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David Bain's Brain Strain

14:49 UK time, Monday, 8 June 2009

bain_126.jpgWelcome to David Bain's Brain Strain - a forum for Monitor readers to debate philosophical matters and, in so doing, find a worthy distraction from the demands of the workplace.

Last month, he asked when does the Cutty Sark stop being the Cutty Sark? The month he's on to cannibalism.

Read on and then add your thoughts to the debate using the comments form. Remember, this is philosophy - there IS no right or wrong answer. (The brain strainer will read all your comments before, in a couple of days, returning to offer his thoughts on the debate.)

UPDATE, 10 JUNE: Read David Bain's responses here.

Shocking breakfast news: a certain Mr Cronus has been killing and eating human newborns for snacks. To take our minds off it, we focus on our bacon and eggs. But is bacon the right comfort food?

Think about why we're outraged. It turns out that Mr Cronus kills only orphans, and does so painlessly. But, even so, his victims were living beings, sentient and innocent. Killing them for snacks is obviously and seriously wrong.

Fair enough. But pigs were killed for our breakfast. And they're living beings, sentient and innocent. So some fancy footwork looks to be required if we're not to be hoist over the breakfast table by our own petards.

fryup_bbc226.jpgNot very fancy, you might say. There's an obvious difference: the newborns were humans, the pigs not. But that can look as unpromising as the following: "It's worse to kill white people than black people because white people are white and black people not." If colour differences aren't important, why are species differences?

Because, you might reply, species differences correlate with other differences. We humans are smarter than pigs. We're self-aware. We anticipate our futures and engage in long-term projects. So, when killed, we're harmed in ways pigs can't be.

But even if that's true of you and me, what about the newborns Mr Cronus was snacking on? Pigs are more intelligent than dogs and perform impressively in many cognitive tests. They wouldn't give you or me a run for our money, but they would a newborn.

Yes, you might say, but newborns will develop into people more intelligent, self-aware, and future-oriented than pigs. True, and so will foetuses. But why is such potential relevant before it's realised?

Perhaps there's a good answer to that. But even if potential is relevant, what about those newborns who sadly lack it? If Mr Cronus killed only them, would that be okay? And, if not, isn't it equally wrong to kill pigs for bacon?

David Bain is a lecturer in the philosophy department of the University of Glasgow. Find out more about him by clicking here.


  • Comment number 1.

    The above argument is based upon a premise of atheism: there is no God, therefore no higher purpose, therefore neither the newborns nor pigs are different except for their genetic make-up.
    In the hypothesis that there is a god, and therefore an afterlife reserved for humans, Cronus is denying their choice of how they lead their lives and merit their afterlife.
    Today's society is also (whether you like it or not) based around the hypothesis of a god, which is the fundament of many laws (as a throwback to more religious times). Cronus contravening these conventions is therefore risking a collapse of society as we know it, should we decide that he is not wrong and all copy him.
    The underlying question is therefore not 'Is it ok to kill pigs but not newborns', but rather 'what are the consequences of killing pigs compared to killing newborns on society and is it a risk we are prepared to take?'. As a democracy, that is a question we can put to referendum...

  • Comment number 2.

    So in order to NOT be in the same category as a cannibal we should all be vegetarians? Hmmm... not sure Im willing to give up my bacon sandwiches that easily.

    Can't say I really see the god connection. It's just a moral one and how we view different species. Humans see themselves as better as pigs and to be fair, why wouldn't we? Domestic pigs live in sties and require humans to look after them. Wild pigs spend their time eating and out in the world - they haven't evolved like humans have. It's unlikely that a pig will ever make a huge difference in world like a human could. Yes they're tissue can be used to mend (e.g. heart valves) and feed humans but they're never going to help negotiate peace between warring nations or invent something that will change the world.

    So yes potential is important and if you're not able to judge potential late on it is wrong for Cronus to kill new borns. However, in the case of domesticated pigs, they are grown to feed us (and help us medically). That is their potential, so for me it's ok to kill them.

  • Comment number 3.

