Wednesday Philosophical Query: Cannibalism Edition

The cannibal almost always plays the role of radical other in popular imagination: he or she is a super-creepy sociopath, a monster such as a witch or a wendigo, or a savage not fit for civilized company.  One could argue that the non-humanness of formally-human, people-eating monsters such as vampires, werewolves, and zombies continues this theme.  Only in the most dire and desperate situations can a normal person acceptably partake of human flesh.

Normal people just don’t dine on other people, the living or the dead.  News of murders that involve cannibalism elicit more than the typical degree of disgust, horror, and fascination.  I hear the practice is also unhealthy and can cause an incurable degenerative neurological disorder called Kuru, a disease of the brain.  And pity the poor cannibal who tries to eat a diet of fully organic meat; you’ll find that stuff’s on very short supply.

Cannibalism is obviously taboo in most cultures, a fact which makes the practice an interesting test case for moral reflection.  So, without further icky ado, the question for today’s philosophical query is this: given its gruesomeness, otherness, status of taboo, and negative health risks, is cannibalism objectively immoral?  Asked another way: does the abnormality of cannibalism have morally normative consequence?  Or yet another way: is cannibalism merely morally atypical or morally abnormal?

I’m, uh, asking for a friend.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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40 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    We must remember that the cannibal is only eating the “accidents” of his human repast. The true being has gone on to the happy hunting ground, far from even the sharpest incisor.

  2. Burt Likko says:

    To be sure, there is the primal fear of being killed by a predator, and the cannibal (particularly the vampire, werewolf, etc. of legend, who chases and hunts his food before feasting) is such a predator. So to some degree the fear of the cannibal is the same as the fear of the wolf or the lion. And the existence of a cannibal (again particularly a formally human monster) suggests that humans are not apex predators like the lion or the wolf or the orca, but instead are lower down the food chain than we normally assume ourselves to be. That’s scary enough.

    But your ghoulishly charming concern for the prospective cannibal seeking to conform to an organic diet strikes me as offering an insight into your inquiry, and the real issue that I think you’re aiming at, or at least one I’ve noticed is within the oeuvre of this blog.

    Given the proliferation of a non-organic diet aimed at humans, virtually any human captured for slaughter and harvesting of meat will have been fed a non-organic diet. In order to come up with organic human meat, the prospective cannibal would need to ranch his own specimens for harvest, so that diet could be controlled and the organic nature of the meat ensured.

    This means raising and caring for the human, destined for slaughter, from a state of infancy. And a human raising and caring for another human rather strongly resembles a family unit — the imperatives of biology require the investment of a great many resources and a great deal of attention to a human infant in order to successfully get that infant out of its state of helpless infancy. That extensive degree of care and attention would seem to preclude the relationship of the adult raising the infant be akin to that of a rancher raising livestock, and more of a parent-child relationship.

    And the notion of a parent killing his own child is one that is lurid and horrifying on the same level as cannibalism, evidenced by the similar vigor of tabloid news reporting of those kinds of crime stories. IMO, this indicates that humans have an instinctual, hard-wired imperative to have empathy and care for one another. This instinct may at times conflict or require synthesis with other instincts, such as that of self-preservation or group identification, producing either psychological breakdowns or a synthesis such as tribalism or psychosis. And like many instincts, a sufficient amount and quality of behaviorial conditioning can overcome it.

    But there’s something there that makes us want to care for one another, to be mutually supportive and nuturing, to be altruistic even. Your survival is important to me because we are somehow alike and akin. Cannibalism is the opposite of that (your death is important to the cannibal because you are his food), which is why it evokes such horror.

    • Burt Likko says:

      Oh, and I love the picture you selected for the post. Again, ghoulishly charming.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      This is excellent, Burt. On a side note, I once wrote an almost completed short story about a cannibal who insists on eating only organic people, meaning that he has to investigate the diets of his victims back to their origins. Called it “Owen Gore’s Dilemma.” He doesn’t have much luck, as even non-organic chewing gum and non-organic cosmetics are too much for him. “Ghoulishly charming” captures the spirit I was aiming for. I hadn’t thought about his trying to harvest people. Might have to work that in.

