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Cormac McCarthy on The Law

In this reflection, I aim to explore a novel I read recently, "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy. Beyond being a remarkable work of fiction, it prompted me to contemplate whether and to what extent criminal law reflects morality.
Cormac McCarthy on The Law
Photo by Bruno Guerrero / Unsplash

Before I delve into this reflection, I want to acknowledge that I've only been in law school for about two months. Nevertheless, I have started to form opinions about the law. I believe that this is a positive development because it indicates that I am engaging in mindful learning rather than simply going through the motions of school.

With that being said, please keep in mind that my understanding of the law is limited, and there could be inaccuracies in my thought.

In this reflection, I aim to explore a novel I read recently, "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy. Beyond being a remarkable work of fiction, it prompted me to contemplate whether and if so, how and to what extent, criminal law intertwines with morality.

"The Road" paints a bleak picture of a post-apocalyptic America where the physical infrastructure remains intact, but the people have resorted to gruesome acts like cannibalism to survive. The story follows a man and his son who, as a foil to the prevailing brutality, scavenge for sustenance without resorting to taking lives, except in self-defense. However, an ethical dilemma arises in the father's unwillingness to help others.

The father, motivated by his love for his son, hesitates to share their supplies with desperate strangers they encounter on their journey. In contrast, the son desires to assist them and raises a thought-provoking question: by not helping these people, have they too become killers?

This situation leads me to ask, as someone embarking on a legal career, whether their actions are criminal.

Broadly, criminal law concerns itself with both the accused's conduct and their state of mind. In terms of their actions, the man and his son were not actively aiding others in committing murder or conspiring with wrongdoers. However, the son accuses them of being killers for withholding food and clothing, knowing that it would likely result in the others' deaths. This is akin to leaving a helpless person on a beach to drown with the rising tide (which I'm pretty sure is a crime). But the man and his son were also in a desperate situation, and one could argue that their actions were not entirely voluntary. They faced a grim choice between giving away their limited resources and starving verses staying alive for at least a little while longer. They were often on the brink of death.

In criminal law, the state of mind is divided into intent and knowledge. Intent means being aware of the likely outcome of one's actions, while knowledge pertains to understanding the circumstances.

In this case, the man and his son knew that withholding food contributed to others' harm. It could be argued that these individuals would perish anyway. However, the law generally doesn't accept speeding up the time of death for a dying person as a defense. On the other hand, the law typically doesn't impose a positive duty to act when one witnesses another in suffering.

The man and his son were fully aware of the dire circumstances they and the strangers on the road were in. They knew that these individuals were too weak to escape or defend themselves from the cannibals, and that they would likely die. They also knew that helping them might increase their own chances of an earlier death.

In the legal realm, there's an ongoing debate about whether the law should enforce a society's collective morality or allow individuals to act as they please as long as their actions don't harm others.

Cormac McCarthy's story adds colour to this debate. Even if the law were to focus solely on preventing harm to others, we must grapple with the challenging question of what that entails.

It's relatively straightforward to condemn the cannibals who harm others to preserve themselves, but it's much more challenging to determine a verdict for the man and his son. Is not helping others, especially in their desperate situation, equivalent to harming them? Can we ascribe to ourselves so much importance so as to use self-preservation as a defense in such cases?

Ultimately, I believe that the man and his son are legally innocent. However, whether they are morally innocent is a question I cannot answer as a law student. 

And in recognizing this discrepancy in my own conclusions, I realize the practicality of law but also its inadequacy.