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Sex with corpses might be philosophically cool. But it’s still not a good idea.

It is reported that Jimmy Savile crept at night into the mortuary at Leeds General Infirmary and committed sex acts on corpses.1

So what?

Well, for a start, assuming the acts involved penetration, he had committed a serious criminal offence.2

But shouldn’t we grow up? Shouldn’t we let live, and let the live love the dead? Who was hurt? Isn’t this legislation anachronistic? Doesn’t it stem from superannuated and probably, at root, theological ideas about the sanctity of life – irrationally extended to the sanctity of the dead human body?

If the acts gave Savile pleasure, then what’s the problem? Or, if we grant that the outraged relatives might suffer some distress (because they’ve not read enough philosophy), doesn’t the problem lie only in the fact that the relatives heard about what had happened, rather than in the acts themselves? In which case the real villains are the investigators and the media.

We have strong intuitions about many things. So strong, in fact, that they are often immune to the best arguments of the lawyers and philosophers.

Two of the most fundamental intuitions are cannibalism and incest. Can the repugnance they generate be diluted by argument?

It turns out that it is hard to dilute it.  Jonathan Haidt and his collaborators devised two scenarios.

Jennifer is a nice girl – a caring, compassionate vegetarian who is opposed to killing animals. She works in the pathology lab at the hospital. She is given the job of incinerating a fresh human corpse. ‘How wasteful’, she thinks. And she cuts off a lump of flesh, takes it home, cooks it and eats it.

Mark and Julie, who are brother and sister, are travelling together. They decide that it would be fun and interesting if they had sex. Julie is already on the pill, but, just to be on the safe side, Mark uses a condom too. Although they both enjoy it, they decide that they won’t do it again. Nor will they tell anyone. It is their little secret.

Who’s hurt in these scenarios? Apparently no one. And yet most of the participants in Haidt’s trials thought that Jennifer, Mark and Julie were wrong. 13% said that Jennifer was OK: 20% that Mark and Julie were OK.

And then the investigator challenged the participants’ judgments. They didn’t like it at all, and few of them, however good the investigator’s arguments and however appalling the justifications, changed their minds.

Haidt commented: ‘They seemed to be flailing around, throwing out reason after reason, and rarely changing  their minds when [the researcher] proved that their latest reason was not relevant.’3

Not relevant? What does he mean by that? He means, of course: ‘Not justifiable according to the norms of the philosophical zeitgeist’.

That zeitgeist insists that the foundational value is autonomy, and the only valid ethical scheme is one or other species of utilitarianism – in which the calculus assumes that the maximization of autonomy is the aim.

It’s interesting, though, that the high priests of the zeitgeist haven’t been running to defend Jimmy Savile’s nocturnal entertainments, or to scoff at the inchoate religiosity of the outraged. Where, for instance, is John Harris, who famously sneered at the use of ‘olfactory philosophy’ in forming ethical judgments?4

Where are the libertarians who think that there should be, subject, perhaps, to some restriction of some obvious harms, an entirely free ethical market?

Their silence, I suggest, indicates an acknowledgment that their solutions won’t do. Autonomy is vital: any ethical or legal system that does not honour it is obscene. But it is not the whole answer. It is not the parent principle, but the shrill teenage child of the parent principle.

When we ask whether Jimmy Savile was wrong, and if so why he was wrong, it is impossible to avoid talk about human dignity. We will come out with things like: ‘It’s not respectful’, or ‘That’s not the way humans should behave’; or, more likely, just ‘I don’t know: just: “Ugh’’. Those answers would be maintained despite Haidt’s articulate researcher contending that they begged a number of significant normative questions. And the real reason that they would be maintained is because they begged far fewer questions than the researchers. The assertions are far closer to the real origins of morality than the second or third order utilitarian and autonomistic principles assumed by the researchers to be foundational.

David Hume trenchantly observed that morality ‘is more properly felt than judg’d of’. 5 He was right.  Morality that doesn’t start with our intuitions isn’t starting as near the source as it should be. The autonomists and utilitarians are joining the philosophical party near its end, when the arguments have ceased being really interesting and really difficult.

There’s a fundamental (though complex) relationship between our intuitions and our thriving. That’s not surprising. Those intuitions are vertiginously ancient – rooted deep in our evolutionary past. And we can’t, however rarified our education or sophisticated our technology, escape from the determinants of our thriving that are reflected in our intuitions.