      • Burt Likko says:

        It could make for morbid but cute TV series, not just a short story. Each episode revolves around the protagonist researching a (prospective) victim and ends with him having to settle, once again, for a grilled cheese sandwich.

    • NewDealer says:

      I’m surprised I brought up Regina v. Dudley and Stephens before you.

      • Burt Likko says:

        I didn’t think the OP posed a legal question.

        • NewDealer says:

          I suppose my main thrust on speaking about cannibalism in a serious manner* comes from law and jurisprudence so my mind always goes to that case and Fuller’s famous essay.

          *As opposed to very dark jokes about the Donner Party and the line from Silence of the Lambs about “enjoying his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti”

    • Jeff No-Last-Name says:

      This means raising and caring for the human, destined for slaughter, from a state of infancy.

      Not necessarily. See my comment at the bottom of the post.

    • Fnord says:

      Consider the Spartans, or perhaps merely a modern caricature of their society; the idea is a culture where warfare is highly valued and the highest ideal is to die in battle. So, in a sense, children in that culture are raised from infancy for the purpose of a violent death (or at least their parents hope so). We would certainly consider such a culture terrible and immoral. But does it evoke the same revulsion as the idea of being raised from infancy for the purpose of being food?

  3. Ryan Noonan says:

    I’ll go with no. I see no real moral objection to eating human flesh. The problem becomes obtaining it, which typically involves murder or, in Burt’s more horrifying version, harvesting. Those are immoral.

    But I think of the case of people stranded in the mountains or whatever, where they eat the dead for survival. I can’t think of a sensible moral objection to that (unless they purposefully killed someone to get his meat), and it seems generalizable.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Do you see no moral objection to cannibalism in itself or just in extreme cases?

      • Ryan Noonan says:

        I’d say the extreme cases make a good argument that there’s nothing inherently wrong with cannibalism in non-extreme cases. You could argue that need forms a limiting principle, but my general moral commitments don’t allow me to use need as a limiting principle unless some other principle – like the harm principle – is being violated as well.

        • GordonHide says:

          In that certain diseases are spread by cannibalism and by no known alternative method I’d say that you could make a case for cannibalism being immoral, (as opposed to illicit methods of obtaining human flesh to eat).

          • Rodak says:

            Actually, it’s not the case that it’s spread by no other means. Like AIDS, which was believed to have first invaded humans through the consumption of “bush meat” in Africa, it is believed to have started through cannibalism, but is now a communicable disease by other, less dire means.

    • Fnord says:

      Eating someone’s corpse without obtaining their permission (presumably in advance) seems like theft of a sort, even if you didn’t kill them. In a survival situation, keeping the living people alive has to trump that property interest (just like there’s nothing wrong with the plane crash survivors going through other people’s luggage looking for food). But graverobbing seems problematic.

      With permission, though, it seems like it would be OK.

      • Ryan Noonan says:

        Right, I agree with this. Unless you’re violating someone’s OTHER rights in the process, I don’t think you have an additional moral duty not to eat people.

  4. Mike Schilling says:

    There’s a Heinlein novel called Farnham’s Freehold, most of which is set in a post-apocalyptic future where, after the rest of the world blew itself up, Africans became the dominant race. And since under the skin they’re no different from white people, they set themselves up as masters, build plantations, and keep white people as slaves. And they also raise whites as food animals. It’s all very, what’s the word, again? Oh yeah, satirical.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Never read that one.

      • Alan Scott says:

        Not exactly Heinlein’s best.

      • MikeSchilling says:

        You didn’t miss much. But if you want to have some fun, find a Usenet client, subscribe to, and ask, innocently “Gee, doesn’t that seem kind of racist?” You’ll see enough brainpower to solve world hunger once and for all devoted to proving it isn’t.

