Is Nothing Sacred? Aristophanes's The Clouds and Moral Taboos

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Date: Winter 2021
From: Independent Review(Vol. 25, Issue 3)
Publisher: Independent Institute
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,336 words
Lexile Measure: 1180L

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On my way to an evening class, my eye caught an interesting poster on the hall bulletin board. In its most recent efforts to rehabilitate my retrograde moral sensibility, Fordham University advertised that it would now provide full vegan menus to the community. The poster encouraged the reader to take advantage of this opportunity because it was a way to avoid inflicting pain on innocent animals.

Recovering from my usual reaction to such evangelical proselytizing and virtue posturing, I began to consider the legitimacy of the offer; after all, I do have warm affection for (many) animals. Perhaps there was some other way, apart from or in addition to the vegan program, to avoid injuring my fellow sensitive creatures. I had studied ethics with Robert Nozick, a genius in conjuring up challenging moral scenarios. I also had in the distant past read a provocative essay by Jonathan Swiff on a kindred theme, A Modest Proposal ([1729] 1960). The alternative path to achieving Fordham's laudable goal became obvious to me: victimless cannibalism. (1) Let me be clear. I am not suggesting killing human beings for food but rather making good use of already dead human flesh. As a convinced believer in the Lockean notion of the self's ownership of body and property, I think it's obvious that the self that once owned a now dead body is no longer around to claim such ownership. It appears to be abandoned property, unless by way of the provisions of a will the deceased has bound those inheriting his or her other property to a given deposition of his or her corpse. Robbing graves, of course, usually entails theft (that is, if somebody can be said to own the corpse: maybe the undertaker who mixed his labor with the abandoned resource now owns it) or at least invasion of property. But if no such provisions of will are in place, if no invasion of property is involved, and because the deceased, it seems, can suffer no abridgments of his or her rights, no violation of the nonaggression principle can be alleged. Are we dealing with abandoned property? (2) But the repulsive nature of the plot of, say, the movie Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973) depends on a condemnation of cannibalism not tied, I think, to utilitarian, or rights, considerations. Again, we are contemplating not the cannibalism practiced by Hannibal Lecter, merely the consumption of human flesh. Is what repulses most of us regarding Lecter not only how he gets his meal but also the nature of the food itself? Is this repulsion only the result of stale habit, of unquestioned prejudices regarding cannibalism? (3) Or is this taboo grounded upon something more substantial? Can the taboos regarding consuming human flesh or those involving, say, pedophilia or incest be established by reference to rights or to utility, or are such prohibitions dependent on a sense of the sacred or religion? After all, at present the law prosecutes cannibalistic acts as involving the "desecration" of a...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A652364009