of the crew treated each other as equals in seeking lots (Velasquez, et al., 3). The argument that some had families and should therefore live is an important argument in regards to fairness because of people’s inherent kin altruism and need to value family but it is an argument that is not pertinent to the case because they did not end up making in their decision on this criteria. So we can conclude on a general basis that the decision was fair and just in terms of treatment and fairness.

Humans are social animals and have always acted in a group to cooperate and survive together. So it is relevant to study the justice in the case in terms of the crew as an organization. But the cognitive and psychological elements of behavior would suggest that people and organizations, lost at sea or otherwise, operate in bounded rationality and have “limited information and limited capacity to process what they have. They never know all the options…[and] instead of looking for the best option, individuals and organizations instead satisfice – choosing the first option that seems good enough” (Bolman and Deal, 27). With the concept of bounded rationality in mind, one can assume the crew lost at sea does not have the information necessary, or the mental facilities, to make a fully informed decision. Their two ideas of pulling lots and killing the sick crewmate are their two best ideas and they survive. Organizational justice is “the study of people’s perception of fairness in the organization” and all four forms of organizational justice, distributive, procedural, interpersonal and informational justice must be considered from the point of view of a crew member on the boat (Baldwin, 1). 

Distributive justice is also called the equity principle where people calculate their perceived fairness through a contribution-outcome ration where they weigh their inputs and outputs in an organization or group. In this lense, the crew could weigh the use of Parker, the victim, and his position within their organization as a young, inexperienced, and sick member of their group. This equity is also considered along with the notion of equality and need. The fact that Parker was sick and dying along with the fact that the Captain Dudley and Stevens had a family and therefore a need, would weigh in favor of killing Parker for the sake of distributive justice. 

Procedural justice focuses on the “fairness of the decision process leading to a particular outcome” and in the context of the case provided, the process to decide how to survive (Baldwin, 2). The Captain’s decision to cast lots was never settled on and they ultimately decided to kill Parker because of his health. There are other determinants of procedural justice such as consistency, neutrality, accuracy, representativeness, and correctability, are not relevant to this case because of the nature of the situation. They could not act consistently because the rare circumstance would not happen again. Nor could the crew act neutral or accurately because they had to decide in favor of their own survival and wellbeing and did not have all the facts involved to make the best decision. And the decision could never represent all involved because Parker was unconscious nor could it be correctable because the decision had to be whether or not they should kill and consume Parker (Baldwin, 3). But based on the fact that, from what they knew, one must die in order for all to live, deciding to kill the sick member was procedural justice. The organization in this case is like on a perverse trolley car experiment where they could kill the one member, or the whole organization.

Interpersonal justice refers to the perception of fairness on the treatment they receive from the other members. Interpersonal justice runs into the same problem as the other organizational forms of justice in that the perceived fairness could not be calculated by all crew members. . They could only talk to each other and although it is debatable as to if Brooks really agreed to kill Parker, the organization discussed the matter together to the best of their abilities but could not consult their victim, so justice was impossible. 

And finally, informational justice which is the fairness of the information used to make a decision. Again, very little information was known to the crew save their consent to kill Parker. The crew discussed the option weighing the fact that Dudley and Stephens had families whereas Parker was an orphan, but could not come to an agreement. The signal Dudley gave to Stephens that they will kill Parker was what decided the action and was not sufficient communication nor information to make satisfy informational justice for those involved, but especially not just for Brooks or Parker.

With everything considered, it is safe to say that what happened on that boat was not fair and was not justice because not everyone was consenting to the action nor was everyone included on the decision. From organizational justice, any action without the consent of the whole cannot be perceived as fair or just. The court-side of the event must also be considered briefly to get a whole picture of justice and fairness aspect of the case. Early Victorian-era England was a harsh land ruled by strict laws founded on and even stricter Christian foundation putting huge weight on a theological version of deontology where certain actions, regardless of motive or outcome, are right or wrong in and of themselves (Honderich, 187). This lense fails to take into account the whole story, motive, and situation actors find themselves in and thus fails to judge the actions on an unbiased and fair point of view. The arbitrary way with which believers come to find and sternly defend their religious point of views themselves point to a completely irrational and uncalculated way to reason or judge anyone. Almost any action can be justified in through a religious or cultural argument because people “often maintain beliefs that fly in the face of the evidence” and even reason (Paul and Elder, 6). The late Christopher Hitchens summed up the effect religion has on decision making by putting it simply “religion forces nice people to do unkind things, and also makes intelligent people say and do wicked things” he then refers to physicist Stephen Weinberg when he said,“in the ordinary moral universe, the good will do the best they can, the worst will do the worst they can, but if you want to make good people do wicked things, you’ll need religion” (Barrett, 2010). 

