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Towards the end of every term, after months of getting squishy essays about “my opinion” of right and wrong, I set a free writing exercise for my students on a famous German case.

The case went as follows:

A German man who had “always wanted” to cook and eat another human being placed an advertisement on the Internet for someone who had always wanted to be eaten by a another human being, and got a volunteer.

The two men then essentially moved in with each other, while the first man cut off various of the second man’s body parts, cooked them, and then served them to both, until the second man was dead, and the rest of the body parts went into the freezer.

At about this point, the German government figured out this was something they ought to be concerned with, and arrested the cannibal for murder.

Now, I tell my students–what should the German government have done about and to the cannibal?  What should the government’s stand be on cases like this?

You can find the particulars of the case here


and I apologize if Igot something wrong in the details, but for the purpose of the exercise, it doesn’t really matter.

That’s because this case is in fact not significantly different from any case involving what has come to be known as “assisted suicide.”  Almost any argument in favor of assisted suicide will serve to defend the cannibal and his…um…partner for doing what they did.  If the only standard you have for why something should be considered legal or illegal, or moral or immoral, is whether the adults were consenting, you’ve got to allow voluntary cannibalism just as well as “assisted suicide.”  After all, it’s a kind of assisted suicide.

I’m bringing all this up because of Robert’s ringing declaration that the Great Tradition will not suffice to provide the foundation of a moral system most of us would want to be part of, on the assumption that most of us are not in Peter Singer’s camp.

And all I can say is–you’d better hope to hell he’s wrong.

Realistically, we’ve got three possible positions here:

1) we can found morality on religion

2) we can found morality on a reasoned inquiry into the realities of what it means to be human

3) we can declare that all morality is relative and a matter of opinion.

Of the three options about, the only one that is completely IMpossible is the first.

I could base my argument for the impossibility of a religiously based morality (for the world) on the obvious,which is that whatever Marx or Lenin may have felt about the need to get rid of a personal God before embarking on a career of mass slaughter and the advocacy of mass slaughter, the Christian kings and prelates who wiped the Albigensians out of France felt no such compulsion, and they were hardly the only example within Christianity.

Nor will it do to proclaim that they were violating the basic tenets of Christianity, or betraying its ideals, because they didn’t see it that way.  All the way down to the days of Cotton and Increase Mather, there have been Christians who held it to be the highest duty of Christianity to wipe all sorts of people off the face of the earth.

And once you get outside Christianity, it gets worse.

I’ll stick to my characterization of people like Lenin, etc, as theological thinkers.  Their thinking had more in common with the people who took out the Cathars than it did with the equally atheistic thinking of somebody like, say Ayn Rand.

But that particular aspect doesn’t matter nearly so much as the reality of a world as technologically advanced as this one.

Here’s the deal–no single religion commands the allegiance of a majority (rather than a plurality) of people on earth.

What’s more, as long as communications are open and individuals have access to information about lots of different belief systems, fragmentation of belief is going to grow stronger, not weaker.

Given that, and given the fact that in order to ground a morality that works in the world in religion, you’d have to find a way to unify the religious beliefs of a solid majority of humanity, you’ve basically got only one option: find a way to cut people off from information about competeing belief systems.

The governments of Iran and China, being equally theologically based, do just that in attempting to restrict the access their citizens have to books, magazines, travel and the Internet.

The Taliban took this insight to its logical conclusion and simply went back to the stone age, almost literally.

An open society is necessary for all that stuff we like, from Bollywood movies to the germ theory of disease.

An open society isone in which it will be impossible to arrive at any religious consensus whatsover.

Once we’ve figured that one out, we’ve got the last two options:  find a way to ground morality in the reality of human experience, or give up and declare all moral systems relative.

Taking the relativity route lands you where my students were yesterday–in situation after horrific situation which you just know is wrong, but can’t articulate the wrongness of, never mind finding some way of limiting the damage or protecting against it.

So we need to be able to articulate and defend a moral code that can be accepted by all people everywhere, regardless of religion, a code whose basis all (or most) people will accept because it is part of the day to day factual reality of their world. 

