Sunday, 17 November 2019

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

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,[1] 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.’[2] 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?

[1] In The Freedom of the Will (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), 14.
[2] Burgos, Juan Manuel. Antropología, una guia para la existencia. Translation: James Beauregard. (Madrid: Palabra, 2008), Ch. 2.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Polanyi Conference Call For Papers

 9-11 JUNE 2020

In June 2020, the Polanyi Society will sponsor a conference dedicated to exploring the abiding relevance of Michael Polanyi’s philosophical work, and in particular his social thought. Many of the socio-political and cultural dynamics of the early 21st century invite a reconsideration of the principles and practices that contribute to the maintenance of liberty, solidarity, and constructive pluralism. This conference will explore the enduring relevance of Polanyi’s philosophy for all such efforts, and will also include papers dedicated to other dimensions of Polanyi’s work.
The Society invites proposals for papers that examine Polanyi’s social and political thought, its development, and its relationship to other aspects of his work; comparative studies that examine Polanyi’s thought alongside that of others are welcome. The Society also encourages proposals on any topic related to Polanyi studies; the conference will accommodate presentations on a range of subjects. Initial proposals should be no more than 250 words, and can be sent to Andrew Grosso at The deadline for the submission is Thursday, 31 December 2019; proposals submitted thereafter will be considered only if the conference schedule allows it.
The first day of the conference will be dedicated to discussion of selections from Polanyi’s writings that set forth his thoughts on social dynamics. Senior Polanyi scholars will facilitate collaborative discussions about these texts, and these conversations will provide a framework for the rest of the conference.
There will also be a half-day pre-conference seminar for graduate students and those new to Polanyi studies. This seminar will provide an introductory overview of Polanyi’s life and philosophy, and will focus on Polanyi’s philosophy of science and its roots in his ideas about skills and articulation, subsidiary and focal awareness, and tacit knowing.
In addition to the initial details below, the most current information about the conference will be available on the Society’s website (
The conference will convene at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Nashotah, WI (west of Milwaukee). The nearest airport is General Mitchell International Airport (MKE) in Milwaukee, about 45 minutes away; Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD) is about two hours away.
Registration fees include access to all conference sessions and all meals. Early-bird registration is $225 and opens Tuesday, 14 January 2020. Regular registration is $275, and opens Tuesday, 17 March 2020. Late registration will be $300, and opens Tuesday, 12 May 2020.
Registration does not include accommodations; a limited number of rooms will be available at Nashotah House, and there are several affordable hotels within five miles of Nashotah House.
A limited amount of financial aid is available for those unable to meet the cost of registration, accommodations, and travel. For more information about financial assistance, please contact Andrew Grosso at
Additional information regarding the conference will be available on the Society’s website ( and will be published in future issues of Tradition & Discovery. Those interested can also contact Andrew Grosso at

Sunday, 10 November 2019

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

by Simon Smith
… or, how about the week after?
Halloween has come and gone: zombies shamble back into the night; witches return to their homebrew; ghosties slide, once more, behind the oak panelling in the library; and, without the least flicker of embarrassment, ghoulies are tucked back in. The streets, in short, no longer throng with over-sugared children and other ferae naturae.
Speaking of which, a quick message for any children joining us today:
Those people, they’re not your real parents. Get out of the house. Get out now. 

Last week being the start of the dark season, talk of cannibalism, especially funerary cannibalism, didn’t seem appropriate. Instead, I made this very cool Zombie Meatloaf from Chef John at Everyone agreed that it was the best pretend-living-dead-human-face-with-the-skin-torn-off they’ve had.

When last we met, a curious conclusion was in the offing: moral philosophy, it seems, may not be our best guide when it comes to some of the more outré moral highways and byways.
The philosophical difficulty here is, I suspect, the same one that got us all knotted up back in April 2018 when a certain deeply distasteful sex doll had us on the moral ropes. It comes down to what criteria we use to determine whether or not something is right or wrong.  Whether we’re talking about taking a bite out of Grandpa or dipping your bread in thermoplastic elastomer,[1] Mill’s ‘harm principle’ is too narrow and too vague. Nd if wonky liberalism[2] can’t help, then Kant’s sterile rationalism is no better. Does the Categorical Imperative apply to corpses? That depends on your theological presuppositions, but in and of itself? Not obviously.
The question, then, is ‘what makes us so sure that this is a moral question after all?’ One possible clue might be found in the attitude of those who practice it. According to Malinowski, that attitude is a distinctly double-edged banana. On the one hand, the Trobriand Islanders regard the practice of ‘sarco-cannibalism’ with ‘extreme repugnance;’ having a nibble of your dead relatives is, unsurprisingly, ‘usually followed by a violent vomiting fit (32). That’s your moral clue right there.
Assuming that funereal cookie-tossing isn’t a comment on the cooking, here’s where the ambiguity kicks in. While sarco-cannibalism is clearly a thing of horror and disgust, it is also, Malinowski tells us, ‘a supreme act of reverence, love, and devotion.’ Indeed, it’s actually ‘a sacred duty that among the Melanesians of New Guinea’ (32).
This ambiguity makes me wonder whether cannibalism really is a moral issue for the Trobrianders. Malinowski’s explanation of this mortuary munching suggests it may not be. In such rites, we see both the horror of death and the fear and pain of loss. ‘[T]here is a desire to maintain the tie [between the deceased and the bereaved] and the parallel tendency to break the bond.’ The aim of the ritual is, of course, reconciliation, ostensibly of the living with the dead, but also of the those suffering the crisis with the rest of their society.
Thus the funerary rites are considered as unclean and soiling, the contact with the corpse as defiling and dangerous, and the performers have to wash, cleanse their body, remove all traces of contact, and perform ritual lustrations. Yet the mortuary ritual compels man to overcome the repugnance, to conquer his fears, to make piety and attachment triumphant, and with it the belief in a future life, in the survival of the spirit (32).

