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Eating people is wrong

Or how we decide morally what to eat

By Michael A. Ashby and Leigh E. Rich

Though from opposite sides of the world and of different genders, religious backgrounds, and professional disciplines (but not necessarily scholarly orientations), we both grew up being fed tales of cannibalism.

For one of us (LER), born and raised in Colorado, it was the true story of Alfred Packer,1 the mining prospector originally from Pennsylvania who joined five other men on an expedition in 1874 into the San Juan range of the Rocky Mountains in the middle of winter. A few months later in early April, only Packer emerged—and apparently not terribly the worse for wear:

He seemed too well fed for a man who had spent the winter in the mountains and he had more money than any of them had seen him with during the trip. He eventually broke down and revealed a horrible series of events that started ten days after their journey began (Di Stefano 2006, 181).

To this day, no one knows exactly what happened between the men. Packer, after originally stating he fell behind the others and turned back, next claimed four of his colleagues died of exposure or were killed by the fifth, whom he then killed in self-defence. When “[f]ive sets of human remains” were found in August “in a cluster near the bank” of a river, however, it “appeared that they had not only been murdered where they lay but also horribly ravaged, and one set of remains was missing its head” (Ramsland 2005, ¶1–2 under “A Grisly Find”). Packer was tried and eventually convicted (first of murder, then of manslaughter), even though he and others have argued at various times for his innocence.

Regardless, one thing is clear: The miner survived on the flesh of his compatriots and Packer’s legend lives on in both cultural and pop history.

Eighty-five years later and across the Atlantic, English author Malcolm Bradbury published his first novel, Eating People Is Wrong (1959). A far cry from the snow-covered mountains of the American West, Bradbury’s book relates the saga of a provincial university campus and its academicians, who are confronted with philosophical questions of “what it means to treat someone well” and “the relevance of liberal humanism in a changing world” (Reeves 2012, ¶4 and ¶2). This moral struggle is personified by guest lecturer Carey Willoughby, a “most overtly parasitic character” (Morace 1989, 40) whose self-centred ambitions “could be said to consume people” and who “sees in his success and fame a license and an encouragement to behave as outrageously as he pleases” (Reeves 2012, ¶6). [continued …]

Read the full article for free

Ashby, Michael A., and Leigh E. Rich. 2013. Eating people is wrong … or how we decide morally what to eat. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 10(2): 129–131.

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