Sunday, 27 October 2019

Guess who’s coming to dinner: ruminations on the ethics of cannibalism. Primo Piatto.

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.
They said.
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. [1] 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.

[1] See A Science of God? 80; Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited, 95, 99; and Saving Belief, 72.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Guess who’s coming to dinner: ruminations on the ethics of cannibalism. Antipasto

by Simon Smith

We’ve received a few positive comments lately. This isn’t entirely unusual; comments trickle in and we’re always grateful. One unhappy thing about academic philosophy is that you rarely get more than a handful of readers and more rarely still does anyone get in touch. The lucky few get cited, more often than not, in order to highlight how mistaken (and possibly mental) they are.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no better. Peter Byrne and Edward Henderson have figured large in my scholarly publications, but I’ve never told either of them how much they’ve inspired me; which they really have, sort of. What I have done is point out at length the various ways in which they get things spectacularly wrong (in both cases, it stems from a theological commitment to incoherent realism). I’ve had fair mileage out that and I’ve never once thanked them for it. Ain’t I a stinker?
Comments on the blog, however, are welcome because it’s genuinely uplifting when someone takes the trouble to say, ‘I read what you wrote and it weren’t half bad.’ Fortunately those of you who’ve taken the trouble to comment – and you know who you are – have actually been much kinder than my inner critic. Believe it or not, some people have actually said they like what we’re doing. And as far as I know, none of them are my Mum.
I say this because at least one person has mentioned Twitter and my Mum thinks Twitter is the End of Civilisation.
What struck me as particularly interesting about the most recent comments was that they referred to a piece from way back in February 2019.
Ah, February 2019, when we were young, ‘the taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue….’.[1]
The particular piece[2] was ‘New Beginnings, Old Excuses, and Abortions for All!’, which is a dreadful title. Nevertheless, the issue discussed there – about abortions, not the rest – is a highly emotive and controversial one. Not that I give a flying flapjack about that. I’m right and I know I am, but you’re free to disagree and be in the wrong.
Nevertheless, the controversial nature of the issue evidently makes for eye-catching content: ‘click-bait’, as I believe the right phrase goes. That made me pause as I was contemplating this current post, the point of which I will get to eventually. I don’t really want to be deliberately controversial, especially not here. On the other hand, perhaps my ruminations can be a bit surprising at times.
Excuses made, the point: just what is the moral status of cannibalism? 
To be clear, I’m not advocating cannibalism: this isn’t some new diet regimen or cult – assuming there’s a difference. I’m also putting health issues aside; we know that eating one’s ancestors can so easily result in quite a nasty dose of Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. As the good doctor Beauregard has pointed out, that can be difficult to get rid of.[3] Lastly, nor am I going to talk about involuntary cannibalism. Killing people, even for food, is a Bad Thing. Don’t do it.
I’m not kidding. Just don’t.
What I am wondering about, in my customary philosophical style, is the morality, or rather immorality of cannibalism: i.e. whether it’s actually wrong to eat human flesh.
Let’s put this in context. I’m currently reading Malinowski’s Magic, Science and Religion, a discussion of what Levi-Strauss might call ‘religion without writing’ that is an entirely indispensable work for anyone attempting to understand the nature and origins of religion and, by extension, of human consciousness. This is not only because the essays in this collection are brilliantly written, but also because they’re grounded in solid scientific research, much of it fieldwork undertaken among the Trobriand Island peoples of Papua New Guinea. Thus, we philosophical theologians have an opportunity to underpin our ideas with real empirical evidence for once; something that’s almost unheard of in modern philosophy.
