27 June 2012

Munchies and JS Mill

After reading 'TV Cannibalism, Body Worlds and Trade in Human Body Parts: Legal-Philosophical Reflections on the Rise of Late Modern Cannibalism' by Britta Van Beers in 4(2) Amsterdam Law Forum (2012) 65-75 I was interested to read this week's lip-smacking coverage in the Adelaide Advertiser of a meal involving parts of Japanese artist Mao Sugiyama.

The Advertiser reports that Tokyo police are investigating whether Sugiyama  committed a crime in cooking his own excised genitals and serving them to five paying diners.  Sugiyama kept his penis and testicles frozen after surgical removal in March. He cooked and served them at a public event in May, with diners each paying 20,000 yen (US$250) per a portion.
 The police probe came after the mayor of Suginami ward, the Tokyo district where the event took place, said it had involved the display of obscene objects. "Many residents of Suginami and elsewhere have expressed a sense of discomfort and feeling of apprehension over this," Mayor Ryo Tanaka said. A Tokyo police spokeswoman acknowledged the complaint, but declined to give further details, citing "an ongoing investigation". 
Sugiyama supposedly indicated that the event was meant to raise awareness about "sexual minorities, x-gender, asexual people" and complied with all relevant laws, including a ban on organ sales, processing of medical waste and food sanitation requirements. There's no indication that he's planning to move on to pureed Sugiyama brain or sauteed heart in an effort to epater the Tokyo bourgeoisie and gather the same renown, if that's the word, as Armin Meiwes. Ingestion of non-renewable body parts in Australia in recent decades appears to have been restricted to footballers and participants in bar-room fights and to prisoners with serious psychological problems (the latter typically eating their own ears rather than those of correctional officers and fellow inmates).

