Criminal Law and Morality – a yogic analysis


This post deals with my experience as a criminal defense attorney and an avid yoga practitioner. At one of my yoga classes, I had the privilege of being the only student at the class. So the teacher and I started what turned into a philosophical conversation about whether stealing in extreme circumstances is moral or not. The conversation started when she went to make sure her car was locked due to a recent burglary. I spoke about my role as a defense attorney representing someone accused of burglary and then we were discussing the moral question of epic proportions “is it ok to steal something if the only purpose of doing so was survival?” In other words “if you were starving, would it be ok to steal in order to survive?”

I am sure if we took a poll, something that I have not done, but may do on Facebook to see where people stand, most would say that stealing is morally ok in those extreme cases. But the system in the United States, or at least in the county where I practice, would still prosecute such people to the fullest extent of the law. Having represented cases where the defendant stole food to feed their children, I know first hand that the law made no exception for them. I am not saying that the law should make an exception, but is is moral to prosecute these people to the fullest extent? That is why I am not a judge.

Looking at Pantajali’s yoga sutra 2.9, energy in any human being results in the ultimate desire to stay alive at all cost.

“2.9 Flowing by its own energy, established even in the wise and in the foolish, is the unending desire for life.” Patañjali & Bon Giovanni. “Yoga Sutras.” Sethu Rathinam, 2012.

This reminds me of one of the most intriguing yet disturbing cases I studied my first year of law school. That is the case of The queen v. Dudley and Stephens, 14 Queens Bench Division 273 (1884). This being a case decided by an English court in 1884 clearly dealt with the question of morality before the law. In summary, Dudley and Stephens, the defendants in the case, were cast away in a life boat along with a boy about 17 or 18 years old. They had no food or water on the boat and decided that the only way to survive would be to kill and eat one of themselves. The defendants discussed casting lots but in the end decided to kill the young boy, who was weak and probably would have died anyways, and eat him in order to survive. The court ruled as follows: ” A man who, in order to escape death from hunger, kills another for the purpose of eating his flesh, is guilty of murder; although at the time of the act he is in such circumstances that he believes and has reasonable ground for believing that it affords the only chance of preserving his life.” Id. The advocates for both sides made compelling arguments including necessity (it cannot be murder because it was necessary for their survival), self defense, and many other theories. Having been found guilty of murder, a death sentence for Dudley and Stephens was ordered. The crown however commuted the sentence to six months of imprisonment.
So yes, Dudley and Stephens were found guilty of murder, after long debates about morality and questioning whether what they did was right. Of course the court determined that what they did was wrong, but what is really important to consider here is the final outcome of the case. The fact that the sentence was commuted from a death sentence to six months imprisonment. If this does not excuse the fact that the crime was committed out of necessity than I do not know what does.

Applying theses principles to the person who steals to feed his children, I have yet to have a prosecutor tell me: “ok, what they did was wrong, but given that it was A crime of be necessity for survival, lets commute the sentence to something appropriate.” This still condemns and punishes the person for the illegal activity but takes into account that the alternative to committing the crime would result in a worse outcome for more people.

While practicing yoga, an intention for one’s practice could be Pantajali’s yoga sutra 2.9 ” Flowing by its own energy, established even in the wise and in the foolish, is the unending desire for life.” One should ponder that life in this form is not eternal and making the best experience for ourselves is key. Not by being immoral and being out in situations where we have to question our own morality, but being able to understand why others act the way they do. Being able to forgive is moral, being able to put our judgment of others to the side and helping others overcome difficult moments makes us moral.

This is a tough lesson to swallow, but thank you for reading, peace, health and blessings for a moral future!


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