    Putting aside some powerful cultural and religious objections to both the eating of children and pigs, cannibalism carries the risk of prion induced brain disease similar to CJD.

  • Comment number 4.

    You're missing the point. The obvious difference is that human newborns don't actually taste very nice, whereas bacon is delicious.

  • Comment number 5.

    I would point out that the eating of humans is bad for you, tribal people who have indulged over a period time have developed Kuru.

    As to the ethics of killing animals as food, bear in mind we humans have breed and raised the animals in vast unsustainable numbers in specially contrived areas (farms) in order to feed us. We have traditionally protected them from predators such as wolf and bear. These animals would exist in small isolated groups if not so protected, if they were not exterminated for crop damage. Compare the farm animals lot to the feral goats of Pembrokeshire which must be culled to prevent starvation due to over population as there are no predators to control their numbers! Or would you prefer the release of wolves to rip the still living animal apart? Most humane!

  • Comment number 6.

    We need boundaries. Murdering humans has to be wrong for the sake of the suurvival of the species. And that boundary should really be when the human in question is recogniseably human. The moment youu make exceptions, the goalposts can be shifted at any time.

    Pigs, as a different species, bred to be our food don't get the same protection.

  • Comment number 7.

    If we assume that there is a God, then their opinion should be ascertained (I believe most major religions are against murder of newborns).
    If there is no God, then as a self-aware being I am capable of viewing the situation as if I, or my children, were that newborn (there is probably a term for this). I would suffer anguish from this as I love my family (and myself) and would realise that they wouldn't have existed - thus I care about 'potential'.
    I also think you would find it hard to argue that there any humans that have no 'potential' - talk to the parents of severely handicapped children.

  • Comment number 8.

    From a non-philosophical point of view, I have to say that Mr.Cronus runs a risk of obesity. If he only eats orphaned newborns for breakfast, he must have to skip it quite a lot, and if you skip breakfast, that's what will happen. Tut Tut, Mr.Cronus ! ( Wags non-philosophically flippant finger.)

  • Comment number 9.

    If you would consider a newborn in the same category a pet, the answer is pretty easy. It has been bred for reasons other than consumption and therefore deserves the protection of humans. Would I be okay if someone chose to make my pet their breakfast, certainly not, even if it was a pig. If my pet grows up to be a rocket scientist I would be very proud. If it chose to eat my neighbor's pet pig..hmm..then roast the bugger away...

  • Comment number 10.

    From a Darwinian perspective it is not good for us to kill other human beings whereas killing and eating Pigs is beneficial, even more so thanks to the effective farming techniques we have learned. So as a species it is wrong to kill new born babies whatever their potential. The reason we think, seemingly blindly, that cannibalism is wrong could be attributed to the possibility that some of our own genes may rest in that newborn. Therefore killing and/or eating the child has a far higher probability of being detrimental to our own gene pool than killing and/or eating a pig.

  • Comment number 11.

    How different does something have to be before it is considered a new species, for culinary purposes? Worse, there are pigs that are being genetically engineered to produce human organs. Are they now to be considered pig or human, when it comes to the frying pan? Since there is no restriction on how many mutations can occur in DNA (each mutation event is independent and random), it is an assumption that any given generation is the same species as the parent. That means you are assuming that that really is bacon.

    Sure, it's a low probability that it's actually human - it's something like (a few billion raised to the power of a few thousand) to one against, but that's still an assumption, not a hard-and-fast fact. If humans and pigs were to exist for long enough, it must eventually happen. And that time might be your breakfast tomorrow. Do you have a genome sequencing lab in your kitchen? No? Then you can't possibly know. You rely entirely on the improbability of it. Which is fair enough. The problem is not reliance on probability - which we do constantly - but rather the presumption that improbability equals impossibility. It's this last thing that makes people talk of Acts of God or otherwise blame any perfectly innocent deity that happens to be passing by.

  • Comment number 12.

