Paper 2: Dead Sexy: An Essay on the Ethics of Necrophilia by Sara McKearn: Anil Aggrawal's Internet Journal of Forensic Medicine: Vol. 9, No. 2 (July - December 2008)
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Received: July 21, 2007
Revised manuscript received: April 7, 2008
Accepted: June 3, 2008
Ref: McKearn, S.  Dead Sexy: An Essay on the Ethics of Necrophilia. Anil Aggrawal's Internet Journal of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology [serial online], 2008; Vol. 9, No. 2 (July - December 2008): [about 15 p]. Available from: . Published : July 1, 2008, (Accessed: 

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Sara McKearn
Sara McKearn

Dead Sexy: An Essay on the Ethics of Necrophilia

by Sara McKearn
Student (Sophomore, Philosophy Major)
UW Rock County
2909 Kellogg Avenue
Janesville, WI
USA


Abstract

This paper is about questioning social taboos and tradition in light of philosophical concepts. Why are certain acts regarded as morally incorrect, and would they still be incorrect were it not for the taboos that surround them? I take one of the more extreme cases of a social taboo (necrophilia) and ask my readers to momentarily remove from their minds their emotional and legal inclinations on the subject, and to simply consider the topic at face value with regards to concepts such as moral status and personhood.

Keywords

Necrophilia, paraphilia, sexual deviance, ethics, thought experiment, proposal, moral status, personal identity, personhood

Disclaimer

I concede that this essay is a philosophical proposal and while works of this nature may seem out of place in a biomedical publication, I am submitting it for two reasons. Originally, the paper was sent in at the publisher's request. Professor Anil Aggrawal learned about my project, showed an interest, and contacted me with a request that I send the paper to him, as he may be interested in publishing it in this journal. While the publication and exhibition of my work is undeniably important to me, that is not the sole purpose of this submission. I seek to offer an objective viewpoint toward the ethics of necrophilia and to provide a possible understanding of why certain people may feel no qualms about the act. On some levels, I am playing devil's advocate and while this paper does, in essence, fall primarily into the realm of philosophy, I argue that all subjects-especially those within the sciences, namely biomedicine-require at least some consideration of ethics.

Before diving into the piths of this essay, I find it necessary to point out-as it can be easily misunderstood-that this essay simply employs the topic of necrophilia as a forum for theoretical discussion. It is an example of an area of - what I argue to be - moral indifference, and, most importantly, an exhibit of how social taboos can be found to be without foundation in light of a logical analysis of ethics (if said taboos are based merely on unfounded traditions).

I would like to state here and now that I am not a necrophiliac. I have no interest in the practice, nor do I encourage it as it is not legally, socially, or hygienically supported. However, I argue that the practice is not, in itself, morally wrong.

The lexicography of ethics presents some complications because, to the best of my knowledge, there is no single word in the English language that concisely expresses my intended definition of "moral indifference." In essence, I argue for a spectrum of morality in relation to "morally encouraged," "morally discouraged," and "morally indifferent" acts. "Morally encouraged" actions would be things that one ought to pursue for the improved virtue of the individual and perhaps even the betterment of the populace as a whole. On the opposite side of the spectrum, "morally discouraged" actions are pursuits that one ought to avoid as they degrade the virtues of individuals and may even erode the moral health of society. Within this spectrum, "morally indifferent" actions fall somewhere within the vast gray area between the two poles and pertain to acts that neither fulfill society nor degrade it on an ethical level. That is to say, while these actions-which are performed at the individual's discretion and in accordance with that individual's particular tastes-do not directly perpetuate moral advancement within that individual or within the populace as a whole, said actions can not be construed as an ethical impediment.
...This paper argues against the commonly accepted notion that necrophilia is morally detrimental and, with the help of arguments based on ethical concepts, reframes the practice as morally indifferent. Due to the preexisting social taboo surrounding the subject, I am inclined to place stress on the argument that necrophilia is not morally wrong...

Thus, they are of no moral consequence. This paper argues against the commonly accepted notion that necrophilia is morally detrimental and, with the help of arguments based on ethical concepts, reframes the practice as morally indifferent. Due to the preexisting social taboo surrounding the subject, I am inclined to place stress on the argument that necrophilia is not morally wrong instead of equally stressing that it is neither right nor wrong.

