Would you ever eat a person?
What if it turns out that we humans are delicious?
Suppose the person in question, when he was still alive, gave you full permission to do so? (For our purposes, we’ll assume the specimen is, in fact, dead.)
What if, by means of preparation, this slab of man meat were properly cooked and presented so that, from looks alone, you’d never even know what you were putting in your mouth?
Or, finally, suppose you were just really, really hungry?
Being the wealthy, industrious, resource-rich Westerners that we are, we seldom spend much time pondering these sorts of questions, if only because, under normal circumstances, we don’t have to. (Particularly that last one.)
As a general rule, the notion of cannibalism strikes us as a repulsive one—the mark of a savage, immoral (or at least amoral) species. While the history of the practice is intriguingly rich and diverse—among other things, it has been employed as a form of punishment, revenge, bereavement and strategic “predator control”—by far the most common motivation for the consumption of humans by other humans has always been sheer, terrified desperation.
Be they crewmen lost at sea, systematically starved prisoners or famished citizens of some Third World hellhole, most of those who feast on human remains do so not because they want to, but as a simple (or not-so-simple) matter of life and death. They are profoundly hungry, and all other sources of nourishment have either been exhausted or were never there at all.
In the dystopian new movie Snowpiercer, in which a sudden ice age has forced the Earth’s survivors onto a sprawling locomotive divided into two sections—one for the rich, one for the poor—we find that the ragged slaves in the rear have, indeed, resorted to hacking and eating each other in order to survive. In a chilling monologue, the film’s “hero,” played by Chris Evans (Captain America to you), despairs, “I hate that I know what people taste like.” (The line that follows, which I won’t reveal, is even creepier.)
We assume and hope that the desperate, extreme circumstances that would force us to confront the cannibalism question literally (not just theoretically) will never happen in our culture, in our lifetimes. Among the many subjects raised by Snowpiercer—a brutal but highly intelligent movie—is the prospect that it might.
The broader question, in any case, is how and where we draw the line for our own behavior with respect to the whole animal kingdom. In extremis, how far are we willing to go? Is there anything we will not do, no matter what? Why is one act acceptable while another is not? And who gets to decide, anyway?
Never mind cannibalism, and never mind extraordinary circumstances. Let’s stick with the creatures we eat on a near-daily basis, and those we may well could.
For instance: Would you, like the citizens of numerous Eastern countries, ever consider eating dog meat—say, if it were on the menu at some swanky restaurant and were, it turned out, every bit as yummy as roasted lamb?
Well, why not? Why do we Americans eat lambs and chickens and cows but not dogs and cats? Is it only because dogs and cats are adorable? Would you be more likely to chow down on a boxer than a yellow lab? We don’t seem to differentiate based on cuteness when it comes to fish or fowl. Should we? And if sentimentality is not the primary basis for what separates a pet from an entrée, then what is?
Vegetarians, to their credit, live by a clear and consistent moral principle: If it’s a sentient being, it should not be eaten, period.
On this point, it is strictly we carnivores who have some ’splaining to do.
One can choose to approach the act of meat eating with no particular ethical qualms, as most of us effectively do when we bite into a hamburger without any concern for the dignity of its source.
But once you make that choice, consciously or unconsciously, you are left to contemplate whether you do, in fact, possess a moral limit for what you will willingly deposit into your stomach, and how you calculated where that limit is. Since we each must do this individually, we necessarily invite the possibility that all such valuations (and the laws governing them) are ultimately arbitrary, and that there is no objective basis for what constitutes fair game (so to speak) and what does not.
And if you really, truly do not apply ethics to eating in any way, shape or form, then we end when we began: If we’ll eat anything, why not each other?