is cannibalism vegan

The “Human Meat” Question: Is Cannibalism Vegan?

Vegans don’t eat meat—but does that include human meat? What about in a hypothetical situation where someone told you, “Go ahead and eat my leg”… would that be vegan? What if they even said, “Please, I’m begging you to eat my leg”?

Is cannibalism vegan? Cannibalism is generally not considered vegan because humans are animals, and vegans do not eat animals. The possible exception, depending on your definition of veganism, is consensual cannibalism, where someone has given permission to eat their body after they die.

It’s actually amazing how substantive of a debate can arise out of asking whether cannibalism is vegan. As you’ll see below, it can really be a fruitful thought experiment for clarifying your views on veganism and ethics.

Note: Although there are places in the world where cannibalism has been a real and culturally accepted practice, this post will focus not on the details of those cultures, but rather on core philosophical issues of veganism.

Why Cannibalism Is (Generally) Not Vegan

The basic logic of why cannibalism is not vegan goes like this:

  1. Humans are animals.
  2. Vegans don’t eat animals.
  3. Therefore, vegans don’t eat humans.

It’s a pretty straightforward argument. But there’s actually a lot we can discuss here.

First, if you look at the real world of vegan activism (and the rest of society, too), sometimes humans are not truly acknowledged as being animals. So, for example, not all vegans take seriously that animal rights should really include human rights. More on that below.

Second, if you look at the publicly acknowledged definition of “vegan,” it has varied in subtle ways depending on the source and the time. Even the Vegan Society has changed its official definition of vegan over the years in some ways.

So, based on both of these points, there is actually some wiggle room in this “argument from definition.” And we can actually use this question as a bit of a thought experiment to explore what veganism really means to us.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at the point that humans are animals.

Taking “Humans Are Animals” Seriously

“Humans are animals” is a simple enough statement. Not many would disagree. But in practice, few people really grasp the implications of humans being animals—including many vegans.

So let’s take a moment to reflect on this.

Arthur Schopenhauer, writing before Darwin, emphasized how much our human psychology (“the Will”) is influenced by the fact that we’re animals.

While our human mind has developed in incredible ways, at the end of the day, we all still mainly care about animal things: we want sex, safety from threats, the safety of our offspring, food, and water.

Most human concerns are really just variants of these basic animal concerns. For example, we want “love.” But what is love but a mechanism that developed biologically to make us more invested in sex, the safety of our offspring, and the safety of having a tribe/community?

(By the way, 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had a lot to say about this subject, in case it interests you.)

We want all kinds of things as humans, but most of our goals can be traced back to our basic animal drives. I could say a lot more about this, but what does it have to do with cannibalism?

Well, if vegans think it’s unethical to eat non-human animals, I’m just saying most of the same factors apply to humans. We’re more similar to other animals than is usually acknowledged. We’re really not that much of a special case.

The Difference Between Humans and Non-Human Animals

I would argue that—as it pertains to veganism and cannibalism—the only meaningful difference between humans and other animals may be that we can communicate with each other to such a degree that we can establish consensual agreements.

So that’s why there is a possibility for “consensual cannibalism” being vegan… but more on the problems with that below.

Does “Animal Rights” Include “Human Rights”?

If humans are animals, then animal rights should really include human rights, shouldn’t it? (And this would make it obvious enough that cannibalism isn’t vegan.) But typically, the way we use those terms, we act like they’re unrelated.

Take for example the issue of vegan activists criticizing factory farming. They rightly call attention to the abuses of pigs, cows, and chickens on these farms. But many vegans don’t mention the human exploitation that goes on at factory farms, too.

Workers at factory farms and slaughterhouses are some of the most exploited workers today (source, source). In the U.S., many are undocumented immigrants who are particularly vulnerable.

Personally, I think if vegans are really against exploitation and oppression, we should call attention to abuses of human workers on farms and in slaughterhouses, too—not just the cows, pigs, and chickens.

Of course, one counterargument to what I’m saying here is that the abuses against chickens and cows are so much more severe than the abuses against human farmworkers. Farmworkers aren’t being literally slaughtered or forced to live their whole lives in a tiny crate, for example.

That’s a fair point, but I still think it’d be good for the vegan movement to integrate human rights concerns a bit more—especially when they’re so closely related, as is the case with factory farm workers.

Complicating “Vegans Don’t Eat Animals”

A common definition of “vegan” is a person who does not eat or use animal products. In fact, that’s what pops up at the top of Google when I search “vegan definition.” But is that true?

If you look at definitions given by actual vegan orgs, it’s not always so simple. If you check the Vegan Society’s current “definition of vegan,” you’ll first see this bold headline at the top of the page (the emphasis here is mine):

“Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”

Notice that this initial headline does not simply say “vegans don’t eat animals.” It is more qualified than that. Let’s break it down.

  • They took the space to include “as far as is possible and practicable.” This gives a situational, contextual aspect to veganism. In our modern society, we can healthfully survive on plant food. But if you were on a desert island, then indeed, maybe the rules change—depending on the availability of plant food.
  • Vegans seek to exclude “exploitation of” and “cruelty to” animals—not “consumption of” animals. This is interesting, as well, and I think it applies to the cannibalism question. Is cannibalism necessarily a form of exploitation or cruelty? What if you’re eating an already-dead human you found somewhere? I think you could argue that’s not necessarily exploitative or cruel.

Now, the Vegan Society definition does go on to specify that this vegan principle entails a plant-based diet. But you can see how it’s a more complex matter than just saying “vegans don’t eat animals, period.”

