Lately, I have been contemplating some philosophical questions – and I would love some feedback from all of you.
When I was a teenager, I read a story (I don’t know if it was fiction or not, but that is irrelevant to the philosophical questions it poses) about a woman and her children, stranded in the frozen North, far from help and food. The woman resorted to trying to fish with an improvised fishing rod to keep her children from starving – but, the fish would not respond to an un-baited fishing rod. So, she used bits of her own flesh to bait the hook in order to catch the fish to keep her children from starving….
I found that story deeply inspirational and, then and there, I knew I would do no less to ensure the survival of my progeny.
As I read more ‘stuff’, I encountered stories of sons and daughters sacrificing themselves to save their mothers or fathers – and these had infuriated me to no end….and I could not understand the reasons for such depth of rage and revulsion these stories had evoked in me.
It took me years to mature enough to realize that my subconscious reactions were the product of my genetic programming: we are but vessels for our genes and their immortality – through our progeny. Thus, stories of parents’ sacrifices to ensure the survival of their progeny (genetic immortality, if you will) inspired me while stories of children sacrificing themselves for the parents (the reversal of the ‘genetic immortality vector’, if you will) enraged me.
Yet, over the years, I have found that not everyone is as subject to their genetic vector programming (for lack of a better term) as I am – and that in some people’s ideas, it influences the ‘first principles’ they consider ‘core’ or ‘basis’ of their reasoning.
Which, of course, makes peoples’ answers to some ‘classical’ philosophical questions very different: different ‘core’ leads to different ‘weighted values’ and all that.
And that is why I’d like you to indulge in some reflection on your own core values and see how you would answer the following questions:
Say you are stranded somewhere far from help and food – perhaps a plane crash in an inaccessible place – and the only potential food source around is the corpses of other people. Would you cannibalize them in order to survive?
Same situation – but everyone survives. One person, grievously wounded and not likely to survive long enough for rescue to come, volunteers to be killed and eaten. Would you kill them and cannibalize them to survive?
Question 2b: What if the volunteer was perfectly healthy – and others were wounded. Would you kill the healthy volunteer to feed yourself and the injured?
Same situation, again, with everyone surviving. One person is grievously wounded and unconscious (unable to give consent), but is the only one hurt so badly they will not likely survive…yet to wait for their natural death would mean everyone else would starve. Would you kill them and eat them to survive?
That grievously wounded person (the only person not likely to survive) is conscious but refuses to agree to be killed and eaten – yet everyone else, perfectly healthy and likely to survive, would die unless somebody is killed and eaten now. Do you kill the injured person and eat them, even against their will?
Same as in 3b – but the deadly wounded person says they don’t want to be eaten… and then succumb to their injuries. Do you eat them to survive?
Same situation, but everyone survives without any major injuries. Starvation knocks on the proverbial doors. Do you draw straws to see who gets killed and eaten first?
Same question, everyone survives – and someone suggests drawing straws to see who gets killed and eaten first. This divides the group into two – those who want to draw straws, take their chances and hope to survive through cannibalism, and those who don’t. So, the first group draws straws, on person is killed and cooked….and, now, some from the other group ask to share in the food, promising to take part in future straw-drawing. Do you share food with them?
What if there are children in the situation: too young to give informed consent. Do you include them in the straw-drawing?
Same situation as Question 5: the group is divided and some choose tp participate in straw drawing, some don’t. Do you share the food with the children of the people who choose not to participate in the draw?
Same situation, all are healty. There are sevral adults, each with a different number of children. Only the adults will participate in the draw, yet everyone will eat. Do you assign the amount of food to be proportional to the number of lots (as in, if there are 5 adults participating, do you divide the food among the 5 families, regardless of the number of children, because the risk was equal 5 ways) or to the number of ‘mouths to be fed’? How would you accoun for the children of the early casulties in subsequent draws?
What does it do to society when you regard other members of it as potential sources of spare parts?
Is that any different than cannibalism?
And does somebody’s ‘volunteering’ to be cannibalized make it morally OK to benefit from it?
August 2, 2013 at 13:10
1. I probably would. You know, there’s a big difference between saying what you would do and actually doing it. I suspect some people might have too much dignity to admit they would eat corpses but the brain enters an entirely different mode during extreme starvation.
