First off, my apologies for choosing such an, ahem, distasteful topic to discuss on the day before the day before Christmas. But here goes.
In the discussion thread to my article, “Could God command something morally heinous?“, one of my readers, a fellow named “Angry Grasshopper,” (henceforth, AG) took issue with my statement that cannibalism is always wrong. He wrote:
“cannibalism is not ‘categorically immoral’. Watch ‘Alive’ for demonstration of that point.”
But of course, the film Alive does not “demonstrate” the ethics of cannibalism. What it “demonstrates” is a scenario where people need to eat other people in order to survive. One must still judge the ethics of their actions. When I pointed this out, AG replied by clarifying further:
“What makes the cannibalism of “Alive” moral (or at worst amoral) to me is the fact that it literally saved lives while causing no suffering to the already deceased team mates.”
And with that, AG suggests that cannibalism is ethical if it (i) saves lives and (ii) causes no suffering to those who are eaten. For example, presumably, it would be wrong to farm human beings so that those who are so inclined could buy cheap human rump roast at Walmart. But if a human being has already died, as the people in Alive had, and those who are living are facing starvation, then it is not wrong to eat them.
With that in mind, I offered AG the following scenario which meets those two conditions:
“So if human corpses could be processed safely for human consumption in areas where people face serious food shortages, would you support that action?”
“…no, I wouldn’t support that. The question seems to be a complete red herring to me. Your claim was that cannibalism was ‘categorically immoral’. I pointed out a single case where it is not immoral, at least to most people. That is all that is needed to refute the claim of ‘categorical’.”
Let me deal first with AG’s claim that my whole line of questioning is a “red herring.” On the contrary, the whole point of querying AG about the ethics of cannibalism is to point out the strength of the intuitions which support the categorical valuation of human beings that is entailed by the descriptor “Image of God” and the concomitant prohibition of cannibalism. Hopefully this point will be clearer by the end of this article.
With that in mind, I replied to AG as follows:
“You say that you wouldn’t support that use of corpses, but the question is *why* since it would ‘literally save lives while causing no suffering to the already deceased’ and thus should be a morally licit example of cannibalism by your definition.”
And with that AG finally seemed to recognize that his initial Alive criterion for the ethics of cannibalism was insufficient since it allowed precisely the scenario I proposed. With that, he offered three additional pragmatic considerations against the recycling of human bodies for human consumption:
“First, there is the negative physical health cost of the consumption. Prion diseases like kuru are frighteningly easy to transmit when humans consume other humans. A prime example of this was seen in the outbreak of kuru among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea in the 1950s. They were a small tribe who ceremoniously ate the bodies of their dead relatives.
“Second, is because of the demonstrable negative psychological impact of the consumption of other human beings. Even those who were ‘forced’ into this practice when their plane crashed in the Andes had to deal with these first two problems.
“Finally, there is the simple fact that if human beings become the source of food for a group of human beings, they will be more likely to murder perfectly healthy human beings in order to eat them.”
Let’s consider these each in turn.
AG’s first point conveniently ignores a key stipulation in my scenario, viz. “if human corpses could be processed safely…” So we can set that consideration aside. (However, we can also recognize that food production and consumption always entails some degree of risk, so it is not necessary to eliminate all the risks of cannibalism in order to justify the practice on a risk-analysis.)
Second, concerning the issue of psychological aversion, we can point out that human beings have a psychological aversion to consuming many things which can, in principle, be overcome: e.g. the consumption of insects as a source of protein; the consumption of recycled/purified wastewater. So we can assume, for the sake of argument, that in like manner the psychological aversion to eating human corpses can be overcome. (Conversely, if it cannot be overcome, then that would be prima facie data in support of my analysis of the unique wrongness of the action. Consider, by analogy, Dave Grossman’s analysis of the human aversion to killing other human beings in his book On Killing.)
Finally, what about the danger of a spike in homicide rates? Well, the fact is that AG provides no evidence that the recycling of corpses into a highly processed food item to supplement the human diet in marginalized regions would lead to a statistically significant increase in murder in those regions. Nor has he provided any reason to think that such risks could not be mitigated. And since I am stating a hypothetical scenario, we can assume, for the sake of argument, that such risks either do not exist or could be mitigated.
Thus far, AG’s three pragmatic objections have been neutralized. To be sure, he could try identifying further pragmatic objections. But the fact remains that he has provided no principled objection to processing human corpses for human consumption if doing so can save human lives. I’ll leave it to my other readers to decide whether that is a sufficient mapping of human moral intuitions about the morally good and morally right.
For further discussion of this distasteful topic, see my discussion of the Armin Meiwes case in my book The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails, chapter 26.