And if you look around at other explanations of veganism, you’ll find similar complexity and conditionality elsewhere.

Is Veganism Really About Consent?

One popular view of veganism is that, at its core, it’s really all about consent. In a moment, I’ll dive into how this relates to the cannibalism issue—but first, let’s explore why veganism is arguably about consent.

As I mentioned above, one of the big, ethically meaningful differences between humans and other animals is that humans can establish consensual agreements with each other.

Sure, you can nonverbally communicate with other animals and get a vague sense of what they want… but there is much less precision, and I’d argue it’s definitely not “informed consent.”

Contrast that to human relationships of all kinds. We can communicate desires and conditions. We can sign contracts. We can generally end the relationship when we choose to.

Farm animals can never truly consent to being used for their eggs, milk, or meat. Because they don’t have a full understanding of what it entails or how to leave the relationship.

The reason why all of this matters, ethically, is because, as subjects of our own lives, we all have preferences. And it’s assumed, based on their behaviors and biology, that farm animals also have preferences. Like preferring not to be killed.

I covered all of this in much more depth in my big post on vegan ethics—but the point is: Being vegan is not just about “not eating animals.” It’s a solution to an ethical problem.

So to truly answer if something “is vegan”—on a philosophical level—you need to go deeper than just “Is it an animal product?” You need to ask whether it violates the ethical principles that veganism exists to uphold.

Analogy: Breastfeeding Is Vegan Because of Consent… Right?

Is breastfeeding vegan? Most vegans would say yes, it is—because the mother freely chooses to give her milk. Her milk is an animal product, yet there’s no ethical problem with consuming it.

Even if you wanted to open up a breastmilk factory and sell human breastmilk, that could arguably be vegan as long as it is not exploitative or cruel to the women whose milk you’re selling—as long as you have their consent.

Actually, the breastfeeding baby issue is a little confusing because the baby is not making ethical decisions for herself about what she’s consuming. The parents are deciding.

So there’s a weird issue with agency: Can someone (a baby) be vegan without trying to be vegan? Probably, yes… but it’s interesting how it’s actually the parents who are trying and the baby who is being vegan.

Anyway—let’s get back to cannibalism!

Problems with Consensual Cannibalism Being Vegan

If veganism is about consent, then consensual cannibalism would arguably be vegan. That is, if I give you permission to eat my body after I die, then it’d be vegan to eat my body after I die—even though I’m an animal.

I do think many ethical vegans would agree with this conclusion. But just for the sake of argument, let’s complicate things a bit further…

When Is It Really Possible to Give Consent for Someone to Eat Your Body?

Can human adults give consent to something like being eaten in all situations? Are there situations where our agency and ability to say “no” is compromised to such a degree that even if we “give consent,” it’s not ethically meaningful?

Many Marxists would cite this as a concern with labor relations under capitalism. Karl Marx explained that capitalism necessitates a class of workers who have nothing to sell but their labor. So they have to work.

If workers had better options, they’d arguably not work for minimum wage. They’d likely not agree to work dangerous jobs with little autonomy and little pay. So in these cases, can you really say their employment is meaningfully consensual?

People will generally “consent” to the best option they perceive themselves to have. But that doesn’t mean it’s really what they want.

Bringing this back to cannibalism

You can easily imagine situations where someone could be guilted or otherwise pressured into giving “permission” to eat their body. Like if it was culturally expected of them, even though they don’t really want it. If that was the case, it’d be sketchy to say that’s vegan.

Persuasion and What It Means for Consent

Of course, if you want to get really philosophical, you can dig even deeper into what it means to “really want” something.

Specifically: What determines our wants, and are we in control of those factors? We’re all being influenced to want different things all the time, partially by our biology but also largely by culture and various efforts at persuasion.

Advertisements use rhetorical techniques to influence what we want to do and will consent to do.

If someone actively influences me to want something, is it still consensual? Probably, yes—but this becomes a bit confusing.

Some people do feel upset when they realize they’ve been emotionally moved by advertising to crave a product. There’s a sense in which they didn’t “really want” the product—they were just manipulated by the rhetorical tactics of the ad.

But I think this line of thinking has limitations. After a point, it is condescending to say that someone is not capable of giving consent because rhetorical techniques can impact them.

In the end, I think it is still ethically meaningful what someone agrees they are willing/wanting to do, even though leadership, rhetoric, and societal context can all play roles in influencing those decisions.

Would It Be Vegan to Eat Human Meat That You Find Somewhere? (Like Roadkill, But Human)

Considering all the philosophical nuances outlined above, you can also imagine why pretty much any human who is already dead could feasibly be eaten as far as vegan ethics is concerned.

If someone is already dead, they no longer have interests about what happens to their body.

That said, there could be other ethical impacts of eating dead humans you find. Maybe the family gets upset about it. Maybe you mess up the evidence for a criminal case. Or maybe it contributes to a precedent that leads you or other people to want to kill living people to eat them.

There could be all kinds of ethical ramifications when it comes to eating a dead body you find somewhere—but take note: Many vegans would not object to it simply because it’s the body of a human animal.

Vegan Perspectives on Cannibalism

As with many issues in vegan ethics, philosophy, and practice, vegans do not agree on cannibalism. This is because the word “vegan” is in wide use by millions of people.

There are many strains in vegan philosophy, and there are also people just eating a “vegan” (plant-based) diet without any real philosophy behind it.

Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed this exploration of where some of these viewpoints may diverge by looking specifically at this cannibalism question! Again, for more on vegan ethics, check out my mega-post on it!

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