    It is interesting that none of the comments have taken into consideration that we, human beings, may not be that fully developed creature individuals have pointed out. In fact, some even argue that we are not developed at all. That there are far more developed spices out there. And if you really think about how complex our lives are as human beings, it is questionable whether we are actually wiser than many other species. Sometimes, lookin at many humans actions, i question whether we think and reason at all.

  • Comment number 13.

    Just while I'm here...

    Yes, we humans have bred animals, which isn't necessarily a good thing, as it has disturbed the good balance of cultivation we previously had (look at cutting down large areas of land in the rainforest for cattle.) But look how much the population has increased - if it's okay to eat pigs that have been bred and stuck in a pig-pen for food, surely it's okay to eat mistake babies who've been stuck in an orphanage. What about babies that have been left on the street, if he only ate them? They might otherwise die - they just wouldn't get wasted this way. If it's not acceptable to eat a human once it resembles a human, can we eat foetuses that aren't too far along, then? And what about stillborns?

    If we're going to increase pigs' population only to cut it down again, we might as well do it for humans. Might give us a heads up in the current economic climate at any rate.

  • Comment number 14.

    Squaremind, surely eating newborns is more reprehensible if you assume there's no god? To this atheist at least, life is more precious if you assume there's no god and only the here and now.

    If there is a god, and the prospect of an afterlife, the newborns have the potential to continue on in the afterlife. Cronus may have ended their mortal lives, but their souls continue on. And, if you accept (original sin aside) that the newborns can't possibly have committed any sin to warrant their exclusion from the afterlife, surely Cronus has done a good deed by shortening their path to heaven?

    If there's no god, there's no possibility that the newborns will live on in any form at all. By completely snuffing out the newborns' existence, Cronus has done something far worse than simply ending the mortal life of newborns in a theistic universe.

  • Comment number 15.

    If people shouldn't eat each other, why are we made of meat?

  • Comment number 16.

    I think it is about the *likelihood* of reaching a potential (to be self aware, etc).

    A human newborn, given basic nutrition, warmth, etc, is highly likely to be self aware within a few years.

    A human foetus under 25 weeks, except in the case that one particular person (its mother) continues to gestate it, is unlikely to become self aware (to even survive).

    A human gamete faces a one-in-millions chance that it will meet a gamete from the opposite sex, successfully implant in a womb and survive gestation and infancy to become a self-aware creature.

    A pig, no matter what, will never reach what we deem to be a sufficient level of self-awareness.

    Thus it is unacceptable to kill a newborn, but it is acceptable to kill pigs.

    The two inbetween stages are tougher. This, of course, is why we have debates on abortion and whether or not "every sperm is sacred".

    In the case of newborns who "sadly lack" potential, well, if they are actually brain dead, their life-support machines do tend to get switched off. (Whether or not it's then okay to eat them, is perhaps a different matter.)

    In the cases of infants with lowered brain function or capability, there can be difficulties in detecting just what potential they might have. So we err on the side of caution, precisely because they are human beings and human beings are creatures that are *likely* to be, or become self-aware.

  • Comment number 17.

    we have a biological imperative not to eat each other - the species isn't going to get very far if it's that self destructive. The way we explain this instinctive reaction to ourselves (and our revulsion at anyone who breaks it) is to describe it in moral terms. The advantage of this is that the society seeks to enforce it by policing its members, which then reinforces it.

    Interestingly there are a lot of animals who will go against this imperative not to eat their young if their own survival (or the survival/strength of the group) is threatened (various cat and bear species are the ones that come to mind), but we don't. Society's rules as stronger than instinct??

    Why yes, I am a moral relativist. Why do you ask?

  • Comment number 18.

    I disagree with the notion human is bad for you. Human meat would contain most, if not all, the nutrients you need to survive. The disease arguement doesn't stand either, prions are only located to certain parts of the body (Kuru came from eating the victims brains) and we don't eat diseased pork and stopped eating beef when mad cow disease was discovered.

