This question is based off of an episode of the original Star Trek series that got me thinking.

Imagine the very near future were just starting to colonize mars and had placed 500 people from all nations on the planet, which was growing most of it's own food with occasional influx of new seeds and resources on rare visits from earth. Suddenly something goes wrong with their systems, they lose electronic systems knocking out both radio and most of the resources they use to grow food. With just the systems they have left they can barely produce any food, no where near enough to provide for the colonists, and they have very little stockpile of food to last them.

Earth will likely send a rescue mission as soon as they realize contact has been lost with the colony. However, larger missions will take some time to reach Mars, and they may not bring sufficient supplies to help the colonists when the arrive; not knowing why contact was lost they don't know what relief efforts are required. There is no way to feed the 500 colonists until rescue arrives.

The governor makes a difficult decision. He arranges for 400 colonists to be randomly selected and killed immediately, calculating that his colony can only manage to keep 100 alive long enough for an Earth rescue mission to arrive. When the rescue mission arrives it finds 100 men and women starving and close to death. The rescue mission brought only a small amount of food, not knowing what was needed and all mass slowing down the rescue as well as increasing it's expense. They feed the colonists that they can and are able to partially fix the food growth systems before evacuates as many as they can back to earth. In the end another 50 of the starving individuals die before the remaining few are able to produce enough food to sustain themselves.

The governor, who ordered the deaths of 80% of his colony, is also taken back to face charges for the organized murder of his colony. However, it is clear from how desperate the colony situation was when rescuers arrived that everyone would have starved if they tried to keep all 500 citizens alive, in fact if he had ordered the deaths of even more citizens odds are some of the 50 who died of starvation after the rescue mission could have survived as well.

How will the governments of the world respond to the systematic murder to save the remaining citizens? Will the governor be imprisoned or executed for his actions, or would they see it as a horrible but necessary response to the situation?

this is not a question on rather the actions are right or wrong, but how the governments will respond, these are not always the same thing. Moral questions aside how would our own governments respond, or bicker, in this situation? For the sake of argument lets say the governor was an citizen of the United States, but citizens of all major governments were on the colony and killed.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm having a hard time believing the governments of the world could do anything. Who, aside from this governor, has jurisdiction over Mars? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 16:08
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    $\begingroup$ This question has several issues. A colony on Mars, to be vulnerable to something like the proposed single-point failure, should be engineered by some really stupid engineers. This kind of endeavour needs a lot of redundancy and safety measures. The colony itself doesn't seem plausible, I mean. $\endgroup$
    – Mermaker
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ There are actually legal precedents for this, mostly to do with 17th and 18th century maybe law. For a really in depth analysis check out youtu.be/kBdfcR-8hEY $\endgroup$
    – sirlark
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ @ThalesPereira, I say that if humanity can put a colony on Mars, there's no reason to think we have to do a good job of it. There is no reason to exempt a space colony from human failings, and history is full of badly planned major endeavors and engineering feats gone wrong. $\endgroup$
    – Karen
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 17:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Karen I agree with Thales in the sense that while errors are possible (and in some cases, even expected), it is not clear how an entire colony can end up losing communications with Earth. The required transmitting devices are not very large (a simple satellite can do it) and it is inconceivable that a Martian colony with many skilled engineers will not have backup power of some kind or be unable to jury-rig a makeshift antenna. $\endgroup$
    – March Ho
    Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 3:51

10 Answers 10


Just some points to consider:

No one on Earth is King of Mars Any sort of legal proceedings concerning actions performed on a foreign planet are going to get weird. You already mentioned that the colonists were from many different countries; everyone is going to try to take control of the situation, and I think it would mainly end in a deadlock. In the end, the governor might be the only authority on the crime, and thus is the only person who can prosecute himself. However, the testimonies of the other colonists also carry weight, so if they agree that the governor did the right thing then he/she should be fine.