Dignity itself has had a bad press. It’s still philosophically rather embarrassing to use the ‘D’ word. It’s thought of as hopelessly amorphous, absurdly ambiguous, or incurably theological. And it’s not surprising. It has been pressed into service both to justify capital punishment and to decry it; to make the case for and against contraception. And so on. Yet these criticisms can be answered. Dignity can be given a sufficiently hard-edged meaning to make it useful at the legal and ethical coal faces. I have tried to do it myself, proposing an account of dignity based broadly on an Aristotelian conception of human thriving, and not at all on the Imago Dei.6

Yet even if this account or any other existing account of dignity is flawed, there’s still no escaping dignity-talk. There’s still no other way of condemning Jimmy Savile in the way that he has to be condemned.

It’s worth observing that rights won’t give you what I’m saying only dignity can give. Sure, I should have a right as a living person to know that my corpse, or that of my relative, won’t be violated after my or their death. One might even say that rights survive the grave, so that a dead person not only has a right to have their property distributed as their will specifies, but has a right not to be penetrated sexually by a hospital porter. But those assertions are mere assertions. They don’t tell you why these rights exist. They don’t tell you why humans have rights and stones don’t. Unfashionable it may be, but you’ve got to go to human dignity for that.


1. Report of the Inquiry into matters relating to Savile at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, 2014, 96-98

2. Section 70 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 provides that:

 ‘(1)A person commits an offence if (a)he intentionally performs an act of penetration with a part of his body or anything else, (b)what is penetrated is a part of the body of a dead person, (c)he knows that, or is reckless as to whether, that is what is penetrated, and (d)the penetration is sexual.

(2)A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable (a)on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or both; (b)on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years.’

3. J Haidt, The Righteous Mind (London, Penguin), 2012, 46

4. J Harris ‘Cloning and human dignity’ (1998) 7 Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 163, 166

5. D Hume Treatise on Human Nature, III: 1.2.1(cited Harris, ibid)

6. C Foster, Human Dignity in Bioethics and Law, (Oxford, Hart), 2013

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23 Comment on this post

  1. Nice try trying to smuggle “human dignity” in there and expect us to just accept that it exists and that it is the source of our morals. You first need to show that it even exists, which you haven’t done, and all you’re doing is trying to wave your hands and expect us just to acknowledge its existence.

    1. I see where you’re coming from, and I also caught on how the author tried squeezing in the issue of dignity, yet the answer to your challenge is rather simple. If dignity din’t exist, then neither would clothes in an extremely warm area, and marriage wouldn’t even seem sensible, and you would live in a community something along the lines of what is depicted in The Purge. Dignity, modesty, morals, whatever you want to call it: it is the inner driving force of the human being which allows him to judge most issues. The same explanation (and for that matter, your challenge as well) can be applied to any spiritual/internal quality, ex: love, hate, anger, etc. The human is a balance between the external and the internal, the physical and the spiritual, and the first is driven by the second.
      And Allah Knows Best
      Yousuf Zafar

    2. Airin: thank you. What language do you think we should use to denounce the sexual violation of corpses? (assuming that you think we should denounce it).

  2. There are several points about your article that deserve criticism.

    First, you say, “Not relevant? What does he mean by that? He means, of course: ‘Not justifiable according to the norms of the philosophical zeitgeist’.”
    This is very clearly not what he means by that, and if you had read the text on the very same page in the book you quoted from, you would know that. The kinds of considerations the participants give in response to the Mark and Julie case are “fear of pregnancy,” “fear of a deformed child,” or “Mark and Julie’s age,” all of which are accounted for in the unabridged story told by the researchers. By “not relevant” what Haidt means is that the participants’ responses did not address the researchers’ hypothetical scenario. They instead tried to evade the scenario, and when confronted with their evasion, the participants readily admitted their evasion. The idea of a “philosophical zeitgeist” is premature at best.

    Second, you say, “Their silence, I suggest, indicates an acknowledgment that their solutions won’t do.”
    Off the top of my head, I can think of five alternative reasons for their silence. Perhaps they don’t read the same news that you do. Or perhaps they think that responding to this news piece will damage their reputation. Or perhaps, they don’t think they will change anyone’s mind by responding to this news piece. Or perhaps they don’t have the time to respond. Or perhaps they just don’t think this is an interesting news piece.
    Jumping to conclusions is antithetical to the job of an honest philosopher.

