Via the Curfew Channel: Let’s Eat Grandma (Cannibalism 101)

Here’s presenting the first of the many great posts to be published by ‘The Curfew Channel’. This post on Cannibalism has been co-authored by Parvesh Baba and Rajmohan CV, both students of the ILS Law College, Pune.  They offer a robust and objective analysis both for and against the practice of cannibalism. It was first posted here. Please read on to get a better understanding of one of the least discussed phenomenons in common life. 


Cannibalism 101:

Cannibalism is something that has always brought out intense distaste and disgust in our society. The idea of it being immoral has existed in society from time immemorial. For the sake of introductions, cannibalism is the act of a human being consuming another human being who is dead or alive. Even if only a certain part of a human being is consumed by another it still constitutes cannibalism and so does the act of eating your own human flesh. Cannibalism can occur with or without murder of another being. The issue of whether the act when facilitated by murder is justified under dire circumstances, came up for consideration in the very famous case of Queen v Dudley and Stevens.To state the case in brief, four men were taking a ship, which was not meant for a long voyage, on a long voyage. They ended up resorting to cannibalism when they ran low on supplies on a lifeboat because, surprise surprise, the vessel sank. The individual they had consumed was one who was already sick due to consumption of sea water and the courts were not tolerant of murder even though the circumstances were dire and food and water supplies were running low. The logic behind why we condone murder is simple, even in cases where in circumstances are dire; the right to life is an absolute right and can be revoked only in the case where an individual poses a threat to someone else’s right to life. In this case, the unfortunate one who became the grand feast, in no way posed a threat to the life of the other gentlemen. Thus, we’re not going to talk about cannibalism facilitated by murder as the authorities are pretty clear on why it is wrong under any circumstance. Hence focus is only on cannibalism not facilitated by murder. So here’s the breakdown we are going to put forth two perspectives- against cannibalism and in favor of cannibalism.


In a scenario where cannibalism is a widespread practice, much like meat eaters of the modern age, there are still several problems with cannibalism practiced on a corpse. Even ignoring the feasibility of the implementation of such a system where society has accepted cannibalism as a lifestyle in contrast to the stigma it is today, and considering as soon as a person dies, he/she is put through the processes without a huge time lapse between the death and the processing of human meat, there are still several issues. For the sake of argument, let us consider a fringe case wherein an individual consumes himself for his survival. This in itself is contradictory because an individual who eats his arm for survival has no guarantee that he will survive now. As a result of him consuming his arm, the wound will be a breeding ground for disease which will eventually kill the individual. Additionally, the individual still has to consider that this is a form of self-harm which is not sanctioned by a state. Why does the state matter in this case? It is because the state has sanctioned your right to life and the right is also irrevocable, according to the state (suicide, euthanasia). Thus, you as an individual cannot make this choice of self-harm by yourself. Moreover, the fact that the individual is not in the right state of mind while making this decision is why the individual does not have the right to make this decision as it is irreversible and the individual is not considering the repercussions of his choice.

Cannibalism is not great for your Health

Firstly, there are health issues when it comes to human meat. One very serious disease called Kuru, which is a result of consumption of the human brain, was tracked to a tribe called Fore in Papua New Guinea. There is no known cure to this disease which is lethal as it causes prions to travel to the brain and degrade neurological function. While this maybe just one example of one recorded disease, the truth is we have no understanding of the plethora of diseases that we will release onto ourselves with this move. There are also several man made diseases, for instance cancer, which is why we must be wearier of consumption of human meat as opposed to meat of other animals. Though it is an understandably irrelevant factor to consider, human meat technically comes under red meat and thus is a very fatty food. If this were to be incorporated into society as other meats are, we would have to deal with a lot more obesity which is a serious threat to human health.

Cannibalism as a Domino Effect

Second aspect is the symbolism of it all and how it is a desecration of humans and also impacts the way we view humans in society. It has always been human culture to respect the dead. Although this idea may have its roots in religion and superstition, it is still a prevalent practice in society. This is the act of tribute from society to respect the life of the individual kind of like an I-won’t-kick-you-when-you’re-down policy. Which is why we still practice last rites in order to respect and celebrate the life of the individual and for relatives to grieve. Cannibalism will undermine this entire grieving and celebratory process. It will make death of an individual a mechanical process. We, as a society, will eventually be more concerned about procuring a dead body to get the human meat processed, instead of respecting the life of the individual and letting people grieve. When Nelson Mandela died, humanity as a whole mourned his death and came together to celebrate and honor his life. Every time there is a death, the same process of grieving and celebration occurs and for the individual in question. Just because the individual is not prominent in society does not give the people who are not associated with the individual to make the people who were close to the individual give up their right to grieve the death of the individual and undermine the whole process by ensuring the individual is preserved for cannibalism. The other problem with this is the fact that the we every individual already has an inherent utility by virtue of the fact that he is human and he can be consumed by other humans. This lead to various social repercussions. For instance, the case of prostitution, which most people are forced into by virtue of their poverty, is a product of an individual’s “utility” falling below the inherent utility that the individual is endowed with by birth. In this case it is sexual organs and the capacity of an individual to have sex. The difference here is that in the case of cannibalism, this situation becomes inevitable when an individual enters old age if we entertain the idea that the stigma around cannibalism will someday dissipate. It is when he/ she is unable to contribute to society that we will question whether the individual would be doing everyone a service by offering themselves up for cannibalism. We can already see the results of women offering themselves up for prostitution, in that there is a large chunk of people out there who consider women to be a tool to satisfy their sexual desires. It is very likely that a similar scenario would be created wherein underperforming individuals are the ones who get thrown under the bus. It will ultimately lead to a scenario where the perception of one and another changes because it is natural for humans to perceive other humans based on the relationship they share with each other. For instance, we show affection towards our mom because of the relationship we share with her. Cannibalism introduces nascent relationships amongst all individuals in a society where strangers are now in contention. Relationships will degrade to the aspect of strict utility, wherein your loved ones might end up on your dinner table one day.


