Eating people is wrong--isn’t it?

[Posted 8:57 AM by Roger Kimball]

This past weekend, I participated in a conference at Boston University about James Fitzjames Stephen, the Victorian lawyer, judge, journalist, and--last but not least--devastating critic of John Stuart Mill, especially the Mill of On Liberty--the Mill, that is to say, who is a darling of leftists, libertarians, and others whose chief moral principle that everyone should be allowed to do as he please just so long as he doesn’t hurt others.

Talking about Stephen to a crowd that was mostly suspicious (at best) of this conservative giant, I was reminded of Armin Meiwes, the German cannibal who managed to polish off quite a lot of Bernd Brandes before being apprehended by the police. I wrote about the case when it fluttered through the news cycle a year or so ago. Considering the undimmed popularity of Mill’s libertarianism, it seemed worth reposting that earlier musing (first posted on 1.7.2004):


Probably the best thing about Malcolm Bradbury’s novel Eating People is Wrong is its title, but even that, I fear, may soon seem less brilliant than it once did. The title works so well because, by slapping you in the face with the obvious--cannibalism is a seriously bad thing--it manages to insinuate a comic element of doubt: the declaration "Eating People is Wrong" somehow shades into "Eating People is Wrong (Isn’t It?)." The tension between innate conviction (eating people really is wrong) and the momentary fluttering of doubt produces the hilarity. [Note: several readers have written to chide me for not mentioning that the origin of Bradbury’s phrase is from Flanders and Swann’s classic album "At the Drop of a Hat"; the relevance to the matter at hand may be remote, but I should not pass up any opportunity to recommend that great duo from the 1950s.]

But who says that that conviction is innate? There is a certain type of academic today who loves quoting Montaigne’s essay "Of Cannibals" in order to demonstrate how liberated he is (and how liberated you should be) from the narrow, bourgeois conventions of your society. After all, even cannibals have feelings, and there is a sense, Montaigne tweaks us by observing, in which we "surpass them in every kind of barbarity."

Well, my view is that Montaigne’s essay works by assuming the same sort of background conviction that Bradbury’s title assumes: the essay is piquantly shocking because, of course, cannibalism really is the very archetype of barbarism and savagery. Montaigne’s point about the relativity of moral conventions--wearing clothes, for example, or polygamy--is subtly reinforced by that bedrock moral fact.

But again, who says it is a fact? (Is there such a thing as a "moral fact"? I think so but . . . ) I am moved to ponder these questions by Theodore Dalrymple’s splendid Montagaine-like essay "The Case for Cannibalism" in the current City Journal, a magazine that you should know if you don’t. Mr. Dalrymple begins by considering the case of Armin Meiwes, the German cannibal who killed and managed to consume at least 44 pounds of Bernd Brandes’s flesh. It was a match made, not in heaven, but on the Internet. Herr Meiwes advertised for "a young, well-built man who wants to be eaten," Herr Brandes responded. The two were clearly meant for each other. Upon learning that they both smoked, Mr. Dalrymple tells us, Herr Meiwes is said to have remarked, "Good, smoked meat lasts longer."

I am sorry to report that a German psychiatrist has concluded that Herr Meiwes--who is now in custody--suffers from "emotional problems." Poor thing. Happily, Bernd Brandes’s problems are all behind him now--behind Herr Meiwes, too, I suppose. We can only hope that the German doctors can help Herr Meiwes come to terms with his problems and develop a positive attitude about himself.

In the meantime, Mr. Dalrymple raises an interesting question: namely, why not? That is, What’s wrong with Armin Meiwes eating Bernd Brandes--always assuming, of course, that Herr Brandes has no objection? "The case," Mr. Dalrymple writes,

raises interesting questions of principle, even for those who take the thoroughly conventional view that eating people is wrong. According to the evidence, Meiwes and Brandes were consenting adults: by what right, therefore, has the state interfered in their slightly odd relationship?
While you are restocking your pipe and muttering "Yes, but . . . ," consider this key passage from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859), a bible of modern liberalism:
The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.
Let’s emphasize Mill’s overriding point by repeating the end: "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant." In case that is not sufficiently clear, Mill says similar things throughout the course of his essay, just to be certain that we get his point: "society has no business as society to decide anything to be wrong which concerns only the individual."

