Why it isn’t OK to eat people – even if you are really hungry

I wrote in the MoneyWeek editor’s letter this week about a court case in Italy that overturned a conviction of shoplifting from a supermarket on the basis that the thief was in dire need of food. Subscribers can read the letter itself here.

Russell Napier of eric.com – who pointed out the Italian case to me in the first place – has also reminded me of the English case that once made it clear that necessity is not a reasonable defence in a criminal case.

It concerned a shipwreck and the murder of a cabin boy to provide food for the few survivors while they waited for rescue. The survivors claimed necessity – without the murder they would all have died. The court rejected this pretty firmly: “a man has no right to declare temptation to be an excuse, though he might himself have yielded to it, nor allow compassion for the criminal to change or weaken in any manner the legal definition of the crime”.

And that was that. The men were sentenced to death with a recommendation for mercy. That, they got – the result was six months in prison. And that’s how the law has remained pretty much everywhere ever since. Crimes of obvious necessity are still treated as crimes, but clemency is given after prosecution (suspended sentences being the obvious route…).

That matters, for the simple reason that once you agree that necessity is a perfectly reasonable excuse for a crime, you get into an argument about what constitutes necessity. That gets subjective far too quickly for comfort – and that’s why the Italian judgment is less straightforward than it looks.