Cannibalism as a Form of Self-Preservation

Self-Preservation or survival, as most of us are well aware, is, has been and will always be our most primal and basic instinct, an instinct trumped over by none. From a baby spitting out anything bitter given to him to eat (out of fear of it being poison, developed over generations) and crying in different frequencies to let people know what it wants, to the adrenaline that courses through your veins when the brothers of that cute girl you hoodwinked last week come to smack you in the face, all are instances of the survival instinct kicking in. We will do absolutely anything to survive, not because of our fear of death, but because of the fact that we are hardwired by nature to survive. Assume that you are stuck in a cave with no way out, and no prospect of help for at least a month. You don’t have water or food and your company has died out. You survive with absolutely nothing for a week and do not even touch the bodies. You are on the verge of death due to thirst and hunger. Would cannibalism under this scenario be justified?

In this scenario it is indeed justified. By performing cannibalism, you are exercising your natural right to survival, the Right to Life. It is true that the body of a person who has died must be treated with dignity, and has the right to have a dignified cremation. But is the high order right of a living human being less important than a lower order right of a dead human being? The right to life takes predominance here and will prevail. Your survival instinct will make you rationalize, will tell you that there is no other way and that it is not wrong. You might puke, feel disgusted with yourself; but the meat, you will consume. There areinstances in history where cannibalism has been performed for survival, but all these instances involved murder coupled with cannibalism and thus is off the radar of justification. However, these instances clearly shows us  that, our survival instinct can make us, do more than just eating human flesh and can make us kill a person and then eat his flesh. Cannibalism on oneself also might be a result of the said survival mechanism in dire circumstances and will be justified. Additionally, the fact that it is your own body you are ingesting out of your own choice, is certainly justified in survival scenarios and can be acceptable in other scenarios too.  There is this one particular incident, where a guy out of curiousity wanted to know how human meat would taste and as it was illegal, he resorted to certain other methods.

But if you are a habitual self eater, please get yourselves checked at a nearby clinic. Thus when survival is at stake, cannibalism (when not facilitated by murder) is neither immoral or moral. because it becomes an act of survival and thus is Amoral, without morality.

Carnivorous Nature of Man

What’s wrong in eating human meat like any other form of meat?  What’s the difference in it being meat too, apart from the possibility that ours might be more nutritional than all other meat? Why do we think eating human meat is wrong? Why do we have no qualms about killing and eating chicken, goat or pig?  Every organism indeed has the Right to Live not just humans.

Morality is the answer. Morality is a sense of right or wrong, imbibed into our being over generations. We have internalized the concept of cannibalism as immoral and wrong and from day one it has been alien to us. We have no qualms about eating other meat because our morality has not told us it is wrong. Morality is thus the key factor here. Morality however is not always right. Just because morality tells cannibalism is wrong does n’t mean it’s actually wrong, and this is true especially under the scenario, where we very hypocritically demand the one right we have denied to scores of living beings. Is it moral then to slaughter other living beings. Is it moral then to. apply different standards just because we are the stronger species. These are questions we must consider when we criticize the concept of cannibalism.

Humans have always been carnivorous. Human meat will be no different from any other kind of meat. Our stomachs are fine-tuned to accept human meat too. This does not in any way mean that humans are to be slaughtered for human meat markets to be set up. What it does mean is that when human meat is freely given to the said market after the death of a person with his own free consent and after it is ensured there is no disease in it, there is nothing wrong in the sale of that meat in the market and the consumption that follows. Under this scenario, it is the choice of the person selling his body after his death and the choice of another person buying it. This ability to make choices makes us human.

Let me just draw your attention to a meat market in London. This meat market is a fake human meat market where “morally edible” meat disguised as human meat is sold. So humans have already entertained eating meat disguised as our own and who is to say, that in coming years, we won’t actually see eating human as immoral?

As we can see cannibalism has many complex aspects to it. These can only be only be explored when we do not dismiss the idea of cannibalism and keep an open mindset. At the end of all this hopefully we’ve provided some “food for thought”.

-Parvesh Baba and Rajmohan C V


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