    It would be extremely difficult to find someone who can't tell which animal is human and which animal is pig. We don't eat human because it is morally wrong to do so and people find it disgusting. But we do know which animals and plants are edible. Most animals don't eat their own kind in their natural environment. If it was morally wrong to eat pigs, what about chickens? What about fish? What about plants, genetically we are 50% banana. We would quickly starve, the line has to be drawn and it was drawn at not human.

  • Comment number 19.

    DisgustedofMitcham2 makes a good point. I know that bacon is delicious. But I have no idea what newborns taste like. I blame the supermarkets for their rather limited choice of meats.

    I want panda, and elephant, and silver back gorilla on the shelves!

    And before the conservationists start complaining about endangered species...
    when was the last time that you saw Cows on the critically endangered list???

  • Comment number 20.

    This sort of dilemma makes me glad to be a vegetarian!
    My personal belief is that eating any sentinent being is wrong. Not only morally and ethically, but it is the mass farming involved that is also damaging. Wheat and soya that could feed humans is grown, fed to animals, who are then killed and eaten - a wasteful process.
    If we did not eat pigs then they would probably be at risk of extinction, but surely that is better than living a short cramped life and then being killed for food? Sheep would exist for wool, we may still keep cows for dairy products and chickens for eggs, but the pig does seem a bit redundant, save for truffle hunting.
    If you are still in a dilemma, watch a film of how animals are killed, especially for halal food. The answer then is simple - it is wrong to eat any meat, be it pig, cat, monkey or human.
    P.S. I'm not a lentil wearing, veggie dictator and most of the time I practice my personal belief quietly without preaching to the masses. I am aware that this is just my opinion. I think (veggie) bacon does taste nice and my favourite crisps are Frazzles. However this question does seem to have a clear answer. No brain strain here!

  • Comment number 21.

    Sorry, I must have missed this story in the news but is this Mr Cronus so called as a pseudonom in reference to the greek god CRONOS, who ate all his newborn children (painlessly by swallowing them although they weren't orphens) as it was prophesised that one of them would defeat him and take over ruling the heavens (turned out to be Zeus).
    If we are talking about a real person here and not the god and that is his real name then for those who are debating about whether this is a god issue may be inclined to wonder if this man is doing it because he is similarly named like a god that did it and therefore justifying his actions becuase of it. Perhaps he thinks he is the god and therefore will actaully (in his own mind) not actually be committing cannabalism at all as although Cronos the god ate gods, he would be god eating man, different species.
    Of course if we are talking about the god and not a mortal human then if he hadn't eaten his children then greek mythology would have had to have found a different beginning and the whole history of mankind would inveritably have been different as a result. Perhaps also it should be considered that, as Cronos' the god eating his children (also gods) was wrong (this is cannabalism) then mankind eating mankind would also be deamed wrong as we wish to follow the examples of our ruling gods (those that followed Cronos in this case), thus creating our handed down beliefs that we should not do it. Mr Cronus would try to get around it using the first arguement of god eats man which is part of the evolution of spirital beliefs and in a way acceptable becuase a) a god is doing it and can do whateveer it wants and b) totally out of our control becuase of this fact, though this does exclude any mortal pretending to be a god in order to get away with it.
    AS to my view on cannibalism, well after reading a survival manual it might be justifiable in extreme circumstances (such as the famous plane crash case) but I certainly wouldn't want to be seeing babycakes (in ref to Neil Gaimen's story) in supermarkets

  • Comment number 22.

    One of the advantages us humans have in the way we have developed is that our chances of survival are pretty high. When they are lowered to a matter of life or death many have reverted to cannibalism.
    If for instance we are in a situation of no hope of rescue and starving to death, and a baby is born, then who would not be having that baby for breakfast.
    The answer to that is quite a lot of us. The reason, cultural and religous. We are alone in putting our lives at risk, and ending them, for a higher purpose. Animals do not commit suicide out of despair for their situation. Most of us would bury the baby, then die a few days later next to it. Its a question of dignity, and as such is open to all kinds of inconsistancies.

  • Comment number 23.

    I have eaten pigs that I have bred, and believe that being able to slaughter them gibves me the right to eat them. I would not slaughter a child for whatever reason.

