At some point in your life, you will probably find yourself facing the question: if a pig is fed slop with bits of other pig in it, but the sentient pig doesn’t realize it, is said pig a cannibal?
Now, before we delve into this question, we must understand the basic definition of what it means to be a cannibal. The commonly accepted version is “an animal that feeds on flesh of its own species.”
After some probing, it was clear that people had a reason to believe that somehow cannibalism was associated with an awareness of the act, when in reality, the definition specifies none such thing. The opposing argument viewed cannibalism as a label that could be chosen, like vegetarianism.
If a human unwittingly consuming a piece of human flesh is cannibalism, then by the same logic, isn’t a vegetarian unwittingly consuming a piece of meat no longer a vegetarian? No. By how we define vegetarians, despite the fact that meat was consumed, he or she is still a vegetarian, because it is a choice label, unlike cannibalism.
Cannibalism is tricky when it comes to labels. While eating a piece of meat (of a different species) once does not make you a carnivore, a human eating a piece of human flesh makes that person a cannibal. There’s no turning back. Cannibalism is a long-lasting label — once you do it, you’re committed.
So — is classifying oneself as a cannibal a conscious endeavor, or unwitting? In my opinion, by the basic definition, if a pig eats its own species, it is therefore a cannibal, unwitting or not.
Whether an individual is aware of the fact that he or she is eating some form of the remnants of flesh of its own species does not play a role in the individual’s classification as a cannibal. Attempting to relate awareness and the definition of cannibalism makes for a completely non-sequitur argument.
Furthermore, within the specific subcategory of cannibalism, is self-cannibalism, commonly referred to as autosarcophagy. Within the body, (this occurs unwittingly), the body consumes dead cells. And I suppose now that you know it, you’re still a cannibal (you’ve always been one, sorry to break it to you).
Most types of cannibalism that we are aware of today voluntarily partake in the act (and with enthusiasm). But choice and cannibalism are not mutually exclusive.
We could get into deeper issues like the morality of cannibalism and where to draw the line between what constitutes acceptable cannibalism, but that would take a while. So for the purposes of answering the proposed question, there’s one very simple answer. You are defined as a cannibal if you eat your own species, regardless of realization. Cannibalism is cannibalism, unwitting or not.