What’s wrong with cannibalism?

Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News writes: Gang, I think this short City Journal article by Theodore Dalrymple, M.D. could spark an interesting discussion among us. Dr. Dalrymple takes up the case of Armin Meiwes, the German cannibal on trial for murdering and eating his sex partner, the late (and arguably delicious) Bernd Brandes. Meiwes advertised on the Internet for a male sex partner who would be willing to be killed and eaten by him. Brandes showed up at his door saying, “Here I am!” There is, I have read, videotaped evidence showing that Brandes fully consented to what is, you’ll have to admit, the ultimate sadomasochistic relationship.

It is widely accepted in today’s society that the state has no business interfering in private sexual conduct made by consenting adults. It is also believed by many people that individuals should have the right to choose euthanasia; that is, adults should have the right to end their lives on their own terms, as long as they hurt no one.

The question becomes: On what moral and philosophical grounds does the state justify prosecuting the cannibal Meiwes for participating in a consensual act that happened to involve sex and ritual murder?

Writes Dalrymple: “Lest anyone think that the argument from mutual consent for the permissibility of cannibalism is purely theoretical, it is precisely what Meiwes’s defense lawyer is arguing in court. The case is a reductio ad absurdum of the philosophy according to which individual desire is the only thing that counts in deciding what is permissible in society. Brandes wanted to be killed and eaten; Meiwes wanted to kill and eat. Thanks to one of the wonders of modern technology, the Internet, they both could avoid that most debilitating of all human conditions, frustrated desire. What is wrong with that? Please answer from first principles only.”

Dr. Dalrymple is not a libertarian, so he is in no way arguing for the defense. But he does raise a very valid point. I’m not a libertarian either, so I can explain (and will do so) why I think this is wrong. But I know there are some pretty strong libertarians among us, so I’m interested to hear what you have to say in answer to Dr. Dalrymple’s challenge.

Since you asked for a response from libertarians, I’ll be happy to provide one. Meiwes’ cannibalistic and depraved actions should be perfectly legal given the circumstances, although they are without question morally reprehensible. Now, either the State has the power to define sin or it does not. If it does have the power to define sin, then adultery, a far more common and socially destructive sin than cannibalism, should without question be banned and punished. If it does not have this power, then the laws against murder must stem from private property rights, in which case Brandes clearly granted Meiwes permission to make culinary use of his body and so there is no crime.

I am a Christian, but I absolutely prefer that the State be limited to matters of defending its citizenry and the private property rights of those citizens. If the State is allowed to play God and define sin, then sin will be defined by the most active special interest groups in the quasi-democratic West, leading to situations where men are convicted for the hate crime of publishing Bible verses as happened recently in Canada, or, conversely, women are sentenced to stoning for getting pregnant out of wedlock. What the State can give, the State can take away; it is an amoral enterprise.

A society cannot hope to exceed the morals of the individuals that comprise it.

Rod responds: I don’t think this is sufficient. If the moral basis for banning murder is located in the defense of property rights, and not in the inherent dignity of the individual, then what is to prevent the state from declaring an entire class of people — African slaves, for example — as mere property, and denying them human rights?

Besides which, it doesn’t follow at all that if the state has the right to pass laws based on a vision of right and wrong — and that’s what all laws are: a codified moral vision — that the state must make adultery a criminal offense. Unquestionably adultery is destructive of the social order, but it could be argued — indeed, I would argue — that making adultery a criminal offense would cause more problems than it would solve. Not so with murder and cannibalism.

Because under my libertarian scenario, the State has no power to supercede any individual’s property right to himself. Such an action would be theft; there is no eminent domain. Admittedly, it might be difficult to prevent an individual from selling himself, should he so choose. However, under Rod’s scenario, the State can simply declare the class of individual non-human, as the Nazis and the U.S. Supreme Court and now New Jersey have done. The moral basis for banning murder is not based in the inherent dignity of the individual anyhow, it is based on Mosaic law and the conflation of the State with the Church. Unfortunately, we don’t have God talking directly to our leaders, except perhaps Pat Robertson, so in this fallen world it is preferable to strip the State of the ability to define morality, legality and sin.

The correlation absolutely follows since Rod’s codified moral vision (he’s a Catholic Christian) bans adultery as it bans cannibalism. If we’re going to delve into moral relativism or utilitarianism, then we have to begin from scratch by making distinct cases for the morality or immorality of adultery, murder and cannibalism. This was not the perspective from which the original question was posed.

It occured to me that the very language used is telling. The post on DMN Daily didn’t ask “what is illegal about cannibalism”, it asked “what is wrong” with it. Illegal and wrong are not synonymous. What is wrong with cannibalism and murder is that, like adultery, it is an offense to God. One does not eat His temple. That’s the sum total. God alone defines our morality; that is why the apostle Paul told the newly Christian Jews that the old Mosaic Law had been superceded and they could now eat the formerly unclean foods. Morality thus is not the law, it is above it.

The only question that remains is do we structure our society with laws in accordance with our best understanding of God’s Will or not? Since God appears to be the ultimate champion of free will, I do not think we should, but rather imitate Him in allowing people the maximum freedom and responsibility possible. I suggest that history and the failures of every attempt to force God on individuals through the State supports this stance.