Hindsight is not your friend With a few billion more pairs of eyes and a lot more time to look over the options, there's bound to be a better plan out there that the governor didn't choose. Humans make mistakes, but when lives are ended by those mistakes people tend to get angry.

Human lives are equal, but not equivalent You may argue that choosing who lives and who dies by random is the best option: in reality it's just the best way to wash your hands of the situation. Shareholders in the colonization effort may find that the colonists they were counting on got killed, while the colonists working for the competition survived; these shareholders may pull out of all further projects. Countries will do this too if their colonists fared worse than those of other countries. While people are going to be angry either way, the governor could have chosen more carefully and made friends in high places; the fact that he didn't may be good for public opinion, but bad for business. On the other hand, if his random process killed mostly women, children, and/or racial minorities, things could get complicated.

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    $\begingroup$ BINGO. At a minimum, you'd have to 'weigh' the lottery so that no matter what the outcome every essential function still has someone qualified fulfilling it, plus a redundancy in case of accident. If the oxygen exchanger fails and it turns out everyone who knew how to fix it got drafted for execution, you're SOL. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 19:08
  • $\begingroup$ A big point would be that we have actually had similar situations on earth, usually resulting in cannibalism for food, So there would be some useful stuff in those stories about how the world reacted to it in general, but The draft would definitely be VERY important for the end result. A rigged Draft will guarantee punishment no matter what, but it is still possible to have Different odds of surviving the draft (including Guarantees of doing so) and still not be rigged, resulting in a long Trial to prove what happened. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ The business considerations you count as reasons to prefer nonrandom selection seem to me to count as reasons in favor of random selection. Random selection shields the governor from liability. "We drew lots" has always been a classic defense to "you killed my boy!" If you directly choose who lives, preselect some colonists for survival, or design a nonrandom algorithm to choose, wrongful death and civil liability suits have a clearer judicial path to your door. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ "No one on Earth is King of Mars" --- There is the international court in Hague, which could judge over the governor. There is enough precedent, where people were prosecuted and convicted in nations, which had no jurisdiction in the place, where the crime was committed. $\endgroup$
    – M.Herzkamp
    Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 12:58
  • $\begingroup$ The governor would make sure he wasn't one that survived. Who'd want the judgement or the guilt? $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 6:17

Here is a case that might be pertinent: The Willam Brown case. In this case, a ship hit an iceberg and 9 crewmen and 31 passengers were 'saved' on a longboat. However, it appeared that it was overloaded and might sink, so they forced 12 people to their deaths in the water (in particular NONE OF THE CREW were tossed in the water). The highest ranking officer in the boat, Harris, instigated tossing people into the water. He was eventually charged (in Philadelphia) with murder, but the grand jury refused to indict, so it was reduced to manslaughter. He got 6 months and a $20 fine. This is a direct analog of the Mars case you discuss. I'd say there PROBABLY would be enough sympathy to get the charges reduced, but there would be some punishment almost on principle.

  • $\begingroup$ * "on principle" (not principal) $\endgroup$
    – ANeves
    Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 15:31

I think one point that would have a huge impact on public opinion would be whether the governor had included everyone in the group from which to randomly determine who would be killed.

If he exempted himself and any others, then expect the full force of the legal systems to fall on him.

Likewise, if the method of "randomly" determining the group was not transparent, then a similar result would occur even if he was included in the choosing.

Now even if he is tried and found guilty, if he can generate a significant amount of public sympathy, perhaps convincing the public that he was truly devastated by what the situation required of him, then the punishment may end up being more symbolic rather than actual.

