On Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”

When the civilized world speaks of cannibalism, they often react with the feelings of disgust and moral outrage, dismissing the idea of using another human being as sustenance as barbaric or immoral. Some may say that they could never do such a thing, consuming a human being under any circumstance, or they may even wince at the mere thought of tasting human flesh. It is understandable, of course, to react in such a way, but to what logical, ethical or even philosophical reason is there to actually perpetuate this ideal? Surely, there are multiple reasons to not eat another human being, such as the moral implications guided by social norms, the survival of the species through procreation and, of course, the taste. Jonathan Swift, in “A Modest Proposal”, provides a pretty convincing, albeit, satirical case for why a society might consider such a practice of eating toddlers to cure some of Ireland’s societal ills and, I, for one, am not entirely convinced that the merits of his argument should not be considered more seriously.

First, let us address the matter of taste.  Can we count this as a reason to not consider cannibalism? How something tastes, the sweetness or umami, saltiness or sourness is a matter of subjectivity. In the United States, we rarely gorge upon snails and see them as nothing more than mucous covered garden pests, yet, in France, escargot is quite the delicacy. Any episode of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern is guaranteed to get a groan or dry heave out of at least one member of the household, yet in many cultures abroad, these foul-smelling and alien-looking foods are all the rave. I would challenge anyone to watch any one of his episodes filmed in Japan, a “civilized” country, and not cringe at the scene where he chows down on a bowl of chicken ovaries. So, our subjective view of taste does not seem to be a good enough reason to discount the idea in total. In fact, there are still nine places in the modern world that still have some practice of cannibalism and, in Germany, it actually is not illegal (Fox).

If not taste, the perhaps our social norms and collective morals are a good reason to not pursue this proposal.  In what we consider to be civilized countries, cannibalism is seen as a taboo, to say the least, as reflection of that. Yet, in some cultures, such as the Alghori monks of India, eating the dead is seen as a path to spirituality. In one tribe in West New Guinea, eating a human body is reserved for a rite of revenge (Fox). These practices would horrify outsiders (if they lived to tell about it), yet some would succumb to moral relativism and excuse it. The question then becomes, “who are we to tell other people how to live their lives?”, which, in America, could be construed as a very Libertarian point of view. I admit that this would most likely stretch the boundaries of what they would condone by more than a furlong, yet if it socially acceptable in one culture, then it could be accepted in another, if they so choose.

When we look at the survival of the species, we can look in more than a few different domains.  First, it cannot be argued that we are pretty darn successful at procreating. As per the website Worldometers, the world population at the end of 2018 was approximately 7.6 billion people. In 2000, it was 6.1 billion, which is an increase of around 25%. The forecast for 2040 is approximately 9.2 billon warm bodies which is an increase of 21% (Worldometers). Every twenty years or so, we are increasing the world population by over 20%. I think we can say that this crop grows in all climates quite well and is highly sustainable, however, we may be vastly overproducing.

According to Conserve Energy, there are five effects of overpopulation including, the depletion of natural resources, the degradation of the environment, wars and conflicts, the rise of unemployment and the higher cost of living (Rinkesh). Our rate of population growth is simply not sustainable for our own survival. Our planet will become a useless, stormy rock that is virtually uninhabitable, while, at the same time, we will fight each other for the remaining scant resources and lose our livelihoods and give way to a new elite while others become poverty stricken.

We cannot afford more poor people. As of now, there is already an incredible number of people on the planet that don’t have enough to feed themselves. The Hunger Project reports that more than 820 million people in the world are undernourished (Project). That equates to more than two times the population of the United States that cannot find enough to eat. How does that square with the overall survival of the species? And, how is it moral to allow people to die from not having access to such a necessary and basic thing as food?

When push comes to shove, even the Donner party, who became lost in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California in 1846, knew their survival was based on ignoring certain social norms, and doing away with their food biases when they chose to eat the meat of their dead while they were trapped by massive snowfall.  Of the 89 emigrants, only 45 were able to successfully reach their final destination and that was, in part, accomplished because of cannibalism, so it is told (Staff). Who are we to judge the morality of such a proposition when our lives are on the line? To save lives, perhaps there sometimes needs to be something more than a token sacrifice. Heroes put their lives on the line to save their comrades in battle. Firefighters risk imminent injury when jumping towards the fire. They choose to give up their lives for others as a matter of duty. The question of sacrificing some to save the many is analogous to the classic Trolley Dilemma with literal meat to it. Could you sacrifice one person to save the lives of five? I submit the answer is that we save five and throw hot sauce on the one.


Fox, Paul. These People Still Practice A Horrifying Ritual…and It’s Absolutely Bone Chilling. 2019. 7 February 2019. <http://boredomtherapy.com/modern-cannibals/&gt;.

Project, The Hunger. Know Your World: Facts About Hunger. November 2017. 7 February 2019. <https://www.thp.org/knowledge-center/know-your-world-facts-about-hunger-poverty/&gt;.

Rinkesh. What is Overpopulation? 2019. 7 February 2019. <https://www.conserve-energy-future.com/causes-effects-solutions-of-overpopulation.php&gt;.

Staff, History.com. The Donner Party. 2010. 7 February 2019. <https://css.history.com/topics/donner-party&gt;.

Worldometers. World Population by Year. 2018. 7 February 2019. <http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/world-population-by-year/&gt;.