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Cannibalism is generally frowned upon in most of today's societies1. On the other hand, it has happened quite a bit in times of difficulty, and famine aside it was simply common practice in some communities.

With this in mind, and considering that even in the "civilized" world there have been cases of nonchalant cannibalism, the question arises of just what the ethical status of cannibalism is.

I'm looking specifically for arguments regarding cannibalism in and of itself, separate from issues such as avoiding starvation or murder. Simply, what are the most common positions (along with their supporting reasoning) on the ethical status of consuming human flesh as a single, isolated action? What are the philosophical arguments condemning it, and what are those that condone it?

1 - I was unable to quickly find a general source for this, but if you doubt me I invite you to wander to the nearest restaurant and order man-pie.

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    Mill would reject it, since his harm principle still 'forbids' giving away your autonomy. An 'interesting' case study is the Cannibal of Rotenburg – Ben Jun 26 '13 at 0:21
  • Are we assuming that the person who is eating the human flesh also killed the person he is eating? Their may be some further moral consideration if he is a murderer also. – Neil Meyer Jun 26 '13 at 7:58
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Eating your own species is a bad idea from a health perspective since any parasites (prions, etc.) that affected the other individual could well affect you, and any toxins they accumulated that were bad for them are also bad for you. (Since cannibalism has not been frowned upon strongly enough in all societies there is a fairly recent example of this.)

Thus, consequentialist ethical systems should oppose cannibalism for pragmatic reasons, assuming starvation is not an issue.

I'm not sure there is a succinct way to consider non-consequentialist positions. Cannibalism aside from starvation or murder is sufficiently rare that I've not seen it garner much attention.

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Right from the start I'm going to tell you that I am not educated in philosophy, nor have I had my mind fully clouded by all the social stigmas that exist today (I'm only 17).

Cannibalism is obviously frowned upon. Where I've seen it involved in literature, conversation, and stories there has always been a negative undertone. However, in my mind a body is just a body. To me eating a cat or dog would be no different than eating a cow. The only reason we don't eat cats but we eat cows is because someone, sometime ago decided that cats are not supposed to be eaten. Society followed, and now group thinking has altered the perceptions of acceptable things to eat and deterred those who would try it anyway. The same of course applies to humans.

The problem with humans is we have a much higher order brain function, so we have such things as procedures, morals, and taboos. Eating other members of our own species is one such taboo. Reasons that I can think of include remembering people's legacies, giving them proper burials, respecting the dead; really anything to do with honoring dead people. Eating is a sign of personal gratification, and personally gratifying yourself at the expense of a dead person is not acceptable in society (think also things like collecting pensions/social security from dead people).

I have no viable opinion about the religious aspect of cannibalism, although I'm sure it exists.

If you take it down to the fundamental basics, we are all made out of the same material. I'm sure cows taste better than humans but they have the same basic structures from bodily structures (bones, skin, etc) down to molecular structure. If you disregard all social stigma, cannibalism is really not that big of a deal if you eat other meats as well.

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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".
  • Links: to the Philosophy Bites podcast and to the book – user3164 Jun 27 '13 at 17:33

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