Famine and Cannibalism: Ethics in Extreme Circumstances

Should you think about your duty, or about the consequences of your actions? Or should you concentrate on becoming a good person?

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Gary Childress
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Famine and Cannibalism: Ethics in Extreme Circumstances

Post by Gary Childress » Sun Oct 23, 2016 9:10 pm

R v Dudley and Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273 DC is a leading English criminal case which established a precedent, throughout the common law world, that necessity is not a defense to a charge of murder.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R_v_Dudley_and_Stephens

I've been arguing with someone on another forum about ethics and whether or not killing someone to engage in cannibalism is justified (or even a moral imperative) under extreme circumstances such as famine where one person's survival may count on killing another person in order to avoid death by starvation. In the other forum we're sort of at a dead end (no pun intended) with the discussion. I won't say which side of the argument I lean toward at this point but I'm curious where others stand in this forum. Is killing someone to engage in cannibalism justified or even a moral imperative in situations of famine? Does morality "break down" in such situations or does it simply change to a "morality" that is appropriate to the situation? In other words, can morality change or is it unchanging?

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Terrapin Station
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Re: Famine and Cannibalism: Ethics in Extreme Circumstances

Post by Terrapin Station » Sun Oct 23, 2016 10:43 pm

I'm a subjectivist/relativist/noncognitivist on ethics. There's no correct or incorrect answer about something like this. No true or false statement about whether it's moral(ly justified) or not. There are just statements about how we individually feel about it.

Personally I think I feel that nonconsensual cannibalism in extreme circumstances is morally neutral, although of course I would probably feel differently about it if I were on either end of a situation where it was required for survival.

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Re: Famine and Cannibalism: Ethics in Extreme Circumstances

Post by Lacewing » Mon Oct 24, 2016 12:06 am

Gary Childress wrote:Does morality "break down" in such situations or does it simply change to a "morality" that is appropriate to the situation? In other words, can morality change or is it unchanging?
I think morality is seen/valued in various ways depending on the circumstances and those involved. It does not appear that there is ONE ULTIMATE MORALITY chiseled in stone. After all... we're the ones (at any given time) making this up as we go, and defining what is what -- and there have been many of us with widely ranging "head spaces" and beliefs and cultures throughout our known history.

As with a lot of things in life, the "mechanics" seem less important than the FEELINGS it produces. In other words, what we do means less than who we are.

Personally, I can't imagine resorting to cannibalism. Life is just not that important to cling to. :) But I can imagine that a state of mind (and way of life) could exist that would see/apply otherwise.

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Re: Famine and Cannibalism: Ethics in Extreme Circumstances

Post by Gary Childress » Mon Oct 24, 2016 12:17 am

Lacewing wrote:
Gary Childress wrote:. . . we're the ones (at any given time) making this up as we go. ..
Are we really the ones "making it up"? That seems sort of like an abstraction or something based on a lot of assumptions. Morality, at least in my experience, seems like it is imposed from outisde of me. I encounter it as soon as I come into contact with others. I don't "make it up". If I made up morality I would propose that I be king of the universe or something. But there is a part of me that somehow knows that I cannot or ought not to be king of the universe.

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Re: Famine and Cannibalism: Ethics in Extreme Circumstances

Post by Lacewing » Mon Oct 24, 2016 12:30 am

Gary Childress wrote:
Lacewing wrote:
Gary Childress wrote:. . . we're the ones (at any given time) making this up as we go. ..
Are we really the ones "making it up"? That seems sort of like an abstraction or something based on a lot of assumptions. Morality, at least in my experience, seems like it is imposed from outisde of me. I encounter it as soon as I come into contact with others. I don't "make it up". If I made up morality I would propose that I be king of the universe or something. But there is a part of me that somehow knows that I cannot or ought not to be king of the universe.
I'm mainly referring to humankind "making it up"... through varying cultures, religions, and groups.

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Re: Famine and Cannibalism: Ethics in Extreme Circumstances

Post by Gary Childress » Mon Oct 24, 2016 12:39 am

Lacewing wrote:
Gary Childress wrote:
Lacewing wrote:
Are we really the ones "making it up"? That seems sort of like an abstraction or something based on a lot of assumptions. Morality, at least in my experience, seems like it is imposed from outisde of me. I encounter it as soon as I come into contact with others. I don't "make it up". If I made up morality I would propose that I be king of the universe or something. But there is a part of me that somehow knows that I cannot or ought not to be king of the universe.
I'm mainly referring to humankind "making it up"... through varying cultures, religions, and groups.
But that still seems like abstracting based on assumptions about the nature of reality which we are not even sure about. How do we "make it up"? Is something moral because we humans say it is or is it moral because we each encounter and perceive an act (or else lack of a particular action) to be moral. Where does "morality" come from? Do any of us even know for sure? The fact that you say life isn't worth clinging to to the point of engaging in cannibalism seems to me to indicate that you (and I, because I feel the same way) are not in charge of morality. It really isn't in our "say" as to what is moral and what is not.