Malinowski’s picture of religious rite and practice among the Trobriand Islanders is one of belief at its most immediate. Philosophically speaking, it is religious belief in the first and, perhaps healthiest, stage of Feuerbach’s dialectic, before theological purification gets to work. In many ways, it seems to be a clean and simple faith based on experience.  
The experiential dimension is important, since many of those who style themselves ‘new atheists’ deny there is any such thing, predicating their claims on an excessively narrow conception of terms like ‘experience’ and, more especially, ‘empirical’. This allows them to focus on nonsensical rationalist-cum-realist arguments, which, being constructed exclusively by and for philosophers and theologians, are about as far away from religious praxis as it’s possible to get.[4]
Malinowski rejects Durkheim’s account of religion as belief in the divinity of society; instead he grounds it in the individual’s experience of, encounter with, some form of ‘crisis’. Society is important because religion is the means by which society mediates and so mitigates that ‘crisis’. Crucially, however, ‘crisis’ begins with the individual.
Since you know my thoughts on personhood, you’re probably expecting me to side with Durkheim here. Well I won’t. Though I’m not familiar with Durkheim’s theory of religion per se, this version of it seems quite mistaken: Durkheim’s identification of the divine with society is too literal. That said, I don’t think Malinowski himself has got this exactly right, but that’s another story. For now, the interesting thing is that Malinowski grounds religion, not just in the experience of ‘crisis’, but in a primal experience of ‘the forces of destiny and providence’ (25).
Perhaps the most obvious instance of such forces is found in agricultural activities. Here, Malinowski observes, the farmer will certainly encounter the hand of providence:
[E]xperience has taught him… that in spite of all his forethought and beyond all his efforts there are agencies and forces which one year bestow unwonted and unearned benefits of fertility, making everything run smooth and well, rain and sun appear at the right moment, noxious insects remain in abeyance, the harvest yield a superabundant crop; and another year again the same agencies bring ill-luck and bad chance, pursue him from beginning till end and thwart all his most strenuous efforts and his best-founded knowledge (12).
In philosophical terms, we have, in this experience of providence at work, a kind of cosmological intuition: sprouting seeds of belief in a power at work in the world that is not our own, that transcends our own; and in transcending, must be reckoned with. The first reaction, naturally, is to seek control. Hence: magic, which only later blossoms into religion, as evidence by the ‘sacralization of food’ (25).
There is, however, a more dramatic example of the hand of providence at work: viz. in death. Death is, of course, the archetypal crisis for everyone involved. It’s not great for the person doing it and it’s pretty grim for the living left behind.
Death is a crisis that operates on several levels at once. Obviously, it’s a terrible loss, both for the bereaved family and the tribe as a whole: both a loved one and a self-enacting manifestation of the tribe’s culture and tradition; that is, of the tribe itself. Crucially, however, the death of one person is a stark reminder of our own mortality, that we too are on the same path. When the hand of providence brings death, therefore, the burden of fear and grief must be shared among the other members of the tribe, through rite and ritual, so that those closest to the crises may not be overwhelmed by it.
Ritualised displays of public grief; funerary and mortuary rites: the praxis of belief. And that, ladies and germs, is where the cannibalism comes in…

