Against Cannibalism

Larry Sanger

UPDATED July 26, 2022; first published August 25, 2019

I’m going to go out on a limb and declare that eating people is wrong.

Psychologists Jared Piazza and Neil McClatchie, however, appear to believe this position is just a little bit unenlightened. If we are clever, as they are, then we will not be too dogmatic in our aversion to human flesh. That, at least, is what seems to be the upshot of their recent article, which appeared in The Conversation and then in the Daily Mail.

For my part, I happen to think that certain things, like murder and pedophilia, deserve to remain taboos. Apparently, I must now explain why cannibalism, too, should continue to be taboo.

The fact that I must defend the taboo, apparently, is further evidence that we are struggling with an insidious antivitist tendency in the West: that is, there is a strange contempt for the value of human life. As I argued in an earlier blog post, instances of antivitism include support for active euthanasia for the depressed (even for teenage girls); enthusiasm for late-term (“partial birth” and “after birth” abortion) and even infanticide; antinatalism, the view that it is harmul for a human being to be brought into existence; and the more radical elements of the childfree movement. When I wrote that blog post, I hadn’t considered that there might be some silly-clever academics who would test the daring, edgy position that eating people might, perhaps, be OK.

Let me roll up my sleeves, then, and see what can be said in reply to an article titled “Is it time to drop the cannibalism taboo?” I’d tell the authors to “bite me,” but I’m afraid they might take me literally.

Our intrepid authors begin by listing certain species that eat their own: tadpoles, gulls, pelicans, various insects, rodents, bears, lions, and yes, our fellow primates (famously, chimps). Very well. And what conclusion are we to draw from this? It’s not clear. They don’t draw any clear conclusion. They draw, instead, a contrast:

For humans though, cannibalism is the ultimate taboo. In fact, our aversion to cannibalism is so strong that consent and ethics count for little.

This is a very curious thing to say, however. Is it supposed to be clever or funny? As far as I can tell, looking at the context, the authors seem to be in earnest. “Consent and ethics count for little”? The implication is that consent—as in a person saying, “Sure, go ahead, eat my finger” or “eat my dead body” or “have a cupful of my blood”—ought to count for something. That’s odd enough, but much odder is the bizarre implication that ethics might counsel us to eat humans, that the taboo against cannibalism might represent a rejection of ethics.

This is bizarre in two ways: first, there’s the utterly bizarre, and even horrific, suggestion that ethics would have us eat people; second, there’s the casual and even smug wording or tone, as if this were a clever movie review and not about devouring people. If it’s supposed to be funny, I don’t get the joke.

The problematic tone only gets worse. Our authors go on to describe a thought experiment they had experimental subjects do:

In one of our own experiments, participants were asked to consider the hypothetical case of a man who gave permission to his friend to eat parts of him once he died of natural causes.

Participants read that this occurred in a culture that permitted the act, that the act was meant to honour the deceased, and that the flesh was cooked so that there was no chance of disease. 

Despite this careful description, about half of the participants still insisted that the act was invariably wrong.

“Imagine that,” seems to be the authors’ implication, or so I imagine. “We explained that the person was dead, that a culture regards eating him as honorable, and that the flesh was cooked and germs destroyed. But they still thought consuming human flesh was wrong! How curiously narrow-minded!”

The authors don’t say that, though. They refuse to be pinned down. They leave it a mystery what they really think themselves.

Another thing they don’t say, though I would expect sane scholars to, is: “Of course, philosophers and priests throughout history have had a thing or two say about the value of human life, so their position is defensible.” But no. The only justification of the taboo against cannibalism they are willing to entertain is one based on “essentialism.”

To introduce this idea, the authors speak about the famous case of the crash in South America in which some survivors ate bodies of the dead in order to stay alive:

One survivor, Roberto Canessa, felt that to eat his fellow passengers would be ‘stealing their souls’ and descending towards ‘ultimate indignity’ – despite recalling that in the aftermath of the crash, he like many others had declared that he would be glad for his body to aid the communal survival mission.

The tragic anecdote above illuminates why humans are the exception to the animal cannibal rule. Our capacity to represent the personalities of the living and the departed is unparalleled. 

One does not get the impression that the authors quite approve of Roberto Canessa’s theory: note the distancing scare quotes around “stealing their souls.” Modern scientists do not believe in souls, much less stealing souls. One suspects, beyond that, they do not put much stock in the idea of placing an unusually special value on human lives.

Why do I say that? They go on:

This deep connection between personhood and flesh can mean that careful reasoning in certain situations over the merits of cannibalism is overridden by our feelings of repulsion and disgust.

Here their views begin to come out. Careful reasoning—which only sophisticated academics such as themselves are capable of, no doubt—is overridden not by morality, not by concern for the value of human life, not by concern for the soul (our own or that of the consumed), but by repulsion and disgust.

