Monday, June 9, 2008


To a certain extent, this is just a topic of intellectual exercise, and I realize that. But super commenter Shai Halud suggested the subject, and I do find it worth exploring—is there anything morally wrong with cannibalism. Most arguments against the practice rely upon murder, but what if the person being cannibalized is willing? Is it still wrong?

Here's why I say this is largely intellectual. I really don't think most people will ever lose their basic disgust of eating another person. It's just too ingrained. Even if we can talk through the moral problems, talk through the health concerns, I don't think we can lose the basic, primitive-brain ick factor. But let's talk about it.

According to Wikipedia (with no citation though) there is little evidence that cannibalism was ever practiced as a means for regular nourishment. In other words, it has always been ceremonial—used as part of a human sacrifice, used to further conquer captives after battle, etc. On top of that, there is little strong evidence that really tells us to what extend the groups we traditionally think of as cannibalistic actually were (like the Aztecs, ancient tribes on Fiji, etc.). To some extent, tales of cannibalism were exaggerated by explorers looking to benefit from descriptions of one group or another's savagery—making it easier to justify enslaving the group because they were so barbaric, something like that. Although, there is irrefutable evidence that many, many people have resorted to cannibalism during times of famine and disaster.

What about using deceased people as meat, for nourishment. Let's assume with their consent. I can't find evidence of any society that has ever done this. Does anyone know of any groups who have?

There is of course the German man who advertised for a "well-built 18- to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed." But that seems like more of a kink than an attempt at nutrition. And if you read the description of what happened during this event (follow the link, not for the feint of heart) it's hard not to think of it as two men participating in the murder/suicide of one man. But maybe others disagree with me.

Oh, and the image is Goya's painting of "Saturn Devouring his Son." One of my favorite haunting images by one of my favorite artists of all time. Interesting detail, this work was painted directly onto the wall of Goya's dining room. Bon Appetit :)


Anonymous said...

There are few animals out in the world who are cannibals examples frogs, chimps, and sharks.
There are very few that resort to Cannibalism, I think it comes down to Genetics. There are genes that tell us not to sleep with family members, if we do our race will not progress. And sometimes genes are removed, like in Cheetahs because they are so close to dying out that they do not have that gene. Maybe the body changes like in some of your examples were time has passed and they have been doing it for so many years or they never have it in the first place. The gene that tells us not to eat our own kind or we will not progress as a race.
My conclusion is that
Cannibalism is a genetic mutation.

Shai Hulud said...

Genetic mutation, that's an interesting idea. Some one told me once that without enough food, the brain starts to metabolize itself, and this causes the behavior of cannibalism. I'm not sure.

Jessica is correct that, though there are aberrations, most cannibalism is ritualistic/honorific and occurs with in hunter gatherer groups (interestingly mostly among tropical and subtropical peoples). I brought up cannibalism originally with her here, because I thought is was worth exploring the idea of an ethical cannibalism (originally as a way of disposal or disposition of the dead, but now because of Jessica's points in the post, in a more general fashion). Somebody loves parenthetical asides and run on sentences. It's me.

Anyways, I am not concerned with religious repudiations concerning cannibalism, nor am i concerned with convention (social or historical) proscribing of the act. I certainly don't condone murder or the farming of humans. I am generally concerned with disposing of healthy, willing people, after death, by feeding them to people who could use the protein because of depravation.

Wow, though, wow, that sounds like A Modest Proposal. There are all kinds of scary situations where an institutional mechanism could definitely be abused. Maybe it isn't a bad idea to just keep as much distance as possible from the possibility.

However, I can't seem to find it wrong to utilize our dead (with out murder or coercion) as food. It just, seeming incredibly unacademic, seems like a waste of resources...of meat. I don't see anything in the dead but empty casques. Now, I would definitely feel differently about it, if it were a loved one of mine. I certainly wouldn't want to eat a friend. i wouldn't eat my boyfriend, or my Jessica, or her boyfriend, or my dad. I was thinking the other day about how, yeah, I would totally eat a dog, despite the problem most people here in the States have with it. It just jumped in my mind to thinking about what it would mean to eat a human if it the "meat" was harvested in an ethical manner.

Anyways, I ramble. Jessica, eh? What say you?


Jessica Knapp said...

Well, I wouldn't eat human meat. But that's just because I find it icky :) Do you think many people could get past that? We should get my boyfriend in on this discussion. I wonder what he would say, given his philosophy of trying any food at least twice.

Are there health concerns? I know people couldn't eat neuro-tissue, but that's the same for any animal. Didn't mad cow disease develop because cows were eating other cows? Could something like that come up from humans eating humans?

On one level I can see what you're saying, but it does seem like a tough sell. Would you want other people eating your boyfriend? Or your dad? Isn't that only fair if you advocate such a policy?

I guess it's similar to arguments against cannibalism. I can't think of anything to completely dismiss it. But it just doesn't sit right with me.

foxaz said...

There are quite a few incidents of cannibalism in the last century. The Donner Party comes to mind, also Alfred Packer of Colorado, and the athletes whose plane crashed in the mountains of South America. The people they ate had already died of injuries or exposure, and the reason was for survival.
i agree, it's icky.

Jessica Knapp said...

Thanks foxaz. Yeah, in the limited research I did for my post, I found that a lot of the murder/kink cannibalism, e.g., people like Donner, only started coming up in the past century. Although, who knows, that could just be because people only started finding out about it and making record of it then. And then of course, you're right, there seems to always be part of us that's willing to do it if it's necessary for survival.

I really wish I could come up or find some logical argument against cannibalism. Maybe being grossed out by it is enough.