        • Patrick Cahalan says:

          He might have been able to dodge that charge a bit if Joe had actually acted like a human being.

  5. Anne says:

    Then there is this classic

  6. NewDealer says:

    There is a famous Jurisprudence essay on this subject:

    Plus almost every 1L criminal law student reads a case on cannibalism on the high seas as their introduction to criminal law:

    I would say that we find cannibalism is largely immoral for the same reasons that murder is immoral. There are circumstances that might mitigate the taboo/prohibition but they almost never absolve the practioner absolutely. This is one of the times when our survival instinct is supposed to come second to our moral instinct.

    • Fnord says:

      Dudley and Stephens killed Parker. You could argue back and forth about whether, in a survival situation, it might be permissible to kill someone in order to feed the others, lest everyone die. But it’s certainly a different situation than eating someone who’s already dead of other causes.

      • NewDealer says:


        As I understand it though, the backstory is that what Dudley and Stevens was roughly considered an acceptable practice and the case against them was done by the Crown as a “test case” to end said practice. IIRC they were quickly pardoned or had their death sentences commuted after the final decision came down and it was planned all along.

        So there is an aspect of proving why cannibalism was immoral but it is in the subtext.

        • Fnord says:

          I don’t know about the rest, but IRC their sentence ended up being 6 months; presumably insufficient if you considered them to be as culpable as regular murderers.

  7. Patrick Cahalan says:

    We got this far without anybody saying it?


    • GordonHide says:

      I have to say when I saw that film it was obvious that I was supposed to be horrified when it transpired that food was being produced from dead bodies. I was left completely unmoved.

  8. BlaiseP says:

    We might ask a larger question: where do ethnic tabus fit into philosophy? Everyone who takes the Eucharist hears the words “Take this bread and eat it. This is my body which is broken for you. Do this so that you will remember me. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

    Symbolic cannibalism lies at the heart of Christianity. The Catholic Church demanded the faithful believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation: not the symbolic body and blood of Our Lord, but the literal stuff.

    Many cultures, I’d say most cultures have a formal prayer for the death of an animal killed for food. I’m not sure cannibalism violates the Categorical Imperative. Insofar as cannibalism isn’t disrespectful of the person being eaten, I say no harm no foul. The stranded people aboard Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 survived by eating their fellow passengers. The survivors rationalised their decision by comparing it to the Eucharist.

    • Rodak says:

      @BlaiseP — Exactly. I agree with both of your main points. It is always the attitude with which an act is undertaken that determines its morality w/r/t the moral agent in question.

    • Patrick Cahalan says:

      Mom’s Atheist Cousin used to poke fun at Catholics for being both cannibals and vampires.

    • Glyph says:

      Is there any record of what the Aztecs et al thought of their Eucharist-eating conquistadors’ communion practice? Did they see *that* practice as barbaric, despite their own, shall we say, ‘colorful’ religious practices?

      I always thought it would be a great line for a movie conquistador villain to tell the people he was about to subjugate/wipe out, “You sacrifice your enemies to your gods; but we eat our god – if we do *that*, just imagine what we’ll do to you.”

      I imagine the right actor could make a line like that, right terrifying.

  9. Jeff No-Last-Name says:

    “I won’t eat people
    Eating people is wrong!”

    Cannibalism doesn’t necessarily involve eating people who would not have wished to be eaten. There’s a great book, Courtship Rite where cannibalism is the norm, and people look forward to sharing their parts when they die (and they get tattooed so their skin makes more interesting leather).

    In this society, a person would have an easy time eating organic, since everyone else is as well. Also, there’s no separate “stock” — everyone goes into the soup.

    In this society, cannibalism is moral, and not wanting to be et is not.

  10. Kolohe says:

    Nevermore have I missed IOZ’s Foodie Friday.

  11. Teresa Rice says:

    This reminds me of the movie “Alive”. The survival of the fittest via cannibalism.