2. A bit of a stretch from the first question. I’d say it’s a 50/50 chance. I hope I’d at least show some restraint in an actual situation like that, but I guess it would depend how the other people feel about it. It’s well possible I would.
2b. Assuming that someone who is injured is less useful and therefore is more likely to deserve to die? I don’t think so. I mean there would probably be some factor of which person I would rather have live, but I don’t think that would be it.
3. Maybe if the other people were okay with it. Again, what idealistic things we like to say on the internet are different than what we would do in real life.
3b: At this point my answer to this is the same as answer 3, as each question only presents a more incremental moral dillemma.
3c. If by succumb you mean die, it’s less intense than 3b, making it more in line with 1.
4. I may have said this earlier but the attitude of the other people would matter, I might propose it.
5. Sure, why not.
6. Yes, of course. Children are tender and delicious. But seriously, at this point,
7. Probably not, or if I do share, they would only get a really small amount.
8. I think this is more logistics than morals at this point. I would say divide by family first, and then possibly by mouthes.
I would not compare cannibalism to anything that’s not ACTUAL cannibalism (though the term cannibalism is often used metaphorically). Cannibalism is a moral dillema in and of itself, regardless of volunteerism.
Also, question 9 (one I made up). If you are the one decided to be eaten by the draw, would you go along with the promise or would you fight to the death to stay alive.
But all in all, why psychologically scar yourself by eating a corpse when you’re just going to be hungry again tomorrow? Though morals completely change when we are actually faced in these situations. Would I be humble and gentle in this situation, or would I be a violent cannibal? Most people would probably say they would avoid doing these things, I outright assume I would (not because I think in this mentality I would but because I know what the human mind is like when it’s at it’s wits end.
Xanthippa says: True – the mind does see things differently when you are staring death in the eyes…but your point about volunteerism is well taken.
To answer your question #9:
If I gave my word, I would not go back on it – especially if the lives of others depended on it. However, if my adult child’s number came up, I’d volunteer to spend my life to spare his.
August 2, 2013 at 18:13
It should be emphasized at the outset that the answers are very different in a wilderness-survival situation than they are in daily life. In a crisis, moral principles and social conventions must be weighted differently than under normal circumstances.
In addition to your premises, we will have to assume that there is a feasible plan which would permit the bulk of the group to survive and return to civilization, provided only that we have enough to eat during the initial stages. Otherwise, all we can do is choose the order in which we die, and that is not a sufficient reason to resort to killing people.
In my view, it is killing people that is wrong, not eating them per se. I see the difference between a man and an animal as one of degree, rather than kind. We are at the top of the food chain on this planet, and that confers certain rights, but human consciousness is not fundamentally different from that of that of the higher mammals – some of which we eat all the time.
Of course, there are some who claim that humans possess an immortal soul, and this makes us fundamentally different from the animals. But there is no credible evidence supporting that assertion, so it would be unwise to base life-and-death decisions on it.
With all that said, my counsel in this situation would be as follows:
1. Everyone eats, if anyone does, though people may choose not to.
2. People get eaten in reverse order of what they contribute to the survival of the group.
3. If there is no self-evident ordering based on contribution, lots are drawn.
4. Consent is not required, but volunteering is acceptable.
5. Children are exempt.
These principles don’t make it right to eat people, but they do – as far as possible – limit the wrong to the minimum possible degree of necessary evil.
At the very least, they resolve the various scenarios you propose.
Now, the parallels between organ transplantation and cannibalism are obvious, but there are important differences, too – not least of which is the absence of a crisis. It is the status quo for society as a whole we are now contemplating, not emergency survival of a small group.
As part of the status quo, harvesting organs for transplantation, even from corpses, carries enormous potential for crime – much of it under unprovable circumstances. Therefore – at minimum – the harvesting of organs from corpses without prior consent must be strictly prohibited. And cases of living people voluntarily donating an organ, like a kidney or an eye, must be subject to rigorous scrutiny to ensure absence of coercion.
Even so, such measures are likely insufficient to mitigate the criminal potential of organ harvesting. And the rationale for it is questionable in the first place; in most cases, people who receive an organ transplant don’t live very much longer than they would have without it.
