Murders, Monsters and Mirrors: The Ethics of Killing and Cannibalism

‘Murder’ differs from ‘killing’ – and must differ for the words to have their moral impact – because killing is a neutral term. Surprising as it may seem, it is most helpful for discussions on killing if we recognise that the word itself is mostly and simply ‘the taking of organic life’. It is another matter whether it is all or certain forms of organic life we are concerned with.

‘Murder’ falls within the category of ‘killing’, in that the organism in question is killed but did not want to be killed. How we assess this is also another matter, but for humans we can infer in most instances whether or not someone willingly wants to die. If she does not wish to die, but still has her life taken away – violently or not is beside the point – then she was murdered.

Armin-meiwes I say this because I think we need clarity in the case of infamous German cannibal, Armin Meiwes. In March 2001, Meiwes killed and ate a willing, consenting man, Bernd Brandes. Meiwes had advertised on online chat-rooms, without euphemism or innuendo, his seeking a “young well-built man, who wanted to be eaten”. Brandes was a year older than his killer, but this didn’t seem to faze Meiwes who held auditions for the position. The other potential candidates thought that “being gobbled up” was a metaphor concerning sexual-actions. Four candidates travelled to Meiwes’ house, but eventually were told the seriousness of the description. Meiwes “let them” leave and was not impressed with another, who he found sexually unappealing.

After finally meeting Brandes, they started up the ritual that would lead to Brandes’ death and devouring. Brandes had drawn up a will and testament, where his money and estate would go to his live-in partner. Also, Meiwes video-taped both Brandes whilst alive and later, after his death. After all these final sentences of conscious human experience were given their appropriate full-stops and commas, Brandes ingested sleeping-tablets. Meiwes cut off Brandes’ penis, cooked it, and ate it with Brandes (eventually it was given to the dog apparently because of a poor recipe choice). Eventually, Meiwes killed (not “murdered”) Brandes, chopped him into pieces, and ate him over several days.

Meiwes was discovered, since all his searching and advertisement occurred online, after police were tipped off. He was charged with “manslaughter”, which apparently surprised many people. Initially “[d]espite the fact that the victim willingly agreed to be killed, prosecutors said the case could not be considered ‘assisted suicide’. So they opted for a murder indictment.” Things changed, though, when the conviction came back. Alan Hall reports on the day of Meiwes’ conviction that he “was jailed for eight-and-a-half years today after judges returned a surprise verdict of manslaughter instead of murder.”

As we defined murder above, and as many law dictionaries define it, it is “the unlawful killing of another human being without justification or excuse.” As usual in ethical concern, we must suspend what the law says in order to gain moral clarity. Brandes, according to our definition, was not murdered; in fact, “assisted suicide” is a good definition of what occurred, since A.S., like euthanasia, is indeed the opposite of murder within our moral spectrum evaluating killing (since killing is itself a neutral term). What seems to make this case controversial is the act of cannibalism following Brandes’ death. Before we come to cannibalism itself, let us briefly look at the situation so far.

Did Meiwes act immorally? He (1) sought consent, (2) made his intensions clear, and (3) did not torture his “victim”. In fact, when other candidates discovered Meiwes’ real intensions – which he did make clear, though it is obviously so shocking people thought it a metaphor – he let them go. No one was prevented from leaving. He was not trying to cause suffering to innocent people, it seems.

The two troubling parts, aside from the posthumous cannibalism (which we’ll soon look at), appears to be (1) sharing the penis with Brandes and (2) the method of killing – Meiwes stabbed Brandes in the neck. About the first, we can have concerns for Meiwes psychological well-being, which can be investigated but is, for present purposes, not my concern. For the second, there are less-painful ways to end life. Perhaps Meiwes did not want Brandes’ corpse contaminated with any more drugs (though Brandes had already taken sleeping pills, so this seems to nullify that argument). However, if Brandes felt no pain, I am not sure this would have any relevance.

Of course people’s major contention would be that one cannot, at all and ever commit suicide.

I have not heard good arguments against suicide if the person is fully aware of his situation, as in Brandes’ case. Note: Brandes agreed to the entire situation whilst sober, that is, before ingesting sleeping tablets. This means that though his mental capacity and rational ability might have altered in the middle of it, his initial consent was given when he was fully conscious and rational.

