Your column of September 23, 1988, addresses whether cannibalism is routinely practiced anywhere and concludes it is not. But why not? One argument in favor of cannibalism is simply that it is food. Not every part of every dead human is going to be fit for consumption, but some are — perhaps enough to relieve a food shortage in some starving, drought-stricken region.
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Always nice to hear from a longtime reader: Johnny Swift, I presume, back with another modest proposal. Why not cannibalism? For some cogent reasoning along these lines — from an ethics standpoint, anyways — I point you to a 2004 paper in Public Affairs Quarterly by the philosopher J. Jeremy Wisnewski. If you want a good read, I’d put this one up against Eat, Pray, Love any day of the week. At the end, Wisnewski stresses that he hasn’t made a case for the practice, necessarily, but he feels he’s pretty handily dealt with the various arguments against it. We don’t need to walk through the whole thing, but here’s some highlights:
- As long as the cannibalized aren’t consumed alive or murdered for the purpose of being eaten, we can hardly claim that harm has been done to them. Indeed, “the decomposition of the body itself would be a harm,” Wisnewski suggests — so basically we can call it a wash.
- “Eating the flesh of a human being, the argument runs, would cause undue distress to the family of the cannibalized,” Wisnewski concedes. “Let us grant that it is wrong to cause undue distress.” So one would want to obtain consent from the cannibalized’s loved ones, presuming such people are around to consent — as in all things, it’s best to first ask nicely.
- Wisnewski then addresses the “formula of humanity,” part of Kant’s concept of the categorical imperative, which states that humans must always be viewed as ends, never merely as means. And what is cannibalism — at least in the sustenance context you propose — beyond the means to a full belly? But a corpse “is not a human being,” Wisnewski argues. It’s merely “flesh,” and therefore does not have dignity. Dignity, according to Kant, “lies in the capacity of an agent to be autonomous,” something one obviously forfeits upon buying the farm.
- OK, forget dignity — what about simple respect? It’s disrespectful to eat someone’s flesh just because they’re no longer around to complain, right? Not inevitably, says Wisnewski. There are plenty of behaviors — “raising one’s middle finger, going without one’s shirt, belching,” and so forth — that telegraph disrespect in some cultures but are uncontroversial in others. Just because we may perceive eating a former acquaintance as a pretty serious F.U. doesn’t mean it’s inherently disrespectful. (Wisnewski here grants that hopefully the deceased will have made her wishes known one way or another regarding becoming a postmortem casserole. “The author of this article has no objections to being cannibalized,” he adds; happy to put you two in touch, Johnny.)
Obviously one could similarly muster philosophical arguments against cannibalism, but here let’s just stipulate Professor Wisnewski’s findings: we can eat other human beings, provided we’re not murdering them, provided they’ve granted some kind of premortem consent, etc. Should we? A few things to consider:
- Despite ongoing debate among experts about how many societies ever really engaged in cannibalism (which is where we left things back in 1988), it’s still generally believed that the fatal neurological disease kuru was transmitted among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea via their practice up into the 1950s of eating their dead relatives’ remains, brains prominently included. Remember mad-cow disease? From the same pathological family as kuru, it spread due to cattle’s being fed meal containing bits of other cows.
- Were humanity to embrace cannibalism, we’d likely end up eating a lot of recently deceased old folks. Culinarily this may not sound promising, and we’d certainly want to develop some prep methods to get around the toughness factor, such as, er, aging the meat. But a 2015 article in Modern Farmer makes a case (granted, with respect to livestock) that we should be eating older animals anyways — properly tenderized, they’re apparently more flavorful than younger specimens.
- An article on the website Live Science — ha, ha — argues that compared to four-legged stock humans really aren’t very meaty, and compared to chicken they’re slow to mature, so you won’t get much bang for your buck with a widespread program of human cannibalism. That’s partly why, through history, the practice has existed largely as a last rite (or a last resort), rather than an ongoing method of subsistence.
- Humans are, in the end, red meat, which, here in the developed world, we’re told we should stay away from. Elsewhere on earth, of course, few can afford to be too picky.
But this brings us to the real point, re the starvation issue: Human hunger is most decidedly not a question of a lack of resources — it’s a question of distribution. There’s already plenty of food to go around, in other words, without us needing to have granny for dinner.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.