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Further Reading

Foreign Intel

Next on the Menu?

How The Economist Dishes Up Morals

by Michael Cook

The Economist is the world's best news magazine. Its stylish, capably argued, and well-informed coverage has made it the news Bible of the global elite. "I used to think. Now I just read The Economist," the former CEO of Oracle, Larry Ellison, once said.

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 42

Part of its appeal is its consistency. Ever since it was founded in 1843, The Economist has argued that the aim of public policy should be to promote the market economy as the best way of achieving prosperity and democracy. A light touch of government regulation may be needed, but only to ensure fairness and legal certainty. Thus it embodies the "classical nineteenth-century Liberal ideas" which made Britain, and later the United States, a bulwark of capitalism. Its tutelary spirit is the British philosopher who popularized utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill.

Yet, whatever the merits of this ideology for framing public policy in the arenas of economics and finance, it is ill-suited to questions of personal -morality.

In principle, The Economist supports all autonomous action that is harmless and profitable—or, if pressed, merely profitable. Hence, in recent years it has thrown the weight of its considerable prestige behind campaigns for the legalization of drugs,1 pornography,2 prostitution,3 euthanasia,4 and same-sex marriage.5

And earlier this year it took up cudgels in favour of an international market in surrogate mothers and babies.6 "Carrying a child for someone else should be celebrated—and paid" was the defiant headline of its leader (i.e., editorial). Given the magazine's influence, this may be a significant development.

The Economist's leaders advocating breaking with moral traditions and smashing moral taboos sound impressive, but they are written according to a rhetorical template: They open with an anecdote drawn from current events, history, or classical literature; they smirk at old-fashioned attitudes; they cite academic research justifying a change in the law; they describe the financial benefits of change; and they sprinkle the repast with J. S. Mill pixie dust. As a digestif, they conclude with a wry twist.

The journalists at The Economist are dab hands at this kind of specious argumentation. And in teasing out complicated issues of foreign policy or economics, they are peerless persuaders. But when the issue involves an understanding of human nature, the leaders degenerate into sophistry. What makes men and women flourish as human beings is more than the slogan of "autonomy" and certainly more than dollars and cents (or pounds and pence).

We can expect even more taboo-breaking guff from The Economist in the years to come. A society built on Christian foundations still has lots of "taboos" to be demolished. So, to spare its editors some work, we have prepared a leader for the day when they get around to proposing a market in cannibalism.

Here it is:

An embattled new industry needs legal clarity

Perhaps no crime leaves a more bitter taste in the mouth than cannibalism, although Goya painted his horrifying work, Saturn Devouring His Son, on the wall of his dining room. Western colonialists used tales of cannibalism to depict indigenous peoples as barbarous and inhuman.

But there is another dimension to the consumption of human flesh. In many cultures it has been regarded as a way of sharing in the courage of defeated but illustrious foes. This may explain why Hawaiians ate the great explorer Captain James Cook. In 1972, when the survivors of the Andes flight disaster kept themselves alive by consuming the flesh of their friends, some saw in it a kind of spiritual communion with their comrades.

This is the spirit in which an enterprising chef opened the Saturn's Cellar bistros in London and Liverpool, and has established franchises in Moscow, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and New York. Predictably, there have been protests from conservative, pro-life, and church lobby groups over this highly profitable and fast-growing industry. Backbenchers have even demanded legislation banning boutique cannibalism. (Astonishingly, the consumption of human flesh is not a crime in the United Kingdom.)

Has the time come to reconsider mankind's last and longest-standing taboo? This newspaper believes that it has. There may be wisdom in repugnance; but repugnance must not become an obstacle to entrepreneurship and sound public policy. In the evergreen words of John Stuart Mill, "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

Notwithstanding the heated protests generated by tabloid headlines, only two issues need be clarified: (1) Can anyone be harmed? and (2) Have the persons consumed given their informed consent?

There are some dangers. Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) has been responsible for a handful of deaths in the United Kingdom over the past 20 years, although in recent years only two people have died annually. However, CJD, or mad cow disease, to use the better-known term, is transmitted by eating brain tissue. The controversial bistros use only thighs and buttocks which have been thoroughly tested for transmissible diseases, so there is no danger of a patron's succumbing to CJD. A charcuterie platter at Saturn's Cellar is as safe as eating at McDonalds.

In addition, all flesh used by the industry has been donated by people who have given their explicit consent to being consumed after their death. Industry sources say that one or two bodies a week are donated, occasionally after euthanasia, a cause for which The Economist has campaigned successfully. Some donors, like the survivors of the Andes disaster, may even see in their passing a way of confirming their own dignity by sustaining the lives of others.

At the moment, the industry operates in legal shadowlands. Although cannibalism per se is not illegal, the Department of Public Prosecutions has been pressured to prosecute the restaurateurs and their customers for outraging public decency or preventing a lawful burial.

That is why the Department of Health should establish an Inspectorate of Anthropophagy, setting out the body parts which can be consumed, conditions for storage, provision for interment, official forms for informed consent, and so on. A light regulatory hand will help to assuage the legitimate concerns of critics and give business the certainty it needs for investment.

"All the world is torn and rent / By varying views on nutriment," wrote Hilaire Belloc. Of no dish is this so true as human flesh. But rather than duelling at the dinner table, we should tuck in to the diverse cuisine available in a modern economy with progressive values.

If that doesn't persuade you, nothing will. •


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