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Mini-Feature: Shredding the Argument for Necrophilia
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Is Necrophilia Wrong?
The article the editors will be responding to today was published in 2011, but it has resurfaced in recent days. — Eds.
There is a certain point at which reasoning is pointless. The title of the article signals such sophistry within. This is possible in public toay because we no longer understand moral reasoning, or how to think rigorously about ethics, or how we should live our lives. The principles and purposes by which we would do so are disputed or unknown. The various methods or means by which we might obtain a knowlege of good and evil, whether through reason or reveluation, are rejected or unknown. So such sophistriy as this is possible. One can "reason" in a hollow manner given the premises (or lack thereof) of the day. The article is but another sign of dessication. Not only morally, but intellectually. We are increasingly an unserious people. A serious civilization would punish the author in some way, either formally or informally.
Everyone knows necrophilia is wrong. That’s why there’s a drop of juice left in trolling the matter online. People doing so ironically reveal that the actually interesting inquiry is whether it’s wrong to write the case for necrophilia or whatever. To me, the answer to that question is an obvious yes.
Probably there is a case to crack down on such “speech” on obscenity grounds, but I am a lot more interested in what a failure you have to be to end up in the position of writing the case for necrophilia or trolling those rubes who have not the requisite leisure or intellectual curiosity to broach the question of the ethics of amorous one way embraces with the dead.
It is wrong to let this happen to you, this passage into a kind of living death which lacks even the appeal to art to justify itself! Arguably, arguing that we should consider necrophilia as an ethical act is worse than engaging in a necrophiliac act. Now there’s a hot take really worth a shred or two of our time...
This essay is not worth reading and the writer, whose name I won't bother to repeat, should not be allowed near graveyards. That's all I have to say about this.
In one of the most famous passages from his or any book, Herodotus tells us about a time when the Persian king Darius invited Greeks and Indians to his court. The Greeks were accustomed to burn the bodies of their fathers upon their death; the Indians were accustomed to eat them. When each group of men was asked what it would take to make them adopt the practice of the other, each reacted with horror and revulsion: no Indian could ever bear to burn his father’s corpse, no Greek to eat his. And so, concludes Herodotus (quoting the poet Pindar): “custom is king.”
It is not a new observation that many of our moral intuitions are culturally ingrained in us by the society in which we live. Nor is it particularly original to infer from this observation that, in the words of one sophist (Protagoras DK 80B1), “man is the measure of all things.” Or to quote another famous hack, Thrasymachus (Pl. Republic 334c): “justice” is merely “the advantage of the stronger.” In each case, the observation that some tastes vary by culture is spun out into a sweeping assertion that all tastes and moral norms are a matter of mere preference.
But those who would co-opt Herodotus in service of such overbroad generalizations are reading his History selectively (if indeed they are reading it in full at all). For the great historian’s ecumenism was so broad, his interest in the world so honest, that he also found in his travels ideals which were not variant from region to region, but shared among mankind as their common inheritance. “Men have long ago discovered noble laws, from which one must take instruction,” says the Lydian Gyges in response to his unhinged king, Candaules—appealing not to mere preference but to universal law, an immutable feature of the universe which forbad him, in this instance, to violate the modesty of a woman who was not his wife.
And indeed “custom is king” was itself a hard-and-fast rule of all things, as Herodotus was sly enough to realize. He invokes the maxim as a way of explaining why even kings like the mad Cambyses found they could not trespass on certain taboos without facing retribution. Which brings us to an article in the “Big Think” that lamentably is neither big—in the sense of being novel or revelatory—nor particularly thoughtful. “Is Necrophilia Wrong?” asks the article, and goes on to argue in the negative. “Like incest, we may find the act of having sex with corpses disgusting,” writes Tauriq Moosa. “But we can’t let that be the only determinate of an appropriate response.”
Well, it’s certainly true—as everyone smart has known for millennia—that not everything we find viscerally disgusting is wrong. It’s even true that different people in different cultures find different things viscerally disgusting. But the “we” who find sex with corpses disgusting is not merely “some people” or “this or that culture.” It is the “we” of all humanity, the vast majority of human societies throughout all time and space. When a moral intuition is that deep-seated, that widespread, we might pause to ask if there’s something more to it before we merely shrug it off and have at the flesh of the dead.
Because in fact the danger of failing to do so is inadvertently illustrated by Moosa’s very next header: “we are not sacred.” And indeed, as it turns out, that is what you have to believe in order to lift this particular taboo. Our human aversion to necrophilia is—like many such intuitions—a felt sense of our own sanctity, a primordial notion that we are more than mere flesh to be toyed with at the will of the strong or the living. Abandon that felt sense and neither you nor I nor indeed Moosa himself will like the consequences. It is the perfect example of Chesterton’s fence: before you tear it down, ask what it’s there to keep out.
In this case, the conviction that human beings are made in God’s image—besides being as true a perception as the convictions that there are seasons and things fall when you drop them—is there to keep out a whole lot of nasties. People who don’t believe other people are sacred have been known to do more than violate those other people’s corpses: they have been known to make those other people into corpses prematurely and at random. Or to do worse things, which my own moral aversion forbids me from describing here.
People like Tauriq Moosa tend to imagine—rather hazily, it must be said—that once our pesky vestigial disgust is abandoned we will be able to have our conversations about ethics in the cold light of reason. But reason herself must begin from certain hard and fast premises, without which she has no ground to stand on and goes mad (for proof of this one, look around you). In fact our deepest and most implicit feelings about morality are the bedrock upon which we stand together as a species. They constitute what C.S. Lewis called the “Dao,” and if you want a cogent warning against throwing them out, read his Abolition of Man. If you want to trace some general contours of the Dao, supported with documentary evidence, read Lewis’s appendix to that same text.
In the meantime, don’t have sex with dead people because, for God’s sake, it’s disgusting.