Of course, some people have used secular systems of morality to champion all the things we don’t want, but people have used religious systems of morality to do the same. 

People are people, and there’s never going to be an end to that.

But if we want the world we’ve made to function, if we want the benefits of the free flow of information and ideas, we need to find, articulate, advocate and finally enforce a common understanding of what is moral.

For all of us.

Written by janeh

April 28th, 2009 at 11:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Cannibals'

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  1. I don’t think you can do it – that is, come up with a non-religious belief system that will lead to the kind of world we like. I’ve read your arguments before – that human societies and human nature works in particular ways, and to mold those ways into the kind of open and scientifically and technologically advanced societies we want requires only that we discover and apply the ‘rules’ of how people and various types of societies operate, IIRC. I don’t think you have any evidence that will withstand all the ‘why’ questions. Why must we consider humans as different in kind from animals? We’re just clever apes. And if we do consider humans special, why can’t we cut short the burden of our sick relative’s care (and her suffering) like we would with a sick cat, or even a healthy cow, which we prefer to kill while she is healthy and not suffering. If we are free to act, why shouldn’t I kill myself or eat an willing roommate?

    I usually have secular lines of arguments to use in debate, since religious ones aren’t taken seriously by most people. But they wouldn’t stand up with someone who didn’t share to some degree my views about the special nature of human beings and their subsequent rights and privileges.

    And if they don’t believe that humans are in some essential way different from animals (as many people don’t), there is no secular argument that will prove to them that there is something profoundly wrong about treating another human being as lunch.

    Oh, there are degrees, of course, from the ‘just another animal’ of the more radical animal rights crowd through the various attempts to define humans as those who respond in a certain way, or have a certain quality of life, or speak a certain language or belong to a certain ethnic or racial or religious group.

    You have valid reasons for arguing that religion can no longer act as a cohesive social force (well, at least not over a larger social grouping than a parish, and even then it can be iffy). But you haven’t proven that there’s any secular alternative, not one that will address the really profound underlying questions. I can argue against eugenics as practiced through euthanasia and forced sterilization on the basis of the experiences of other, similar societies with it in the last hundred years or so. I can’t go deeper than that – make a generalization about treatment of people based on the nature of the human being and human society, for example – without getting into religion. The closest I can come would be some flavour of utilitarianism – and most of that seems to sooner or later end up being very nasty for the weak. And we all become weak sooner or later, unless we die instantaneously at our peak.

    I wish I’d studied more philosophy. Does anyone know anything about critical realism? I came across a reference to it in an article about a writer I rather liked (N.T. Wright), but I can’t understand the details and haven’t got the time to work on it. I don’t know if anyone in that field has come up with a way to define humans in such as way as to avoid the biggest pitfalls.


    28 Apr 09 at 1:23 pm

  2. You make a good point, Cheryl. While I understand Jane’s take on humans as the highest form of life, and the absolute value of that life, there’s no way to *prove* such a value, secularly speaking.

    And if it’s not capable of proof, it’s a matter of faith and belief. Or even opinion.

    I don’t think a secularly derived moral code should or could be based on faith or opinion.

    I’ve never bought the argument that because something which will benefit some people may be susceptible to abuse (such as assisted suicide) that it should be banned.


    28 Apr 09 at 2:16 pm

  3. “But if we want the world we’ve made to function, if we want the benefits of the free flow of information and ideas, we need to find, articulate, advocate and finally enforce a common understanding of what is moral.”

    Not quite. The world will work reasonably well with a common and enforced understanding of what is permissible and what is forbidden, but that’s not the same as moral. There are a great many things I regard as morally necessary I would not for a moment attempt to make into laws, and probably as many again I regard as immoral, but would not try to prohibit. I think that’s true of most of us, and it certainly should be. If you think rule by corrupt scoundrels is bad, contemplate rule by virtuous people trying to enforce EVERYTHING. It happens now and then, but seldom for long.