[1] That’s right, Andy Williams! Boom!
[2][2] In case you’re wondering, yes this is one of those long and rambling introductions. There’s a good chance I won’t get to the point until next time so feel free to dip out and come back later. I shan’t be offended. 
[3] See Dr B’s discussion of Stanley B. Prusiner’s discovery of prions in Beauregard, J. ‘Michael Polanyi and the Practice of Contemporary Science’. Appraisal, 10-3 (2015): 35-42.
[4] Incidentally, if anyone thinks Dawkins is ‘the pope’s dope’, I can assure you, he’s little more than a novice, the merest catechumen when it comes to atheism. If you want to see it done properly, have a look at A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic. It’s the best there is: the very model of clarity and simplicity in philosophical thought and the most important challenge religious thought in the last 150 years.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Even More Notes from Notes from the Underground

by Simon Smith

What do we fear?

[T]wice two is four is not life, gentlemen, but the beginning of death. At least, man has always feared this 2 X 2 = 4 formula, and I still fear it.

Dostoevsky, Feodor. (1996). Notes from the Underground. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 9, 2019, from

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Pay it Forward: Some Brief Thoughts on the Rights and Duties of a Social Self

by Simon Smith

Talk of Human Rights is very much the lingua franca of international moral and political discourse. Such talk, however, faces serious challenges. According to John Searle, the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights failed to appreciate an important logical connection between rights and duties. Rights imply duties; someone must, therefore, be responsible for honouring those rights, whether to free speech or adequate living standards. Consequently, any declaration of rights must specify who bears the corresponding obligations. Fail to do so, and the assertion of rights is at best wishful thinking – a case of ‘wouldn’t it be nice if everyone had these rights?’ – and at worst meaningless.
The underlying issue here concerns the demand for universality. One might, for instance, argue that the members of a society are obliged to maintain adequate living standards for all. Human rights thereby become part of the social contract tradition. That, however, exchanges universal rights for those recognised by a given society. Thus, if the right to free speech is not recognised then there is no right to free speech in that society. Human rights are no longer simply human; they are relative to particular societies. Clearly, however, this goes against both the spirit and the letter of universal declaration.
To resolve this, we must identify the grounds for universality. Appealing to divine will here is notoriously problematic, not least because it fails to answer the central question: ‘what is it about being human that justifies the demand for rights?’ This, too, is notoriously difficult. Answers often take the form of a list of capacities, allegedly essential to the assignment of humanity. This, however, raises further questions; primarily, ‘what to do about the numerous exceptions?’ Their mistake, I suggest, is the redundant effort to say what a human being is. Identification is easy: I have a prime example in myself. The real question is, ‘how did I become human?’ The answer is simple: I was taught, was I not? Others gave me the moral and intellectual tools from which I construct my identity and with which I participate in the construction of others. This is heart of the matter: humanity is a social product, the creative involvement of one person in the development of others. Here we find a secure foundation for rights: not in what I am owed but in what I owe others. The social reality of human being places serious obligations on me. In order to bear that humanity, I must recognise my obligations to those who taught me and those I teach. These obligations cannot be limited to immediate relations, however, nor by national and racial boundaries. They are genuinely universal. My humanity is connatural: it depends on recognising all others as like myself: equally co-dependent where ever and in whatever circumstances they live. That, I suggest, supplies the grounds for human rights and, moreover, clearly assigns corresponding duties to us all.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

More Notes from Notes from the Underground

by Simon Smith

And another interesting thought…

[A]ll “direct” persons and men of action are active just because they are stupid and limited. How explain that? I will tell you: in consequence of their limitation they take immediate and secondary causes for primary ones, and in that way persuade themselves more quickly and easily than other people do that they have found an infallible foundation for their activity, and their minds are at ease and you know that is the chief thing.

Dostoevsky, Feodor. (1996). Notes from the Underground. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 9, 2019, from

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Notes from Notes from the Underground

by Simon Smith
Not sure why this struck me as pertinent, just now, at this very moment in history, but strike me it did.

With people who know how to revenge themselves and to stand up for themselves in general, how is it done? Why, when they are possessed, let us suppose, by the feeling of revenge, then for the time there is nothing else but that feeling left in their whole being. Such a gentleman simply dashes straight for his object like an infuriated bull with its horns down, and nothing but a wall will stop him. (By the way: facing the wall, such gentlemen – that is, the “direct” persons and men of action--are genuinely nonplussed. For them a wall is not an evasion, as for us people who think and consequently do nothing; it is not an excuse for turning aside, an excuse for which we are always very glad, though we scarcely believe in it ourselves, as a rule. No, they are nonplussed in all sincerity. The wall has for them something tranquillising, morally soothing, final – maybe even something mysterious... but of the wall later.)

Something else:

Only donkeys and mules are valiant, and they only till they are pushed up to the wall. It is not worthwhile to pay attention to them for they really are of no consequence.

Dostoevsky, Feodor. (1996). Notes from the Underground. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 9, 2019, from

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature: The Abstracted Highlights

