Politics & Policy

Blind Alley of Nihilism

How we got to a slap on the wrist for a cannibal.

“German Cannibal Convicted of Manslaughter” was a shocking headline. For starters it contained a redundancy. What is ultimately the most shocking aspect of a shocking case, however, is that Armin Meiwes was sentenced to a mere 81/2 years for the lesser crime of manslaughter when he had killed Bernd Brandes, a 48-year-old computer engineer, and eaten him sautéed with garlic, black pepper, potatoes, sprouts ,and a bottle of South African red wine.

Even the most liberal people think or–as Edmund Burke would improve it, “inwardly feel”–that cannibalism ought to rate both a verdict of murder and a sentence of life imprisonment. As it is, however, Meiwes is likely to be released in less than five years. He has already been deluged with lucrative publishing offers for his memoirs. And he may well seek other human meals in five years since he was doing just that at the time of his arrest. Eating people may be wrong–but it is a smart career move. It must be allowed, however, that both the court proceedings and the verdict were in strict legal accord with the social principles that now shape and animate modern Western societies. Meiwes’s defense lawyers actually sought a verdict of “killing on request” for which the highest sentence is five years. And on the evidence before the court their plea was not unreasonable.

Brandes had volunteered to be killed and eaten over the Internet. He had cooperated in his own murder and–here I omit a few details in deference to the fact that this is a family site–eaten part of himself before finally succumbing to the knife and the painkillers. A videotape of his death and dismemberment apparently establishes beyond doubt that his wishes were faithfully carried out by his cannibal friend. The victim even joked about their both being smokers: “Good. Smoked meat lasts longer.”

In Holland where euthanasia was legalized last year Meiwes may have been guilty of either a misdemeanor or nothing at all. Even in America Meiwes may have pleaded, as Dr. Kevorkian did successfully in several cases, that his so-called crime was nothing worse than the fashionable act of “assisted suicide.” True, he sought to give pleasure to the masochistic Brandes rather than to relieve pain. In doing so, however, he was fulfilling the request of Brandes who was seeking the most exquisite pain he could imagine, namely annihilation (though he compromised to the extent of swigging down bottles of the wooze-making soporific Night Nurse). And it is the wishes of the aspiring suicide that are held paramount by the Hemlock Society, other extreme advocates of “death with dignity,” and indeed many modern philosophers.

Assisted suicide, euthanasia, cooperative cannibalism–what is going on? As two sardonic social critics, Roger Kimball of The New Criterion and Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal, have observed, these social innovations have not emerged onto legal ground from nowhere. They can be traced back to the underlying principle of modern liberalism‹the so-called “harm principle” laid down by John Stuart Mill in his celebrated On Liberty in the following words: “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”

And it is this principle that underpins the above developments–among them the notion of “murder by request.” Mill naturally allows some exceptions to his rule–notably children and madmen. But Brandes was neither. He was a pervert in that he lusted after something that the rest of us find wrong and disgusting. But both he and Meiwes knew what they were doing. Interestingly, perverts themselves deny that their vices imply insanity.

Dennis Nielsen, the British civil servant who strangled young men and then propped up their bodies at the dinner table for company, was told by his biographer that he was probably related to the novelist Virginia Woolf. The news made him uneasy: “I don’t like the sound of that. She went mad, you know.”

Indeed, perverts often go beyond denying insanity. They seek to be understood and even approved of. The columnist George Jonas, who checked out cannibal sites on the Internet (and who evidently has a stronger stomach than mine), reports that the cannibals there exhibit an almost pitiful desire to be accepted by the rest of society. They are not barbarians, they assert, but mainstream cannibals. Meiwes himself, citing his efforts to ensure that Brandes enjoyed his own annihilation to the fullest extent possible, might even claim to be a compassionate cannibal. And in seeking to justify themselves, they inevitably fall back upon Mill’s principle.

