Would you? I know it sounds like a silly question that’s probably just in the title to attract attention, but I’m asking you seriously. If someone were to breed severely mentally handicapped adults lacking almost any cognitive abilities in special institutions, treated them and cared for them until they reached adulthood, and then killed them and sold their meat, would you try some?
I know (or hope?) that the answer is: “obviously not”. So why ask such a silly question? Because I’m not interested in your answer, I’m curious about the reasoning behind your answer. So you say, “obviously not”. Now I answer, “why not?”
This is the type of question to which the answer is so obvious that it is hard to immediately think of the reasoning behind it, so take a second to think about it.
Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is another self-evident truth: it’s wrong to eat humans. Of course, this isn’t really an answer, since the question itself is, “why is it wrong to eat (some) humans?”
Thus to answer the question we’ll need to figure out why it is considered wrong to eat humans in the first place. The fact that this is a belief shared by almost every culture across the globe doesn’t excuse it from requiring a valid reason. Some might argue that humans have a superior moral status simply by virtue of the fact that they are human, yet this kind of reasoning is not just illogical; it’s also the same reasoning that excused slavery and the oppression of minorities for centuries. If you believe that it is morally wrong to eat another human, then you should have a reason that stands up to logical scrutiny.
Let us examine some of the most obvious reasons why it might be wrong to eat another human. Because we’re intelligent? Emotional? Are self-aware? Because we fear death? Can feel pain?
All of these are good reasons for not eating humans – my only problem with these is that they are also equally valid for not eating animals. So if we accept any of these reasons then it’s either not okay to eat animals, or it is okay to eat humans. Which, incidentally, would mean that the vast majority of humans hold contradictory beliefs (well, no surprises there).
If we base our argument on intelligence then in order to include mentally handicapped adults we would have to lower the bar of intelligence to the lowest common denominator ever observed in a human. And there is virtually no doubt about the fact that many animals surpass this level of intelligence, however way you decide to measure it. Chimpanzees, dolphins, pigs – all of these are more intelligent than the worst ever recorded case of a mentally handicapped adult, and probably by a long shot. So our reason for not eating retarded adults can’t be the superior intelligence of the human species.
Then it must be because humans can experience emotions. Except for the fact that, once again, there is a growing body of literature to suggest that some animals are more emotional than all humans, never mind cognitively impaired ones – killer whales and elephants would be two such examples.
As for self-awareness, once again, there are plenty of animals that are more self-aware than severely mentally handicapped humans. Experiencing pain and having a fear of death are also two good reasons for not eating humans, except that, again: most animals feel pain and most animal behaviour indicates that they do have a fear of death.
Virtually every logical reason you can think of as to why you shouldn’t eat a mentally challenged human will also apply to at least some animals. I challenge you to find one that doesn’t, and if you find one, please post it in the comments section because I’m genuinely interested to hear it. But the simple fact is that the lowest common denominator of any trait of the human species will always overlap with the highest common denominator of many other animals.
Knowing this, it is impossible to justify eating pigs while refusing to contemplate the idea of eating humans. If you wish to continue to eat animals, you must also accept that it is morally permissible to eat specially bred, severely mentally handicapped humans. Although it would probably make more sense to continue to believe that it is morally wrong to eat other humans, and realize that it is also morally impermissible to eat other animals.