    However, this leads me into a dilemea. Innocents have been killed by wars, conflicts, political struggles, religeous zeal and all sorts of abusive human acts. All of these I reckon are not as needy as feeding the hungry yet are all deliberate acts on our fellow humans. I could not partake in these acts therefore have no right to 'eat a child'. I can however humanly kill a pig, or other animal to feed myself as this is why I kept them - why deny them their purpose, for if we do then they would not have existed?

  • Comment number 24.

    OK, I've been thinking about this some more.

    I believe it is wrong to eat human newborns, but it's hard to pin this down to a rational reason. It's probably true that pigs are more intelligent, and it's certainly true that an early-enough-in-gestation fetus, which most non-Catholics would be happy to see aborted, has just as much potential as the newborn.

    However, the fact is that most reasonable people would consider it abhorrent. This is reason enough for it to be morally wrong, as morals (assuming you don't believe that they are handed down on tablets of stone from some sky-fairy) are essentially defined by what the majority of reasonable people consider to be right or wrong.

    So why do most people consider eating babies wrong and eating pigs OK? Well, it really comes down to a simple question: do you consider a human life or an animal life more valuable? That's a value judgement. Most people would say a human life is more valuable. Not everyone would agree. Many vegetarians believe strongly that it's just as abhorrent to eat pigs. Some people believe that we shouldn't test experimental new drugs on animals, but they are in a minority: most people accept that developing new drugs to save human lives justifies killing animals.

    It's simply an opinion that human lives are worth more than animal lives, but it has good evolutionary justification, and more to the point, it's just the opinion that the majority of people hold.

  • Comment number 25.

    wren10514 wrote: we have a biological imperative not to eat each other

    Sorry Wren, I disagree. We have cultural and sociological imperatives against eating each other. Historically speaking there have been enough cannibals that I cannot agree it is biological. Even if the very idea makes me sick, that's nurture, not nature.

    But the moment you say it's ok to eat anyone, who else is on the menu? Fatal accident victims? Suicides? Condemned criminals? If we allow human beings to get the taste for people, is anyone safe?

  • Comment number 26.

    Surely the issue here is one of potential - not potential to become sentient, but the potential to aid society?

    A newborn baby could, theoretically, grow up to be or do anything - invent clean fuel, cure cancer, write great novels or symphonies. Of course that's a long shot but you don't have to do something big to leave society better off.

    It's true they may also grow up to be a killer but if we all went around eating orphaned newborn babies we could be damaging society in countless ways. And they would have to be orphaned, otherwise the pain and suffering caused to their family in the event of them being eaten would immediately make any parallel argument with eating pigs nul and void. And killing orphaned newborns is not the same as abortion/not having children at all as it doesn't involve the lives of others, specifically the mothers.

  • Comment number 27.

    The question is wrong. If the only thing left to eat is a baby, do you eat it or die?

  • Comment number 28.

    In matters of ethics and morals, fields where there is rarely a 'right' answer, the only real measure as to whether something is acceptable or not is majority rule. In this case eating pork is fine, whereas eating babies (no matter what the circumstance) is very definitely not. Simply imagine the public outcry at a hypothetical suggestion to legally ban pork, or allow cannibalism in any form.

    That said, I just want to say...

    #5 - You state that eating people is bad for you but pork isn't. With both it depends on the circumstances: If you eat human brains in quantity then there is a risk of Kuru. If you eat bacon sarnies in vast numbers you won't live long either - heart attacks, strokes, heart disease...

    #6 - You wrote "that boundary should really be when the human in question is recogniseably human". Well... errr... maybe. But who has the right to decide who or what is recognisably human? And, possibly even more importantly, who is most likely to have the power to do so? The Dalai Lama might be able to do a good job, but a new Hitler is more likely to put themselves in the position to do so...

    and finally...

    #12 - You refer to "far more developed spices". Firstly, what are these spices? Secondly, and far more important, do they taste good with a nice bit of bacon (or baby, depending on preference)?


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