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  • Nick Noonan (law student)

A Purposive Interpretation of Criminal Law: The Case of the Speluncean Explorers

Lon L. Fuller’s puzzle of legal philosophy, The Case of the Speluncean Explorers, is meant to highlight the varied schools of thought on statutory interpretation. In the story, set in the fictional jurisdiction of Newgarth in the year 4300, a group of five so-called ‘speluncers’ (cave explorers) are caved in after a landslide occurs. After great monetary expense by attempted rescuers, radio contact with the outside world is established, and the speluncers learn that rescue will occur in 10 days.

However, they also discover that it is likely they will starve to death before the 10 days is up. After deliberation, they to cast dice, and that he who rolls the lowest number will be eaten in an act of cannibalism. They roll the dice, with the unwilling explorer having his dice rolled by one of the others.

After being rescued, the four survivors are charged and found guilty of the murder of the fifth explorer. The relevant statute in Newgarth says, with no exceptions: “Whoever shall willfully take the life of another shall be punished by death." This case pertains their appeal to the Supreme Court of Newgarth, and each Justice on the Court takes a differing approach to decide the case.

In my opinion, the most convincing judicial argument is made by Justice Foster, arguing that the statute must be interpreted purposively. This statute must not simply be taken literally and applied uniformly in this case without consideration for the surrounding circumstances and purpose for which it was enacted. An exception must be read into the statute, drawn from utilitarian and moralistic natural law principles, to consider that this law was enacted for the purposes of limiting the loss of human life wherever possible, and thus a mere uniform application of the statute is insufficient.

For the Supreme Court of Newgarth to apply the statute literally and without any deference toward its purpose is to use the law as a bluntly punitive instrument. Without recognition of the underlying circumstances, a law such as NCSA § 12-A, which states that “whoever shall willfully take the life of another shall be punished by death,” fails to serve its underlying purpose.

Justices Keen and Tatting, in dismissing Justice Foster’s purposive interpretation, fail to differentiate between the purpose and intended effect of the statute. What Justices Keen and Tatting recognize as purposes – deterrence, retribution, and rehabilitation—are the intended effect of the statute, while the true purpose of the statute is far simpler: to mitigate the loss of human life.

With this purpose in mind, an exception must be granted for the speluncers. Given their unique circumstances, the decision to kill and consume Mr. Whetmore represents the decision least detrimental to the totality of human life trapped in the cave. Rather than a near certainty that all five speluncers die, this action—while in a literal sense contrary to the statute—best conforms to the purpose of the statute by mitigating the loss of human life in the cave.

Having established that the speluncers acted in line with the purpose of the statute, the final obstacle is the assertion that there are no relevant exceptions to this statute. Enforcing that all willful killings must be punished by death is far too blunt of an instrument for the law. This has been recognized for centuries, as Justice Foster noted that a killing in self-defense is excused, which lines up with the purpose of mitigating the unnecessary loss of human life. It may even reasonably be argued that the speluncers killed in self-defense, not against a physical armed assailant approaching, but against the impending doom of starvation in the cave. Additionally, it seems a reasonable inference that Newgarth has gone to war at some point; unless all successful returning soldiers were promptly put to death for their actions, there exist exceptions to the statute based on the context of the killing, as must be the case here.

Should the speluncers be sentenced to death, it is rather ironic that the very act of capital punishment would constitute a willful killing in and of itself. If the law is to be taken literally, rather than purposively, without exceptions, no exceptions may be made for the hangman. When one puts someone to death, one willfully kills that person. Thus, the hangman must be put to death—but who will hang him? Surely, this literal interpretation of the law, with no room for exceptions, creates a repetitive circle of death, whereby the hangman must be put to death for his willful killing by another hangman, who must in turn be put to death by yet another hangman, and on again for all eternity. One would quite reasonably argue that, while the hangman is technically guilty, the fact of his guilt runs contrary to the purpose of the statute—and that is the case for the speluncers as well.


Lon L. Fuller, Harvard Law Review Volume 62 Number 4, February 1949.

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