Sunday, January 1, 2012

Restatement of a small part of "Is necrophilia wrong?" by Tauriq Moosa

"Is necrophilia wrong?"

This question is the title of Tauriq Moosa's latest article on It's an interesting piece which I thoroughly enjoyed reading ... although, as I'm sure Tauriq would agree, the title can be taken as being slightly misleading. A more accurate title may have been something like "Why your answer to the question 'Is necrophilia wrong' probably can't be justified" or "Your intuitions about necrophilia aren't to be trusted" ... something like that.

In his piece Tauriq doesn't actually answer his title question but rather argues that, in the case of necrophilia
There is little reason to think the act automatically wrong. But being unconvinced by the arguments against an act does not mean one automatically supports or encourages it. All that we have done is reflect on arguments and justifications which proclaim necrophilia automatically wrong.
That is to say that his primary aim is not to establish whether the act of having sex with a corpse is morally (im)permissible, but rather to show that the usual ("common sense", knee-jerk, what have you) justifications for saying that it is wrong are unsatisfactory.
I think this is an extremely important point, and I think that this part of Tauriq's argument deserves a restatement in order to get clear about exactly what he is trying to establish here. This is especially important since a number of comments on the article suggest that some readers have been confused by it in spite of it being crystal clear (I suspect that this partly vindicates Tauriq's thoughts about how our disgust reactions cloud our judgement).

The argument

So what is the argument? There are a couple of steps.

Firstly, we should not believe that an act is wrong (or right) without some reason for believing that it is wrong or right, that is, there needs to be some kind of justification supporting our moral beliefs, claims, and judgements.
Now, it may seem that this is such a basic point that it need not be articulated, but it actually plays a very important role below, so it deserves just a little attention. A lot of work in meta-ethics concerns just what kind of justifications suffice to underwrite our moral claims, but - regardless of how that debate eventually gets settled - the most important thing to note is that anyone who makes a moral claim, or holds some kind of moral belief, will justify it in some way. This may take the form of an appeal to a God, to Reason, to a moral calculus, to societal norms, or whatever - in this point we're not concerned with the quality or success of the justifications, just with the fact that they're pretty much always in play.

Secondly, Tauriq thinks that the standard justifications of the belief that necrophilia is wrong don't actually stand up to scrutiny - this is really the core, and bulk, of the argument. These "standard justifications" are (1) the notion that there is something intrinsically special about the human body that makes it sacred/inviolable thus rendering necrophilia intrinsically/automatically wrong. (2) there is something about the (moral?) disgust that we feel towards necrophilia that makes the act intrinsically wrong. (3) a weaker argument that sex with corpses poses a health risk and is therefore wrong (he briefly mentions a fourth - finding it is left as an exercise for the reader).
I wont rehash the arguments that Tauriq gives against these three points, the original article does a bang-up job at doing that. What is important to note here is that in order for this second step in the argument to work it is imperative that (a) it covers all the most commonly used arguments against necrophilia and (b) that the arguments against points 1-3 actually do show them to be inadequate as justifications for the claim that sex with a corpse is wrong. I think that the article manages (a) quite nicely, and - given the context in which the piece appears - I believe (b) to be pretty well established too.

Thirdly, and finally, we can now turn to the question of the moral status of necrophilia. On the one hand we have the idea that we need to be able to justify our moral claims. On the other hand, we see that the common justifications for claiming that necrophilia is automatically wrong don't actually do the job of justifying that claim. And it is here, at this point, that people seem to have gotten confused.
Pointing out that a justification fails to pass muster doesn't thereby commit one to some position regarding the truth value of a statement like "necrophilia is automatically wrong". For example, let's imagine a situation where Manchester United was going to play a (genuine) game against the Amanzimtoti under-8-year-old's soccer team. Let's then say that one of my friends claims that "Manchester United is going to beat Amanzimtoti under 8's in soccer" and I ask him to justify this claim. Let's further imagine that he then goes on to say "Well, Manchester United always win when I eat pizza for lunch, and I've eaten pizza for lunch, so they'll win". This is a mad justification for his belief, and I tell him as much - it goes no way towards establishing the truth of his claim. But, having rejected the justification he has offered, I'm not thereby committing myself to the falsity of his claim, in fact, I think it's fair to say that Man.U would cream the Toti under 8's and my justification for this would be because they're an professional soccer team made up of adults! I can (and do) agree with the claim itself, but not the justification.
It's the same thing with Tauriq's argument - he's pointing out that these justifications are shabby and aren't adequate to establish what they're meant to, not that he thinks that necrophilia is right!
It might be that there is an answer to the question "is necrophilia right?", it might also turn out that that answer is "no, it's intrinsically wrong". But the standard justifications given for that answer don't manage to establish that - the question of the moral status of necrophilia remains unsettled given these justifications.

** Edit - Reply from Tauriq Moosa **

Thanks to Tauriq for the following response:

Thanks for this. 

I should clarify that I'm in two minds about ideas of right and wrong. On the one hand, I don't think anything morally interest is, by definition, right or wrong: otherwise, there's no moral discussion. For example, if we define murder as morally wrong killing, then there's no discussion. It's wrongness is in the title. However, killing, the neutral term, can be right and wrong - depending on circumstances, consequences, etc.

On the other hand, I'm more and more convinced by the ideas of objectivity in ethics: that there are things that are right and wrong. Or rather, that morality is not subjective at all: that, if we term something wrong, then it IS wrong (by whatever moral framework we're focused on). In other words, I'm becoming more and more convinced that Hume's Guillotine is blunt. 

Thus necrophilia might be neither right or wrong, by definition. I think there ARE cases where it is wrong - but then it comes down to property violation, only instantiating that necrophilia is not wrong. I can't fathom that ONLY having sex with dead bodies is wrong, since, like killing, we must further investigate the surrounding moral environment. So I don't think necrophilia is wrong and I don't think there are any arguments that have been made to counter that, though I hope someone does create one.

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