The Economics of Cannibalism

Cannibal.gifMuch has been said in the blogosphere of late about the German cannibalism case involving two adult men, Armin Meiwes (the eater) and Bernd Brandes (the food). Most of the arguments on either side of the debate focus on whether or not this was actually consensual. While it may appear like Brandes gave his consent to be killed and eaten (not in that order, mind you), opponents have argued that, by definition, anyone who wants to be eaten is not sane enough to give consent. As Theodore Dalrymple, a columnist for City Journal put it,

Ah, you say, but Brandes was mad, and therefore not capable of judging what was in his own interests. What, though, is the evidence that he was mad? Well, the fact that he wanted Meiwes to eat him. And why did he want Meiwes to eat him? Because he was mad.

There is a circularity to this argument that robs it of force. It is highly likely that Brandes did indeed have ?emotional problems,? but if every person with emotional problems were denied the right to determine what is in his own interests, none of us would be self-determining in the eyes of the law, except those of us who had no emotions to have problems with.

I'm not interested in getting into the details of whether this tautology is a good argument or not. What is interesting to note, though, is that even the opponents of cannibalism are arguing on libertarian grounds; that is, they are not merely rejecting cannibalism on the grounds that it is "immoral" or detrimental to society, or other such paternalist nonsense. Rather, they seem to accept the libertarian premise that we are only justified in interfering in cases that involve coercion. Even though the relationship between these two men may appear consensual at first glance, in reality it is not.

Another argument against permitting consensual cannibalism is high administrative costs. It may be very difficult and expensive to determine whether each individual case involves consent and not coercion. The same is true for assisted suicide and sex between adults and children. Rather than bear these costs, the argument goes, we should impose a single administrative rule that treats all cases similarly. Even though some cannibals, candidates for suicide, and children may be capable of giving consent, many are not, and it is better to restrict the rights of the few in order to protect the rights of the many. Obviously I don't accept this argument fully, but it does have some force.

But putting aside all of the questions of consent, there is another argument in favor of permitting consensual cannibalism to take place. From an Econ and Law perspective, consider what might happen if we do punish acts of consensual cannibalism as murder: instead of going to the trouble of finding apparently willing participants, as Meiwes did, those who have a strong desire to slaughter and eat humans will be much more likely to kill innocent people against their will - people who no one would argue gave their consent.

Share this

Your post produced a

Your post produced a spirited philosophical discussion over our breakfast table this morning. Everyone feels that all legal impediments associated with cannibalism could be avoided if a person was eaten a part at a time while still living. For example, you could be invited to Larry's house for a Sunday dinner of roast leg of Larry. No laws broken that we could see.

Another argument is that

Another argument is that economics does not apply to the subject. Economics is the rationing of resources. That a person's time is a resource is fairly well established and subject to the rules of economics. That a person is a resource to be disposed of according to economic rules is not established in the least. Are people means to an end or ends in and of themselves. If they are ends, cannibalism cannot be properly the subject of economics.

People's acquisition and expense of resources are all in service to an ultimate end and that end, when traced back as far as it will go, is usually some pleasure or usefulness to a person or persons. Thus, much of what is economically analyzed as ends are merely subsidiary ends, means to a greater end. There is no greater end than people, no means that they can be properly spent using purely economic analysis. This is why we don't have widespread human medical testing, for example, even though it would save countless lives and accelerate medical progress. Societies (Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan) who organize such programs are viewed with horror because they have transgressed into treating ends as means.

The entire premise of the thread is just wrong. Cannibalism has no economics.

TM, While it is true that

TM,

While it is true that economics includes the study of rationing resources, it also includes the study of how people respond to incentives. The economic analysis of crime and the law, for example, concentrates on the role incentives play in human decision making. And as I said at the end of the post, making cannibalism illegal regardless of the effort put forth by the canninbal to look for another willing participant will reduce the incentives of the marginal cannibal to go through the trouble of looking. If I will be punished whether or not the victim gave consent, I no longer care what the victims says.

As for your means and ends argument, if you agree that people own their own bodies, then I see no reason why a sane adult should not be allowed to use his body as a means to achieve his desired ends (to be eaten). Just because you might find his desired ends "icky" does not mean that they are illegitimate.

Okay, I just read your blog

Okay, I just read your blog and now realize that you do not believe in self-ownership. Very well. But even if you believe God owns your body, I think my economic argument is still on solid ground. Even if you believe cannibalism is morally wrong, the law is limited in its application (i.e. there are not enough resources to punish every crime), and therefore, legal resources must be allocated in the most efficient way possible. Thus, it makes sense to prosecute unconsensual cannibalism, but by prosecuting consensual cannibalism, the law is wasting valuable resources that could be directed elsewhere, while at the same time, removing the incentive for cannibals to differentiate between consensual and nonconsensual victims.

wat the fuck

wat the fuck