Is Eating People Wrong?

Thanks to Austin Bay, I see that Roger Kimball reposts his argument that, if John Stuart Mill’s “Harm Principle” is the only rule of government, then consensual cannabalism should be permissible. I missed it the first go-round, so perhaps you did as well.

He begins by citing the thesis statement of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859):

The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.

He then points us to Theodore Dalrymple’s essay, “The Case for Cannibalism,” in the current City Journal. It focuses on the case of German cannibal Armin Meiwes, who killed Bernd Brandes and then ate at least 44 pounds of his flesh. He was ultimaely found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years, six months in prison.

According to the evidence, Meiwes and Brandes were consenting adults: by what right, therefore, has the state interfered in their slightly odd relationship? Of course, one might argue that by eating Brandes, Meiwes was infringing on his meal̢۪s rights, and acting against his interests. But Brandes decided that it was in his interests to be eaten, and in general we believe that the individual, not the state, is the best judge of his own interests.

Ah, you say, but Brandes was mad, and therefore not capable of judging what was in his own interests. What, though, is the evidence that he was mad? Well, the fact that he wanted Meiwes to eat him. And why did he want Meiwes to eat him? Because he was mad. There is a circularity to this argument that robs it of force. It is highly likely that Brandes did indeed have “emotional problems,” but if every person with emotional problems were denied the right to determine what is in his own interests, none of us would be self-determining in the eyes of the law, except those of us who had no emotions to have problems with.

Lest anyone think that the argument from mutual consent for the permissibility of cannibalism is purely theoretical, it is precisely what Meiwes̢۪s defense lawyer is arguing in court. The case is a reductio ad absurdum of the philosophy according to which individual desire is the only thing that counts in deciding what is permissible in society. Brandes wanted to be killed and eaten; Meiwes wanted to kill and eat. Thanks to one of the wonders of modern technology, the Internet, they both could avoid that most debilitating of all human conditions, frustrated desire. What is wrong with that? Please answer from first principles only.

Kimball weighs in,

So, was Herr Meiwes within his rights when he made a meal of his new friend? If Mill was right that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection,” then I think we have to pass Herr Meiwes the salt and pepper and wish him bon appetit.

Invisible Adjunct had an interesting thread on this one when these pieces first came out, although one that comes up with no good “first principle” answer.

Eric Scheie provides the most obvious practical solution:

While I can understand that consent might apply to cannibalism alone, murder is entirely different. In my view, consent cannot be allowed to a murder charge, for a very good public policy reason: the victim is dead! If a defense of consent were allowed, then almost any murderer could swear that the victim asked to be killed — and then the burden would be on the prosecution to prove a negative. John Wayne Gacy could have argued that his “victims” came to his house willingly, and asked to be tied up and strangled to death, as the best sexual high they could ever have experienced in their sordid lives as male prostitutes.

But, of course, we could work around this by allowing would-be-meal individuals to sign contracts that are notorized or some such.

Presumably, the other argument that can be made within Mills’ framework is that allowing onesself to be killed and eaten imposes negative externalities on society. Certainly, one’s parents, siblings, spouse, children, and so forth will be harmed. But, of course, that could be true of other lesser vices that even Burkeans wouldn’t regulate.

Aside from simply rejecting the absurdity of an principle having to stand up against a reductio ad absurdum to be considered valid–or a resort to the Ick Factor–I don’t have a solid answer to this.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He's a widower and father of two young daughers. He earned his PhD from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    Okay, I’ll “bite”: *nothing* is wrong with that. If two competent adults want to agree to snack off each other, how does their freakishness impair society? One only wishes they could eat each other, like the dog & cat in the nursery rhyme.

    Arguments like Kimball’s are all “ick” factor, precisely because he has no intellectual argument. (I used to respect Kimball’s intellect a lot more, before I started reading his New Criterion pieces. The man must have medical complications from his knee’s jerking.)


  2. Anderson says:

    And is it true that a Colorado university named its cafeteria after Alferd Packer, cannibal? Apparently so.

    Not that Packer met Mill’s criteria, as his meals didn’t consent.


  3. Athena says:

    There’s a great line in the new movie “Sin City” that says “Well, I think eating people is pretty damn weird” or something to that effect. It provides comic relief in a fairly gruesome scene.