Cannibalism, also known as anthropophagy, is the consumption of the flesh of one human by another. While it may immediately bring feelings of sickness to most, is it actually an ethical practice? Before diving into the ethics of cannibalism, it is important to define the different forms cannibalism can take.
Because there are many types of cannibalism, it is necessary to divide them into two groups: active and passive cannibalism. Active cannibalism is killing someone with the intent to eat them. On the other hand, passive cannibalism is consuming someone that is already dead. Jill Hobbs also divides cannibalism further into groups which focus on the reasons for cannibalism: religious/ritual, emergency/survival, and fetish.
Religious/ritual cannibalism is also known as learned cannibalism because people learn about it from a previous generation. This type of human consumption is commonly used as a practice of respect for elders who have passed. While this type of cannibalism is usually peaceful, violence is sometimes involved when looked at from a ritual angle of the culture. Motivators behind religious cannibalism can also include “the desire for revenge, to crush one’s enemy, to eliminate internal or external threats, to magically stave off negative forces, or simply to feast.”
Survival cannibalism is defined as consuming the flesh of another human in an emergency to prevent death by starvation. This type of cannibalism can be seen from an example including four Englishmen who were lost at sea in 1884. After their ship got destroyed and they were left with no supplies, three of the men decided to kill the fourth in order to eat his body. They decided to kill this man because he was very sick and death was said to be imminent. By doing this, there would be three survivors total rather than none, so the seamen decided it would be the best option.
The final kind of cannibalism Hobbs discusses is fetish cannibalism. While many people tend to think of a fetish only as something sexual, this type of cannibalism is considered a fetish because the consumer is “fulfilling the desire to consume human flesh.” This type of cannibalism is the least commonly practiced and discussed.
So, is cannibalism considered ethical or not? When arguing against cannibalism, one of the first arguments to be brought forth is the concept of natural law. Natural law is defined as the order of the world, and to break the natural law is to violate the order of the world. In this sense, many argue that consuming a member of your own species is wrong and immoral..Another common argument against this practice is simply disgust – if the majority of people are disgusted by something then it must be morally wrong. Evolution is also seen as a factor that does not support cannibalism because of the consequences it can have. One consequence involves putting the cannibal at risk of catching disease. If a cannibal does not know why the person they are consuming has died, they could contract a disease that will kill them as well. The more prominent consequence in society is ostracism – especially if violence was used to obtain the corpse.
Josh Milburn describes how cannibalism can be both ethical and unethical depending on the situation and whether or not consent is given. He divides cannibalism into three categories: violent, corpse interference, and waste. All of these types of cannibalism can be completed with or without consent. Violent cannibalism is when a human is killed with the intent of cannibalism. Non-consensual violent cannibalism is usually seen as murder, a clearly unethical act. Though much less common, there are also instances of consensual cannibalism. The most well-known case of consensual cannibalism occurred in Germany when Bernd Brandes gave permission for Armin Meiwes to kill and eat him.
Corpse interference cannibalism is very similar to passive cannibalism because the person being consumed is already dead. The famous example of the Donner Party is an example of non-consensual corpse interference cannibalism because the cannibals were eating members of the party who had already been killed because of the harsh weather and lack of supplies. Corpse interference can also be consensual if a person gives consent before they die, usually in a living will..
The third and final type of cannibalism Wilburn describes is waste scenarios – having a part of a body removed for a reason other than the sole purpose of cannibalism. The body part being removed is usually for medical purposes in order to save an individual’s life. If the body part being removed is eaten by another human being, it can be either consensual or not depending on the donor’s wishes.
Others see cannibalism itself (only in the sense of eating human meat) as completely ethical and support passive cannibalism. William Irvine says “I will argue that when it comes to develop an ethics of eating, the stomach all too often triumphs over the mind,” when explaining why he believes it is ethical to consume someone who has already passed away. He defends his argument by using the analogy of raising babies on farms and fattening them up to eat them like we do with other animals. He points out that we all see this is unethical to do and asks why it is okay to do this to other animals when there is good human flesh available from deceased bodies.
Milburn had a similar idea to this when talking about LGF (lab grown flesh). By practicing this, no harm is done to either animals or people. He states “we have a dearth of convincing rational arguments against cannibalism in-and-of-itself. Though we have good moral reasons to object to typical instances of cannibalism, these do not extend to LGF cannibalism… we should allow our feelings of disgust to give way to good ethical reasoning.” Milburn argues that by eating LGF, there are no unethical circumstances or violence surrounding animals or people.
For those who practice cannibalism as a part of their culture, both historic and religious components come into play. B. Beau states “Men have always eaten one another; they will continue to do so in the future as they have in the past.” As someone who participates in this practice himself, he points out that this is a tradition that is not an accident, people see it as a law created by the gods. He argues that not only is cannibalism ethical, it is beneficial to society. Because the old and sick are being eaten, it makes the population stronger as a whole and keeps the population at a level that can be sustained by the available supplies. Eating others after a war is also seen as a type of natural selection because those who do survive the war are “truly worth to live and perpetuate themselves.”
Overall, there is no right or wrong answer to whether or not the consumption of one human by another is ethical. While many argue that it is not, there are arguments that support it based on the situation and type of cannibalism, especially when it comes to religious/ritualistic cannibalism.
