Why not cannibalism? If The Economist is happy with surrogacy, why not smash another taboo?

The Economist is the world’s best news magazine. Its stylish, capably-argued and well-informed coverage has made it the Bible of the global elite. “I used to think. Now I just read The Economist,” the former CEO of Oracle, Larry Ellison, once said.

Part of its appeal is consistency. Ever since it was founded in 1843 The Economist has argued that aim of public policy should be to promote the market economy as the best way of achieving prosperity and democracy. A light touch of government regulation may be needed, but only to ensure fairness and legal certainty. Thus it embodies the “classical 19th-century Liberal ideas” which made Britain, and later the United States, a bulwark of capitalism. Its tutelary spirit is the British philosopher who popularised utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill.

Whatever the merits of this ideology in framing public policy for economics and finance, it is ill-suited to questions of personal morality.

In principle The Economist supports all autonomous action which is harmless and profitable, or if pressed, merely profitable. Hence, in recent years it has thrown its considerable prestige behind campaigns for the legalisation of drugs, pornography, prostitution, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage.

And this month it took up cudgels in favour of an international market in surrogate mothers and babies. “Carrying a child for someone else should be celebrated—and paid”, is the defiant headline of its leader (ie, editorial). Given the magazine’s influence, this may be a significant development. (Read MercatorNet's interviews with surrogacy experts Regula Staempfli and Pinki Virani.)

Hopefully it will not be.

By this stage, its readers may have recognised that leaders advocating breaking with moral traditions and smashing of moral taboos are written according to a rhetorical template. They open with an anecdote drawn from the news, history or classical literature, smirk at old-fashioned attitudes, cite research justifying a change in the law, describe the financial benefits of change, sprinkle some J.S. Mill pixie dust and conclude with a wry twist.

The editors of The Economist are dab hands at this. As memoranda on the desk of a CEO or foreign minister, the leaders are peerless in their power to persuade. But when the issue involves an understanding of human nature, they degenerate into a specious charade. What makes men and women flourish as human beings is more than the slogan of autonomy and certainly more than dollars and cents (or pounds and pence).

We can expect more taboo-breaking guff like last week’s surrogacy leader in The Economist. A society built on Christian foundations still has lots of “taboos” to be eliminated. So, just to spare its editors some work, we have prepared a leader for the day when they get around to proposing a market in anthropophagy.   



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Leader in The Economist of May 23, 2020

Chacun à son gout: an embattled new industry needs legal clarity to expand

Perhaps no crime leaves a more bitter taste in the mouth than cannibalism, although Goya painted his horrifying work “Saturn devouring his son” on the wall of his own dining room. Western colonialists used tales of cannibalism to depict indigenous peoples as barbarous and inhuman.

But there is another dimension to the consumption of human flesh. In many cultures it has been regarded as a way of sharing in the courage of defeated but illustrious foes. This may explain why Hawaiians ate the great explorer Captain James Cook. In 1972 when the survivors of the Andes flight disaster kept themselves alive by consuming the flesh of their friends, some saw in it a kind of spiritual communion with their comrades.

This is the spirit with which an enterprising chef opened the Saturn’s Cellar bistros in London and Liverpool, and has established franchises in Moscow, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and New York. Predictably, there have been protests from conservative pro-life and church lobby groups over this highly profitable and fast-growing industry. Backbenchers have even demanded legislation banning boutique cannibalism. Astonishingly, consumption of human flesh is not a crime in the United Kingdom.

Has the time come to reconsider mankind’s last and longest taboo? This newspaper believes that it has. There may be wisdom in repugnance; but public repugnance must not become an obstacle to entrepreneurship and sound public policy. In the evergreen words of John Stuart Mill, “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.”

Notwithstanding the heated protests generated by tabloid headlines, only two issues need be clarified: can anyone be harmed and have the persons consumed given their informed consent?

There are some dangers. Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease has been responsible for a handful of deaths in the United Kingdom over the past 20 years, although more recently,  only two people have died annually. CJD, or mad cow disease, to use the better-known term, is transmitted by eating brain tissue or through corneal transplants. The controversial bistros use only thighs and buttocks which have been thoroughly tested for transmissible diseases, so there is no danger of succumbing to CJD. A charcuterie platter at Saturn’s Cellar is as safe as eating at McDonalds.

In addition, all flesh used by the industry has been donated by people who have given their explicit consent to being eaten after their death. Industry sources say that one or two bodies a week are donated, occasionally after euthanasia, a cause for which The Economist has campaigned successfully. Some donors may even see in their passing, like the survivors of the Andes disaster, a way of confirming their own dignity by sustaining the lives of others.

At the moment, the industry operates in legal shadowlands. Although cannibalism per se is not illegal, the Department of Public Prosecutions has been pressured to prosecute the restauranteurs and their customers for outraging public decency or preventing a lawful burial.

That is why the Department of Health should establish an Inspectorate of Cannibalism, setting out the body parts which can be consumed, conditions for storage, provision for interment, official forms for informed consent and so on. A light regulatory hand will help to assuage the legitimate concerns of critics and give business the certainty it needs for investment.

“All the world is torn and rent By varying views on nutriment,” wrote Hilaire Belloc. Of no dish is this so true as human flesh. But rather than duelling at the dinner table, we should tuck in to the diverse cuisine available in a modern economy with progressive values.


So there! If that doesn't persuade you, nothing will. 

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator 

Image credit: Bigstock


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