Libertarian Ethics – The Case of Voluntary Cannibalism

Libertarians place liberty at the core of politics and philosophy. It is argued that as rational human beings we should be allowed full autonomy. We are free to consent to do whatever we like and make whatever decisions we want as long as we do not impinge on the liberty of others.

This means that for nearly all ethical issues Libertarianism has a straightforward and logical answer; any free or consenting action cannot be intrinsically morally wrong. Individuals are more than capable of making their own decisions and do not need institutions to interfere. If I make a mistake I accept the responsibility.

This philosophy makes a lot of sense to me and I have been able to apply it to many ethical issues I have encountered e.g. sexuality, drug taking and war. However there is one specific voluntary act that I have great difficulty applying it to.

In 2001 a Belgium man (who was claimed to be sound in both mind and body) volunteered to be eaten by a German cannibal. Most libertarians would argue that as they were both consenting adults no one had the right to interfere and the cannibal certainly shouldn’t have been sentenced for performing an act on someone who wanted it to happen. Try as I might to reason as a libertarian I can’t help but feel that there is something innately wrong with this act to the extent that I think it was right to imprison the cannibal.

I considered that my objection to voluntary cannibalism was purely based on emotional disgust and therefore I was no better than the people who disagreed with homosexuality because they think it is ‘repulsive’. I didn’t want to identify with that sort of thinking because, apart from anything else, it’s a very weak argument! I hoped that libertarianism would have a satisfactory answer to this moral dilemma. Luckily it did!

The reason adults should be able to make decisions about their own lives without interference is because they are capable of weighing up the risks and benefits of a decision before they make it. However with the case of being killed and eaten there is no possible way to know what it is like; it is impossible to make an informed decision. If libertarians advocate the protection of children on the count of naivety surely this should apply to actions to which adults know nothing about? It could be argued that this insinuates that you cannot make an informed decision about anything that you have never done before. The difference is that every single experience bar death can be known in some way e.g. I could ask skydivers what skydiving is like and read up on the subject. I cannot ask a dead man what it was like to die.

Furthermore for every decision I am able to decide whether or not I want to do it again – this is taken away from me in the case of death. This leads to another argument against voluntary cannibalism from a libertarian perspective. Any action that takes away a person’s liberty should be prevented, which suggests that I can take away some of your freedom in order to protect your liberty. Whilst I am aware that this is a paradox I feel comfortable with the notion of impinging on a person’s freedom in order to maximise their liberty. Maybe this means I’m not libertarian at heart, I don’t know.

All forms of ethics I have encountered have the potential to have one thing in common – the sanctity of life. Does this mean that imbedded within us is a shared consciousness that makes logical reasoning redundant in the case of life? Whilst I do not believe ethics should be based on values (as values vary so much culturally, socially and religiously and therefore inevitably lead to the suppression and control of certain groups) I think that the subject of life can be an exception as it is a value which humanity shares. If the concept of liberty is non-existent without life then shouldn’t life be protected at all costs?

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