Cannibalism at the limit

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, cannibalism is, “The practice of eating the flesh of one’s fellow-creatures.” As with other dictionary definitions, it’s reasonable to keep an open mind about whether the characterisation is accurate and/or fundamental. But it provides a useful starting point. So characterised, the question whether a practice of eating flesh is cannibalistic turns on whether the flesh is that of a fellow-creature. Plausibly, it therefore turns on two sub-questions: (1) what is a creature? (2) what is it for a creature to be a fellow? With respect to (1), we might wonder, for example, whether artificially grown flesh, chemically indistinguishable from animal flesh, counts as the flesh of a creature. And we might wonder whether something that is no longer alive—the carcass of an animal, say—counts as a creature. With respect to (2), we might wonder, for example, whether a chimpanzee counts as a fellow of ours. Whatever the answers to those questions, it seems plausible that any case in which a human eats the flesh of a living human will count as a case of cannibalism, and that many or all cases in which a human eats the flesh of a dead human will also count. Is any such case of cannibalism permissible?

Many people will be inclined to think that no such case of cannibalism could be permissible. Indeed, some people are so assured of its impermissibility that they are prepared to use it as the basis of an argument against the consumption of animal flesh. They argue in something like the following way.

P1. It is not permissible for a human to eat human flesh. (Taken to be obvious.)
P2. There is no morally significant distinction between eating human flesh and eating the flesh of non-human animals.
C3. It is not permissible for a human to eat the flesh of a non-human animal.

Of course, absent a powerful argument for P1., an opponent might try to turn such an argument on its head, thus.

P1′. It is permissible for a human to eat the flesh of non-human animals. (Taken to be obvious.)
P2′. There is no morally significant distinction between eating human flesh and eating the flesh of non-human animals.
P3′. It is permissible for a human to eat human flesh.

Discussion of the permissibility of a human eating human flesh is often clouded in at least two ways. First, many people have a strong and spontaneous disgust response to the very idea of consuming human flesh, and it is hard, or perhaps impossible, to disentangle that response from moral assessment. (I say ‘perhaps impossible,’ because the disgust response may figure significantly in the proper moral assessment of the issue. Difficulties in deciding whether that is so therefore make for difficulties in deciding the issues about cannibalism.) Second, it can be hard to separate out the question of the permissibility of a human eating human flesh per se from distinct questions about permissible means of coming to be in a position to eat human flesh. For example, if one closely associates the idea of cannibalism’s being permissible with the idea of humans being murdered for their flesh, then the obvious impermissibility of the latter is liable to induce one to judge that the former is also impermissible. It can be helpful, then, to try to separate out pure forms of cannibalism from cannibalism’s sometime attendants. For example, one might try to attend to cases in which a human is killed by accident or dies of natural causes. However, it is not easy to demonstrate the independence of cannibalism per se from its attendants by such means. Many standard arguments against cannibalism involve arguments to the effect that permitting cannibalism in cases not involving e.g. murder would be bound ultimately to lead to permitting means to the permitted end, including e.g. murder.

From the other direction, one might attempt to argue that cannibalism is permissible on grounds that we might be willing to allow it in extreme cases. For example, someone might try to argue that, in cases in which humans have died naturally and in which others will starve to death unless they eat the dead humans’ flesh, it is permissible for them to do so. However, such cases fail alone to decide the issue. For we may be willing to condone immoral actions that take place in such extreme circumstances without thinking that they were morally permissible. Rather than judging such actions to be morally permissible, we might think of them as the least awful of a range of morally impermissible courses of action.

The issues here are very difficult. Rather than attempt to decide them, I wish to point to cases that may have the following pair of characteristics: (a) they are cases of cannibalism—that is, cases in which a human eats the flesh of a human; (b) they involve actions that are morally permissible. I don’t want to take a stand here on whether the cases really possess that pair of characteristics. It would require much further discussion to decide that issue. However, I do want to suggest that further discussion is warranted, both of such cases and of their connections with more problematic seeming cases.

The cases I have in mind are cases in which one in effect snacks on one’s own flesh. The most obvious case here is probably that of biting one’s own nails, or the skin around one’s own fingers. There may be other such cases. (Chewing one’s hair probably doesn’t count, since hair is not flesh.) With respect to such cases, the first question is this: do they count as cannibalism? One putative reason for thinking they do not would be that cannibalism must involve eating the flesh of another. One potential response would be to argue against that condition. Another potential response would be to accept the condition and to consider instead related cases in which someone nibbles another’s fingers as if nibbling their own. Are such cases morally permissible? The second question about such cases, then, is whether they are, as they appear, really morally permissible?

For an excellent discussion of some issues surrounding the moral status of cannibalism, see Richard Sylvan’s “In defence of cannibalism.”

  1. Mark Smith said:

    I think there are also issues here about the ownership of corpses. Does anyone have any moral rights over, say, human road kill. With regards to the eating of such, the rights of any third party aside, I think it would really come down to personal taste, the bounds of which being flexible according to the availability or lack of availability of other choices of nutrition.

  2. Thanks. There are also issues about consent, and one’s rights over things, including one’s own body, post mortem. It may be that, leaving those issues aside, it is a matter of taste, though one would need to work to square that view with the types of responses that have been offered in the literature, I think.

    • Mark Smith said:

      Ownership of ones body is fascinating. I’ve always thought it fairly safe to assume that I have rights over the things that fall off my body. I suppose the rights might be in return for the obligations to dispose of them properly and not leave them. But I wonder what Locke would have to say about their ownership if somebody did some work on them (in reference to his idea of land ownership). It’s a grisly (or perhaps gristly) thought, but if someone were to make a meal out of my fingers that I’d lost in an accident, who would have rights over the meal?
      The other issue that comes to mind is the non-person status of Singer’s brain dead orphans. I hope I haven’t gone too dark, but hey, it is cannibalism we’re discussing.

  3. Jeff Mcmahon has an interesting case. We all seem ‘ok’ with consuming organs into our body via surgery yet many are not ok with eating flesh (myself included). Both are ways to nourish the body…

    • Sylvan discusses that case too; not sure whether he got it from Mcmahon. There are putatively relevant differences: one might eat vegetables instead, but one can’t (as things stand) have them transplanted into one place of a damaged organ.

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