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Several research groups around the world are attempting to perfect techniques for growing animal flesh for human consumption, without requiring the killing of a complete intelligent organism. This is known as in vitro meat. Vegetarian groups are reportedly generally in favour of this development, deeming that this flesh does not constitute a living organism making it morally acceptable (see e.g. Wikipedia).

Following the same logic that would allow a vegetarian to eat in vitro animal meat, would it not therefore be morally acceptable for anyone to eat in vitro Human flesh, since this would not require the killing of a person?

Update in response to comments: Many (not all) vegetarians like(d) eating meat. They find it tasty and the eating of it pleasurable but abstain from this pleasure on the basis that inflicting pain and death on another organism to derive this pleasure is immoral. I have not tasted Human flesh, however it may well be very tasty and pleasurable to eat (if the object can be divorced from the concept of where it comes from, as is often argued is true for a lot of modern meat eating humans). If in vitro meat became a commercial reality, could making, selling and eating a Human flavour be morally defensible, since it doesn't require the death of an identified individual?

Note that eating a Human who has died accidentally is, in most but not all cultures, considered morally unacceptable because of the importance of ceremonial burial. We tend to care about what happens to the physical remains of our loved ones after their death.

  • I can't get in vitro to show up in italics in the title. If someone knows how to do this can they please do the edit? – Bogdanovist Aug 16 '12 at 2:08
  • Sorry, I don't think any formatting is allowed in titles. :\ – stoicfury Aug 16 '12 at 3:59
  • Can you tell us a little more about the motivations behind the question? What sort of answer might you be looking for? – Joseph Weissman Aug 16 '12 at 4:07
  • Most vegetarians do not consider it morally acceptable to eat in vitro meat. Or to be more precise, they won't once they know what goes into it. What they do consider acceptable is for meat-eaters to eat in vitro meat rather than slaughtered meat. – coleopterist Aug 19 '13 at 14:25
  • +1 for the phrasing "If _____ is it morally acceptable to _____," which cleanly sidesteps a potential pitfall that there is not an agreement as to whether eating in-vitro animal meat is morally acceptable by using a classic First Order Logic construction. – Cort Ammon Mar 28 '15 at 16:02
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The problem with your logic is that we don't not eat humans merely because it would require (immorally) killing them, but rather because cannibalism is something that we culturally (and/or genetically) reject. In other words, if the only reason you didn't eat human flesh was because you had moral qualms about killing humans, then yes, your argument would make sense. But clearly there's more to it than that. Otherwise, you'd see "recently killed in an accident" human flesh for sale at your nearby deli every once in a while....

Regarding OP's update:

If in vitro meat became a commercial reality, could making, selling and eating a Human flavour be morally defensible, since it doesn't require the death of an identified individual?

Unless you are a moral absolutist, you can justify any action if you really wanted to, simply by changing what you hold to be a moral good. The relevant question is whether a particular group of individuals within an existing moral framework would ever come to accept it, and that's where this whole endeavor becomes very speculative. Personally, I don't think there would be anything intrinsically wrong with eating in vitro human flesh, and it may very well be that many years down the road from now it becomes a "fad", but I think you will find it very difficult to convert most people of the developed world today, especially given some of the issues Neil raised (how would you know it's actually from in vitro growth and not from a real person that was murdered?).

Logic and reason aside, there is something about eating human flesh that is repulsive to me (and probably many other people), so while I can claim all day that I see nothing inherently wrong with eating in vitro human flesh, I would almost certainly never do it, just as I wouldn't ingest quite a lot of things (unless there was a really good reason for it). So, it may be morally defensible on some level, but however you slice it, it'd still be a tough sell.

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    The question comes down to what constitutes cannibalism? Is it about the nature of the flesh or about the identity of the previous owner of that flesh? As I note in the updated question, we don't eat recently people who died accidentally because (amongst other reasons) of the strong cultural importance of ceremonial burial. Note that in some PNG cultures, eating the dead was the ceremonial burial (until prion diseases caused this practice to be abandoned). – Bogdanovist Aug 16 '12 at 5:44
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    There are some moral/economic problems involved as well even if you're okay with eating people killed by accident: how could one be sure, at a deli, that one's long pork is "ethically sourced"? I think the long-term risk of prion diseases are not only a very good practical reason for not eating human flesh, but (along with the increased social stability associated with having a lower risk of being hunted down for food by neighbors) probably one of the historical drivers for the abandonment of human-flesh eating in those societies where the recovering of nutrients was not a dominant concern. – Niel de Beaudrap Aug 16 '12 at 13:28

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