Van Beers comments that in December last year
 two Dutch TV presenters ate pieces of each other’s flesh in front of a live television audience. Despite the obscurity of this cannibalistic episode in television history, the matter touches on a series of complex legal and philosophical questions that are discussed in this article, such as the boundaries of criminal law, the legal limits of personal autonomy and law’s changing relation to the biological aspects of life. Moreover, through its analysis of the arguments involved, this article offers legal-philosophical reflection on the role of taboos in legal approaches to the human body and derived materials.
She argues that
The Dutch TV cannibals probably aimed at breaking the last taboo. Yet the ensuing public debate on cannibalism offered illustrations of the way in which the human body and its elements are still surrounded by taboos. Secularisation processes notwithstanding, these taboos and symbolic representations of the human body are to a certain extent also present in contemporary law. This can explain why the victim’s consent is not accepted as a defence to charges of murder or battery, and why the patient’s consent in itself is not enough to justify surgical procedures. These constraints to one’s personal freedom are hard to justify from a traditional liberal perspective. In a way, the recent debate about the TV cannibals thus reveals the shortcomings of a purely Millsian approach to the legal status of the human body and derived materials.
However, even from a liberal perspective it is clear that the show is problematic. Although the cannibals may not have harmed anyone directly by their actions, it is another thing to then also broadcast these cannibalistic activities on public television. Obviously, the cannibalistic activities have the potential to offend many people. Also from a traditional liberal perspective, the prevention of serious forms of offense can be a good reason to prohibit certain kinds of behaviour, as Feinberg has convincingly argued. Thus, to a certainthe case of the Dutch TV cannibals raises the question to what extent taboos should be reflected in law. For several reasons, one has to be careful to translate the cultural prohibitions of taboos into legal prohibitions. Behind the facade of taboos harmful irrationalities, conservative prejudices or repressive stereotypes may be lurking. However, biomedical regulation has shown that taboos can also have a certain value to regulation. The new hybrids of humans, animals, products and persons with which we are increasingly confronted by biomedical developments, have made questions on the status of these new objects inescapable. How should we view human embryonic stem cells, artificial human tissues, brain dead patients or human-animal hybrids for instance? All of these hybrids mingle the foundational categories and distinctions with which most taboos are intertwined, such as the distinctions between life and death, humans and animals and persons and objects. According to Habermas, this involves “a dedifferentiation, through biotechnology, of deep- rooted categorical distinctions which we have as yet, in the description we give of ourselves, assumed to be invariant.” Within the regulation of these transgressive technologies new meanings and understandings of each of these categories are needed. In that process some taboos will perhaps be broken. Yet other taboos may be reinterpreted in the cultural and political process of giving meaning to the new creations of biomedical technology. If we want to apply these technologies with respect for our humanity and dignity, discussion on the founding categories of human civilisation seems indispensable.
She had noted that
One can wonder why the sheer act of eating human flesh provokes such a fierce response. After all, those involved had pieces of their flesh removed, fried and eaten at their own request. Moreover, their physical injuries were kept to a bare minimum. In the future they will only have small scars left to remind them of their cannibalistic outing. It is through this line of thinking that the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture & Science Bijsterveldt-Vliegenthart argued, in answer to parliamentary questions, that none of the individuals involved in the cannibalistic TV performance are guilty of any criminal behaviour. She stressed that both TV hosts fully consented to the surgical removal and subsequent consumption of their flesh. Moreover, she did not see any compelling reason to prohibit such activities in the future. 
Yet, something more appears to be at stake. Eating human flesh seems wrong to many, regardless of the obtained informed consent or the degree of physical harm, as was also argued by two Members of Parliament in their questions to the Minister. Nevertheless, the question why exactly cannibalism would be wrong is very difficult to answer. We can perhaps offer scientific explanations for the disgust that cannibalism provokes in many of us, such as the theory that our instinctive revulsion is a biological mechanism that benefits the prevention of certain diseases. However, this is not the same as offering reasons for it. In a way, most taboos are groundless. Even if we were sure that cannibalism would not result in disease, most of us would still find eating human flesh problematic, without being able to explain exactly why. That is not to say that taboos are also meaningless. On the contrary, many classic taboos are connected with the fundamental distinctions and categories that are at the root of human civilisation, such as the distinctions between man and woman, human and animal, subjects and objects, and life and death. The prohibition of cannibalism is exactly such an ancient taboo. From this perspective it seems useless to attempt to justify our revulsion against cannibalism on solely rational grounds, as for instance Martha Nussbaum has tried. 
Nussbaum seems to agree that cannibalism is problematic, yet she argues that our only truly moral objections go back to either the corpse mutilation or the murder that precedes the cannibalistic act, and not the cannibalism itself. She thereby denies that the revulsion or disgust most feel for cannibalism has any moral, let alone, legal value. This raises the question of how Nussbaum views the existing prohibitions of corpse mutilation. According to her corpse desecration is wrong “because the treatment of the corpse is the perfectly legitimate concern of whoever holds it as property, whether the state or private individuals.” With “private individuals” Nussbaum is primarily referring to the relatives and loved ones of the deceased. In other words, according to her corpse mutilation is wrong to the extent that it violates the property rights that the survivors and the state have on corpses. 
Nussbaum seems relieved that through her approach “we need not take any stand on the metaphysical issues connecting corpse and person”. Yet to speak of the relatives as the ‘owners’ of the deceased person’s corpse seems like a rather reductive understanding of what most of us mean by “respect for the dead”. The human body and human corpse may not have the status of full-fledged persons. Nonetheless, they also represent more than ordinary objects of property rights. Moreover, through her property approach of human corpses she is not able to explain why cannibalism would be wrong when people explicitly request to be eaten post-mortem, or when the family ‘owner’ of the corpse wishes to engage in cannibalistic activities with his deceased ‘property’. Finally, one can wonder whether Nussbaum really evades the metaphysical question. Her perspective seems to reflect a certain metaphysical conception of the relation between body and person after all: a dualistic vision according to which person and body are disconnected in such a way that bodies can be perceived as property. Interestingly, this seems at odds with her own views of human dignity as the dignity of embodied human beings. 
Nussbaum’s struggle reveals that it is hard, if not impossible, to express possible objections against cannibalism in terms of a violation of rights, liberties or the harm principle. The classic liberal vocabulary is ill-suited to express the deeply rooted cultural and symbolic values with which the human body has been vested since long. From a liberal perspective one could argue that individuals should be free to donate their flesh for meat consumption, or even have a right to do so, since they have the last say about what happens to their own bodies. In Mill’s famous words, “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign". 
Should we therefore conclude that there is no basis in law for prohibitions of cannibalism? That conclusion would be too easy. Mill’s viewpoint, though at the heart of liberal political philosophy, does not completely correspond with legal practice, especially where aspects of physical integrity are involved. Similar shortcomings can be detected in the Minister’s approach to the cannibalistic TV programme. In fact, there are grounds to argue that different aspects of the cannibalistic activities amount to criminal behaviour