    People do, from time to time, hammer out workable law codes, generally based on what’s already known to work–or known NOT to work, what current practice is, and what the most recent spectacular failure has been. If we’re lucky, we’ll go on doing so: most of the more spectacular crashes in human history have come from attempting to work out societal behavior from first principles.

    As for sources of morality, besides religion, there’s philosophy, tradition, “reasoned inquiry” and the inarticulate monkey morality which may be encoded on our DNA. Moral relativism may involve not enforcing a system, but is not itself a system. The moral relativist still has to decide whether to cheat on an exam, his taxes, or his spouse.

    But for morality or law either one, all the possibilities exist in embryo within the tradition. A system that looks at Aristotle, Plato, Kant and Singer and says they’re all Western philosophers does not have a moral code and will not lead to one. To articulate a moral code based on the Western tradition is to exclude some of these people from that tradition. The same is true for laws. The Western tradition is not a choice, but a range of options, some of which I am proud to adhere to, and some of which I find nauseating.

    Each of us must for ourselves whether it is appropriate to raise babies for parts, sell a marginally safe car or cheat on a test. What I’m saying is that we have to choose within that tradition. Those answers will not be found by earnest study of philosophy, political science or even history–not even if you read the footnotes–and the people who have studied with particular enthusiasm or skill don’t seem to be any better at it. When deep study produces, as Jane says, both the United States and Nazi Germany, both Jefferson and Lenin, then deep study is not enough. As for hoping is it, we might as well wish for wings. Hopes and wishes are not a course of action.


    28 Apr 09 at 4:23 pm

  4. The distinction between what’s moral and what’s legal is important, and can be the basis of an arrangement in which people adhering to different moral codes can live together in the same society – see almost anything involving executions, abortions, marriage and sexual behaviour in modern western societies. Of course, the very decision as to whether or not this distinction is moral is a, well, moral decision. So is deciding whether toleration is a virtue (or, as some people used to thunder, ‘toleration of evil is no virtue!). Personally, I think toleration is a far more useful and powerful concept than the competing ‘acceptance’ we make so much fuss about today, but that’s just my opinion, and even so there are things I don’t think should be tolerated.

    Actually, I could make an entirely secular argument in favour of toleration – toleration enables stable societies to be formed of a far larger variety of people than does acceptance, because people can tolerate things they don’t really accept, and having stable societies that make room for a wide range of beliefs and practices is better for most people than having either societies that restrict belief and practice, possibly resulting in the people being restricted being injured or inspired into open rebellion and warfare. And now I’m back at utilitarianism again, which I find to be in general a far too narrow and rigid philosophy; one that lacks protection for the weakest members of society.

    I’d still need something more basic than a decision to have a suitable set of laws and my own personal morality to guide both the development of the laws and my analysis of my moral crises.


    28 Apr 09 at 6:44 pm

  5. Lymaree wrote “I’ve never bought the argument that because something which will benefit some people may be susceptible to abuse (such as assisted suicide) that it should be banned.”

    I have no trouble with the principle, although of course as usual the devil is in the details. I think the argument depends on the assumption that we all bear some responsibility for each other in society, and should be willing to make sacrifices for others, particularly for those who are suffering or at risk. And that’s a moral argument, not a legal one.

    Perhaps a less emotive example than assisted suicide/euthanasia would be clearer. I would not object in the least to restricting gambling as was done in the past in order to protect many – maybe most – of those who are susceptible from losing all their money, engaging in crime and breaking up their families. The benefit to me of gambling (which I do very little of and have very little interest in) is of minor importance when I balance it with the sufferings of people I’ve known who never gambled excessively in the more restrictive society of our youth. A small sacrifice on my part would have a big benefit for quite a few others – but would necessarily also require a sacrifice of pleasure from those who enjoy gambling more than I do and a sacrifice of a job (with varying possibilities of replacing it) for those who work in the industry.

    Sacrifice is a very unpopular concept today, but it applies in a lot of social issues. Should the pleasure people get from a park be sacrificed for the convenience of commuters who need a new road? Should funding go to home care workers or institutions? Should you be punished for assisting a suicide to protect someone who is not really a suicide at all?


    29 Apr 09 at 6:31 am

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