According to the psychiatrist, Heinrich Wilmer, the German cannibal Armin Meiwes, who killed Bernd Brandes and then ate at least 44 pounds of his flesh, is suffering from “emotional problems.” We might say the same, I suppose, of Brandes, who answered Meiwes’s Internet advertisement for “a young, well-built man who wants to be eaten”—though his problems are now past curing. Brandes also had a slightly offbeat sense of humor. On discovering that both he and Meiwes were smokers, he reportedly said, “Good, smoked meat lasts longer.”
The case raises interesting questions of principle, even for those who take the thoroughly conventional view that eating people is wrong. According to the evidence, Meiwes and Brandes were consenting adults: by what right, therefore, has the state interfered in their slightly odd relationship?
Of course, one might argue that by eating Brandes, Meiwes was infringing on his meal’s rights, and acting against his interests. But Brandes decided that it was in his interests to be eaten, and in general we believe that the individual, not the state, is the best judge of his own interests.
Ah, you say, but Brandes was mad, and therefore not capable of judging what was in his own interests. What, though, is the evidence that he was mad? Well, the fact that he wanted Meiwes to eat him. And why did he want Meiwes to eat him? Because he was mad.
There is a circularity to this argument that robs it of force. It is highly likely that Brandes did indeed have “emotional problems,” but if every person with emotional problems were denied the right to determine what is in his own interests, none of us would be self-determining in the eyes of the law, except those of us who had no emotions to have problems with.
Lest anyone think that the argument from mutual consent for the permissibility of cannibalism is purely theoretical, it is precisely what Meiwes’s defense lawyer is arguing in court. The case is a reductio ad absurdum of the philosophy according to which individual desire is the only thing that counts in deciding what is permissible in society. Brandes wanted to be killed and eaten; Meiwes wanted to kill and eat. Thanks to one of the wonders of modern technology, the Internet, they both could avoid that most debilitating of all human conditions, frustrated desire. What is wrong with that? Please answer from first principles only.