by Simon Smith
At last, here we are at the final cannibalistic course. Unless, that is, anyone wants coffee. No? Then let’s proceed.
Now I can’t help wondering whether cannibal coffee is anything like civet cat coffee and if it is, whether that makes cannibal coffee better or worse.
I think I’ll stick with a simple French roast. That goes for the coffee too, of course.
When last we foregathered, you may recall, a somewhat unfortunate conclusion impressing itself upon us. Twice, in fact. That conclusion was that ethics may not be terribly helpful when it comes to cannibalism. Well, there’s more than one way to skin a Kate. Let’s dig a little deeper and, taking another cue from Malinowski, consider anthropology. Philosophical anthropology that is, the only kind we’re qualified to dilate upon. After all, moral thinking stands upon philosophical anthropology: our conceptions, explicit and implicit, of what it means to be human.
Whether Malinowski and the Trobrianders would agree with us is doubtful. The Trobrianders are, by all accounts, ill-disposed to windy metaphysical speculation. Similarly, Malinowski was far more interested in praxis than in theoria. We shall not gainsay the point. Except when while we have our own windy metaphysical speculation to pursue.
Survey that windy metaphysical landscape and it seems Western philosophy ought to be quite relaxed about cannibalism. Realists who follow Descartes (whether or not they admit it) should be positively nonchalant because since they’ve already isolated consciousness from any bodily instantiation. Since mind and body are distinct and separate substances, and the moral and metaphysical weight lies entirely on the mind, then the body isn’t important.
And yes, the metaphysical weight lies entirely on mind for realists. As Farrer points out, Descartes believed the physical universe was constituted by inert stuff; therein lies the motivation for dualism:
The ruthless uniformity of his new physics demanded that the human body should be interpreted as physical clockwork; and to treat clockwork as the actual organ and sphere of the conscious animal soul was a paradox before which Descartes recoiled (14).
So, it’s a theological need – and a distinctly pragmatic one at that – to make room for the soul or psyche which drove Descartes to ontological segregation. In the end, it hardly matters what happens to the physical side since it will inevitably go the way of all flesh: the clockwork breaks down, decays, and eventually decomposes. If someone decides to take a bite along the way, who’s going to mind, as it were?
So much for dualism. Lurch too far in the other direction, however, and we just run into the same kind of problems. And this, by the way, isn’t something that Personalism is immune to, not by a long chalk.
Take, for example, the queso grande of Spanish Personalism, Juan Manuel Burgos. Burgos has argued, not unreasonably, that ‘human person is totally unthinkable without the body.’ Ordinarily, I wouldn’t dream of disagreeing. Conceive of persons and we conceive of embodied being or agency (I prefer the latter term). And yet, Burgos goes on to insist on the ‘impossibility of separating the body from the person’. This seems a bit too far, not least because ‘[a]s soon as a part of the body is separated from the person, it ceases to exist as such. A severed hand is not a hand and a dead body is not a human body.’ Very well, but then, what are they? Not simply objects, surely. For if a severed hand and a dead body are just part of the furniture of the world, then, on the one hand, funerary rites and taboos are perfectly incomprehensible; while, on the other, fire up the BBQ: cannibalism is perfectly acceptable.
Somewhat worryingly, not to mention distastefully, it’s just occurred to me that, the foregoing probably applies to necrophilia in the same way. How ghastly.
While we all try to forget we just thought that, the same basic conclusion follows from philosophical behaviourism. Reduce persons to their actions or explicit behaviour and it becomes difficult to see what value the body ultimately has and why one shouldn’t have a bit of a nibble on a stiff, cannibalistically speaking. To the behaviourist, the body only matters insofar as it is a ‘vehicle’ for action; once it is no longer that, i.e. when the ‘person’ or behavioural aggregate is dead and gone, it’s chow time.
That behaviourism ends up in the same place as Cartesian realism is hardly surprising, of course. It is, as Strawson pointed out, little more than an ‘inverted dualism’, a dualism of one ‘subject’ – the body – and one non-subject – the agent or owner of acts performed.
Sadly, there’s no room for smugness here, since this seems to leave our own philosophical position in the sweet and sour sauce. Surely, if, as I have suggested, persons are constituted by their actions, then I’m in no position to cock my snook, or anything else, at any of the aforementioned crowd. Action is all; the body is irrelevant; everybody, grab a fork and dig in.
It may not be quite correct to say that the body is irrelevant. After all, the body is, as Burgos rightly points out, the physical manifestation of personhood. The body is, as I argued in my first great magnum opus – still available from good booksellers and evil empires everywhere – the modus operandi of conscious, personal agency. But this is mere quibbling. Not about my book, that really is very available; and Christmas is just around the corner. The truth seems to be that, even if we acknowledge the vital importance of bodily being to our understanding of persons, still we have failed to endow the body itself with sufficient value to preserve it post mortem.
In sum, we have failed to find sound moral or philosophical justification judging funeral cannibalism either right or wrong.
That might seem a little worrying, but let’s not panic yet. As we suspected, all it really means is, this is not so much a moral issue as a social and cultural one. Consequently, any judgement we make will also be social and cultural. That’s to say, cannibalism is clearly neither acceptable nor desirable in Western society, even in America, even if the corpse is dipped in chocolate and wrapped in bacon. To be fair, the Trobriander’s themselves seemed quite ambivalent about the whole cannibalism thing.
However, judgements grounded in social and cultural norms seems perfectly reasonable. That, after all, is what makes any society cohere: ‘this is how we do things round these parts’ is one of the things that instantiates the ‘we’ in the first place, especially when ‘these parts’ are dead parts. What does not seem reasonable is extending cultural norms to other cultures where they don’t hold good. Just because we do things this way, it does not follow that you must do likewise. That way lies the path of the missionary and the colonialist, both of whom deserve to end up in a cooking pot.
Having said as much, however, one last thought. No matter what the social or cultural context, I would insist that, in my own case, funerary cannibalism is utterly unacceptable. It would unquestionably be wrong for any member of my family to eat me just because I would end up very under-seasoned and very overcooked. And, in the end, wouldn’t that be the greatest evil of all?