My thought experiment is set within a closed, theoretical system. With arguments about the application of personal identity and moral status as the only variables. I argue that necrophilia does no moral wrong. However, the realm of reality presents additional variables of social opinion, human attachment, legality, and hygiene, which impede the application of the equation. In short, I argue that necrophilia is a practice that does no moral wrong, but I concede that the practice it is not feasible in reality because it violates preexisting standards.

I would also like to specify that rights, for the purpose of this essay, refer specifically to moral rights. The distinction is held between those and legal rights as this is an ethical debate and legality is virtually irrelevant, as laws do not necessarily dictate morality. Once the legislation behind necrophilia is stripped away, the subject is pushed into the ethical realm. In drawing this lengthy disclaimer to a close, I beseech the readers of this essay to acknowledge and consider my arguments on a purely moral, hypothetical level.

Introduction

In this paper, I will argue that necrophilia is not morally impermissible (for clarifications on what is intended by this phrase, please see the disclaimer) on the grounds that corpses are no longer persons with identity; as such, corpses are not persons with moral status and rights. In addition, I will briefly draw attention to and question the time-honored notion of respect for the dead. It is my intention to persuade my readers to question their previous views on the ethics of necrophilia and, in turn, to propagate a questioning attitude toward social taboos in general. Necrophilia is defined by Merriam-Webster (11th edition) as "the obsession with and...erotic interest in or stimulation by corpses." For the sake of this paper, the term will be used to refer to the practice of having sex with the deceased as the ethics of the mere unconsummated interest need not be drawn into question.

Issue of personal identity

...Some may associate the corpse with the person who once inhabited it and claim that necrophilia violates the rights of said person. However, this argument fails in light of the notion of personal identity...

The first issue I would like to address in depth is that of personal identity and personhood. Some may associate the corpse with the person who once inhabited it and claim that necrophilia violates the rights of said person. However, this argument fails in light of the notion of personal identity. (It is important to note that personal identity is separate from legal identity - which is observable in the form of numbers and names associated with individuals - because the former is concerned with the idea of what makes a person the person they are, not the means by which society catalogs them.) Seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke argues for the necessary distinction between the body in his work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), and a similar notion is adopted in the writings of eighteenth-century philosopher Thomas Reid. According to this theory, the body is simply a receptacle for the person,1 comparable to an airplane and its pilot, respectively. Naturally, the person is the more valued aspect as it determines one's identity, and the body is merely the flesh which contains it. The nature of the "person" is often questioned. In his work, "Of Identity," (1785) Reid argues that the person is an immaterial, indivisible consciousness, or soul;2 Locke argues the person is defined by conscious memory.1 Locke's account of what happens to the person at death, although different in its explanation of what makes the person, somewhat resembles Reid's account. Those who accept Reid's view, or one similar, would be more inclined to argue that the person evacuates the physical body upon biological death. This is comparable to the pilot of the plane ejecting himself from the cockpit and landing safely on the ground as his faithful-or perhaps not-vessel crashes and burns. Eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume and modern advocate Derek Parfit suggest that one's identity is composed of one's perceptions or psychology. Now, those who accept Hume's discourse in A Treatise of Human Nature (1740)3-or Parfit's in Divided Minds and The Nature of Persons (1984)4-would be inclined to say that the person dies when the body succumbs to biological death, which is comparable to the pilot dying within the plane as it careens into an unforgiving cliff-face. Either way, the corpse contains no properties of the person after biological death. As Reid would say, the immaterial consciousness has left the physical body,2 and Locke would claim that the self as conscious memory persists, but not in its former body.1 As Hume and Parfit would say, the mind-and thus the being's psychology and perceptions-are gone.3,4 That is to say that the body lying in the casket is merely a shell of the person who once occupied it. Whether the person survives after the body's biological death is completely dependent on one's view of personal identity, but regardless, the corpse remains vacant (until occupied by a prospective suitor).

Does the corpse possess moral status?

...After exploring the views of personal identity, it has been made evident that the corpse cannot be associated with the person it once was, and thus, necrophiliacs are not disrespecting a person by having sex with a corpse...

After exploring the views of personal identity, it has been made evident that the corpse cannot be associated with the person it once was, and thus, necrophiliacs are not disrespecting a person by having sex with a corpse. A related point I would like to make is that the corpse, as it cannot be associated with the person it once was - or any person for that matter-has no moral status. Moral status is defined as the condition that bestows upon people their basic human rights. It is the quality that makes it immoral for one to treat the being in question with anything less than a certain degree of respect. What gives a being its moral status is commonly debated, but I argue that a being must fulfill a certain set of criteria to be considered a moral agent.