I believe disgust has become a bête noire for the academic left, ever since it became common knowledge that conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals. Disgust strikes us as an irrational, even an involuntary physiological reaction. This use of language (the section of the essay is titled “Categorical Disgust”) thus allows the authors to imply that a sort of deep-seated irrationality lies beneath our resistance to eating people.

Of course, they wouldn’t have to be committed to that view. After all, murder and rape and pedophilia disgust every decent person, as well, but there are independent reasons to think they are deeply wrong. Disgust isn’t the only reason for our aversion to such crimes.

So maybe Piazza and McClatchie will, reasonably, avoid implying that it is only disgust that would explain why we avoid cannibalism. But no:

So why our disgust for human flesh but not that of other animals? Philosopher William Irvine has us imagine a ranch that raises plump babies for human consumption, much like we fatten and slaughter cattle for beef. 

Irvine suggests that the same arguments we apply to justify the killing of cows also apply to babies. For example, they wouldn’t protest, and they’re not capable of rational thought.

Although Irvine is not seriously advocating eating babies, the scenario is useful for illuminating our bias when considering the ethics of cannibalism. 

This passage pisses me off. I find it repellent and disgusting—and yes, my reaction is physiological, because I get sick to my stomach reading it through—though I can certainly articulate why. The authors actually suggest that there is merely a bias against cannibalism, and that, if we lacked this bias, if we were more enlightened, then we would have no more objection to eating babies as to eating cows. Really—a couple of university researchers make this implication, and the Daily Mail thought it was a good idea to publish an article that says so.

Well, biases are of course unfair and unreasoning; they indicate bigotry and prejudice. So, do our noble and eminently rational authors explain why the firm stance against eating babies amounts to little more than a bias?

Of course they do:

From a young age, we tend to think about categories, such as humans or cows, as having an underlying reality or ‘essence’ that cannot be observed directly but that gives a thing its fundamental identity. 

For example, humans are intelligent and rational thinkers, we have personalities and a desire to live, and we form bonds with each other.

This psychological essentialism is a useful shortcut to guide our expectations and judgements about members of the category – but it doesn’t work so well when the typical qualities of that category don’t apply, for example upon death. 

You see, if you think eating babies is much worse than eating cows, it is because you buy into a very Aristotelian-sounding folk theory that small human beings have a mysterious “essence” that gives them their fundamental identity qua valuable human beings.

Essentialism, like disgust, is another bête noire of the academic left. If you find yourself saddled with essentialism, then rest assured: you have been dismissed. That’s because the idea itself is rather ridiculous. Essentialism, as it is typically understood, isn’t just that categories have defining properties (as when Aristotle says that the definition of human being is ‘rational animal’). It is that those properties represent some strange metaphysical beastie that, as our authors put it, “cannot be observed directly.”

But it is, surely, a straw man: who believes in essences in 2019? A few philosophers, maybe, and some theologians following Aristotelian tradition. But Piazza and McClatchie actually claim that ordinary people find cannibalism abhorrent due to some essentialist views they hold. That doesn’t even pass the chuckle test.

But probably, they are trying to put a patina of folk science on religion. While pretty much nobody believes in essences, lots of people, like the aforementioned Roberto, do believe in souls. Perhaps these psychologists just lack the philosophical or theological sophistication to distinguish between essences and souls; and probably, they would have the precise same objections to souls. Souls, too, might not appear observable, and they depart upon death, i.e., when “the typical qualities of that category [a human being with a soul] don’t apply, for example upon death.” Of course, one view that is apt to be commonly cited for the abhorrence of eating babies (aside from the murder and infanticide thing) is that babies are held to have souls.

Belief in souls doesn’t require essentialism, but it is perhaps a fair representation of a certain religious attitude toward baby eating. But what if you don’t believe in souls, as I am pretty damned sure our brave authors do not? Does that mean you must resign yourself to accepting the inevitable baby meat farms in some horrific “enlightened” future?

Besides, even if you do believe in a soul that has a special attachment to a body, and that’s why you don’t ingest those bodies while alive, what’s to stop you from ingesting them after they’re dead?

To answer that, I will finally leave this silly article and offer up a theory of my own. Mind you, I fully support the taboo: we don’t need no steenkin’ theories to justify our absolute abhorrence of the very topic. (My wife refused to discuss it after about two minutes. I couldn’t really blame her.) But I find that, over and over, the obvious is ignored and called into question, and it is useful (and philosophically interesting) to articulate the obvious and defend it. As I said, I’ve already defended the obvious views that murder and pedophilia are evil, and also that human life has inherent, special value and that purpose of education is the getting of knowledge. I rather like defending obvious but important truths against idiotic attacks on them.

Cannibalism is wrong because it sets a very bad precedent. If anybody gets a taste for human flesh, they are a threat to the rest of us.

