Escaping the Neutral

Escaping the Neutral Values of Nature

By John Taylor; 2006 August 06

As the sultry dog days of summer plod on relentlessly, like many middle aged men in my position my languid thoughts slowly turn to cannibalism. Probably this is the influence of a book-on-tape I am listening to during my daily table tennis practice, a biography of Christopher Columbus. The now-extinct Carib Indians (from whom is derived the very word "cannibal") indulged in this practice to a shocking degree, even going so far as castrating a prisoner to fatten him up and make him a more choice hors d’oeuvre for a future feast.

This had the perhaps not so surprising effect that all Caribs, even the old women, fought like devils when they encountered foreigners who they suspected might be hostile. They were well aware that a fate far worse than death awaited should they be overcome, dead or alive. Their desperation in battle impressed even the brutes on Columbus's ship, who thought nothing of murder, slavery and rape. One native, not realizing that the men in the strange ship had only the relatively innocent purpose of capturing, enslaving and parading him about Europe as a curiosity, fought so furiously that the Europeans damaged the valuable goods by eviscerating him. Disappointed, they threw him overboard to drown, but he stuffed his guts in place with one hand and with the other began swimming for shore. They recaptured him, tied and bound him, and threw him back to the fishes. This did not stop him either and they were forced to dispatch him by using him for target practice with their crossbows.

So following the principle that it is an ill wind that blows no good, even the most culpable of practice imaginable, cannibalism, can make for fierce warriors. If you had to pick an all star team of all time best soldiers, you would not want to miss the Caribs. As Gibbon noticed, thanks to slavery ancient wars were fought with a ferocity unknown in modern battles. Each soldier knew that he was a valuable commodity and if he was captured his freedom was gone forever. If that is true of slavery, how much more is it of cannibalism, at least as practiced among the Caribs.

But reading about the practice generally, the most interesting thing is how diverse it is. It is done variously as sorcery, as a protein supplement, as a way to steal the energy of an enemy, to "honor" one's ancestors, or to gain the benefit of their experience (so-called endo-cannibalism), and on and on. The Encyclopedia Britannica offers no single explanation as to why the phenomenon occurs:

"There is no one satisfactory and all-inclusive explanation for cannibalism. Different peoples have practiced it for different reasons, and a group may practice cannibalism in one context and view it with horror in another. In any case, the spread of modernization usually results in the prohibition of such practices."

Another interesting aspect is the strange phenomenon of cannibalism denial, which is a first cousin of holocaust denial. Some atrocities are so horrible that those who feel themselves ideologically connected to those who do it often find it comforting to deny that it exists altogether. Anthropologists, who are usually intimately attached to its tribal practitioners, are more prone than most to refuse to accept that cannibalism exists or ever has existed.

Another facet draws my interest, the surprising difficulty of proving exactly why we should not do it. It is an interesting challenge for ethical theory. Mostly we get rid of cannibalism by setting down a blanket taboo, "just do not do it or you will suffer the consequences." We have no choice, because rational arguments "proving" why it is bad at all times and for all occasions is are not as irrefutable as the moralist might think. It is as tricky as trying to prove that alcohol or gambling or doing drugs are bad, just say no. Among the most effective is the natural sense of disgust, a phenomenon that has been documented even among endo-cannibals, who are known to fake it and only pretend to eat an organ of a recently deceased relative.

No matter what you do, good comes out of just about anything, even cannibalism, no matter what the moralist would like to think. Moral choice involves weighing total good with total bad and going over completely to the side that outweighs the other, even when the swing excludes some possible goods. This is why justice has been pictured as like weighing things in a balance, or in the case of the Arabic concept of Adl, balancing a pack on the back of a camel or donkey. The amount of baggage matters less than the fact that it balances out. Suicide, bad almost by definition, can be made useful in some contexts and was shown to be such even in combination with cannibalism, as Herodotus recounts in one of literature's earliest mentions of cannibalism. A general by the name of Cambyses decided to make an attack on a distant African enemy without provisioning his army for a trip across the Sahara,

"So long as the earth gave them anything, the soldiers sustained life by eating the grass and herbs; but when they came to the bare sand, a portion of them were guilty of a horrid deed: by tens they cast lots for a man, who was slain to be the food of the others. When Cambyses heard of these doings, alarmed at such cannibalism, he gave up his attack on Ethiopia, and retreating by the way he had come, reached Thebes, after he had lost vast numbers of his soldiers." (Herodotus, History)

Thus when it is a question of survival, our revulsion for cannibalism is mollified. It would take a hypocritical ethicist indeed to condemn those in desperate circumstances who, like those soldiers, indulge in cannibalism in order to prolong life. At the same time, we list the cannibals among serial killers as the lowest of the low, for they not only kill their victims but have even been known to ... okay, I will not make this any more lurid than I have to. I will only say that their motivation seems similar to what as it was for the Caribs: terrorism. Serial killers inflict as much justified fear on their poor victims and society as they can.

