Seeing Double: Consensual Cannibalism?

Seeing Double columnists Thomas Brodey ‘22 and Cole Graber-Mitchell ‘22 debate the ethics of consensual cannibalism. Brodey argues that endocannibalism especially does no harm and holds significance to many the world over. Graber-Mitchell refutes, discussing where societies should draw a line.

Thomas’ Take

It’s an experience to which any Amherst student can relate. After a disappointing Val dinner, Maria returns to her dorm, only to find her roommate, Carl, asleep. Through the clarity of her hunger, Maria realizes that she is standing in front of an entire platter of lighter side chicken, only fresher and not so overdone. Instead of ramen, she thinks of raw men.

I won’t deny that I too have stood countless hours over the sleeping body of my co-columnist, wondering whether his stringy legs or flabby chest would have the lowest sodium content. Today, however, I am defending only consensual cannibalism, where a person agrees to let others eat them after he or she dies of natural causes.

Numerous cultures around the world practice cannibalism as a funeral rite (called endocannibalism) for members of their community. For them (as well as the deceased person being eaten) cannibalism is not a form of harm or mutilation, it is a deeply spiritual and cathartic action. In literally making a loved one’s body part of your own body, many people get a valuable sense of closure. Such traditions are not to everyone’s taste, of course, which is why we allow people to choose their own forms of burial. The point is not that many people find cannibalism distasteful, it’s entirely possible to imagine people, even in the United States, who might want to eat or be eaten for genuine spiritual or religious reasons.

In order to say that an emotionally important practice like endocannibalism is immoral, my co-columnist would have to demonstrate that endocannibalism does some serious harm to an individual or society at large. Neither is true. The body being eaten is already dead, and while others might find cannibalism gross, no one is forcing them to watch or take part.

Consensual cannibalism harms no one. Compare that to eating a hamburger, which directly contributes both to the killing of sentient creatures and a larger system of unsustainable meat production. Human flesh might well be a more moral meal than beef.

Critics of cannibalism, like my co-columnist, act as though funerary cannibalism is some red line that cannot ever be crossed. Yet in the West today, we already permit all sorts of bizarre or, to some, disturbing funeral practices. We let people declare their desire to be burned (even though Catholics consider it wrong), used as theater props or turned into shotgun ammunition. We allow these practices because of our deep-seated belief that humans have a right to decide what is done with their own body. Funerary cannibalism is no different.

What’s more, cannibalism was a fixture of American culture more recently than you might expect. As late as the 20th century, Europeans and Americans ate human body parts as medicine. If morality is determined by cultural norms (as my co-columnist believes) then our society is cannibalistic to the core.

In opposing cannibalism, my co-columnist implicitly uses his misinterpretation of Western culture as an ethical yardstick. To which I say, ‘back off, colonizer!’ I, for one, will not let this muffin in the shape of a man use his racist, imperialist, Eurocentric, Hoxhaist and fascist intuition to dictate which harmless actions are moral and which are immoral.

My co-columnist would have you believe that despite causing no harm to anyone, cannibalism is still ethically wrong because, well, contemporary American society says it is. That circular argument is essentially the same dogma used by those who opposed gay marriage or marijuana in the 1980s. My co-columnist seems to believe that we live in some kind of dystopia where the only way behavior can be moral is for it to be practiced by a large group of people. Fortunately, that vile and repressive world is only a figment of my co-columnist’s imagination.

You might find cannibalism distasteful – that’s your decision to make. But people should always think twice before universally condemning harmless actions that they dislike. Plenty of legitimate reasons for cannibalism exist, and people have a right to decide what is done with their body when they die. In short, there is room in the world for both cannibals and non-cannibals.

Stop your puritanical social policing, Mr. Graber-Mitchell. You’ve bitten off more than you can chew.

Cole’s Comment

When my co-columnist and I shared a room, I frequently woke up to him standing over my bed with hunger in his eyes, mouth twitching and salivating in anticipation of sinking his teeth into my flesh. At the time, I brushed it off as nothing — just what North Carolinians do, I guess. But now he has displayed his true colors: as his column makes clear, his lust for human tacos, hamstring hamburgers, and person pepperoni is insatiable.

Mr. Brodey would have us believe that consensual cannibalism is moral — more moral, in fact, than eating meat from other creatures. It is fitting that someone who roasts himself every other week in these pages would be in favor of cooking other people, but unfortunately for him, there are many acts that consent cannot make moral.

A person cutting off their flesh, cooking it, and eating it is no less than self-mutilation. Regardless of how much they might want it or agree to it, it is impossible to consent to being eaten alive for the same reason that one cannot usually consent to suicide or self-harm.

Barring a few exceptions that prove the rule, such as when a patient is terminally-ill, consenting to suicide, self-harm, and self-mutilation indicates an inability to think clearly and make informed decisions. No one can agree to their own death, and no one can agree to their own consumption. Doing so would transgress the limits we place on the power of consent — limits that preserve life whenever possible.

Cannibalism after death is wrong for different reasons. Every society has the right to set moral limits on the behavior of its individuals. Even if you consent while you are alive, after-death cannibalism amounts — in our culture, at least — to the desecration of a body. It is wrong for the same reason that we consider necrophilia to be wrong.

You can call me intolerant, but an enlightened society is not one in which anyone is free to do anything they want. In America, nobody practices ritual cannibalism, and the cases of cannibalism that do occur are horrifying.

Are we really unable to say that it is wrong — that it offends social sensibilities, that it causes real harm to neighbors, that it disgusts us to the point of moral revulsion — to eat a dead person here, even with their consent? Social groups are defined on the basis of boundaries, and it is reasonable to say that cannibalism is a boundary that defines the people of the United States.

Some moral precepts depend on cultural context, and as diverse as the United States is, we are in agreement when it comes to cannibalism. In a society where cannibalism is an important death practice, then of course it’s not immoral! But here that’s not the case.

If I died tomorrow, it would be immoral to eat my body — even if my last will and testament said you could. Our social norms forbid it. And if my will really consents to grilled Graber-Mitchell patties, check for fingerprints: my cannibal of a co-columnist probably forged it.

My co-columnist claims that my arguments also justify calling homosexuality immoral, but that’s not the case. Just like we can distinguish between gay sex and incest (this is one comparison bigots make to justify anti-sodomy laws), we can easily distinguish between cannibalism and homosexuality.

Put simply, my argument about social norms can never be extended to justify discrimination on the basis of qualities, like race, gender, and sexuality, that one does not choose. If heterosexuality is permitted, then homosexuality must be. That has nothing to do with cannibalism’s morality in our culture.

Maybe my co-columnist will one day convince millions of Americans that cannibalism isn’t the taboo it’s made out to be, and in that case, my argument would actually say that it’s moral here. But until that day, our social cohesion depends on our ability to set reasonable restrictions on what you can and cannot do while remaining a member of our society. The oldest taboo in the book — cannibalism — seems reasonable to me.

Apparently my co-columnist doesn’t follow that taboo, but I didn’t know until now. He has always kept his cannibalistic tendencies masked behind a smothering layer of Southern charm. If you live in King, it’s a good idea to start locking your door at night. Mr. Brodey’s hunger grows stronger by the day.