Some may argue that, though the foundations of the decision making at the time lent themselves to be unreasonable and rather harsh, a society cannot allow crews to start eating each other at will. This reliance on procedural justice along with deontology sees these desperate actions to survive as wrong no matter the situation but they fail in that, from their point of view, they think if not for the laws, everyone would be cannibals. Just as religious people think if not for religion, people would behave unethically and unfairly. Of course no sane person in a rational and modern society would willingly eat another human being, and punishing the crew for this serves no purpose other than to satisfy their need for justice within their religious mindset.

Finally, for ethics. The question in this case is a complex ethical question because it involves “one to reason through more than one ethical perspective and come to reasoned ethical judgments” (Paul and Elder, 25). Yes, the actions of the crew was horrifying and not just or fair from the point of view of the crew, organizationally, and the court, but surely the desperate grasp at survive counts for something. That is exactly where ethics comes in. Where justice and fairness lies generally in the perception of actions, outcomes, and process of people, groups, and organizations. Ethics on the other hand relies on an unbiased reasoning that rejects pseudo-ethical principles that could blur ethical decisions. The religious-based decision to harm a child for petty crimes may seem and be perceived by society as correct and just but through the lense of ethics, it is wrong. Same goes for wrong legal and cultural influences. So even if the country as a whole saw this case as just by killing the Douglas and Stevens, that does not mean the actions of the court were ethical nor does that mean the actions of the crew were necessarily unethical. 

From a purely utilitarian and a consequentialist ethic, what happened on that boat was absolutely fine and ethical because most of the people involved were saved and the result is that they could live on and see their families. Although this flexibility leads to the most beneficial outcome for the largest amount of people, the same flexibility leads to the suffering of those who are sacrificed in the name of the common good. Parker could very well be a metaphor for the slaves who build countries and empires whose suffering was for the greater good and comfort of those they served or even those who had to die for kings and emperors in the name of power and wealthy for the rest of the citizenry. The Kantian version of deontological ethics holds that no person can be treated as a means to an end, but rather as an end in themselves. This is a much tempered and appropriate version of the divine command sort of deontology where the right and wrong actions that have no consideration for motive and survival. But for this situation or in any situation where it is about survival, actions cannot be judged in isolation. Consequentialism reigns supreme in this case because human life is at stake and one pointless death out weighs four pointless death. As noted above, consequentialism and utilitarianism could lead to huge mistakes in human judgment – but in this specific case, when the lives of everyone rests on one person, it is the best and most ethical decision. 

When a group is asked “what would you do” one is forced to keep their eye-rolling to a minimum because everyone in most cases will always claim to do the right thing. The truth is, it is impossible to know what one would do in any given situation and especially in such a unique and horribly unimaginable situation. But in the comfort of my own office with my children sleeping in the next room, I know I would do whatever I could to make sure I could come back to see them. I would choose to survive if I was in that boat.


Baldwin, Susanna, “Organizational Justice” Institute for Employment Studies (2006): 1 – 13.

Barrett, D. V., “Blair and Hitchens debate religion as force for good”, Catholic Herald, November 29, 2010,

Honderich, T. (1995). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2006). The Thinker’s Guide to Understanding the Foundations of Ethical Reasoning (2nd ed.). Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

Schminke, M., Maureen L. Ambrose, Terry W. Noel, “The Effect of Ethical Frameworks on Perceptions of Organizational Justice” The Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 40: 5, (October 1997), pp 1190-1207.

Shermer, Michael. “A Pathway to Objective Morality: Why the Case for Scientific Humanism is Rational. The Skeptic Society. Accessed September 12, 2019 from

Shermer, Michael. The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics. New York: Times Books, 2008.

Valasquez, M., Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S,J., and Michael J. Meyer. Justice, Fairness, and Ethics. Accessed September 9, 2019 from

Featured Image: John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark (1778)


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