Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Question Time: Consensual Cannibalism

MT asks:
Consensual cannibalism between adults: Should it be legal?
My gut answer: Yes, assuming the parties are competent to consent. Some would argue that anyone who wants to eat someone else is crazy and therefore incompetent. I think the question is more pressing in terms of the status of the eaten than the eater, though. The standard for whether someone is competent to consent to be killed by another should be searching, but this concern is equally important in issues like euthanasia and can be dealt with by requiring disinterested physicians to sign off on the killing. (I think choosing the time when your life ends is a valid exercise of free will, which informs my position here.)

For lesser acts of cannibalism, the inquiry need not be as rigorous. Some people want to remove their limbs; whether they wish to give their unwanted body parts to a cannibal seems almost irrelevant. Eating the dead as a funerary rite also appears at first glance unobjectionable, since the individual is deceased (I would feel comfortable with this if the method of disposal were consented to by the person before death, but I recognize that this is slightly irrational.) The disposition of a piece of human flesh that is no longer part of a living person does not call for draconian regulation.

The main concerns with regard to cannibalism are public health (prion diseases analogous to Mad Cow can be spread via cannibalism) and the social effects of people seeing other people as food sources. Since it seems unlikely that cannibalism will appeal to most people, the issue is whether, for the niche population that would be cannibals if it were legal, the legalization of consensual cannibalism would result in an increase in nonconsensual cannibalism or whether gratifying the urge in a consensual way would satisfy the compulsion before an aspiring cannibal took violent steps to gratify his urge. At the very least, legalization of cannibalism might encourage people with this odd desire to speak about it in a serious and open way, which might lead them to seek help before they secretly, shamefully killed and attempted to eat someone.

This sounds to me a lot like the debates about artificial child pornography; if no children are harmed; should it be legal? Surely taking pictures of someone, no matter how degrading, is less offensive than murdering and eating them? If we believe that cannibals, like child molestors, would be spurred to new crimes by satisfaction of their deviant desire, then perhaps regulation is the prudent course.

Any thoughts?
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