Fortunately, the question will soon become moot. Tissue engineering has advanced to the point where we can soon expect organs to be routinely and cheaply repaired or replaced using the patient’s own adipose-derived stem cells.
Yes – that may be true of organs in the future…but how about blood, voluntarily donated, right now?
Is it morally acceptable to be willing to accept a blood transfusion during a surgery, if the alternative is bleeding out to death (or having the MD refuse to perform the surgery, which will result in the same, just a few months and much pain later), or would it be so destructive to society to see others as potential sources of spare parts that death is preferable?
There is some urgency to this question…
P.S. to question #2: who gets to decide, and on what basis, who is most important for the survival of the group? Tyranny of the majority?
August 2, 2013 at 23:40
Blood presents no moral dilemma whatsoever.
There is no comparison between giving blood and donating organs.
Blood is a renewable resource. It costs nothing to give blood.
At most, one feels a little weak for a few days while the body regenerates the blood.
Personally, I don’t notice at all.
When a person gives blood, they take about half a litre, which amounts to roughly one tenth of the person’s blood. It is a triviality to the giver.
In fact, men who give blood once or twice a year are healthier than those who don’t, especially if they supplement iron. The same applies to women who don’t menstruate (usually because they choose not to cycle off their birth control pills). This is because modern living is too safe for our own good; the body needs to lose a little blood once in a while to help regulate iron concentration. Otherwise, over time, we end up with too much iron in the blood.
So giving blood is a net benefit to both the giver and the receiver.
No moral dilemma at all.
So, if one agrees that, if necessary in the course of a surgery, to accept a blood transfusion, one is not doing harm to the society as a whole and thus not being a hypocrate?
August 3, 2013 at 00:43
How can an act which benefits everyone involved – and is without consequence for everyone else – somehow do harm to society as a whole?
Simple: it can’t.
If a blood transfusion is needed, there is no valid reason to have moral qualms about accepting it.
August 2, 2013 at 18:26
As usual, the differences between your view an mine rest on the fact that you believe morality to be a matter of consensus, whereas I believe it to be derivable from first principles.
Right and wrong do not depend on who sees what you do, or what they think of it.
And the measure of a man is his willingness to face death for the sake of his principles.
August 2, 2013 at 22:29
thank you for your feedback code. i was talking about not what i think i should do or what i would hope that i’d do, but what i probably would do if backed in the corner. i mean you can say your principles are ideal, but there’s no way to know until it’s tested in tragedy.
in my case, it’s not just a matter of morals not existing period. but if they were to exist somehow, these dillemmas test different moral principles. your existence vs your family’s existence. or more precisely, cannibalism vs volunteerism. if i were to volunteer in the straw, there is a good chance i would run away or physically engage with anyone who wants me dead. i probably wouldn’t just stand there and let people bludgeon me to death, even if i did participate in the raffle. then again, if someone else tried to run away after backing out of that deal, i might try to chase them too.
when so many different ideals are bent in so many different directions, it’s a jungle, an amoral one. morals already don’t exist, but they certainly dont in these kinds of situations.
I suppose here iswhere we differ: if I gave my word to participate in the lottery, and I pulled the proverbial ‘short straw’, I would NEVER run from my commitment and my word.
There are some things more important than my life – and being a principled, moral person is one of them.
P.S. It never even occurred to me, when posing the questions, that someone who had volunteered for the lottery would try to run upon loosing…what a horrible thought!
August 2, 2013 at 23:41
i hope i wouldn’t xan and maybe i wouldn’t. but how can you be so sure?
the mind in clear rational thought is entirely different than the mind pumped with adrenaline as well as faced with a situation of this nature. i’m pretty sure you would stick to your principles. maybe i would too. but how would you know for sure. no matter what, you can’t reconcile your ideals with your potential action in a situation, for absolute certainty.
also, if we were all going to starve to death anyway at some point, why not just die period and not try to survive an extra day at expense of literally eating your loved ones.
not to get too personal (But hey you started this lol). both of your children die on that island. and its just you. do you eat them? if they were someone elses children and those childrens parents were dead enough to eat as well. would it be different?
August 3, 2013 at 00:50
I can’t think of a better argument against moral relativism than what you’ve written.
We all die.
We cannot dictate when or how.
The only thing we control is whether we die well.
If you give that up, what have you got left?
August 3, 2013 at 19:29
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