In the face of death

These two questions intrigued me. What would be your course of action in each and why?

In the Face of Death: Cannibalism at Sea

Scenario 1: The Mignonette Case

In May 1884, the British yacht Mignonette set sail for Sydney, Australia with four crew on board. On July 5, disaster

struck, the yacht was lost, and the crew were forced to take to a small lifeboat. For eighteen days, they drifted around the ocean more than 1000 miles from land. By this point, things were desperate: they had been without food for seven days and water for five. All crew members were in a bad way, but worst off was 17 year old cabin boy, Richard Parker. He was barely conscious, if indeed he was conscious at all.

At this point, the captain of the ship, Tom Dudley, suggested they ought to draw lots to select one of them to be killed, thereby giving the others a chance of survival. The thought was they could use the body of the dead person as a source of food and liquid. This idea was in the first instance rejected by one of the crew members, Edmund Brooks, but Dudley didn’t let the issue drop, and later the same day discussed the matter with Edwin Stephens, the fourth member of the crew. He pointed out that it was overwhelmingly likely that Richard Parker, the cabin boy, was going to die whatever happened, but if they killed him – which was the best way of ensuring his blood would be in a fit state to drink – there was a chance that he and Stephens would see their wives and families again.

The following day, with no prospect of rescue, Dudley, with the assent of Stephens, killed the boy. The three remaining crew members then fed on his body, enabling them to survive long enough to be rescued on July 29th. Dudley later described the scene as follows: “I can assure you I shall never forget the sight of my two unfortunate companions over that ghastly meal we all was like mad wolfs who should get the most and for men fathers of children to commit such a deed we could not have our right reason.”

The facts in this case are well-established. Richard Parker was killed by Tom Dudley, with the consent of Edwin Stephens, because they genuinely believed there was no immediate prospect of rescue, that Parker would likely die regardless of what happened, and that all of them would die if he was not sacrificed.

The question is were they morally justified in killing him?


Second scenario

In the Face of Death: I Killed All the Children

Scenario 2: The Warsaw Ghetto Doctor

In the late summer of 1942, 22 year old Adina Blady Szwajger was working as a doctor at Warsaw’s Children’s Hospital. It was no ordinary summer, though. Some 18 mnonths earlier, the Nazi occupiers of Poland had shut the gates on Warsaw’s Jewish population creating what is now known as the Warsaw ghetto. As a result, Szwajger had for at least a year worked in conditions of almost unimaginable suffering as the hospital filled with children dying of starvation and tuberculosis. In her memoir, she talks of “famished skeletons” lapping up the slops of a spilled soup pot from the floor; and of the attempt to live a “principled life” in circumstances of the utmost moral depravity.

But in August 1942, it became impossible to go on. The Germans had begun to round up the Jewish population, loading them into cattle trucks and shipping them off to the death camps, where their fate was to meet a grisly end. By this point, the hospital was no longer functioning as a hospital – there were “no children’s wards, just the sick, the wounded and the dying everywhere.”

The moment which came to define Szwajger’s life arrived when the Nazis turned up at the hospital, and began the brutal process of shutting it down. A nurse begged Szwajger to end her elderly mother’s life: “Doctor…I can’t do it. I beg you, please. I don’t want them to shoot her in bed, and she can’t walk.” Dr. Szwajger administered morphine, first attending to “families of staff.” Then she went to the ward which housed the smallest infants, and one by one gave each child a lethal dose. “Just as, during those two years of real work in the hospital, I had bent down over the little beds, so now I poured this last medicine into those tiny mouths…And downstairs, there was screaming because the…Germans were already there, taking the sick from the wards to the cattle trucks.” She told the older children “that this medicine was going to make their pain disappear…So they lay down and after a few minutes – I don’t know how many – but the next time I went into that room, they were asleep.”

Adina Szwajger took the lives of her young patients as the final act of what she saw as her duty of care, in order to spare them ignominious and certain death at the hands of the Nazis. But, of course, the infants and children did not and could not have consented. The issue, then, is whether she did the right thing. Was she morally justified in taking the lives of her patients in order to save them from their fate at the hands of the Nazis?

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