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Does Animal Ethics Permit Cannibalism?
- Issues Surrounding Humans and Animals -

Takashi Hamano
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

"Sentience" and "Speciesism"

To borrow the words of the American ethics scholar, Martha Nussbaum, the issue of the relationship between humans and animals is now quite literally on the "Frontiers of Justice." This is the "frontier" where we are now asking ourselves whether or not we should expand what we have come to recognize as and call our "rights," what has been "pioneered" as such for humans since the modern age, as common to all humans, regardless of nationality, race, sex, sexuality or religion, to the "un-pioneered realm" of animals. This issue lies behind a wide range of debates including whaling, dolphin hunting, bullfighting, laboratory experiments on animals, destroying animals pets, intensive factory farming, circuses, and zoos, etc.

The focus of the debate in contemporary animal ethics studies is not "species." It is the concept of "sentience." The "sentience" introduced by the representative animal ethicist Peter Singer, with the 19th Century philosopher Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism in mind, to put it simply, consists of the ability to be happy and to feel pain. If a living being is sentient, then regardless of its species, it warrants equal consideration of its interests; for example, its interest in its own life such as wanting to stay alive. In doing so, there is no need for it to rationally or logically communicate its pain using words or any other clear means (even among humans, there are those who are unable to communicate in this way). The traditional demarcation line of rationality and language which has in the past divided humans and animals can be lifted. We can no longer simply say that no matter how highly intelligent a monkey may be, it is "just a monkey." That would be a form of "speciesism" similar to "racism" or "sexism," and thus injustice. (According to this logic, the status of animals would be raised and the status of humans would be lowered).

The Interchangeability of Human Meat

The logic of people who argue for respecting animals' rights is more consistent than one might imagine. Nevertheless, what can be said in opposition to them? It is necessary to overturn the question in quite an acrobatic manner. The British ethicist, Stephen R. L. Clark in his 1977 work, "The Moral Status of Animals," conducts a strange thought experiment in which human meat is seen as interchangeable with animal meat. In other words, it is an issue of whether or not, if one uses the premise that planned and large-scale production, slaughter and consumption of animals is an evil that contravenes the rights of animals, then as an alternative proposal, it is morally acceptable to replace this with another form of protein of a different origin to animals, for example, that of human meat. If that meat was the meat from a dead body after a traffic accident, cutting away that meat would not cause any additional pain. On the other hand, if we were to kill an animal, pain would be caused. If one places the standard entirely on "sentience" rather than "species," then even the B-class horror-movie style proposal of eating human meat can be reasoned for.

Furthermore, the human body has already been de-sanctified in the world today. While in recent years famous as an economist, much earlier in his career, the thinker Jacques Attali wrote Cannibalism and Civilization: Life and Death in the History of Medicine (1979) in which he thought about a modern version of "clinical cannibalism," by which one would accept an organ transplant from someone else's body for the purpose of healing. But the premise of modern society, where organ transplants are now quite commonplace occurrences, is that the body is no longer sacred and inviolable. Since the de-sanctification of the body has now been fully completed, there is no longer a logical obstacle anymore to the idea of cutting up a human body into little pieces, or ultimately even to eating the parts of the human body that have been cut up into little pieces as "meat."

However, while this may be obvious, Clark's proposal of the alternative of human meat has not been widely accepted. The primary reason for this is our fetishism for "animal" meat, and secondly our emotional aversion to human meat. For better or worse, the meat we want to eat is not human meat and has to be "animal" meat. And so, we cause pain to animals, while if we only ate the dead bodies of those who had died in traffic accidents, this pain would not have to be caused. According to Clark, the only ethical attitude possible to transform this situation is to become vegetarian. If we decide that we will not eat animal meat and that we cannot eat human meat, then the only remaining protein available to us is vegetable protein. (The idea that continuing to eat meat, even though we are at a cultural phase where it would be perfectly possible for us not to eat meat, is barbaric is one that can be traced back as far as the works of Plutarch or Rousseau).

The Aporia Surrounding the Aversion to Eating Meat

If, the critical issue is the "pain" itself that is caused when we slaughter animals, as Singer and others believe, then to eat the meat of a cow which died by chance in the road after being struck by lightning, or a pig which has died by drowning in a river- and even to eat the meat of humans who are already dead - is in moral terms, an adiaphoron, or in other words, a matter outside moral law that morality neither mandates nor forbids. This is because in these cases there is no active moment of afflicting "pain" in order to obtain this meat. If one then continues to argue that, even so, we should not eat the meat of these cows or horses - and of course these dead human beings - then one is forced to bring out some other argument apart from the issue of causing "pain." However, this also means that one ends up cutting into one's own ideological premises. According to the view of the philosopher Cora Diamond about the aporia surrounding this aversion to eating meat, if the reason that we do not eat meat of human being is concluded simply because being human is not about what to eat, we are no longer able to consider the right of animals not to be killed or be mistreated as the core of the argument on vegetarianism. Should the time come when all types of proteins come to be considered equal, if one was then to say that we cannot eat human meat just because it is human meat, then it could be argued that this was some sort of lingering "speciesist" thinking. In other words, it would mean that the classic categorization between humans and animal would still be functioning as a barrier.