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    $\begingroup$ Arguably certain people should be excluded. How many people know enough to direct the running of the colony? If there's 1-2 doctors for 500 people, do we want to risk having those two killed? $\endgroup$
    – Jacobm001
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Jacobm001 Exactly. Sadly the infrastructure may need to remain, and thus be exempted. Maybe hold an election of eligible persons (people who have the knowledge) beforehand. Of course you can accuse them of weighting the elections, but at that point they have to prove it. $\endgroup$
    – J Sargent
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 23:44
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking that if there was a jury trial, the jury is a jury of peers to the governor. But since no one had gone through what the gov'r had, then it would be impossible to make a jury of his peers, and a mistrial might be declared on this technicality. $\endgroup$
    – Bulrush
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 12:21

If he is Russian, he will be a hero. If he's American, it's more complicated. His fate will decided by the culture to which he returns.

Russian have a very strong bias towards doing whatever it takes to make the state survive and the glory of the state. Any society that places emphasis on the collective will likely hail him as a returning hero who saved as many as he could.

More individualistic cultures will have a much different view of his actions and will likely try him for murder.

Fundamentally this is an ethics question: Is it okay for one person to decide to kill many people in the hopes of saving a few instead of just letting them die. Humans have demonstrated a preference for letting things (people/animals) die through inaction instead of direct euthanization.

  • $\begingroup$ Russian have a very strong bias towards doing whatever it takes to make the state survive and the glory of the state. - Did you accidentally use "state" when you wanted to use "collective" or "community"? $\endgroup$
    – ANeves
    Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 15:29

There are several things here. 500 people is not a lot of people. For a plan like this to happen peacefully and %80 to be killed off, the majority have to willingly accept this situation, or be completely tricked into getting killed.

As a colony I would assume there will be families with children of different ages. So these children will also be on the chopping block.

It is not easy to kill friends and family. The remaining/surviving 100 have to both agree to the slaughter and likely help participate. Unless all 400 volunteer to commit suicide.

Of course the simplest way to handle both the death and the selection would be suicide pills. There are 400 death and 100 life. First would be offering those willing to sacrifice themselves to take a death pill. Then all the rest are mixed together and handed out like a gumball ball machine.

Now if this is a unilateral decision and the governor uses a small cadre of security officers to implement this plan, then he and any surviving executioners are going to be put on trial.

A point to note. 400 dead bodies are a LOT of protein. They would make a considerable difference in the food stores themselves. Making it possible to kill fewer people or at a slower attrition rate. Nasty? Yes. But we've seen it happen time and again when survival is striven for. If you get to the point you are willing to kill your fellow man to 'steal' their food, it isn't too much farther down the road to turn them into food.

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    $\begingroup$ "it isn't too much farther down the road to turn them into food." Indeed. I can eat the dead sooner than I can kill. In this situation, I'm prepared to argue that eating the dead is a moral necessity because then less die. And your poison pill won't cut it because it makes the meat unsuitable for eating. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ The younger children at least are not productive, they just consume. I think the decision would have to be that they all go. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 0:55
  • $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel yes, but younger children consume far less then adults, and at this point the ability to produce food is limited by technology available, ie more capable adults does not necessarily mean more food production. Thus more lives can be saving children first, two kids can be fed for the caloric cost of one adult. It's a moot point though, in my scenario it was a fledgling experimental colony, no kids would be entrusted to such an experiment yet :) $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 17:12

This would be a very interesting jurisdictional scenario. If a particular country claims jurisdiction over the colony then the legal system of that country would have authority. It is also possible that an international panel would be constructed to handle this situation, but this would require international agreement (at least among certain countries) on specific legal definitions and, more challengingly, the punishments. Given the international disdain for the death penalty, it is extremely unlikely that it would ever be exercised in this case.

There are a couple of distinct ways this could play out that change the legal consequences:

  1. The four hundred lottery losers take their own lives.
  2. One or more executioners volunteer to kill the four hundred lottery losers.
  3. One or more executioners only kill the four hundred lottery losers after being issued a direct order.
  4. One or more executioners only kill the four hundred lottery losers after being threatened with physical harm.
  5. The populace rejects the premise of the lottery and four hundred people are killed in the ensuing riot / chaos.

