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?

About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

70 thoughts on “In the face of death

  1. Mary says:

    The second scenario I say yes, she did the moral thing even giving that there was an extremely small chance a few or one of these might have survived, but it was unlikely. She did the kind and merciful thing. The first scenario…probably the only logical choice. I only hope it was not due to race.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Tish Farrell says:

    More very hard questions, Mak. As to the cannibalism, I’m wondering how I’d feel after the event – knowing I’d survived by killing and eating someone else. On the other hand I have never suffered starving to death…As to the second, I think I pretty much agree with Mary.

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  3. jim- says:

    The first I say yes. I could argue it is just an extension of evolution and survival. And with brain function compromised they were doing a natural course of survival. The second I say no. There was no reason for taking lives out of empathy when there was a chance for survival. Others have killed their own children to save them from the cruel world, and that is usually a lapse in judgement. But I wasn’t there. One can only imagine how bad that must have been, but often there is another way had she been a little more clever.

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    • makagutu says:

      would you oppose assisted suicide?

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      • jim- says:

        No. As a paramedic I saw crazy things though with family members of terminally I’ll. No brain función and clinically dead people on full life support for days. Usually the family was praying and expecting a miracle. Dead is dead though. I think assisted death is ok, long as it’s the persons wishes. We use POLST forms here in Washington. Physician ordered life sustaining treatment. You can opt out of treatment but you must do it before your mental function is gone.

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        • makagutu says:

          in the second scenario, the children are given an opportunity to die in dignity. they couldn’t consent but what would be gained by letting them be killed by the NAzis?

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          • jim- says:

            Maybe killed by nazis. Maybe. I think her empathy was self serving. SHE couldn’t handle it. Kids are pretty resilient. Have you ever read or seen the movie “Life is beautiful”? True story and excellent about a holocaust survivor. Ya never know till your dead

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  4. Swarn Gill says:

    To be honest I don’t think any answer I give now would be meaningful because to make such decisions requires being in extreme circumstances and I cannot predict my actions for a context that is so beyond anything I’ve experienced. I also cannot judge others either. What’s most important to me is fighting for a world where nobody has to make such decisions.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. From what I’ve read, starvation is one of the most dreadful and painful ways to die. I’d like to think I would not resort to killing someone to eat them or eating them after they’re died, but I’m not sure what I’d do. The degree of hunger that must exist for such thoughts to even occur is, I’m sure, incomprehensible to those who’ve not experienced it. I’d like to think I’d not take another life no matter what, but the logic used by those in the first scenario may be right given their circumstances. I just don’t know. In the second case, I agree with the woman’s actions though I’m not sure I could do the same. How we would react in these cases is SO hard to predict because we’re not in them. I never want to be. It’s hard to pass judgement in such cases, though, like I mentioned, I’d certainly like to think that killing someone to eat them is NOT something I could do, no matter what. I hope I never have to find out.

    Liked by 3 people

    • makagutu says:

      This is quite comprehensive Jeff.
      There was a flight that crashed in the Andes many years ago and survivors ate their dead colleagues to survive. I wouldn’t want to find myself in a situation where the only option for a meal I have is my dead friend.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. renudepride says:

    Excellent questions of horrific scenarios. I didn’t read any of the responses as I don’t want to know what anyone else thinks. Personally, I can think of no reason to justify the killing of another. Period. No exceptions.

    That’s just the way that I am.

    Naked hugs!

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  7. Nan says:

    I don’t think any of us can know what we would do under such extreme circumstances. We can imagine, but until we’re face-to-face with DEATH, there is simply no way to predict our actions.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Carmen says:

    Mak,
    I really dislike questions like these because no matter how one answers, it still feels like the wrong answer. But I do remember the story about the crash in the Andes and I remember that the people who were discussing with me were absolutely horrified that anyone could eat the flesh of others. My reaction was swift and immediate, and I still feel the same way. Of course I would! I think we all have an inborn desire to survive and that it triumphs every other instinct. Now, in the story you’ve related it involves actually murdering someone else so that changes things. But I truly feel that if another person was the only thing to eat, I’d do it. Since I am responding from a place of comfort all that I have written must be taken into account. I think it’s relatively easy to speculate but circumstances dictate one’s actions.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Fletcher says:

    This is of course subjective. I do not believe in suffering but then I would suffer eating humans..

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  10. Veracious Poet says:

    Hello my Kenyan Friend, Happy new year to you and everyone!!

    Morality appears to be connected to reason but has its source in instincts. There is a difference between an act being reasonable and an act being moral. Morality is defined as “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour”. This requires that we further define the terms “good,” “bad”, “right ” and “wrong” but I cannot undertake to do so now for time sake. I do apologise. In both cases I think the acts were immoral but reasonable.

    1. If you must, take your own life. Any form of turning the tables or swapping positions appears clever but it’s immoral. A Baboon can chew its own foot off in order to survive and that’s moral enough. It’s not hurting anyone. The folks lost at sea should have done same.

    2. I can’t understand the reason or morality in the woman’s act. Dignity has nothing to do with death. Dignity is for the living. It would be ridiculous to say, “wow this is a dignified corpse.” In both cases the motive was self serving and the moral compass was faulty. The woman may appear to be “saving” the children from pain but at the time of the act she was dominated by her own self preserving emotions the fact that she didnt chose to die first. Was she invincible to pain?

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    • makagutu says:

      Happy new year mate. How is the new president? Any better? Your old one seemed to have come to camp here.

