When I briefly mentioned the cannibalism case revealed by German police in Rotenburg, near Frankfurt, yesterday, I had just heard about it. Normally, I’d say there’s not much more to it than I wrote yesterday. It obviously goes without saying that it is unbelievably sad that things like cannibalism keep occuring on this planet. Most of us would prefer to live on one in which they wouldn’t. But we can’t choose yet. So we have to cope.
Is this the end of the story? Not quite. However tragic, there is probably more to this latest case than a life sentence for the perpetrator and some disbelieving head shaking for the rest of us. It’s about a new kind of suicide, the social ‘contract’, and, at a slightly more abstract level, about transaction costs.
It was quite interesting to see all the psychological experts interviewed on tv at loss of words. Not about the perpetrator’s behavior, which, although fortunately rare, happens frequently enough for psychologists and others to have given it some thought and at least be able to come up with wishy-washy sexual, social or genetic explanations – but they do not have the slightest idea why someone would agree to be killed and be eaten afterwards, as the victim, a gay 41 or 42 year old man from Berlin explicitly did.
Let’s recapitulate: There was a guy who seriously repeatedly posted classified ads on the internet looking for people wishing to be killed and eaten. According to “The Scotsman’s” English coverage of the story, he used the following words (well, in German, I suppose) “Seeking young, well-built 18- to 30-year-old for slaughter”.
And while the crime in all likelihood happened only once, five additional suicide candidates seem to have stood in line. Before being killed, cut to pieces and being eaten or deep fried, the victim agreed to have his penis cut off, which was then cooked and at least tasted by both men – on camera.
While the deed technically qualifies for first degree murder, according to the local prosecutor, I wonder what the legal repercussions of the victim’s taped consent to be killed will be. I suppose, some so far neglected or even undiscovered issues will now attract attention, eg the already questioned human free will (aka real consent), our social norms and abnormal, apparently suicidal sexuality.
Clearly, not everything that goes on between two consenting adults in a bedroom (or basement) should be treated as their own business. But in a society in which mutual consent between adults is de facto the only enforced and probably enforceable sexual convention, I can’t help but wonder what should not be regarded as such? And, more importantly, why – based on which principle?
I don’t know. But I fear these questions will have to be answered more precisely rather sooner than later.
Before the internet, it was probably a lot harder to find like-minded partners for perverse activities such as the one discovered yesterday. But on the web, self-selection processes have become a lot cheaper. If some consensual abnormal transactions have been barred by prohibitive transaction costs (too costly to find a partner) in the non-digital world, reduced transaction costs will by definition lead to an increase of these transactions.
Thus, with transaction costs close to zero (in some ways), we might be forced to witness more and more consensual but clearly abnormal behavior in the future. But let’s hope I’m wrong.