Anthropologist tends to use subcategories of exocannibalism and endocannibalism when focusing on religious/ritual cannibalism. Exocannibalism refers to the consumption of members from a culturally established outside group and endocannibalism to refer to the consumption of members of one’s own group. Exocannibalism is normally affiliated with the purpose of striking fear in the enemy as well as to engross the spirit of the enemy and involves killing. Endocannibalism is often seen as displaying respect for the deceased and correlated with an effort to maintain the group’s identity. It’s related to burial ceremonies and sometimes called “mortuary cannibalism” or “compassionate cannibalism,” endocannibalism rarely involves killing. For example, the Fore people of New Guinea justified their mortuary cannibalism with the belief that when they consumed the corpse, the spirit of the dead is being protected in the bodies of those who ate them.
When researchers made their way to the villages in New Guinea during the 1950s, they found out that among a tribe of about 11,000 people called the Fore, up to 200 people, a year was dying from an illness called kuru. Kuru means “shivering” or “trembling.” Once the symptoms set in, it was sudden death. First, those affected with kuru would have troubles with walking and that was seen as a sign that they were about to lose control over their muscles and limbs. They’d then lose control over their emotions, which is why some people called it the “laughing death.” Within a year, they wouldn’t be able to control their own bodily functions, feed themselves, or even be able to get up off the floor. Many locals were assured that it was the result of sorcery. The disease primarily affected adult women and kids younger than eight years old which resulted in having almost no young women left in some villages.
After discovering out that Kuru was not a cause of genetic mutations, medical anthropologists Lindenbaum was convinced that it had something to do with eating dead bodies at funerals. In many villages, when somebody passed away, they were cooked and then consumed because it was seen as an act of mourning and affection. As one Fore villager explained, “when burying the body, it would be set on a platform to be eaten by maggots and worms. So it’s a better idea for the body to be eaten by those who loved the dead instead of various insects and worms.” With this being said, women were tasked with removing the brain, mixing it with ferns, and cooking it in tubes of bamboo. Women then fire-roasted the body parts and ate everything but the gallbladder. Women were tasked with eating the deceased body parts because their bodies were thought to be competent in housing and controlling the malicious spirit that accompanies a dead body. “Women took on the position of devouring the dead body and providing it a safe place inside their own body — taming it, for a duration of time, during the dangerous time of mortuary ceremonies,” stated Lindenbaum. However, women occasionally pass pieces of the feast to children and they always ate what their mothers gave them without question. Interestingly enough, it was discovered that once sons reached a certain age, the moved to live with all the men in another location and they were then told: “to not touch that stuff.” Finally, after some influence from researchers and anthropologists, biologists finally came around to the idea that the kuru originated from eating dead people. The case was concluded after a group of biologists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health inserted an infected human brain matter into chimpanzees, and observed Kuru symptoms develop in the chimpanzees months later. Kuru passes between people this way because it belongs to a category of diseases known as prion diseases.
Prion diseases are caused by malformed prion proteins found commonly in the brain. These deformed proteins can lead to brain and nerve damage, as well as other symptoms. Transmissible prion diseases can be spread by the consumption of an infected person’s organs, especially the brain, as that is where the greatest concentration of prion proteins are found. While prion diseases are rare, they have no known cure and they are always fatal.
Perhaps the most well-known example of a widespread prion disease is the kuru epidemic in Papua New Guinea. In 1957, “when it was first investigated…it was found to be present in epidemic proportions, with approximately 1000 deaths…[between] 1957-1961.” In Papua New Guinea, kuru was transmitted through “the local mortuary practice of consumption of the dead.” Even though the practice was prohibited in the 1950s, the long incubation period of kuru led to deaths caused by the illness happening years after practices of endocannibalism (the consumption of the body of a deceased relative) were outlawed. Kuru’s incubation period range from “34 to 41 years,” or up to “39 to 56 years” in men. Kuru was found more often in children and adult women than in adult men, with “60 percent of cases in adult females…two [percent] in adult males and the remainder in children and adolescents of both sexes.” This distribution was caused by the mortuary customs of the people living in the area. When an individual died, their “whole body was eaten by female relatives and their children of both sexes. Adult males…rarely partook of the body and never ate the brain or other organs.” Because the women and children consumed the bodies and organs of their relatives, they were put at a much greater risk for contracting kuru than those who did not.
While prion diseases are the most well-known result of cannibalism in humans, there is also concern about the possibility of spreading other types of diseases or parasites. Studies have found that cannibalism in animals “[reduces] the prevalence of parasites…by both directly killing parasites in infected victims and by reducing the number of susceptible hosts.” In humans, “because cannibalism is no longer a regular feature of human populations, it is impossible to assess the degree to which [diseases other than kuru] may have had this as a transmission mode.” However, it has been suggested that tapeworms or certain blood-borne infections could be aided by cannibalism, even if that is not their primary means of transmission .
Cannibalism occupies a unique place in the world. There are those who believe that the consumption of human flesh is unethical and unsafe, pointing to prion diseases such as kuru that can be spread by cannibalism. On the other hand, there are many places where cannibalism is practiced and is a celebrated part of a culture and lifestyle, such as the Fore people of Papua New Guinea or the Wari’ of the Amazon. Cannibalism is often sensationalized and misunderstood, but because of its importance to various cultures and groups, it should be studied much more thoroughly to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions.
Grace Karegeannes, Hannah Brown, Charlotte Grush
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