Which brings me around to the only mention of cannibalism in the Writings of the central figures of the Baha'i Faith. This coincidentally (I hope) took place at the Maxwell residence in Montreal on the second of September, 1912. I think it sheds a great deal of light on this question as well as others mentioned, drugs, alcohol, suicide, as well as homosexuality, which I have been discussing in a separate series of essays. The Master said,

"If man himself is left in his natural state, he will become lower than the animal and continue to grow more ignorant and imperfect. The savage tribes of central Africa are evidences of this. Left in their natural condition, they have sunk to the lowest depths and degrees of barbarism, dimly groping in a world of mental and moral obscurity. If we wish to illumine this dark plane of human existence, we must bring man forth from the hopeless captivity of nature, educate him and show him the pathway of light and knowledge, until, uplifted from his condition of ignorance, he becomes wise and knowing; no longer savage and revengeful, he becomes civilized and kind; once evil and sinister, he is endowed with the attributes of heaven. But left in his natural condition without education and training, it is certain that he will become more depraved and vicious than the animal, even to the extreme degree witnessed among African tribes who practice cannibalism. It is evident, therefore, that the world of nature is incomplete, imperfect until awakened and illumined by the light and stimulus of education." (Abdu'l-Baha, Promulgation, 309)

Most modern audiences would stop listening at the mention of the word "primitive," which is no longer considered politically correct. In fact, by and large our thinking about this whole issue is remarkably stupid. We look at the scene before us and block out half the picture with the blinkers of ideological preconceptions. On one hand we idolize the lifestyle of the noble savage, or on the other hand we look down on them and call them all savages. All too often we use the accusation of cannibalism as a way of demonizing the "other," especially the smaller tribes in isolated places. For every documented case of cannibalism there must be dozens made up by whatever propaganda machine is operating fastest at the time. But notwithstanding how frequency lies may be, that is no reason to enter into complete denial, as a neo-Nazi denies Hitler's most lurid but not worst crime (his worst crime was causing WWII, which resulted in far more deaths than his concentration camps).

It is easy in our woolly confusion to miss the Master's point entirely that we can be slaves of nature whether we live in an isolated tribe or an apartment in Paris or New York. There are druggies and cannibals and sex slavery in every place, unfortunately. Until we raise the issue to the plane of slavery to nature, few arguments will have much effect. The facts about what is primitive and what is not are blocked out by blinkers of all shades.

Here is my pet gripe for today. Listening to the story of Columbus and the explorers and colonists following him, it is hard to believe how stupid philosophers are. They read Thomas Hobbes as if he were theorizing in an isolated bubble. But back then these stories of man in the face of brute natural law were fresh in everybody's minds. It was just the way it was. Read Columbus's story and you cannot help but notice that as soon as the mariners left port every rule of civilization behavior, weak and inadequate as they were, went right out the window. The Indians they met were sometimes better, sometimes worse than them, but that is not the point. There were no innocents and no devils, just human beings living in a difficult environment. Hobbes expression "red in tooth and claw" was no outburst of pessimistic cynicism, it was just an observation of how things are whenever you sink into a state of nature. You do not need to plunge into the jungle to sink into a state of ignorant barbarism, just forget to say your prayers. The weeds of ill thoughts will spring up right here at home, in your own head.

Cannibalism springs up in places natural and civilized, and all of us need ongoing education to free ourselves from it, to fear of it, and to nature in general. This principle of eliminating whatever corrupt practices take away from our collective survival chances is enunciated as a general principle in one of Baha'u'llah's Great Being statements:

"O my friend! In all circumstances one should seize upon every means which will promote security and tranquility among the peoples of the world. The Great Being saith: In this glorious Day whatever will purge you from corruption and will lead you towards peace and composure, is indeed the Straight Path." (Tablets, 171)

Cannibalism is a form of corruption that must be expunged completely, in spite of its only being a minor harm in certain narrow, negligible instances. Same thing with drugs, alcohol, homosexuality, all are better of overall as taboo if we consider the long term survival of the human race. As Darwin in effect pointed out below, one slight shift in the total load, one violation of Adl, can topple the camel.

"Extinction follows chiefly from the competition of tribe with tribe, and race with race. Various checks are always in action, serving to keep down the numbers of each savage tribe,- such as periodical famines, nomadic habits and the consequent deaths of infants, prolonged suckling, wars, accidents, sickness, licentiousness, the stealing of women, infanticide, and especially lessened fertility. If any one of these checks increases in power, even slightly, the tribe thus affected tends to decrease; and when of two adjoining tribes one becomes less numerous and less powerful than the other, the contest is soon settled by war, slaughter, cannibalism, slavery, and absorption. Even when a weaker tribe is not thus abruptly swept away, if it once begins to decrease, it generally goes on decreasing until it becomes extinct." (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, Ch. VII)

Now that we know how little grounds there are for distinctions of race or tribe, now that Western civilization and the planet's ecosystem is in such imminent danger of collapse and extinction, we cannot afford to ignore learning about whatever can shift the load, nor can we flinch from eliminating whatever threatens our common survival.


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