But, perhaps the closest concern about suicide in general is the estate and livelihood of those the suicidal “victim” will leave behind should he decide to take his life: the debts, burdens and problems that would occur if he simply removed himself from the picture of those who depend on him. Yet this doesn’t make it special for suicides, since one could make this same argument for those people who want to disappear from everyone’s lives by moving to a new country, changing their name, etc. (it amounts to almost the same situation, except, with suicide there is an absolute guarantee of never returning to the original state). The moral obligation is especially true if the person is the only breadwinner within the family. Barring this – and other examples, like being a parent or the only doctor in a village – I can see little reason for most opposition to other people’s yearning for and carrying out of suicide. Indeed, we would have a better society if we thought more with our heads on the issue of ‘active euthanasia’ (regardless of whether these people have a terminal disease) instead of our hearts, which, to me, seems the worst part to construct ethical decisions. Let it pump blood and love, but keep morality away from that organ. (One of the best blogs on ethical thinking defending this view, beautifully and eloquently, is by 3quarks nominee Sister Y. Her blog does what all my ethics columns merely attempt.)

Meiwes main immoral acts appear to be carrying out a bizarre ritual, perhaps with Brandes too altered by drugs to realise, and possibly causing pain before death. If I have skipped some incredible detail, then we could assess the argument in light of this new revelation. If Brandes however did consent to eating his own penis – which as bizarre as it may seem, is possible – and if he didn't actually feel pain when he was killed, then Meiwes has not done anything worth condemnation (except perhaps for his psychological well-being).

As to cannibalism, we might have a different case. Yet, what use is a corpse? I am irritated with people who would cremate their remains as opposed to donate it to science. It brings in interesting questions about posthumous morality. Yet, to be consistent, I don’t see why our being alive or dead should alter our views about decreasing suffering or increasing knowledge which could itself reduce suffering, etc. One way to do this is to donate one’s body to science.

Our main question should be: Who is harmed? (Similarly, I also don’t understand the outrage over necrophilia. I will save that for another essay, but for now, the arguments work for both cannibalism and necrophilia.)

Who is harmed by Meiwes eating the corpse of Brandes? After all, we eat corpses all the time – equally cooked and prepared. Cannibalism occurs in the awkwardly-named “animal kingdom”, so it is not something unheard of or particularly unique to humans. In Brandes, it is simply meat that was willingly given, unlike the meat most of us eat which is ripped out of the body of nonhuman animals. In this case, the meat just happened to be human meat. What is problematic with the situation at hand?

Well, I’ve seen the usual “It hurts my god’s feelings” reply – which is not a moral argument, as opposed to ignorance dressed up as moral argument; and of course the equally terrible statement: “It’s just wrong.” No. It’s not “just wrong” – there is always a reason something is wrong and we assess these arguments. It seems that, put into certain situations, almost anyone would kill another person (in fact, murder a murderer), eat another person (plane crash, lots of corpses, lots of fires, lots of crying starving family-members), etc. We are not so made that we can align ourselves to the moral pillars emblematic of absolutist, and therefore, myopic, thought. One of Kant’s few beautiful lines was “out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight will ever grow”.

Of course, we must not forget the medical reasons to abstain from eating human meat. Famously, you can contract the “laughing disease” called kuru which leads to death.

Yet, a medical reason is not a moral one. People smoke all the time, knowing fully the dangers. The reason we need to keep reassessing cannibalism is to hopefully take ourselves off the anthropocentric pedestal, to cease bathing ourselves in some metaphysical light that makes the rest of the natural world fade into the background. As I indicated, I think there are better uses for a human body than food. For this reason alone, I would oppose cannibalism – because there are better moral reasons to donate it to science, for example. I would not oppose cannibalism because the human body is special or worth protecting or that the dead need to be respected.

In fact, one of the charges laid against Meiwes was the rather bizarre “disturbing of the deceased”. This makes sense in a limited capacity: that the corpse becomes the property of the next of kin. If the kin wishes to embalm, entomb or cremate – so be it. However, if we carry out the last will of the now dead – for example, cremating his body – why would we refuse it if he wanted to be eaten? Why is turning a body to ash acceptable but not letting it turn into pulp? What does it matter to a corpse?

The point is: it doesn’t. We all know this. But out of some strange idea of affection, we continue to treat corpses like sacred spaces. There might be some beneficial consequences by doing so: for example, disease control or medical knowledge. But simply for its own sake, it makes little sense. For this reason, it makes no sense to have a charge of disturbing the deceased when Brandes willingly and with full-knowledge gave himself to Meiwes’ desires. (This was evident from video-taped and written evidence presented.)

What we must ask is, as usual: who is harmed? What are the dangers? Neither of these questions have been sufficiently answered. The main reason to be concerned is the various bizarre rituals Meiwes instigated, but even this cannot stand on its own. Before we start reprimanding someone who sought consent from his “victims”, made his intensions clear and so on, let us not forget all the other animals which we regularly round up and breed specifically for this purpose – but with no consent and no intensions of reducing their suffering.