by Simon Smith

One of the most serious difficulties facing personalist thinkers concerns the place of ‘personhood’ or consciousness in a physical universe. How, that is, do we align a reality which is irreducibly personal with a universe which, we are told, is fundamentally impersonal? How do we account for the emergence or development of personal consciousness in a universe which seems, at best, ill-equipped to host such an event? And how, finally, do we manage all this without resorting – as philosophers are wont to do – either to the impoverished superficialities of flattened naturalism or to the equally impoverished theatricalities of over-inflated transcendentalism?
Naturalist reduction has undoubtedly proved itself highly successful at mapping the universe. And yet, personalists in particular have been vehement in their opposition to what they regard as its illegitimate extension. Personhood, consciousness, is, as Austin Farrer observed, a ‘social product’. The begetting of persons is a personal business; it takes both ‘I’s and others. Biologically speaking, one of each is still the minimum; morally and metaphysically, many more are required. Add to this the literal nonsense of reducing the acquisition of knowledge – even scientific knowledge – to sheer physical process and we have some very good logical and psychological reasons for continuing to resist reduction. We are here; this much, surely, cannot be denied.
And yet, our personalist ‘and yet’ must confront what some insist are the physical facts. Like everything else, consciousness must and shall be explained by the underlying processes from which it is constituted: evolutionary, genetic, neurological, biological, biochemical, and ultimately sub-atomic. But we are not quite done with the ‘and yets’ yet. For a number of scientists have, perhaps inevitably, been driven to communicate their understanding of the cosmos beyond the confines of their particular field. And yet, in so doing they have – not, I suggest, remotely by accident – been driven to use the language of persons. Instances abound in the writings of Stephen Hawkins, Rupert Sheldrake, Stephen Jay Gould; even Richard Dawkins, who’s forceful denial of any such interpretation is well known, would, perforce, resort to moral concepts to make good his description of the selfish gene.
To regard such talk as merely the poetical flourishes of those who struggle to convey the complexities of the cosmos to a scientifically illiterate readership seems, at once, absurdly myopic and profoundly arrogant. Furthermore, as the form and content of Farrer’s thought clearly shows, it is to seriously underestimate writers, readers, and their cosmological concerns.
Farrer’s response to the most serious scientific challenges of the twentieth century was decisive: a new physics demands a new metaphysics. This, in turn, would involve a kind of via analogia; a classical doctrine though not precisely in the classical style. No rusty or dusty antiques required: the old analogy of ‘being’ was exchanged for, and superseded by, an analogy of ‘doing’.
To fully understand this via analogia we must turn to philosophical psychology. Farrer understood consciousness, not as substance or property, but as a mode of personal activity. In acts of rugged self-expression, consciousness re-entered the physical universe to grapple bodily with the mutual interplay of forces it found there. Action, then, more properly interaction, supplied the keystone; from it Farrer would rebuild metaphysics. Conscious, physical exploration redefined reality – in accordance with Einstein – as a manifold of mutually conditioning forces: rhythmic patterns of physical activity or energy.
Crucially, this is a manifold to which persons firmly belong, quite possibly as the vital ingredient. In the prescient words of Carl Sagan, ‘[t]he cosmos is...within us; we are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.’ Such transactions reveal personal and physical patterns of activity to be co-consitituitive; better still, interconstituitive. This is consciousness as full participant in the realisation of those patterns and, hence, of the entire manifold. Finding the key within itself, consciousness unlocks the doors to a uni-verse, bringing unity, uniformity, and coherence to the ‘cosmic hurly-burly in full career’.
This is the embarkation point for a grand metaphysical experiment. Modelling our understanding of the cosmos on the dialectical extensions of consciousness, the physical, epistemological, and psychological outreach of “personhood”, as Farrer insisted we must, overcomes the deadlock between personalism and ‘impersonalism’. Ultimately, such models supply a better integrated conception of mind and nature than the closed-category thinking which dominates speculative cosmology could possibly allow. In so doing, they also supply the conditions by which a deeper and more profound rapprochement between science and religion may be attained.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Journal of the Polanyi Society

Tradition and Discovery

Tradition and Discovery is an Open Access journal owned by the Polanyi Society and published three times a year (February, July, and October). Issues include editorially reviewed solicited materials (review articles, book discussions, thematic issues, invited addresses from Society meetings, etc.) as well as essays that have undergone blind peer review.
The articles and other materials published in Tradition and Discovery  are of interest to those concerned with the thought of Michael Polanyi and the projects of the Polanyi Society. Since Michael Polanyi was a polymath whose writings contributed to many fields, the journal publishes scholarly essays which engage with all aspects of Polanyi's work and its implications for a wide range of studies, including, but not limited to, aesthetics, chemistry, economics, ethics, intellectual history, literature, medicine, political and other areas of philosophy, psychology, sociology, and theology.
Tradition and Discovery provides Open Access to all issues because making research freely available to other scholars and the public supports the exchange and growth of knowledge. Anyone interested can read, search within, link to, download, and print from the Tradition and Discovery digital archives at no cost to individuals or institutions. You do not need to ask permission from the Polanyi Society or the author, unless a particular article indicates the author has reserved the copyright. This policy is in accordance with the description of Open Access provided by the Budapest Open Access Initiative. The use of Tradition and Discovery materials must conform to Creative Commons Open Access license CC BY-NC-ND.
All issues, including the most recent, are available in the digital archive of the Polanyi Society web site. Before Vol. 17 No. 1 & 2, Tradition and Discovery was published on an erratic schedule. The copies of material for early Polanyi Society publications (i.e., TAD and its predecessors) in the digital archives are not always good quality. Some materials in early publications may not be listed in indices. If you have any questions about the materials published in early issues, Contact Phil Mullins:
If you wish to receive a Table of Contents e-mail (with links) for each newly posted digital issue, send an e-mail request to (
Tradition and Discovery is indexed in The Philosopher's Index and Religious and Theological Abstracts and is included in the EBSCO online databases of academic and research journals, as well as the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ).

Current Issue: Vol. 45, No. 3, October 2019
Paul Lewis, Editor

Tex Sample

Ellen W. Bernal

Kriszta Sajber

Walter Gulick

Martin Beddeleem

Colin Cordner

Book Reviews
Diane Yeager

David Nikkel