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Eating People

Jeremy Bojczuk on the ethics of cannibalism.

If I should happen to drop dead tomorrow, please feel free to use what meat you can find on me. I won’t be able to object because I, as a conscious entity, will no longer exist. Ignore any objections by grieving loved ones. Such objections will be sentimental and unjustified; one may as well object to recycling the parts from an expired car. The physical object may have ceased to perform its main function, but benefit can still be gained from it. So forget the undertaker, and call the butcher.

Because we are social creatures, we absorb the moral codes of those around us. Unless we actively question them, these codes become accepted and perpetuated. One moral rule has existed within most, if not all, human societies: that eating people is wrong, or, more precisely, that eating dead people is wrong in some circumstances. It is long overdue for questioning.

Veneration of the dead body is associated with the concept of resurrection, of life after death. The idea that an individual consciousness survives the death of the organism in which it is embodied may have been a plausible hypothesis up to perhaps a hundred years ago, but is no longer tenable. The evidence is now overwhelming that consciousness is inseparable from electro-chemical processes within the brain and that an individual’s individuality is inseparable from the unique physical structure of that individual’s brain. No brain equals no consciousness; a brain but no electro-chemical activity also equals no consciousness. When you’re dead, you (the conscious individual) vanish. (Incidentally, once a proper understanding of consciousness catches on, institutionalised superstitions will be in big trouble; job centres will be full of ex-bishops, exrabbis and ex-ayatollahs.)

Moral consideration can only be given directly to conscious entities. A child’s toy, for example, is not due any moral consideration. Breaking the toy is a morally neutral act from the point of view of the toy (because the toy, not being conscious, has no point of view), though not from the point of view of the child, who is conscious and will scream. A conscious entity, once deceased, is not due any moral consideration simply because it is not conscious and will never again be conscious.

So eating ex-people is not in itself wrong. Eating live people, however, is, because they wouldn’t enjoy it. But there is a third and much more interesting category of behaviour to consider: raising and killing people in order to eat them.

The act of killing people could, with modern technology, be done fairly painlessly, but moral questions would still be involved, especially if other sources of food existed. People’s lives would be avoidably cut short, and (if the raising and killing were done largely for profit) plenty of suffering would no doubt be caused. Moral problems must arise whenever a person, a conscious individual, is avoidably and adversely affected.

One could delve into murky utilitarian waters and argue that although any avoidable adverse treatment would be bad, some acts may be less bad than others. Just as stepping on someone’s toes is (according to the accepted moral code) less bad than hacking someone to death with a machete, so killing a barely conscious person may be in some way less bad than killing an intensely conscious person. Alternatively, some individuals might be considered to be less valuable than others for reasons not associated with their being conscious, so that killing a merchant banker or a politician for food wouldn’t be as bad as killing, say, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. But all these options would still be bad, because each affects a conscious individual with a future, and each is avoidable. The important point is this: moral consideration is due exclusively and inclusively to conscious individuals by virtue of the fact that they possess consciousness. Making distinctions between conscious individuals does nothing to justify the avoidable suffering and loss of the person eaten.

In practice, however, distinctions are made between conscious individuals in order to justify the consumption of some of them. Various arguments have been used to support these distinctions. It is worth examining them because they are part of the accepted, unquestioned moral code, and because most of them don’t stand up. I am aware of six reasons why it is claimed to be acceptable to kill and eat (or otherwise mistreat) certain people but not others.

Firstly, in extremis one may have no choice. For example, a group of people may be stranded without food on a desert island or on a boat in the middle of the ocean. It seems reasonable for one person to have to die in order to prevent everyone dying, if there is genuinely no alternative. This dilemma is, however, rarely encountered outside cartoons.

Secondly, some individuals have souls and some haven’t. The idea of a soul (an individual consciousness existing separate from the body) is contradicted by the totality of the evidence we possess about the nature of consciousness. The idea is wishful thinking, a product of the understandable but erroneous desire to create a purpose or ultimate meaning for one’s existence. It is a remnant of pre-medieval superstition. Conscious organisms do not have souls.

The third and most popular factor which decides whether a person is considered acceptable to be eaten is the species to which that person belongs. The concept of species is a means of categorising individual organisms according to their physical characteristics. As we know, every organism is related to every other organism (if you don’t accept evolution by natural selection, get in touch with your newsagent; a philosopher near you has had the Sun delivered by mistake). It is only with the passing of generations that differences between related individuals become sufficiently large to justify the categorisation of those individuals into separate species. Distinctions between species are matters of convenience. This becomes particularly obvious when considering the fossilised remains of long-dead organisms: the limited extant features of an individual specimen can often be accommodated within more than one species. The definition of a species is made at the level of the group, not of the individual organism. Now, moral consideration applies to individuals as individuals, not to individuals as members of groups. If individual organisms are to be given or denied moral consideration according to the species to which they have been assigned, an absolute and eternal distinction between species is required. But there is none; the concept of species is an artificial construct, a fluid and subjective system of categorisation. Difference in treatment based on difference in species cannot be justified.

Fourthly, God gave man dominion over the beasts; this must be true because it says so in the Bible (which must be true because it says so in the Bible). If you find this rationale convincing, you must have an impressive collection of half-built timeshare properties.

Fifthly, it’s ‘natural’ for some conscious organisms to eat others. The mistake here is obvious: just because something happens doesn’t make it right (torture happens; squeezing fat women into velour leisure suits happens). To say that it’s OK for homo sapiens to eat other animals because lions eat other animals, is equivalent to saying that it’s OK for homo sapiens to eat no other animals because Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland (and because pandas eat no other animals). Each proposition may be right or wrong, but the reasons given don’t allow us to decide which.

Lastly, what might appear to be conscious organisms in fact aren’t. This is a respectable argument, because it relies on empirical evidence. It may be that possessing a brain does not by itself confer consciousness; a brain with a specific degree of complexity may be required. It certainly appears that the amount of consciousness associated with each brain is related to the complexity of that brain. So a new-born human may well be less conscious than, for example, an adult pig or cow, and more conscious than an insect. But until the relation between the degree of complexity and consciousness is properly understood it is sensible to give the benefit of the doubt to all possessors of brains, and to assume until shown otherwise that they are conscious and hence worthy of moral consideration.

Eating people is not in itself wrong. Mistreating them, however, is. It is important to appreciate the difference which the ‘mistr-’ makes. It is important also to recognise that the concept of ‘people’ in the context of moral dealings with conscious organisms is a harmful one; by erecting a barrier on the grounds of particular physical characteristics rather than the possession of consciousness it removes from moral consideration the vast majority of the individuals to whom moral consideration is due.

© Jeremy Bojczuk 1996

Jeremy Bojczuk works in the music business, and only eats people occasionally.

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