The need to overcome fear and keep a firm grasp on the concrete personal connections that make us who and what we are does have its moral dimension, of course. It makes, as Charles Conti has argued, ‘personhood’ an essentially ethical reality.[3] Malinowski might well agree, as he sees religion as a morally cohesive, social force.
To be clear, I understand the reasons for, as Levinas puts it, ethics as first philosophy. After all, persons are constituted by personal actions and personal actions are almost always moral actions. Also, I don’t want to overstate any disagreement with Conti or Malinowski, or even Levinas for that matter. But I do think that there’s more to metaphysics than ethics. For one thing, to say an action is moral or immoral is an interpretation. And yes, all cognition and recognition involves interpretation, we have no access to the ‘real’, ‘unvarnished’, ‘uninterpreted’, ‘truth’ or TRUTH.  However, not all modes of interpretation are necessarily moral. It seems quite possible that the most basic cognition or recognition of something as something, of an event as an act, for instance, while still being an interpretation of some kind is not inevitably a moral one.
Otherwise put, if we want to find the fundamental truth (or ‘truth’, but not TRUTH) of what it means to be a person, we have to account for persons in the round: good, bad, and everything in between. That requires an overarching description, a wider context within which morality can be understood.
More simply and yet at the same time more abstrusely, if your mother loves you, then she loves you, not because it’s morally right to do so and certainly not because she’s compelled by instincts or hormones or what have you. She loves you because she’s your mother, because that love is, in a sense, who she is. Although it’s probably not all she is.
Of course, if she doesn’t love you, well, maybe you’re just unlovable.
But I digress. Again. My point was just that Malinowski’s appeal to fear, piety, attachment, and the hereafter suggests to me that cannibalism may not be a moral matter per se for the Trobriand Islanders. It may be a cultural or religious issue instead. That would, to some extent, explain my immediate relativistic reaction. On reading Malinowski, that is, my first thought was that, here in the West, we would definitely regard these sarco-cannibalistic rites as morally problematic. But is that judgement universalizable (as Kant would insist it should be)? It might be wrong here, in leafy, middle-class Surrey, but does it follow that it’s also wrong in Melanesia?
Okay, my first thought was actually, ‘Ewww! Have these people never heard of ham sandwiches and the mini-quiche?’ And then I thought about the moral stuff.
Oh alright, somewhere in the middle of all this, I was also wondering whether they were cooking the stiff and if so, how.
But I was mostly thinking about moral relativism. 
This, you will no doubt be relieved to hear, takes us right back to the curious conclusion with which this week’s rumination began. Ethics may not be our best guide here. At least, it may not be the best place to start, especially if cannibalism is a cultural rather than a moral issue. 
Does that mean the discussion, such as it is, is at an end? Ha! You should be so lucky. Anyway, who ends a meal without pudding?
Next week, we finally (probably) get to the philosophical pudding. Which hopefully will be more than just a piece of fruit.

[1] Not to mention that siren of the 70s, Inflatable Ingrid; or, for that matter, every teenage life-saver’s one true love, Resusci Annie.
[2] To be fair to dear old J.S., On Liberty was a valiant attempt to do what philosophers, in the Western tradition, have been trying and largely failing to do since Thales of Miletus popped his tackle out and invented philosophy. Mill was trying to reconcile the needs of society with those of the individual: the one cum/contra the many. Like most western philosophers, however, he began with a vastly overinflated sense of the individual’s importance and so banjoed the whole thing. Result: a lot of meandering old toot about dead dogs, and why banging it out on the pavement isn’t actually a legitimate experiment in living after all.
[3] See Conti, C. C. Metaphysical Personalism. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Editorial Transition for Tradition and Discovery: The Polanyi Society Journal

Paul Lewis has been Tradition and Discovery editor for eight years. In the next year, he will begin the process of retiring from the role of general editor. Paul has generously agreed to continue serving as the production editor responsible for TAD's relationship to Mercer University and those businesses involved in producing the printed edition of the journal. Inquiries are invited from anyone interested in becoming the next TAD general editor, who will be primarily responsible for the non-business aspect of producing TAD.
At their November meeting, the Polanyi Society Board of Directors will consider a proposal to provide modest financial support to be used for conference and travel expenses of the TAD general editor.
If you wish to obtain further information about the position or to inquire about making a formal application, please contact Gus Breytspraak (, who is chair of the search committee. The search will remain open until the position is filled.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Call for Contributions: Conference at the University of Szczecin, Poland

Alone Together Again

Second International Pandisciplinary Symposium on 
Solitude in Community
16th - 18th April 2020 
University of Szczecin, Poland

‘We must meet; we must communicate with one another; we must, it would seem, be alone together’
(John Macmurray)

We welcome contributions to the second international pandisciplinary symposium on solitude in community: Alone Together Again, which will take place in Szczecin between 16th and 18th April 2020. This is organised by the University of Szczecin (Poland) and York St John University (United Kingdom), under the auspices of the Rector of the University of Szczecin.  All papers and discussions will be held in English.
We welcome papers on any issues related to solitude, silence and loneliness, from any discipline, and from researchers from all over the world. Submissions will be welcome until the 15th of January 2020.

Further information can be found on our website:

Photographs of the first event can be found here.
Chairs of the Organising Committee:
Julian Stern and Małgorzata Wałejko