    Third, you say that Haidt, among others, assumes that the utilitarian/autonomistic principles are the only foundational ones. This is ironic given that the book you cite, “The Righteous Mind,” spends 70 pages explaining the exact opposite point.

    Fourth, you say, “Morality that doesn’t start with our intuitions isn’t starting as near the source as it should be.”
    This is the crux of your article, yet you literally provide no reasonable support for it, not even one sentence. The closest you come to doing so is by citing your own book.

    1. Nathan: thank you.
      I’ll deal with your points in turn, but first I should say that I yield to no one in my admiration for Jonathan Haidt. His work is of immense importance, and he’s a splendidly clear writer and thinker.
      Now to your points:
      1. Your observations make my point very well. Haidt (and evidently you) think that the researcher’s arguments are relevant, and that the participants’ ‘mere’ disgust is insufficiently respectable to be regarded with the same degree of respect as those arguments. This comes out more clearly in the original paper than in the popular book.
      2. I wouldn’t claim to be an honest philosopher. Anyway, let’s wait and see what solutions people offer. What are yours, by the way?
      3. This is interesting. Haidt, of course, describes himself as an intuitionist. He seems to mean by that, though, not that intuitions tell us something that is the basis for ethically justifiable behaviour, but that they tell us something interesting and important about how humans in fact behave, and that it is absurd to ignore them. What is Haidt’s value system? Autonomy and some variant of utlitarianism seem to be the dominant strands. Of course he says at length (and this, I think, is what you’re referring to), that since humans are necessarily intuitive crreatures, we should seek to understand and respect (in the sense of not deriding them) the intuitions they have. But that doesn’t indicate anything about how he thinks we ideally should do ethics.
      4. This is a blog post. Lazily and smugly I’ve mentioned where I have dealt at length with this.

      1. My impression from Haidt’s book is that when it comes to public policy, Haidt’s value system isn’t quite so narrowly “autonomy and some variant of utilitarianism,” but is accommodating of the other moral foundations on which conservatives rely more than liberals — captured in his phrase “Durkheimian utilitarianism.”

  3. Hmmmm… There’s a lot that’s troubling about this post; but one thing in particular I don’t understand is the dig at John.

    Why is it relevant, or even worth saying, that he’s not run to defend Savile? Some proposition p might make philosophical sense – but it doesn’t follow that we have an obligation to assert that p. If we learned anything from the Giubilini and Minerva paper (which I’ve taken to calling The Paper Of Which We Do Not Speak, even though several people actually do speak of it quite a lot…), it’s that saying certain things really isn’t worth the fag, even if they’re things about which we care and have written in the past. Since John isn’t on record for caring about necrophilia, the dig is even stranger.

    1. “it’s that saying certain things really isn’t worth the fag”

      To an individual perhaps, but for the search for truth, probably best to give it a go.

  4. Keep it simple. Look to the Bible. The “treachery” in the Garden of Eden gave us the autonomy and intuition of which you speak. This enables us to choose between writing such learned articles on the topic as you so ably do or to carry them out as Savile did.

  5. I think that some argument against having sex with corpses might come from science and psychology. Because of changes undergoing in dead body it may be simply not that healthy to have sex with them, especially that most of us do not have access to corpses in freezer where they get just after death these days (getting bacterial infection for example), there may be also some psychical side affects for person doing it (look for discussions around sex with robots to get some examples). One could also find some other arguments like that in societies in which number of single people is increasing rapidly and we are in need of more children, we should rather encourage relationships with live people or that there is fear of slippery slope: now sex, then cutting uterus, then perhaps killing for having it cheaply etc Please note too that not everything what is forbidden by law is unethical, nor that indeed each ethical behavior must have kind of end in itself – some can serve building ethical personality or be preventive or whatever else.

    1. “I think that some argument against having sex with corpses might come from science and psychology.”

      No it wont.

  6. I would understand if you would say it that doesn’t, but that will not? How you can know what we will discover in the future, unless such kind of arguments do not appeal to you at all, only some a priori or similar in nature arguments.

    1. Strictly speaking, neither science nor psychology will (ever) give you a moral answer to your moral question. It will only inform a moral answer to your moral question (cf. Hume)

  7. Not everyone agrees with Hume re ” is–ought problem”. But anyway I think that author of this piece was trying to analyze why sex with corpses is wrong and my comment was going along this line.

    1. They are wrong to disagree with Hume.

      I understand, but please don’t think your answer to the question is grounded in science or psychology. There is not a scientific answer to this question.

