I'm looking specifically for arguments regarding cannibalism in and of
itself, separate from issues such as avoiding starvation or murder.
What are the most common positions on the ethical status of consuming
human flesh? What are the philosophical arguments condemning it, and
what are those that condone it?
There is the distinction between lethal cannibalism, which involves killing and nonlethal cannibalism, which does not involve killing . How might nonlethal cannibalism occur? One kind of case involves people who are stuck in places without food and are forced to consume the flesh of other people, with or without permission.
It might be suggested that unless the lives of other people are at stake, respect for dead people requires that their bodies not be ingested by others. It also might be argued that religious prescriptions concerning the treatment of dead persons’ bodies make nonlethal cannibalism morally impermissible. It might be unwise to permit nonlethal cannibalism because such a policy might encourage lethal cannibalism.
But nonlethal cannibalism was the norm in many old societies. Anthropological descriptions of allegedly irresolvable cross-cultural ethical conflicts are plentiful: there was socially sanctioned nonlethal cannibalism.
One must be careful not to infer that nonlethal cannibalism is morally wrong merely because one finds it disgusting or repulsive.
Everyone is familiar with disgusting taste, in many cases we see or think about some particular ethical issue and we have exactly the same disgust response. Typical examples are when people think about cannibalism, about abortion, incest. Is there some biological explanation of why we should have such feelings? Many of us are familiar with having disgust reactions. If you ever had food-poisoning, if you had food-poisoning from some eggs once you couldn't eat them for many years. Other example, the revulsion to incest has a very good biological reason; you’re much more likely to have a genetically abnormal child with a relative. So, many of the taboos can have a strong biological basis. Our disgust reaction can represent the expression of that knowledge.
Disgusting reaction, sometimes is genetic; sometimes as with eggs you have a bad experience and thereafter that’s a learnt reaction. It can also be learnt at a social level and it can be passed on through generations. But many the taboos either express a personal disgust or misfire in the sense that they are applied to a situation that is no longer disadvantageous to us. The reaction to eggs can persisted long after. Another example, with incest, we now have very good genetic tests that would pick up genetic abnormality. So, we can now in modern society counter that. The challenge of modern ethics today is not simply to sit with our intuitions, because our intuitions are not necessarily reliable. We need to examine our reasons for actions are in a particular case. Take an example, science is actually proposing, of creating embryos as a source of stem cells, and where those embryos would be destroyed after fourteen days, we can’t simply look at our disgusting reactions. They are very crude rules of thumb that have served us in our primitive past.
Actually our reason-giving frequently is a kind of rationalization after the fact; most people end up rationalizing their deepest prejudices and disgusting reactions. Many people do use ethical arguments simply to rationalize their intuitive responses. A psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, used a scenario around incest and cannibalism where he kept probing participants in the experiment for their reason for their objections. The experimenter presented harmless taboo's violations task: consensual adult sibling incest and harmless cannibalism of an unclaimed corpse in a pathology lab. Then played devil’s advocate, arguing against anything the subject said. The key question was whether subjects would behave like idealized scientists, looking for the truth and using reasoning to reach their judgments, or whether they would behave like lawyers, committed from the start to one side and then searching only for evidence to support that side. Subject's responses were very quick judgments followed by a search for supporting reasons. When these reasons were stripped away by the experimenter,few subjects changed their minds, even though many confessed that they could not explain the reasons for their decisions. Whatever reasons they offered, whether it was genetic disability or harm to other members of the family, or paedophilia, or any parasites and prions in the corpses, he countered these reasons by saying the situation won’t be like that, and he went on to give an explanation why not. However, the subjects stuck to their intuitive objection to it, regardless of how invalid their supposed reason was. In the end, they couldn’t offer any other reasons, except that they intuitively had a disgusting reaction to it. Conclusion: One of the ethics challenges is to find reasons that aren’t just intuitive, is to find values that aren’t just grounded on individual feelings, but are grounded on value that’s defensible.
We must resolve moral issues through rational discourse, rather than descending to a kind of democratic approach to ethics where we take a vote as to how people respond, how much disgusting there is out there in a population towards that particular practice.
Many people have a disgusting response to changing human nature. But we care much more about other aspects of our lives than simply whether we can reproduce. Our fundamental cognitive, physical abilities, could be influenced by changes in human biology. The patterns of human relationships, lust, attraction, have different hormonal mechanisms, each of which can be manipulated. We could make genetic changes in humans, the man can live longer and reproduce much longer, and to be much healthier. Can we simply settle these questions by looking at our intuitions and our disgusting reactions? The good reasons against them won’t be generated by simplistic appeals to our intuitions or disgusting reactions.
Is there a danger that if we rid ourselves of the disgusting reaction that we’ll be vulnerable to certain sorts of systematic biases? Is this precisely what the Nazis did, they overcame their disgusting reactions to killing human beings? The Nazis couldn’t appeal to any sort of fundamental values that we all share, and the fact that they were able to overcome their emotional reactions was the fundamental problem. What we need are sound ethical principles. The people who kept slaves, who stopped women voting, believed that they were doing the right thing, had disgusting reactions to blacks marrying whites, and very profound, very deep, very widespread emotions; they were certain that their intuitions were correct.
There was a German cannibalism case, where one person wanted to be eaten and the other one wanted to eat him. Some of us feel fairly disgust by that idea, even if other of us can’t find strong reasons against it.
- Some paraphrases from Julian Savulescu in "Philosophy Bites".