Soylent Green Is People! A Philosophical Reflection on Cannibalism

With the passing of Charlton Heston, he of the Ten Commandments, The Omega Man, Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes, Spartacus, and a hilarious cameo in Michael Moore’s Bowling Columbine, no one is left to proclaim that “Soylent Green is people!”

Which got me thinking: why the ethical prohibition against cannibalism?

Some immediate responses come to mind. First, it’s disgusting, at least for most people, I think. Second, there might be good medical/scientific reasons not to eat human meat. But these kind of reasons are what I call emotional and prudential reasons against cannibalism.

What I am interested in is a non-consequentialist account for why we are not allowed to eat other humans.

And by eating other humans I don’t mean eating them on a regular basis, as a substitution for other kind of meat. Rather, I mean to find a non-consequentialist account for prohibiting the eating of human meat, even under the most dire circumstances, such as when no other forms of sustenance can be found.

An analogy can be made with regards to killing other people: we do not condone killing other on a regular basis, but there are instances, such as war, or self-defense, in which killing others is justified. What I am trying to find is if there are such instances in which cannibalism can be justified.

In the end, I can’t find a good reason why we shouldn’t eat human beings if human beings is all there is left to eat. Of course, there would have to be a whole bunch of conditions that must be satisfied before this can happen. For example, we’d have to make sure that no foul play was involved, that the person who is being eaten died of natural causes. Second, we’d have to make sure that there are in fact no other sources of sustenance for the survivors. Third, we’d have to be fairly confident that if the deceased is not eaten, the survivors, who are otherwise innocent, will die.

If these conditions are satisfied, I see no reason why the survivors should not eat the deceased. Sure, it might be physically revolting to any spectators, but I don’t think emotional repulsion or disgust is a strong enough basis for moral condemnation.

This conclusion is not even really aimed at the survivors, because they might decide after all not to eat the deceased. But this is aimed more toward the observers, who might feel the need to punish the cannibalists for this alleged moral transgression.


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