By Simon Smith
Are we sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Eating people: is cannibalism very wrong? I mean, really?
To reiterate, before we proceed, a couple of caveats: the intention here is not to advocate, encourage, excuse, or offer cooking tips. What I’m interested in is whether the claim that cannibalism is wrong is philosophically justified. What’s more, we shall, eventually, limit ourselves to considerations of philosophical anthropology in the Western tradition. Just what does that tradition have to say about chowing down on other people?
The curiosity may be philosophical, but the context, you will recall, was the other kind of anthropology, the broadly scientific kind. Specifically, it was inspired by Bronislaw Malinowski’s Magic, Science and Religion.
A brief sideways thought: Malinowski’s suggestion that religion is born from an encounter with providence, the hand of fate at work in the world, struck me as particularly thrilling. No, really. Following Austin Farrer, as I do, it’s something I’ve long been convinced of. Religious belief is not primarily a rational or rationalist move. It’s not an abstract intellectual process, as so many philosophers and theologians would have us believe; the roots of religious belief lie deep in ordinary and very concrete human experience: that cosmological intuition which first makes us wonder, ‘why are things as they are and not otherwise?’
Obviously, we’re not talking about the classical, philosophical, binary here: rationalism versus empiricism. In actual praxis, we overcome such divisive constructs. In reality, what Malinowski’s field work shows is that, contra Descartes and Hume and all their myopic descendants, understanding requires both reason and experience. If we’re going to learn anything at all about the universe, we’re going to have to think about what we do and what happens as a result.
See how easy that is? Now try explaining it to an analytic philosopher.
But as we all know, what interests that crowd is the mere idea of religion; that is, religion driven beyond all practical matters by the disunion of the self with itself, the conflict between who I am and who I ought to be.
This is not to deny Farrer’s other, entirely crucial and entirely correct, point about how religious belief ordinarily begins. That’s to say, the chances of anyone turning their eyes to the heavens and suddenly thinking ‘Coo, I wonder who done all them pretty lights. God, probably,’ are very much the same as the chances of anything coming from Mars.
No one, or almost no one, really experiences the raw, unvarnished idea of divinity. We all learn about religion the same way people have for countless generations: from those who teach us. Ah, but here too, in teaching and learning, in the creative participation of others in our own becoming, that self-same cosmological intuition is hard at work. The hand of God, as Farrer said, is perfectly hidden.  And where better to hide than in plain sight, in personal acts that exemplify the very thing they seek to explain?
That, as it happens, was the subject of one of my first published papers, ‘Lessons in Faith and Knowledge’ (Minerva 15, 2011: 78-101), in case anyone is interested.
The point of all this is that Malinowski’s work offers empirical evidence for the idea that consciousness is naturally cosmologically oriented. It seems, transcendent aspirations may well be part of human evolution, perhaps even the key to it, to our evolution as human.
As Charles Conti used to say, ‘now isn’t that interesting?’ Isn’t it, in fact and as Conti never tires of pointing out, just how a smart God would have done it?
And if you want more evidence, have a look at Fraser’s The Golden Bough. There you’ll see that one of the most common, if not constant, motifs in human history, an idea which turns up time and time again in cultures the world over, is that of the god-king who must be sacrificed for the good of all.
Now, you have to admit, that is interesting.
Before anyone points it out: yes, thank you, I know perfectly well that I’m interpreting these phenomena from within a very particular theoretical (not to mention historical and cultural) framework. So what? All enquiries do that. Find me a theoretically (or historically or culturally) neutral place from which to make purely objective observations if you can.
But I digress. This is meant to be about cannibalism, not the development of consciousness as religious consciousness. Malinowski introduces the topic, as he terms it, ‘sarco-cannibalism’, in the context of funerary and mortuary rights. This, he explains, is the rather ‘gruesome… custom of partaking in piety of the flesh of the dead person’ (32). Yuk.
Yuk, indeed. That, believe it or not, is the point. Are we entitled to pass moral judgement on these cultures and their practices? And if we do, on what grounds? That was the question I found myself pondering as I read Malinowski. Clearly, it’s not the sort of thing that Western societies would find palatable, either morally or gastronomically. It would, in short, be unacceptable to go to a funeral here in England, or in France or Germany, perhaps even in America, and take a bite out of the corpse. It would be frowned upon, of this I have no doubt. But am I therefore entitled to judge those peoples who have practiced ‘sarco-cannibalism’ for generations upon generations?
We could, of course, judge the practice on religious grounds. The Abrahamic religions, especially, would be highly critical. On the other hand, the Abrahamic religions are highly critical of a lot of things and the reasoning frequently seems to come down to ‘because it says so in my special book’. Personally, I’d like something a bit more robust than that, speaking philosophically.
And if we are speaking philosophically, the standard ethical positions are not, I think, well-equipped to help here. Jeremy Bentham, J. S. Mill, et al. would probably have to admit that no one was actually being harmed. What’s more, the practice is, as Malinowski suggests, intended to maintain the social cohesion in times of moral and spiritual crisis, to ensure that those closest to the crisis remain integrated with society. Altogether, that seems fairly acceptable on utilitarian grounds.
What about the Kantians? Is ‘sarco-cannibalism’ irrational? Is it a betrayal of one’s duty? Does it entail treating others as a means rather than an end? To all three questions, the answer is ‘probably not’. It’s not obviously irrational, except by Western standards of rationality; and such standards are neither objective or universal. If I have a duty not to eat my dead relatives, then it’s a duty imposed by the society in which I live and so wouldn’t apply to the people Malinowski is talking about. And given the context, it seems very clear that no one is breaking Kant’s Golden Rule. The act is reverential, not instrumental; no one is being used for anything, least of all the stiff. Ah, but is ‘sarco-cannibalism’ universalizable? Could be.
Whether or not partaking of a literal finger buffet is conducive to a virtuous life or character is difficult to say. I don’t doubt that Virtue Ethicists, from Aristotle to Phillipa Foot, would frown upon it, but I struggle to see exactly why.
And what about personalism? Since most so-called ‘personalist ethics’ actually boils down either to some form of Kantianism or to Virtue Ethics, or even, more simply, to Catholicism, I don’t know that personalism has much to add here. And what it does have, I want to come back to later.
In fact, let us ponder a little longer and come back to the whole thing later. Say, next week.