Of course, there is almost no principle that is not capable of endorsing absurd and wicked conclusions if pressed far enough. The opposite principle to Mill’s–that government exists to promote the moral improvement of society–could be invoked to justify a puritan dictatorship if not checked and corrected by something else. But by what? Well, by other principles, of course, notably the right to life, but also by common sense, moderation, and moral intuition.

Moral intuition has had bad press in recent years. It is felt to be an unsure and variable guide. But is total reliance on rational criticism any safer? A society that seeks to root all its laws in consciously derived rational-critical principles, and to ignore the promptings of moral intuition, will soon find itself wandering down the blind alley of nihilism. Ten years ago the English social critic, Digby Anderson, imagined in NR how a case of necrophilia would be handled by our self-consciously critical age:

You might call a philosopher. He would explain that absolute moral standards were not the issue in this multicultural society… He could easily show that necrophilia harms no one in the usual and mortal use of that term. Not a single complaint has been made by the object of a necrophiliac’s attentions…. A classical liberal economist could easily be found to talk impressively about costs imposed on others, externalities, private and public good, and Pareto optimality. He would reach a similar conclusion: it hurts no one. A psychoanalyst would go further and point out that necrophiliacs were more likely to hurt others if their desires were repressed…. Necrophiliacs should be not only allowed to practice but encouraged to talk about their practices. Assorted necrophiliacs would then sift through history to find all sorts of generals, kings, bishops, and scientists who were necrophiliacs or who would have been if they had not lived in societies irrationally prejudiced against necrophilia.

Overwhelmed by this torrent of detached analysis, we soon forget the basic truth that necrophilia (and cannibalism) are vile, horrible, and wrong. We ought to be able to take this truth for granted and to meet these vices with disgust, contempt, and, at times, ridicule. Unless we recover this ability, we will find ourselves terribly satisfied at our own clever debating as we walk into a trackless swamp, starting nervously at the cackling sounds of the night.

John O’Sullivan is editor-in-chief of The National Interest. This piece first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission. O’Sullivan can be reached through Benador Associates

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

Most Popular

Elections

Vote Your Conscience

At the 2016 Republican convention, Senator Ted Cruz spoke a controversial phrase: “vote your conscience.” I think about this phrase, this idea, fairly often. I’m not one to give advice on voting (or much else). But when asked for advice, I usually say, “Vote your conscience.” Sweet conscience! One of ... Read More
Elections

Vote Your Conscience

At the 2016 Republican convention, Senator Ted Cruz spoke a controversial phrase: “vote your conscience.” I think about this phrase, this idea, fairly often. I’m not one to give advice on voting (or much else). But when asked for advice, I usually say, “Vote your conscience.” Sweet conscience! One of ... Read More
Music

Stevie Nicks, Like Springsteen, Preaches and Preens

In the 1970s, Stevie Nicks and Bruce Springsteen made impressions on pop-music culture with romantic rock landmarks, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album and Springsteen’s Born to Run. But their new 2020 releases, Nicks’s single “Show Them the Way” and Springsteen’s Letter to You film and album, make the ... Read More
Music

Stevie Nicks, Like Springsteen, Preaches and Preens

In the 1970s, Stevie Nicks and Bruce Springsteen made impressions on pop-music culture with romantic rock landmarks, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album and Springsteen’s Born to Run. But their new 2020 releases, Nicks’s single “Show Them the Way” and Springsteen’s Letter to You film and album, make the ... Read More
Law & the Courts

The Kavanaugh Court

If Justice Barrett votes as her mentor Justice Scalia did, she will be part of an ascendant conservative majority on the Supreme Court. What kinds of decisions can we expect from this majority? Short answer: Ask Brett Kavanaugh. Contrary to how journalists frame each seat change on the Court, comparing the new ... Read More
Law & the Courts

The Kavanaugh Court

If Justice Barrett votes as her mentor Justice Scalia did, she will be part of an ascendant conservative majority on the Supreme Court. What kinds of decisions can we expect from this majority? Short answer: Ask Brett Kavanaugh. Contrary to how journalists frame each seat change on the Court, comparing the new ... Read More