8 Oct 2009

Lon Fuller's Speluncean Explorers Case: A touch-stone of judicial reasoning

For a student of law or even for a lay-man, the process of unveiling how judicial decisions are prejudiced by the personal inhibition of the judges and how legal reasoning is adopted to sustain such decisions cannot perhaps be better explained than by the erudite enunciation by Lon Fuller in his famous work "The Case of Speluncean Explorers' published originally in 1949 in Harvard Law Review. 

The case, though a fictional one, brings out the inherent contrast in judicial reasoning when a hypothetical Supreme Court of Newgarth is faced with the appeal of the four men who are convicted of having killed and eaten one of their kind. The five people (including the deceased, Roger) were the members of 'Speluncean Society', an organization of amateurs interested in the exploration of caves. Along with Roger they penetrated into the interior of a limestone cavern which, while they were inside, witnessed a landslide. "Heavy boulders fell in such a manner as to block completely the only known opening to the cave. When the men discovered their predicament they settled themselves near the obstructed entrance to wait until a rescue party should remove the detritus that prevented them from leaving their underground prison." "The work of removing the obstruction was several times frustrated by fresh landslides. In one of these, ten of the workmen engaged in clearing the entrance were killed. ... Success was finally achieved on the thirty-second day after the men entered the cave."

Meanwhile the trapped explorers,  finding nothing to survive on, faced death by starvation. After somehow managing a few days of ordeal, though a communication device, "the imprisoned men described their condition and the rations they had taken with them, and asked for a medical opinion whether they would be likely to live without food for ten days longer. The chairman of the committee of physicians told them that there was little possibility of this." "When the imprisoned men were finally released it was learned that on the twenty-third day after their entrance into the cave (Roger) Whetmore had been killed and eaten by his companions." 

It was in this background that the rescued men faced the charges of murder of Roger. During the course of the trial it was learned that "it was Whetmore who first proposed that they might find the nutriment without which survival was impossible in the flesh of one of their own number. It was also Whetmore who first proposed the use of some method of casting lots, calling the attention of the defendants to a pair of dice he happened to have with him. The defendants were at first reluctant to adopt so desperate a procedure, but after the conversations by wireless related above, they finally agreed on the plan proposed by Whetmore. After much discussion of the mathematical problems involved, agreement was finally reached on a method of determining the issue by the use of the dice."

"Before the dice were cast, however, Whetmore declared that he withdrew from the arrangement, as he had decided on reflection to wait for another week before embracing an expedient so frightful and odious. The others charged him with a breach of faith and proceeded to cast the dice. When it came Whetmore's turn, the dice were cast for him by one of the defendants, and he was asked to declare any objections he might have to the fairness of the throw. He stated that he had no such objections. The throw went against him, and he was then put to death and eaten by his companions."

On these facts, the jury found the defendants guilty of having murdered Roger and accordingly they were ordered to have hanged. It was in this background that the Supreme Court was faced with the issue whether the jury had been correct in arriving at this decision, where the defendants were faced with extreme physical and mental conditions, being cut off from the society and living during that period under the 'laws of nature'. 

Though we would not kill the excitement of the reader by over telling the judicial reasoning, one may note that after an exhaustive description of judicial reasoning of the judges which comprised the bench, no decision could be arrived and the Court being evenly split, the death sentence was affirmed. For having a look at the judicial reasoning, please read the intriguingly famous work of Lon Fuller as a post-script of which he states that "the Speluncean Case itself is intended neither as a work of satire nor as a prediction in any ordinary sense of the term" but the "case was constructed for the sole purpose of bringing into a common focus certain divergent philosophies of law and government. These philosophies presented men with live questions of choice in the days of Plato and Aristotle. Perhaps they will continue to do so when our era has had its say about them. If there is any element of prediction in the case, it does not go beyond a suggestion that the questions involved are among the permanent problems of the human race."

1 comment:

Nathan Q said...

very interesting case. Makes me think :)