Cannibalism and Natural Law

When one asks why humans should not eat human meat, ultimately one runs into the issue of "Natural Law." If one tries to explain the prohibition on eating human meat without resorting to using the magic term of "physiological aversion," one is forced to introduce something that transcends man-made law, which legislates by humans alone. "Natural law" is the "law" that we, because of being humans, must respect to, and transcends our judicial laws. Typical examples of natural law are the commands that we must not kill other people and that we must not commit suicide. Augustine of Hippo believed that of all God's creations, only humans are able to recognize natural law.

It is quite natural for us to believe that included among the list of natural law items that as humans we need to abide by is a prohibition against cannibalism. In his "De Republica," Cicero thought that if humans transgressed against natural law, then they would plunge down to the level of animals. If so, then compliance with the natural law of "Thou shalt not eat human meat," would become nothing less than a definitive condition for humans to remain humans.

At the beginning of the modern era, in the age when the "discovery" of the "New World" was taking place - and, at the same time, non liquet tales of the cannibalism of indigenous peoples were being brought to Europe - as the old values swayed, it is not by chance that, in his "Essais (Attempts)," the philosopher Montaigne published a piece of work that juxtaposed cannibalist theory and animal theory. Similar to the situation for us today, as the boundaries between humans and animals are swaying, for Montaigne, the absolute position of humans was wobbling. If ethnographic studies and ships logs were to be believed, cannibalism was no longer part of the realm of legend, it was a reality. And if so, then the universalism of natural law would definitively be shaken (this is the major theme of the legal philosopher of the pre-modern age, Pufendorf). In the longest chapter of his "Essais," which came to be known as the "An Apologie for Raymond Sebond," he sweepingly brings down humans, and on the other hand raises up animals to previously unheard of heights. In his mind, humans and animals had already become abnormally close. It was a time of continuous religious wars in which both sides reviled the other as "flesh-eating" and sort to destroy each other, while on the other hand, it was also a time of confusion with large numbers of tales of cannibalism being brought in, so that the distinction between animals and humans was much less clear than it had ever appeared before. It was only a short 50 years before when Descartes, in his "the Discourse on Method," clearly distinguished between humans and animals and declared that animals were "automata."

Takashi Hamano
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

[Profile]
Born in Ibaraki Prefecture in 1977.
Graduated from Ibaraki Prefectural Mitsukaido First Senior High School in 1996.
Graduated from the School of Law, Waseda University in 2000.
Completed the Master's Program in Philosophy at the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University in 2004.
Withdrew from the Doctoral Program of Philosophy Course in Arts and Sciences at the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University in 2010, after completing the required course work.
Assistant Professor in the Contemporary Human Studies, at the School of Culture, Media and Society, Waseda University, and a Lecturer at the Japan Academy of Moving Images as of 2012.

[Publication (sole author)]
Ecological Terrorism: the Growing Extremism of the Environment Movement and America's Inner Terrorism [Eco Terorizumu: Kageki-ka Suru Kankyo Undo to Amerika no Uchinaru Tero] (Published by Yoseisha Shinsho, 2009).
[Publication (co-author)]
Let Justice be Done and Let the World be Destroyed: What is Public Interest from the Perspective of Wiki-leaks? [Seigi ha Nasareyo Sekai ha Horobiyo: Uikiriikusu ni Totte Koueki to ha Nanika] (With Ginko Kobayashi, Satoshi Shirai, Kenji Tsukagoshi, Daisuke Tsuda, Masayuki Hatta, Takashi Hamano, and Ukeru Magosaki; published by Yoseisha Shinsho, 2011);
[Articles]
"Why the Whaling Issue Cannot be Solved [Naze Hogei Mondai ha Kaiketsu Dekinainoka]" in Japan's Debates for 2012 [Nihon no Ronten 2012] (Published by Bungei Shunju, 2011); "Aversion to Eating Meat, Vegetarianism, and Animals: Ethical Animal Theory and the Relationship between Human and Animals [Nikushoku Kihi Bejitarianizumu, Doubutsu: Rinrigakuteki Doubutsuron to Ningen, Doubutsu Kankeiron]," in Alethia Library [Sousho Areteia], Volume 14 (Published by Ochanomizu Shobo, 2011); "The Paradise of Cannibalism: Ideological Issues surrounding the Border between Animals and Humans [Kanibarizumu no Rakuten: Doubutsu to Ningen no Kyokai wo meguru Shisoteki Mondai] in Alethia Library [Sousho Areteia], Volume 12 (Published by Ochanomizu Shobo, 2010); "Reconstruction of the Antinomy of Taste [Rekonstruktion der Antinomie des Geschmacks {Shumi no Anchinomi no Saikochiku}] in Philosophia, Volume 98 (Published by Waseda University Association of Philosophy, 2010); "The Location and Significance of the 'Ambiguity of Reflective Concepts' Clause [Hansei Gainen no Tagisei setsu no Ichi to Igi]," in Japan Kant Research [Nihon Kanto Kenkyu], Volume 7 (Risosha, 2006).

His areas of specialty include philosophy, ethics, history of environmental thoughts, and human-animal-relationships.