Limits to consensual actions

Although I do not consider myself a libertarian, I do agree with some libertarian principles, especially the ones that says that adults have the right to privacy and be able to engage in solitary or consensual practices that do not harm others free from interference from the state and society. But Michael J. Sandel in his book Justice: What’s the right thing to do? (p. 74) provides a story that sorely tests my allegiance to those principles

In 2001, a strange encounter took place in the German village of Rotenburg. Bernd-Jurgen Brandes, a forty-three-year-old software engineer, responded to an Internet ad seeking someone “willing to be killed and eaten.” The ad had been posted by Armin Meiwes, forty-two, a computer technician. Meiwes was offering no monetary compensation, only the experience itself. Some two hundred people replied to the ad. Four traveled to Meiwes’s farmhouse for an interview, but decided they were not interested. But when Brandes met with Meiwes and considered his proposal over coffee, he gave his consent. Meiwes proceeded to kill his guest, carve up the corpse, and store it in plastic bags in his freezer. By the time he was arrested, the “Cannibal of Rotenburg” had consumed over forty pounds of his willing victim, cooking some of him in olive oil and garlic.

I had not heard of this shocking story before, even though it occurred quite recently. That two hundred people responded to the ad at all, even assuming that most of them thought it was a joke of some kind, was weird.

Is the negative reaction that most people will feel towards this story a result of revulsion towards cannibalism? And is that feeling rational? After all, once a person is dead, no further harm can be done to that person. When someone dies, we are allowed to use the body for research or to bury it or burn it. In the Zoroastrian religion the custom is to leave dead bodies out in the open to be eaten by vultures, so we could take the extreme position and say it is acceptable for it to be eaten by humans too.

Or is our feeling of revulsion due to the idea that a young and seemingly healthy person in a state of sound mind should voluntarily choose to have himself killed and eaten at the request of a stranger? The whole episode was videotaped (which is why we know that this bizarre transaction was consensual) but the tape also indicates that the dead person had some truly weird ideas of his own and was not of sound mind as we would understand the term, except in the narrow sense that he knew what he was doing.

As you can imagine, the case posed extraordinary problems for the justice system and made me glad that I was not the judge assigned to oversee it.

When Meiwes was brought to trial, the lurid case fascinated the public and confounded the court. Germany has no law against cannibalism. The perpetrator could not be convicted of murder, the defense maintained, because the victim was a willing participant in his own death. Meiwes’s lawyer argued that his client could be guilty only of “killing on request,” a form of assisted suicide that carries a maximum five-year sentence. The court attempted to resolve the conundrum by convicting Meiwes of manslaughter and sentencing him to eight and a half years in prison. But two years later, an appeals court overturned the conviction as too lenient, and sentenced Meiwes to life in prison.

Sandel reflects on what this might tell us about the limits of libertarianism as a philosophy.

Cannibalism between consenting adults poses the ultimate test for the libertarian principle of self-ownership and the idea of justice that follows from it. It is an extreme form of assisted suicide. Since it has nothing to do with relieving the pain of a terminally ill patient, it can be justified only on the grounds that we own our bodies and lives, and may do with them what we please. If the libertarian claim is right, banning consensual cannibalism is unjust, a violation of the right to liberty.

The weirdness of the story does not end there. Sandel says that, “In a bizarre denouement to the sordid tale, the cannibal killer has reportedly become a vegetarian in prison, on the grounds that factory farming is inhumane.”

There are some truly strange people in the world.

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