The legal violations and the people responsible will vary by scenario (and realistically, there could easily be a mixture of situations). If no homicides take place, there are few major charges that could successfully be brought on the governor. If executioners do kill, but both executioner and victim act willingly, the executioners could use justifiable homicide as a defense or dispute that it was even a homicide in the first place.

As the scenarios get worse from here, there is real legal culpability that must be dealt with. If a military chain of command is used to force executions, the legal situation will become much more complex and responsibility will land on the officers giving the orders. If the executioners will only act under threat, this will place some legal culpability on whomever is threatening them. If the entire situation turns into a bloody riot with people fighting for their lives, the governor (and others) are likely to face very serious charges.

In the last three scenarios, legal defenses are going to work very hard to classify the deaths as justifiable homicide. As the scenarios get increasingly worse, the legal concept (in U.S. law) of necessity would most likely be the tool to argue justifiable homicide in the case. The success or failure of these defenses will be determined by even more specific detail than it’s worth speculating on here. Ultimately, however, the governor’s legal culpability is going to be unpredictable. Public opinion of this event and the governor’s actions will most likely influence how seriously he is pursued or charged on these crimes.


The trial is likely to go either way. There are just far too many variables at stake here. However, going by the existing case law, it is unlikely that the governor would be convicted of simple murder.

The act of survival cannibalism is a well documented activity by people who are on the verge of death due to lack of resources. It was reported during early American history in the case of the Donner Party, as well as during World War II.

For inspiration, we can look to the famous nautical law case R v. Dudley and Stephens. In this case, four men killed and cannibalised one of their fellow shipwreck survivors in order to survive with limited supplies during the shipwreck.

When they returned to England, the men were sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to imprisonment. The case law for killing others to survive generally consists of punishments other than those that would be imposed for murder.

Therefore, in the modern day era, to prevent serious diplomatic issues, it is likely that the governor would be punished, but it is unlikely that the governor would receive the death penalty.


I'll confine myself to the question as asked.

First, the political response will be one of outrage, particularly from those countries which had provided colonists among the unlucky 400. If the governor is American, the response will get particularly nasty. Wars have been fought for less (See the War of Jenkin's Ear), although that sort of thing seems to have gone out of style. The governor's survival will be a particularly sticky point, unless he can provide iron-clad proof that he took his chances along with everybody else. And since he had months to jigger the evidence, such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming, and there will always be a reasonable suspicion that he engineered an exception for himself. 500 choices is large enough that some statistical variations from the mean are quite likely.

If the distribution of deaths is in any way favorable to any nationality or race, things will get very bad very quickly. An uptick of terrorism against the favored group(s) can be expected. Also to be expected is the rising of all sorts of conspiracy theories among the victim groups. Riots are a given.


First question is jurisdiction. Is this an independent colony, under it's own sovereignty, or is it a colony of an Earth based nation? If the former, then it's really a question about international human rights conventions, if the latter then it depends on the nation.

Either way, the defence is basically quod est necessarium est licitum, that which is necessary is lawful, and for the premeditated killing of hundreds of people ... well, no amount of rationalisation, no matter how foolproof, is going to get you off completely. It's politics as much as justice. Let's face it, we in the developed world like our killing to happen in small, regular, impersonal batches.

There's a lot of other factors which will affect the outcome, but I doubt things look good for our poor governor. He better hope that he's tried in EU jurisdiction where there's no capital punishment, because he will be tried and it could easily go either way.


This is a very very nasty and ugly question to deal with. Therefore it will be swept under the rug.

On his return he will be escorted into a tiny room. He will be told what to write on his suicide note. Then he will be given the option of taking cyanide himself or being shot and having it staged as a suicide.

He will both be derided as a criminal and a hero but there will be no need for a trial. There will be a hearing but no one else will be held responsible as conveniently all blame can be placed on the man who is dead.

The world will build a memorial to the people that died and move on.


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