      Doesn’t nature make us in a way that we have a duty first to save our lives? So in an attempt at self preservation, the killing of the unconscious boy, though as you say was immoral, is justified?

      In 2, I think your argument is persuasive

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      • Veracious Poet says:

        Yes, but not by destroying other human Iives. Self preservation instinct is not necessarily moral and can lead to destructive consequences. Even under such circumstances how do we know he was truly “unconscious,” since the killing was premeditated.

        O I almost forgot, in “Kingdom of Bananaland” silverbacks will always remain silverbacks, old or new. They come with fascinating promises but we all know it’s rob or be robbed of bananas and after that they set up worthless commitees of inquiry into who stole the bananas.

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        • makagutu says:

          I think if we are to look at those actions taken for self preservation, I think, they would mostly tend to be amoral. At those points, the only drive is to be alive. Morality comes later as rationalisation.

          As to thieves, you have captured it so well. Sometimes they stop the commission abruptly and never ever release its findings to the public.

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          • Veracious Poet says:

            So we can agree that at that material time of both incidents they acted immorally. According to Nietzsche all truth comes from the senses needless of rationalisations.

            Ofcourse when King Silverback is about to be embarrassed the inquiries are stopped abruptly.

            I think you are getting better at understanding poetic language so if you like I will email you my latest anthology for review.

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            • makagutu says:

              You, my friend, must send me the anthology, my embarrassing understanding of poetic language notwithstanding.
              Our previous regimes perfected the art of disbanding commissions of inquiry whenever it became evident uncomfortable insights were beginning to come out.

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              • Veracious Poet says:

                Check your mail. I have just sent you the ebook.

                Those hearings are a complete waste of time.

                Have you heard the AU is having another tea party in Ethiopia? After which they would share pleasantries and disperse. They don’t realise that panafricanism is dead.

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  11. Ron says:

    1. Immoral because they induced the death for self-serving reasons.

    2. Moral because the children were facing death either way.

    From the NYT article:

    But soon the hospital was filled with youngsters dying from tuberculosis, typhus and starvation. The Nazis occupiers sealed off the ghetto and eventually marched a steady stream of people to their deaths.

    “So we tried to save them with those scraps of food, medicines and injections,” she wrote. Some children revived enough to smile — “except that this was the kind of smile that made your hair stand on end and your flesh crawl.” She described “famished skeletons” fighting over the soup pot, spilling it and lapping the slop off the floor. ‘Corpses and Living Together’

    So I think she granted them the more merciful option.

    Now for the weird. Here’s a documentary about a man who killed and ate a man who wanted to be killed and eaten.

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    • makagutu says:

      I think there is a contradiction in your response. The two scenarios are similar in that the people involved are not able to give consent. They only differ in the sense that in 1 the goal is self serving while in two it appears as an act of mercy on her part.

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      • Ron says:

        Perhaps, but I subscribe to a relativist rather than absolutist form of morality.

        The facts given in the first scenario suggest there was a small glimmer of hope all four men could have survived long enough to be rescued. And had he died prior to rescue, they would have been able to dine on his corpse in clear conscience of not having murdered him to boot.

        The facts given in the second case indicate her ward’s chances of survival were zero, so the decision boiled down to choosing the most humane manner of death under the circumstances: a pleasant sleep from which they never awaken, or extermination in a prison camp.

        But I confess that I cannot warrant my moral objections would withstand my survival instincts if faced with scenario one.

        Liked by 1 person

        • makagutu says:

          I think faced with a similar scenario, I cannot be certain my repulsion to human flesh would withstand my survival instincts.

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          • Carmen says:

            There is story about times being so difficult that men had to boil their boots and eat the leather. The young man is reported to have said, “I’d NEVER do that!”, to which the old man replied, “You’ve never been starving”

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            • makagutu says:

              Ha ha ha. That’s so funny but has a lot of truth in it.
              Once you see people starving, hunting insects to eat, then one knows, we will do so much to survive. We will even become innovative

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    • makagutu says:

      I will watch the documentary once I am on my computer

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    • makagutu says:

      I have finally watched the video. I don’t know how I really feel. I don’t know how he expected to eat someone without them ending up dead? Maybe had he just ate the penis and called the ambulance to pick up the victim, the case would be about eating someone’s dick or aggravated battery but nothing more. In all, it’s a complex.
      I have read a few of the comments on YT and I think the fellow who said he saw no crime, I mean the thing was consensual, comes close to what I think. That it was a sexual fantasy is to me part of the proof there is no finality in human affairs. We really cannot say with certainty that this is how a human being should be.

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      • Ron says:

        I just found it incomprehensible that anyone would actively desire to be mutilated and eaten alive (even though the latter part of that wish wan’t fullfilled as planned).

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  12. volkan254 says:

    Hunger cant justify killing each other to survive, its just wrong, Selfish?

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  13. limey says:

    I can imagine that I would do the same in the circumstances, but I hope that I am never put to that test.

    One thing I am certain about is in those examples, it matters not if I would do the same, they did what they did in extreme and highly stressed situations from which they could not foresee any good result, and because of that I will not ever judge them or think ill of them.

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  14. Carmen says:

    Is it selfish, or just programmed to survive?

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  15. shelldigger says:

    I’d hate to be faced with either scenario. I would need to be there I think to know how I would react in those situations. I am a weigher of options big and small, I need to see the options available.

    Though I do think killing the cabin boy crossed a line… The Angel of death I can understand, but would hate to be put in her shoes.

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