Mary Anne Warren, a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, argues her ideas for the criteria of moral status in her work, Ethics in Practice (1992). She suggests that the primary characteristics that would determine personhood are sentience, emotionality, reason, the capacity to communicate, self-awareness, and moral agency. [Please see table 1]

Sentience - The capacity to have conscious experiences, usually including the capacity to experience pain and pleasure

Emotionality - The capacity to feel happy, angry, sad, loving, etc.

Reason - The capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems.

Capacity to communicate -

Self-awareness - Having a concept of oneself as an individual and/or as a member of a social group.

Moral agency - The capacity to regulate one's own actions through moral principles or ideals.
Table 1 - Warren's six components that determine personhood

Warren comments that while "[a]n entity need not have all of these attributes to be a person," the potential for a being to have moral status decreases if it possesses none of these traits.5 Thus, it would be difficult to reasonably attribute moral status to a being with none of these traits, and this point is of central importance to the question of the ethics of necrophilia. Note that corpses possess none of these traits, and only beings that possess these traits in some combination can be attributed moral status. So, corpses have no moral status. If a corpse were a person with moral status, then it could be harmed. However, a corpse cannot be a person with moral status, as it fits none of the criteria for said status. Therefore, one can do no wrong to a corpse.

Some may argue that because a corpse was once a human being, it is entitled to the same treatment to which all human beings are entitled. I argue, however, that being genetically human is not enough to warrant moral status. If this were the case, one could attribute personhood ("personhood" being the criteria for considering one a person and thus an agent entitled to rights, respect, and moral status) to cancer cells and strands of hair. It seems that this quality comes at a much more complex price. Does a corpse possess the residual moral status or any transferable rights of the person who once inhabited it? This is a question similar to and depending on a notion of personal identity. Is there residual personal identity? If not, then there are no grounds for claiming residual moral status, since the moral status at the bare minimum requires some form of personal identity.
...corpses cannot have moral status as moral status is dependent on a certain set of criteria...

Briefly put, residual personhood does not exist. The reason behind this is that corpses cannot have moral status as moral status is dependent on a certain set of criteria. Regardless of whether one wishes to use Warren's set of criteria to determine personhood or an entirely different standard, one can reasonably argue that awarding moral status to something simply because it is genetically human is ungrounded, as this sort of proposition could attribute moral status to substances that simply do not deserve said status. If there is no moral status, there is no person to wrong.

The issue of consent

Some bring up the notion of consent when arguing against necrophilia. They claim that the corpse (or the person) would not have agreed to sex and therefore, any sort of necrophilic activity is invasive and morally impermissible. Yet, as it was stated in the segment on personal identity, the body and the person are no longer one and the same once the body dies. Therefore, one cannot consider either part to be connected with the other. Legality aside (as this is a moral debate, it only seems fair to push law into the sidelines for now), it becomes inconsequential whether the person offered consent to prospective necrophiliacs before said person passed on, as the body that is present now cannot be viewed on the same level as the person who once inhabited it. Also, as the person can no longer be connected with the body, what happens to the latter cannot be seen as a sign of disrespect; disrespect assumes a person is the target of that disrespect, but since the cadaver is not a person, there is no one toward whom to direct this disrespect. In addition, as it has been previously determined, the corpse is not a person, let alone an agent with rights or privileges. Not only is the corpse incapable of denying moral and legal consent, it is not entitled to deny said consent.

Because legality is pushed aside and because the body is no longer affiliated with the once-living person, the requests or possible wishes of the deceased can be discarded. One can assume this because-as it was previously stated-the author of said document cannot be likened to the corpse as there no longer exists a tie between the person and the body. In addition, as it was previously argued, residual moral status and personal identity do not exist. When dealing with a corpse, one is not dealing with a person, an organism that deserves moral consideration, or a being that can deny consent. One is simply dealing with a body that is, crudely put, nothing more than a mass of decomposing cellular residue, and masses of decomposing cellular residue are fair game to paraphiles.

