by Tauriq Moosa
What is it about topics like incest, bestiality, necrophilia and cannibalism that urges us to pick up pitchforks and torches? A more important question, however, is whether these topics automatically or necessarily should elicit outrage enough for us to target those who perform these acts. I think not.
Considering the purely descriptive side, there has been some interesting but controversial research into our moral psychology and intuitions.
Jonathan Haidt famously provided the following example in a study.
Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are travelling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it ok for them to make love?
Haidt, in an interview, explained the responses of subjects reaching ‘moral dumbfounding’:
People almost always start out by saying it’s wrong. Then they start to give reasons. The most common reasons involve genetic abnormalities or that it will somehow damage their relationship. But we say in the story that they use two forms of birth control, and we say in the story that they keep that night as a special secret and that it makes them even closer. So people seem to want to disregard certain facts about the story. When the experimenter points out these facts and says “Oh, well, sure, if they were going to have kids, that would cause problems, but they are using birth control, so would you say that it’s OK?” And people never say “Ooooh, right, I forgot about the birth control. So then it is OK.” Instead, they say, “Oh, yeah. Huh. Well, OK, let me think.”
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‘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.
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.
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