Decent people (unlike some philosophers with idiotic thought experiments) are inclined to wildly irrational hostility toward baby-eaters. (Actually, I’m not sure any hostility toward baby-eaters is irrational.) Why? Because the last thing we want to have to deal with is a society with baby-eaters in it. We don’t want baby-eating because we don’t want there to be a market for baby meat. And don’t tell me about how the FDA will keep this under control. An FDA that permits baby eating, not to mention people who grow babies to be eaten, are just not to be trusted. I’m just sayin’.

But how about corpse-eaters, when permission is obtained in advance and some bizarre society (that I’m sure I’ve never heard of) thinks it’s respectful toward the dead? It’s the same thing: we don’t want corpse-eaters stalking among us because we don’t want them getting any ideas about bodies that are still alive. It’s very much like concern over drawn child molestation: that’s abhorrent to decent people because people with a taste for it might move on to child porn, which is absolutely horrific because its production requires truly horrible crimes being done upon children. You just don’t go there, you monsters.

This, I suggest, is ultimately what fills us (all of us) with horror when we hear of or merely contemplate the idea of eating babies, body parts, or fresh corpses. We might have religious ideas about the soul in addition, for sure. If life, for you, is a holy thing only to be disposed of by God, the idea of consuming a body, living or dead, is surely sacrilegious: hands off. But the threat, the monstrous threat—the shiver-inducing Hannibal Lecter threat—of someone going around looking for people to eat is why it is a no-no for absolutely everyone.

It was only in researching this post that I came across news reports from 2015 that some people drink human blood. Described as “real vampires,” people do it for health reasons (which are reasons I would avoid the practice, but never mind). Though the BBC claims (citing one such vampire) that there are “thousands” of Americans who regularly drink blood, I would venture to say that the vast majority of people—you know, sane people—would find the practice utterly abhorrent. And why? My theory explains this very handily: nobody wants to live around vampires. I for one don’t want to have to worry whether someone is coveting my blood.

Even worse is the suggestion one can find in a few articles, like this Vice article, that the blood of young people is highly desirable to the very rich: Peter Thiel apparently touts the health benefits of transfusing the blood of youths into his own veins, and he avidly follows studies in China of this very thing. Well. Not only do I not want to have to worry about vampires, I don’t want to have to defend children, especially poor children (think third world orphans), against amoral, soulless, wealthy vampires. I mean, come on. We should not have to worry about the health and well-being of growing children, who very much need their blood, or defend them against depredations of literal rich vampires.

This sounds like fiction, but the BBC and Vice inform me that my fears may be well-founded.

So there, my tasty friends, is a simple theory about why eating people is wrong. This theory as well as the above excursus about the evils of drinking blood should help put Piazza and McClatchie’s article into perspective. It turns out to matter that we have the right reasons to reject their insanity. If we rely only on “essentialism” or harm to the soul, we might lack the intellectual ammunition to ward off the proliferation of vampires.

At the end of their article—after dryly considering the merits of eating corpses to ward off third world famine—our authors explain that they’re still against cannibalism:

For now, we’re as happy as you are to continue accepting the ‘wisdom of repugnance’: human flesh, despite its biochemical similarities to that of other mammals, shall remain firmly off limits.

“For now,” indeed. Assholes. This might seem droll, but I find it unsatisfactory and am not at all convinced of its sincerity. After all, the authors suggested over and over that resistance to eating human flesh is irrational and rooted in mere biology or superstition, that it is “natural” (since savage animals do it), and that it might even be beneficial. It might even be the right thing to do. Really, only ghouls use a patina of science and academic respectability to mount such arguments.

The authors do not consider for one moment the fact that cannibalism is a human action, that human actions typically take place in the context of habit, and that morality may be understood as the recommendability of habits, which we bless as virtues, curse as vices, and describe with principles.

For some tiresome reasons, those writing about ethics (and other philosophical subdisciplines) often speak in terms of specific, often highly contrived or unusual cases. But that is not how we approach matters of personal policy in our daily lives. We decide, rather, whether we want to take some action of some general type. In the sobering light of day, Peter Thiel does not decide whether to sample a bit of blood just now, but whether the habit or policy of drinking blood in general is recommendable.

That is the sort of question we should be asking ourselves, too: are there any circumstances, perhaps beyond the direst and most absurdly unusual emergencies (which basically never happen), in which we should consider ingesting human flesh? The answer, clearly, is no; the reason is that this would give evil, unbalanced, and insane people a taste for it. The horrors are great while the need basically nonexistent.

Even less could I seriously countenance the idea of young blood (or, God forbid, flesh) for the very wealthy: the moral and ultimately criminal dangers are much too great just to give the super-rich a slight edge in health and youthful appearance. Indeed, nothing could be more evil, more contemptuous of the humanity of others, than the willingness to use wealth to directly consume the flesh of a child, especially if the child dies, or if children in general (any children, of course) are put at greater risk.

Call me old-fashioned if you must, but there are some things that civilized societies just don’t do. Indeed they are taboos, and cannibalism certainly deserves to remain one.

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