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Re: Famine and Cannibalism: Ethics in Extreme Circumstances

Post by Terrapin Station » Mon Oct 24, 2016 12:59 am

Gary Childress wrote:Are we really the ones "making it up"? That seems sort of like an abstraction or something based on a lot of assumptions. Morality, at least in my experience, seems like it is imposed from outisde of me. I encounter it as soon as I come into contact with others. I don't "make it up". If I made up morality I would propose that I be king of the universe or something. But there is a part of me that somehow knows that I cannot or ought not to be king of the universe.
You don't "make it up," but it doesn't come from outside of you, either. As I just said in another thread where someone asked whether thought was invented, discovered, natural, etc.: "It's a discovered, natural feature of how human brains work, influenced by, though not determined by or identical to, environmental (especially cultural/sociological) factors."

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Re: Famine and Cannibalism: Ethics in Extreme Circumstances

Post by Gary Childress » Mon Oct 24, 2016 1:14 am

Terrapin Station wrote:You don't "make it up," but it doesn't come from outside of you, either.
Where does morality come from then? What is its origin? Do any of us know?

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Re: Famine and Cannibalism: Ethics in Extreme Circumstances

Post by Terrapin Station » Mon Oct 24, 2016 1:24 am

Gary Childress wrote:
Terrapin Station wrote:You don't "make it up," but it doesn't come from outside of you, either.
Where does morality come from then? What is its origin? Do any of us know?
Again, I wrote "It's a discovered, natural feature of how human brains work." So where does it come from? Your brain. What's its origin? Again, your brain. If you mean what's its origin historically, or in this case phylogenetically, it stems from the fact that (a) the fact that some behavioral tendencies contra other behavior turned out to have an impact on members of our species tending to survive long enough to produce offspring, and (b) the fact that our evolved intelligence has an upshot of rationalizing a lot of our natural tendencies.

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Re: Famine and Cannibalism: Ethics in Extreme Circumstances

Post by Gary Childress » Mon Oct 24, 2016 1:31 am

Terrapin Station wrote:
Gary Childress wrote:
Terrapin Station wrote:You don't "make it up," but it doesn't come from outside of you, either.
Where does morality come from then? What is its origin? Do any of us know?
Again, I wrote "It's a discovered, natural feature of how human brains work." So where does it come from? Your brain. What's its origin? Again, your brain. If you mean what's its origin historically, or in this case phylogenetically, it stems from the fact that (a) the fact that some behavioral tendencies contra other behavior turned out to have an impact on members of our species tending to survive long enough to produce offspring, and (b) the fact that our evolved intelligence has an upshot of rationalizing a lot of our natural tendencies.
Assuming there is no divine or spiritual or whatever entity in the world of course...
Last edited by Gary Childress on Mon Oct 24, 2016 1:36 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Famine and Cannibalism: Ethics in Extreme Circumstances

Post by Terrapin Station » Mon Oct 24, 2016 1:33 am

Gary Childress wrote:Assuming there is no divine entity in the world of course...
I don't think that's much of an assumption. Of course, I wasn't soclialized into any religious beliefs, so by the time I learned about them in any detail, they simply struck me as absurd.

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Re: Famine and Cannibalism: Ethics in Extreme Circumstances

Post by Lacewing » Mon Oct 24, 2016 1:39 am

Terrapin Station wrote:
Gary Childress wrote:
Terrapin Station wrote:You don't "make it up," but it doesn't come from outside of you, either.
Where does morality come from then? What is its origin? Do any of us know?
Again, I wrote "It's a discovered, natural feature of how human brains work." So where does it come from? Your brain. What's its origin? Again, your brain.
So how is this different from "making it up"?

Morality is a judgment, isn't it? Aren't we making up all of our judgments?

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Re: Famine and Cannibalism: Ethics in Extreme Circumstances

Post by Terrapin Station » Mon Oct 24, 2016 1:43 am

Lacewing wrote:So how is this different from "making it up"?

Morality is a judgment, isn't it? Aren't we making up all of our judgments?
It's not decided by whim, and for at least one's core moral views, it's not decided at all. It's discovered--one discovers what's built-in to one's brain basically.

"Making it up" is typically understood to have a connotation of whim to it.

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Re: Famine and Cannibalism: Ethics in Extreme Circumstances

Post by Gary Childress » Mon Oct 24, 2016 1:46 am

Terrapin Station wrote:
Gary Childress wrote:Assuming there is no divine entity in the world of course...
I don't think that's much of an assumption. Of course, I wasn't soclialized into any religious beliefs, so by the time I learned about them in any detail, they simply struck me as absurd.
I wasn't raised in a religious household either and don't go to any Church but through the years I've learned to be more honest about what I don't know about the world. Stephen Hawking doesn't know everything there is to know about the world. All the quantum physicists combined don't know much more about reality than what mathematics tell them and mathematics have been defying many of our common sense notions about the world lately. Mathematics themselves are ideal, non-physical abstractions about the world we otherwise encounter with our senses.

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Re: Famine and Cannibalism: Ethics in Extreme Circumstances

Post by Terrapin Station » Mon Oct 24, 2016 2:05 am

Gary Childress wrote:I wasn't raised in a religious household either and don't go to any Church but through the years I've learned to be more honest about what I don't know about the world. Stephen Hawking doesn't know everything there is to know about the world. All the quantum physicists combined don't know much more about reality than what mathematics tell them and mathematics have been defying many of our common sense notions about the world lately. Mathematics themselves are ideal, non-physical abstractions about the world we otherwise encounter with our senses.
There's a difference between not knowing something and not bothering with something that's completely absurd though.

You probably don't withhold judgment on whether Jupiter is populated with floating pink bunny rabbits who speak English, smoke pipes and sing Bad Company songs to each other all day long.

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