I came across the example in a book of consensual cannibalism: Person A gave his willing and explicit consent to be killed and eaten by person B, in exchange for nothing but the experience of it (No dollar transaction was involved). Libertarian philosophy reasons that person B cannot be punished by law for killing and eating a willing participant.

I am finding it difficult to make a case for the punishment of Person B, although I have identified a direction this case could take:

  1. The "Killing is wrong" argument: the society must uphold a certain moral standard, which includes preventing people from eating each other. The Libertarian would argue that the society has no right to interfere with this private, consensual exchange between participants. Why is this act immoral? Kant, I suppose, could also provide an answer, although it seems to run against the grain of self-ownership.

There also exists in this scenario a question of where to draw the moral line, although this tangles with policy. This scenario took place in Rotenburg, Germany (between eater Armin Meiwes and eatee Bernd-Jurgen Brandes, should you wish to look up more information). Prostitution is legal in Germany -- Why should prostitution be legal and consensual killing not?

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    Re last paragraph: for one thing, at least from some angle prostitution is an exchange where both parties give and receive. Killing is no such exchange: person A's existence has been terminated and cannot receive anything at this point. – Drux Sep 30 '14 at 19:30
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    I think you're using "libertarian" in a way stronger than many libertarians do. – virmaior Oct 1 '14 at 2:32
  • "Libertarianism" is different than anarchy. When referring to libertarians, I would cite a particular person you have in mind. – James Kingsbery Oct 1 '14 at 14:03
  • The body of the question does not really match up very closely to the headline -- which seems to ask something like, Who are the (purest...) libertarian philosophers? and suggests a request for references about libertarianism in general. Whereas the body of the question seems to be asking for analysis of some very specific scenario. Maybe you could try to bring these a little closer into alignment? It might also help to try to speak a little about what an answer to this question looks like in your mind (what exactly it is you would like someone to explain to you) – Joseph Weissman Oct 1 '14 at 23:01

There's at least one other angle to consider -- but here I have to assume what you mean by "libertarian" is still a realm governed by some manner of law but with consent as its highest value.

If you're willing to accept that, then I would suggest one reason to oppose such arrangements or possibly even prohibit them is epistemological. In much of the autonomy literature, there are questions about what one can knowingly consent to with full understanding of what it would mean. Thus, some deny that women can consent to be positions of submission whereas others do not.

But what matters here is a corollary of the problem of whether someone's autonomous consent can be known. It stands to reason that a libertarian government has as its highest goal the free exchange of autonomous actions among its people. But it also follows that the government should scrutinize most those actions with the highest consequences for a person's autonomy.

These actions would be prostitution, slavery, and contracted death. This is because of two reasons. First, it's hard to tell if there was autonomy in the choice in many cases. Thus each of these actions could occur under the similitude of an autonomous action but actually be the result of an autonomous choice. Thus, we have the drug-addicted prostitute who is being pimped, the child who in desperate circumstances signs up to be a slave to help his family but has cannot fully comprehend what they are committed to -- they enthusiastically say "yes, I do this willingly" but we cannot mark that as autonomous. Similarly, consent to dying will be difficult to unravel because we cannot ask the dead and cannot prove they autonomously consented from any video or forensic evidence.

Second, the consequences of these actions are the largest. Death, at least on most accounts, is irreversible. Slavery is for life. Prostitution can have lasting consequences for the person prostituted (STIs, physical damage, etc).

For these two reasons (difficulty in externally ascertaining autonomous assent and large consequences), the state may be motivated to highly regulate or make illegal these actions precisely from principles of liberty.


There are many interpretations of the phrase "libertarian philosophy" and it's helpful to be clear which you're using. By "libertarian", I get the impression you broadly mean the Rothbard-kind, rather than the Chomsky-kind.

I am finding it difficult to make a case for the punishment of Person B

You were right this far. I quote from David Gordon's review of Sandel's book, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

[Sandel:] [C]annibalism between consenting adults poses the ultimate test for the libertarian principle of self-ownership and the idea of justice that follows from it. It is an extreme form of assisted suicide…If the libertarian claim is right, banning consensual cannibalism is unjust, a violation of the right to liberty. (p. 74)

[Gordon:] Libertarianism does not claim to encompass the whole of morality. Quite the contrary, it asks only, when is force or the threat of force permissible? The answer to this question delimits a sphere of rights, but not everything that is within one's rights counts as morally acceptable. People are free to do bad things, in the sense that they cannot be compelled to do what is morally required. Only if they violate rights can force be used against them. The fact, if it is one, that the consensual cannibal does not violate rights leaves us free to recoil from him in disgust.

You can get a few more ideas from this talk by Walter block and his book Defending the Undefentable. AFAIK, nether the book nor the talk bring up cannibalism, but the principles outlined here should let you derive that answer that for yourself.

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