The most immoral thing I can lay at Mr Meiwes is that he is not a vegetarian. But since Meiwes sought consent and dealt on a personal level with his food — like Douglas Adams’ pigs in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe who ask diners which part of their own flesh should be prepared – it seems far better than the millions of us who simply purchase the end result of countless suffering animals, who we have never seen alive, and never engage with ourselves. We get the meat, not the creature.

I am not a vegetarian fundamentalist, but I do strongly reject views that make humans special, unique and, more importantly, distanced from the so-called “natural world”. We are part of the natural world and all arguments attempting to extract ourselves is layered in Judeo-Christian mythology, of souls, angels and gods. It has been incredibly disastrous when we forget our nature and indeed our part in nature: We aren’t cured by gods but through an understanding of the natural world (called “science”). We bleed just like our bovine cousins, we feel pain and remorse like our closer cousins the chimpanzees.

However, there is a need to make ourselves seem special – that is, different from other animals. So different, in fact, that we just refer to every other mobile, breathing, breeding, organic being as “an animal” even though we are animals, too! This need for distance somehow makes it seem as though we are not caught by the hands of time, and therefore, mortal and finite and insignificant. By distancing ourselves from the “natural world” or the “animal kingdom”, we become something “more than just flesh”. And because “we are more than just flesh”, treating corpses as simply flesh reminds us too sharply that inside — literally and figuratively –- we are just flesh, bone and a massive dollop of metaphysical arrogance.

This doesn’t mean we must treat people simply as mobile meat, stuck in running shoes. Indeed, we should not – and do not, if we think of domesticated animals – treat nonhuman animals as pre-cooked meat, either. The same reasons apply. We ought to respect the wants and desires of other beings, especially beings that are burdened with an awareness of time as we are. As far as possible, we all should be helping our fellow creatures – no matter their species or genetic difference – to fulfil their goals as long as they do not harm someone else. Indeed, as we noted, no one else was physically harmed by the actions of Brandes and Meiwes. It is another issue how far we take others emotional suffering (since a good case can be made that physical and emotional suffering differ only by visibility, not by degree).

Note, too, that we cannot fulfil the same goals of a human as that of, say, a cat. Many of us would not kill and eat either one. And, indeed, many of us love both. Yet, we cannot love a cat the same way we love a human simply because a cat cannot appreciate gestures we bestow on human beings, nor could they reciprocate. Other humans could benefit our goals in much greater capacity than cats ever could. This shows that we do not have to treat humans differently just because they are part of our strange species but because it is beneficial and rational to do so grounded on reciprocity, goal-achievement and other forms of utility which other animals could not fulfil. We can’t have philosophical conversations with birds, cannot decide on health policies with rats. But this does not remove us from the natural world, it integrates us with it.

It also shows that by removing humans from some special sphere, we do not give up our ethical treatment. Indeed, it removes tawdry metaphysics and can ground it in a rational approach. But this forces us to remove double-standards – so we are forced into caring about nonhuman animals, too.

What would our reaction have been if Brandes had thrown himself into a lion’s den? Or perhaps layered himself in seal-blood and dived into shark-filled waters? Because they’re “just beasts”, we wouldn’t expect these nonhuman animals to do anything other than kill Brandes. However, because he gave himself to another human being, we become enraged. I am not interested in slippery-slope arguments, which will inevitably arise; I am more interested in the reasons elaborated upon when people speak from the knee, i.e. give emotional, knee-jerk responses to the situation at hand. As we saw with regard to our regular eating of nonhuman animal flesh – which is taken without their consent, en masse, etc. – we are not consistent, and I think worse, if we consider a person who eats human flesh – which he obtained with consent and compassionate treatment – a monster. Really, if we are going to toss moral labels around, we better get some of the monsters out the mirror first.

Meiwes might not be the best example — how could he be? But that is what we had to work with, since I didn't want to simply create a thought experiment. Let us say that for the sake of argument, he did not commit any strange rituals before hand and eased Brandes into death. Is there still a problem? I can see none. This does not mean, as I indicated, that what either Brandes or Meiwes did should be endorsed. I am uncertain and, by writing this, am looking critically at the answers given so far. I have found these lacking. What I am quite sure of is the arguments that react with pure emotion are either unhelpful or irrational. Considering our calling something “unnatural”, “just wrong”, or “insane” applied to our homosexual friends not a few decades ago, I am always hesitant about labeling something as always, absolutely wrong. We can look critically at criticisms without endorsing or praising the target of the criticisms — which I hope I have done here. Perhaps there are good reasons to be against certain cases of cannibalism. But considering all cannibal cases focus on corpses – which any meat eater endorses every time he puts a hunk of cow into his mouth – I don't think there can be.