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The Aztecs willingly volunteered to serve as human sacrifices (and to be tucked into afterwards). They firmly believed that they were offerings, chosen by gods themselves, thus being rendered immortal.
Dutiful sons and daughters in China made their amputated organs and sliced tissues (mainly liver) available to their sick parents (practices known as Ko Ku and Ko Kan). Such donation were considered remedial. Princess Miao Chuang who surrendered her severed hands to her ailing father was henceforth deified.
Non-consensual cannibalism is murder, pure and simple. The attendant act of cannibalism, though aesthetically and ethically reprehensible, cannot aggravate this supreme assault on all that we hold sacred.
But consensual cannibalism is a lot trickier. Modern medicine, for instance, has blurred already thin line between right and wrong.
What is ethical difference between consensual, post-mortem, organ harvesting and consensual, post-mortem cannibalism?
Why is stem cell harvesting (from aborted fetuses) morally superior to consensual post-mortem cannibalism?
When members of a plane-wrecked rugby team, stranded on an inaccessible, snow-piled, mountain range resort to eating each other in order to survive, we turn a blind eye to their repeated acts of cannibalism - but we condemn very same deed in harshest terms if it takes place between two consenting, and even eager adults in Germany. Surely, we don't treat murder, pedophilia, and incest same way!
As Auxiliary Bishop of Montevideo said after crash:
"... Eating someone who has died in order to survive is incorporating their substance, and it is quite possible to compare this with a graft. Flesh survives when assimilated by someone in extreme need, just as it does when an eye or heart of a dead man is grafted onto a living man..."
(Read, P.P. 1974. Alive. Avon, New York)
Complex ethical issues are involved in apparently straightforward practice of consensual cannibalism.
Consensual, in vivo, cannibalism (a-la Messrs. Meiwes and Brandes) resembles suicide. The cannibal is merely instrument of voluntary self-destruction. Why would we treat it different to way we treat any other form of suicide pact?
Consensual cannibalism is not equivalent of drug abuse because it has no social costs. Unlike junkies, cannibal and his meal are unlikely to harm others. What gives society right to intervene, therefore?
If we own our bodies and, thus, have right to smoke, drink, have an abortion, commit suicide, and will our organs to science after we die - why don't we possess inalienable right to will our delectable tissues to a discerning cannibal post-mortem (or to victims of famine in Africa)?
When does our right to dispose of our organs in any way we see fit crystallize? Is it when we die? Or after we are dead? If so, what is meaning and legal validity of a living will? And why can't we make a living will and bequeath our cadaverous selves to nearest cannibal?
Do dead people have rights and can they claim and invoke them while they are still alive? Is live person same as his dead body, does he "own" it, does state have any rights in it? Does corpse still retain its previous occupant's "personhood"? Are cadavers still human, in any sense of word?
We find all three culinary variants abhorrent. Yet, this instinctive repulsion is a curious matter. The onerous demands of survival should have encouraged cannibalism rather than make it a taboo. Human flesh is protein-rich. Most societies, past and present (with exception of industrialized West), need to make efficient use of rare protein-intensive resources.
If cannibalism enhances chances of survival - why is it universally prohibited? For many a reason.
I. The Sanctity of Life
Historically, cannibalism preceded, followed, or precipitated an act of murder or extreme deprivation (such as torture). It habitually clashed with principle of sanctity of life. Once allowed, even under strictest guidelines, cannibalism tended to debase and devalue human life and foster homicide, propelling its practitioners down a slippery ethical slope towards bloodlust and orgiastic massacres.
II. The Afterlife
Moreover, in life, human body and form are considered by most religions (and philosophers) to be abode of soul, divine spark that animates us all. The post-mortem integrity of this shrine is widely thought to guarantee a faster, unhindered access to afterlife, to immortality, and eventual reincarnation (or karmic cycle in eastern religions).
For this reason, to this very day, orthodox Jews refuse to subject their relatives to a post-mortem autopsy and organ harvesting. Fijians and Cook Islanders used to consume their enemies' carcasses in order to prevent their souls from joining hostile ancestors in heaven.
Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, and eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He is the the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.