Everyday Philosophy: The religious belief underlying our disgust with cannibalism

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“Why, in some countries, is eating someone’s corpse a way to honor the dead while in others it is unthinkable?”

– Christopher, IT

One of my favorite pieces of peculiar trivia is about eating bacon. I prefer to use it with people I’ve only just met, but anytime will do. Just as I’m about to bite into a greasy mouthful, I’ll look my company in the eyes and say, “Did you know that pork is the closest meat to human flesh we all commonly eat?” Often, I’m met with an awkward laugh, at which point I’ll carry on. “Yeah, it used to be that certain Fijians cannibals called humans ‘long pigs.’”

Chomp. Chomp. Chomp.

For most people, there’s something viscerally upsetting about the idea of eating another person. Deep-fried toes, stewed pancreas, and pineapple-and-brain hors d’oeuvres aren’t on anyone’s menu. It might even be that it’s in our DNA to find cannibalism disgusting. But Christopher’s question highlights a problem with this “it’s how we’re wired” point. Some cultures do eat human meat. These are not psychotic anomalies; these are frequent, large-scale, well-documented instances of cannibalism. This points, at the very least, to the fact that our “wiring” can be rewired or that our revulsion is one of social evolution rather than biological. So why are some cultures disgusted and others accepting of cannibalism?

Rather than take us on an anthropological, multi-volume tour of the theological beliefs underpinning hundreds of disparate religions, I will redirect the question onto the ethical one: Why do we tend to think cannibalism is wrong, and are we justified in doing so? To help us answer this question, we’re going to examine Jeremy Wisnewski’s paper, “A Defense of Cannibalism“, and Giles Fraser’s essay on the same topic.

Wisnewski: There is nothing consistent or justified about banning cannibalism

Whenever you read a post like this one with an “Is X morally wrong?” title, you can usually bet your hat on the battle lines. It’ll be consequentialism vs. deontology, and often utilitarianism vs. Kantianism. It’s outcomes vs. duty. And Wisnewski’s “Defense of Cannibalism” says that neither school can save the anti-cannibalists of the world.

The utilitarian question in this case is, “Does cannibalism cause more harm than good?” And, sometimes, it might seem to be so. Utilitarian arguments typically focus on the harm done to the individual being cannibalized or the emotional distress caused to their loved ones. But if we’re taking the issue on a case-by-case basis, there are many cases where this doesn’t hold. What if the deceased has no close ties and their death does not inflict direct suffering on others? What if the meat gives pleasure to a group of cannibal connoisseurs? Finally, murdering someone to eat their meat is obviously reprehensible, but once they are dead, does it make sense that we’re “harming” their body?

The Kantian question is, “Does this respect human autonomy and dignity?” Are we treating another human as a tool? A means for our own gustatory pleasure? Again, no. For Kant, the essence of human dignity lies in an individual’s autonomy — the capacity we have to make rational choices and impose the moral law upon ourselves. A corpse, without autonomy and agency, no longer qualifies as a “person” in this strict philosophical context. And so, Wisnewski argues that consuming a corpse does not violate Kantian ethics since it does not infringe upon the autonomy of a living being.

Wisnewski then argues that not only is cannibalism not inherently wrong, but it can sometimes be laudable, such as in the case of someone who rationally consents to having their body eaten. In this case, we are fulfilling the wishes of the dead and possibly giving pleasure to their relatives. It’s not difficult, for example, to imagine a society where cannibalism is seen as an honor to the deceased’s family, such as for religious reasons.

So, at least for secular ethics, it’s hard to see what’s wrong with cannibalism.

Fraser: A theological issue, not an ethical one

So, if we cannot find any secular basis for condemning cannibalism, might there be a religious one?

This is the line that Fraser takes. As he puts it, “Cannibalism is more a theological problem than a philosophical one because we treat human bodies — even after death — as in some way sacred. Those who blithely insist that after death anyone can do what they want with their bodies — throw them on the rubbish tip — are very much in the minority, and I often wonder how sincere they are. Even dead bodies are reckoned to bear some sort of imprint of the life that the body lived.”

Fraser first takes on the idea that “cannibalism is wrong because it’s unnatural.” There are indeed good, biological reasons why eating human bodies is foolish; dead bodies are prone to infection. They carry bacteria that can cause cannibals to go insane or die in horrible pain. So, could the brain’s instinctive revulsion at consuming human flesh be a kind of defense mechanism? Fraser thinks no. Fraser argues that “disgust may originate in some evolutionary need to protect against infection,” but the reason it continues to disgust us is because of social norms and our concern for the “sacred.”

As Durkheim argued, all human societies tend to delineate what is sacred and what is not, and these delineations are often religious (such as the sanctity of human life) but not always (such as the respect for a country’s flag). Fraser argues that the reason that we find cannibalism revolting is that our social norms have been stewed in millennia of religious values — that the body is sacred. Even after death, “we” exist in some form. As Fraser puts it, “What begins as a biological reaction to a threat to our bodies can be a sign of a spiritual reaction to a threat to our souls.”

A religious culture without religious people

Fraser’s point is not, “If you find cannibalism revolting, you must be a Christian.” It’s both logical and reasonable to claim that religious beliefs can be found buried in our cultural heritage and bubbling in our collective unconscious. The laws, institutions, and social taboos we live by have been handed down to us by a decidedly more religious generation than ours today might be.

In 2019, the historian Tom Holland wrote a book called Dominion, in which he traced Christian roots to almost all of our Western values and cultures. Holland argues: “Secularism owes its existence to the medieval papacy. Humanism derives ultimately from claims made in the Bible: that humans are made in God’s image… We are so habituated to seeing the world through a Christian lens that we don’t even recognize it.” For Holland, secularism, agnosticism, equality, and human rights are rooted in the Bible and Christian theology. It might be that the taboo against cannibalism takes its place on Holland’s list.

So, Christopher, after 1,200 words of philosophical and sociological journey, I can give you a simple answer: The reason we think cannibalism is wrong is because we were all once much more religious.

This article Everyday Philosophy: The religious belief underlying our disgust with cannibalism is featured on Big Think.

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