Mill’s essay is a plea for "originality," "eccentricity," "innovation," and the like. "The amount of eccentricity in a society," he wrote, "has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage it contained." In Mill’s view, the great enemy of genius, mental vigor, etc. was mankind’s addiction to customary ways of behaving and understanding the world. Accordingly, Mill was at pains to castigate the "despotism of custom [that] is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement," the "tyranny of opinion" that makes it so difficult for "the progressive principle" to flourish. The "greater part of the world," Mill argued "has, properly speaking, no history because the sway of custom has been complete." What was needed, he said in the book’s most famous phrase, were "experiments in living" that had thrown off the chains of the customary, the conventional, the taken-for-granted.

So, was Herr Meiwes within his rights when he made a meal of his new friend? If Mill was right that "the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection," then I think we have to pass Herr Meiwes the salt and pepper and wish him bon appetit.

But was Mill right? In this latitudinarian age it is tantamount to heresy to suggest otherwise, but I believe that the sorry spectacle of Meiwes saut�ing bits of Herr Brandes shows that, yes, Mill’s "one very simple principle" was not merely simplistic but wrong, indeed preposterous.

It is not without irony that Mill’s libertarian doctrine, which demands that we free ourselves from prejudice and convention, should have become enshrined as the dominant moral prejudice of the age. It is simply taken for granted these days that one "has a right" to do whatever one wants so long as one doesn’t harm others.

I have argued against Mill at length in my book Experiments Against Reality. Here I will briefly quote one of Mill’s most articulate critics, James Fitzjames Stephen, whose book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873) made mincemeat of Mill’s argument but which--such is the power of convention, prejudice, etc.--has been all but forgotten. (Stephen, incidentally, was the brother of Leslie Stephen, the great English man of letters, and hence Virginia Woolf’s uncle: how Stephen would have loathed Bloomsbury and everything it stood for.)

As Stephen points out, Mill’s doctrine of liberty boils down to the exhortation: Let everyone please himself in any way he likes so long as he does not hurt his neighbor. According to Mill, any moral system that aimed at more--that aimed, for example, at improving the moral character of society at large or the individuals in it--would be wrong in principle. (I should note, however, that Mill did not hold to this radical doctrine consistently. In a letter of 1829, for example, he wrote in direct contradiction to the position he put forward in On Liberty, that "government exists for all purposes whatever that are for man’s good: and the highest and most important of these purposes is the improvement of man himself as a moral and intelligent being.") But Mill’s view, Stephen notes, would "condemn every existing system of morals."

Strenuously preach and rigorously practise the doctrine that our neighbor’s private character is nothing to us, and the number of unfavorable judgments formed, and therefore the number of inconveniences inflicted by them can be reduced as much as we please, and the province of liberty can be enlarged in corresponding ratio. Does any reasonable man wish for this? Could anyone desire gross licentiousness, monstrous extravagance, ridiculous vanity, or the like, to be unnoticed, or, being known, to inflict no inconveniences which can possibly be avoided?
"The custom of looking upon certain courses of conduct with aversion," Stephen notes, "is the essence of morality." This is why Mill’s famous distinction between "self-regarding" and "other-regarding" acts is "radically vicious. It assumes that some acts regard the agent only, and that some regard other people. In fact, by far the most important part of our conduct regards both ourselves and others."

As Stephen observes, "men are so closely connected together that it is quite impossible to say how far the influence of acts apparently of the most personal character may extend." The splendid isolation that Mill’s imperative requires is a chimera. Individuals exist not in autonomous segregation but in a network of relationships. Thus it is, as Stephen argues, that

every human creature is deeply interested not only in the conduct, but in the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of millions of persons who stand in no other assignable relation to him than that of being his fellow-creatures. A great writer who makes a mistake in his speculations may mislead multitudes whom he has never seen. The strong metaphor that we are all members one of another is little more than the expression of a fact. A man would be no more a man if he was alone in the world than a hand would be a hand without the rest of the body.
Well, there is more to say, but it is worth pondering what Mill would have had to say to Herr Meiwes. Some people like their steak well-done, some like it rare. Some, apparently, like it cut from the flanks of their friends. So long as the friend doesn’t mind, who are we to judge? You see what Stephen meant when he observed that "Complete moral tolerance is possible only when men have become completely indifferent to each other--that is to say, when society is at an end."

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