  8. Julie is already on the pill, but, just to be on the safe side, Mark uses a condom too. Although they both enjoy it, they decide that they won’t do it again. Nor will they tell anyone. It is their little secret.

    Who’s hurt in these scenarios? Apparently no one.

    The traditional reactions against incest, desecration of corpses, and other supposedly “victimless” crimes encode a reasonable belief that the “hurt” will and must take a form that the premises of the thought experiment exclude from consideration.

    The degradation of the human – in other words the action or concept contrary to the interest of “thriving” or “flourishing” – is already embodied in those terms, however, since they preclude the necessary conditions for any full treatment of the moral question. In short, the reaction against Mark and Julie, and the wish that Mark and Julie might choose differently, or that in Mark and Julie’s place we might act differently, or that someone we care for might act differently, or that people in general might act differently, may include, for example, a reasonable expectation that, contrary to the assumption of “apparently no one hurt,” peo0ple like Mark and Julie and by extension all who care for or depend on them, will be damaged by the action – will in fact come to feel sorry about what they’ve done, and ought to! In this and other ways we may reasonably expect that “the truth will out,” or that “little secrets” will not in fact be kept except at meaningful cost. We may believe that people in Mark and Julie’s place would necessarily have come to know themselves to be the kind of people who would excuse themselves in just that way when presented with an opportunity to keep a “little secret.” They know themselves as irresponsible, as different, as anti-social in this sense – as spiritually shallow or broken people.

    Returning to the scenario, we could add “and will go on all the rest of their lives living just like everyone else or better, with no ill effects, none!” – trying to put the critic in the position of trying to describe the ill effects of an action defined as producing no ill effects, which ought to be obviously absurd, but in fact characterizes much ethical (and political) scenario-building of this type. At the same time, the addition merely extends a degraded idea of the human – or a human world in which, eventually, the answer to every “what diference does it make?” is “none at all.” In short, we prefer to and arguably need and desire to believe in what, for the sake of finishing this blog comment and getting on with my life, we can call “human character.” Specifically, the end of the taboos against incest and desecration of the dead would imply a different constitution of the human, perhaps along the pure transactionalist lines that the blogger compares unfavorably with a concept that includes the possibility of “dignity.”

  9. Let’s put it another way, does jimmy savil accept that someone violate sexually hos dead mom or dead daughter? Or his dead flesh eaten?
    Or the libertarians or the high priest of the zeitgeist accept the same treatment after their death?
    It is not only intuition nor dignity , it is most of all the fear, what is allowable to others will be applied to you.

  10. The cultural arrogance of modern day westerners is fascinating and saddening. This ‘oh so sacred and worth considering’ intuition is not universal. The things you find instinctively wrong are a function of your society and point in time, not some meaningful and reasonable underlying ethics, as can be easily demonstrated by looking the variance across cultures and across time. Incest feels icky to you but many royal bloodlines in dynasties as far apart as Rome and Egypt were preserved by brothers marrying their sisters. Tribes in Papua New Guinea practice cannibalism as a way to have a lasting bond with their dead relatives. Neither of these societies felt your intuition that these things were wrong. I might add that many a white supremacist has deep rooted intuitive moral disgust at inter racial marriage but does that make it genuinely, universally immoral? Our duty as philosophers is to seek to understand the world and find its truths, not just to come up weak rationalizations justifying our prejudices and socialized behaviors. Even arguments like ‘how would you feel if it was your corpse or your daughter’ etc are deeply flawed because how I feel doesn’t matter. I might not want anyone having sex with my corpse but that says more about me clinging to an irrational viewpoint that has no justification based on actual harm than it does about the act being immoral.

  11. Thanks for the paper on moral relativism, which I am well aware of and which isn’t my position. This discussion is looking at the validity of ‘intuition’ as a moral guide. I argued that moral intuition is socialized and relative, giving a few examples as well as pointing out how common it is for people to assume their position is universal. What I in no way have said or believe is that morality itself is culturally relativistic or that there can be no universally moral or immoral act. When someone uses a culturally relative basis for determining morality (intuition), the first thing to do is point out how that intuition is not a function of a true inner human morality but other cultural factors and thus is not universal, making it completely useless as tool for determining true, universal morality. This does not make one a cultural relativist, but someone looking at the flaws of intuition as used in this discussion. This is what I did and this was all I did as this discussion is not about what the best way to determine morality is or if there is such a thing as universal morality (I believe there is) but about intuition as a moral guide.

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