From Tyler Cowen comes a tale of how the end of U.S. horse slaughterhouses has made things worse for horses, as owners ship old horses to Mexico for slaughter because euthanizing them is expensive. Tyler asks the following questions:

What does ethics look like when there are many more beings than can be supported alive by available resources?  How much of the animal kingdom falls under this designation?  How much of human history?  Or does this question not apply to humans?

If I am not mistaken (and it’s been some time since I’ve seen it, so I may be) this was one of the ethical quandaries posed by the film Soylent Green. Dead people are a valuable commodity, and so people can sell their corpses in exchange for a (more) peaceful death. U.S. slaughterhouses are just Soylent Green for horses. We agree that horses can be made better off through others profiting from their corpses, but what about people?

With all the preparing, burying, and storing, our society spends an awful lot of resources on our corpses, and furthermore we outlaw the profitable exchange of them. Would you like to buy my corpse from me in advance by paying me in advance of my death? Well you can’t.

The dying are arguably society’s worst off, and by preventing the sale of their bodies we are taking something from them. Or are we very worried about unnecessarily incentivizing murder by allowing people to profit from death? Considering the numerous existing industries which profit from death (e.g., funeral homes), this doesn’t seem very compelling, however the existence of ghost bride murders in China suggests it is possible. Or, as in the ban on assisted suicide, are we trying to protect the dying from attempting to act overly-altruistic and dying early to save costs? Or do we just find it too repugnant?

Perhaps if Malthusians are correct in any sense about our future we will reconsider how we deal with death and corpses.