Comparison between necrophilia and embalming

Furthermore, the corpse is often subject to unpleasant invasion as standard procedure. In the embalming process, described in Richard T. Hatch's book, How to Embalm Your Mother-In-Law (1993), the body is completely stripped of all clothing and washed twice. In cases of rigor mortis, the embalmer is required to massage the corpse's limbs and extremities to loosen up the body, making it more possible and easier to work with overall.6 Orifices are then swabbed with cavity fluid and packed to avoid leakage. After any necessary dental work, the mouth is stitched shut by inserting hooked wires into the gum tissue and tightening them. The face and body are shaved, and the eyeballs are washed and eye cups are inserted, which serve to provide the proper shape when the eyelid is closed. As much blood as possible is removed from the veins by a pump and replaced with embalming fluid, which is applied through six major injection points. A tube is then inserted into the abdomen to remove any residual fluid from organ decomposition. Finally, embalming preservatives are pumped through the body. Compare this process to conventional sexual activity in which fluid exchange is relatively minimal and, presumably, does not entail total exsanguination via pumps, eye-tampering, or mouth-stitching. The average necrophile does not have the means or the motive for that sort of endeavor.

...the corpse is often subject to unpleasant invasion as standard and acceptable procedure - as in embalming. Then what is the problem with necrophilia?...

Jessica Mitford mentions an even more disturbing aspect of the embalming process in her book, The American Way of Death (1963): "no law requires embalming, no religious doctrine commends it, nor is it dictated by considerations of health, sanitation, or even of personal daintiness."7 That is to say that this fate, although religiously pursued and widely exercised upon corpses, is virtually unnecessary.

I feel it is important-or at least interesting-to remark on the comparison between the two practices. Granted, if the corpse is not a person (as I argue), embalming does no wrong to the corpse, either. The comparison is drawn between necrophilia and embalming to show that invasive procedures befall corpses on a regular basis. Furthermore, while embalming is socially acceptable and necrophilia is not, the former could easily be perceived as more invasive.

The notion of respect for the dead

The final argument I will explore that opposes necrophilia is that which concerns the notion of respect for the dead. It is a notion that rests on a time-honored tradition and nothing more, but one that generally arises alongside the topic of necrophilia. This principle is often used as its own argument against necrophilia, yet, in light of the previous arguments, I have to ask why humankind must maintain this tradition. Given the preceding arguments, it would seem as though this tradition is nothing more than an ungrounded, misunderstood notion that carries no moral obligation. As was previously mentioned, one can conclude that the corpse is not a person and has no moral status. It does not have the capacity to deny consent and it is nothing more than an object. Also, there is no tie between the person and the mass of decomposing cellular residue in question. Since arguments that support the status of corpses fail, what moral obligation do we have to respect corpses? If the notion of respect for the dead is-as I suspect-what ultimately makes necrophilia taboo, the practice could be considered morally impermissible no longer once said notion is found unjustifiable. From my perspective, the universal nature of this tradition does not adequately justify the condemnation of necrophilia.

Finally, even if my debate against the sanctity of this tradition does not convince my readers, it is still arguable that necrophilia doesn't disrespect the dead. one can still maintain this notion-however arbitrary and societally ingrained it may seem-because when one respects the dead, one is arguably respecting the memory of the person (i.e., character traits, accomplishments, etc.), not necessarily the corpse itself. Thus, necrophilia does not degrade the memory of said person's character.

References

(1) Locke J. An essay concerning human understanding. New York: Dover Publications, Inc; 1959. (Back to [citation 1] [citation 2] [citation 3in text)

(2) Reid T. Of identity. In: Feinburg J, Shafer-Landau R, editors. Reason and Responsibility. 12th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning; 2005. p. 343-346. (Back to [citation 1] [citation 2]  in text)

(3) Hume D. A treatise of human nature. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press; 1992. (Back to [citation 1] [citation 2]  in text)

(4) Parfit D. Divided minds and the nature of persons. In: Feinburg J, Shafer-Landau R, editors. Reason and responsibility. 12th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning; 2005. p. 351-356. (Back to [citation 1] [citation 2]  in text)

(5) Warren MA. On the moral and legal status of abortion. In: White JE, (ed). Contemporary Moral Problems. 7th ed. United States: Wadsworth Thomson Learning; 2003. p. 144-151. (Back to [citation]  in text)

(6) Hatch RT. How to embalm your mother-in-law. New York: Carol Publishing Group; 1993. (Back to [citation]  in text)

(7) Mitford J. The American way of death. New York: Vintage; 2000. (Back to [citation]  in text)


*Corresponding author and requests for clarifications and further details:
Sara McKearn,
Student (Sophomore, Philosophy Major)
UW Rock County
2909 Kellogg Avenue
Janesville, WI
USA
E-mail: ginny_sara@yahoo.com
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