Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Speluncean Explorers- Rebekah Schott final blog/report

So, I just wrote a whole blog and the site kicked me out, guess I am starting over....

I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do my final report on until I was at work and one of my bar regulars, who is a lawyer, was talking to me about what my final report should be over. He suggested a case they used in his first year of Law School-- The Speluncean Explorers.

It reminded me of when I was in grade school. We did an exercise where the whole class was asked to imagine they were on a boat that was slowly sinking and had to get on an escape boat. They were only allowed to bring three things. We had to make a list of the three things we would take. We were told to write it down on a piece of paper in turn it in at the end of class.

Similar case and examples 

The above link shows a similar scenario and some lists people wrote. My peers in class were not so mature at this age. One student wrote something a lot like this…


A gun
A bigger gun


Either he really things he can survive with these things, or he was being funny. I am sure you could make a case for one or two of the things on his list. The next day, we came in to class and our lists were taped to the board. It was anonymous; our names had been whited out. We were asked to debate why or why not some of these items would be useful. This was one of the exercises in a series of exercises. The last exercise was one of the most realistic. We were told our boat was sinking and there was only one inflatable boat that held approximately five people. Only five people would be allowed on the boat and we had to choose who that would be. This wasn’t just to be a survival plan, we were the only people left in the world and we had the task of repopulating the whole earth. We were given a description of characteristics of each person in question. Then the task of choosing who would get to go on the boat started.

Some people thought the older individuals were out of the question. They might not make it because they were not the healthiest or most fit. Others thought the elders would be very wise and we needed at least one because of course “history does repeat itself.”  Similar debates went on like this according to whether some were smart, had trades of particular interest, or could bare children. Ect. Ect.

So, you are asking where this leads.

The Speluncean Explorers is a case used very often in law and ethics. The story goes….

-Five cave explorers were caught underground after the tunnel collapsed.  They learned through radio contact that the rescuers were at least ten days away, and that they could not survive that long without food.  They further learned that they could survive if they were to eat one from among them.  They radioed to the outside to ask whether it would be legally and/or morally permissible to kill one among them to sustain the others, but no one above ground would answer the question.  One of the explorers, Whetmore, suggested that they throw dice to determine who should be eaten, and they all agree.  Just before the dice were thrown, Whetmore suggested that they wait until they are closer to death before proceeding; but he was outvoted, and a die is cast on his behalf.  Everyone, including Whetmore, agreed that the dice where thrown fairly.  Whetmore lost.  When the rescuers finally reached the explorers, they found that Whetmore had been killed and eaten.  The remaining explorers were put on trial for murder under the jurisdictions statute, "Whoever shall willfully take the life of another shall be punished by death."  They were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.-
The full case can be seen @ The Case of the Speluncean Explorers
The case is now on appeal to the Supreme Court. What should the justices do?
Here is where the justices currently stand.
Chief Justice Truepenny: Would affirm the conviction and sentence.  The murder statute obviously applies to the defendants' conduct, and it is not within the Court's province to ignore the statute.  The executive may provide clemency.  Indeed, given the facts of the case, the executive is likely to provide clemency, and the Court should formally encourage the executive to do so.
Justice Foster: Would reverse.  The statute is inapplicable for two reasons.  First, once the explorers were cut off from society, they returned to a state of nature, and society's laws did not apply to them.  Alternatively, the purpose of the statute would not be served by applying it in this case.  (Read the article for the complete argument.)
Justice Tatting: Would recuse.  The statute clearly applies, but he could not live with himself if he voted to affirm because the result would be evil.  Therefore, he recuses.
Justice Keen: Would affirm.  It is not the judge's role to tell the executive what to do (contra Truepenny), other than to offer her opinion as a private citizen.  It is also not the judge's role to determine whether the explorers' actions were "good" or "bad," or whether the statute is good or bad policy.  The judge's role is to apply the statute, which very clearly applies on its own terms to this case.
Justice Handy: Would reverse.  The statute clearly applies, but the judge must exercise common sense.  Further, public opinion overwhelmingly supports reversal, and it is clear (contra Truepenny) that the executive will not grant clemency.  Therefore, it falls to the court.
So, this is where my grade school story applies. They are very similar in asking us to choose who we are going to sacrifice. That is the only way to live. Is it moral to kill someone else so everyone else could survive? Is it ethical? And most importantly, if you were the judge, what kind of ruling would you make regarding these people’s lives? Should they receive criminal charges? Is everyone starving to death a better alternative?
….What would you do if put in the same situation?
(The Case of the Speluncean Explorers, by Lon Fuller, is fictional and created for educational purposes.)


  1. Wow, sorry about all the crazy font changing, this computer is not viewing it as different fonts. uhhhh. Technical difficulties, sorry.

  2. Font's fine. But sorry you're having technical issues. Take more time if you need it. Get some rest.

  3. In Whetmore's situation, what would I do? Demand a recount.

    But seriously: these scenarios requiring a random human sacrifice strike me as unacceptably contrived and defeatist. The bioethical "life ethics" default must always be to do no harm. Easier said than done, I know. So what else would I do? Stay out of killer caves!