Professor Peter Singer has never been popular among pro-lifers and advocates for the handicapped. He has, however, proved something of a hero to animal rights activists, whose movement he is often credited with founding. He’s got a strangely mixed bag of fans and opponents. But then, that’s the nature of Singer’s ethical philosophy. It doesn’t quite compute. From his central contention that a person is an autonomous “rational and self-conscious being,” Singer draws some remarkable, and by now famous, conclusions. For example, because many so-called “nonhuman” animals are capable of reasoning and self-consciousness, they qualify as people. However, because fetuses, infants, and Alzheimer’s patients, among other humans, aren’t capable of reasoning and self-consciousness, they do not qualify as people. Thus infanticide, abortion, and euthanasia are permissible—sometimes even morally obligatory—in Singer’s scheme, whereas the mere mistreatment of animals is not.
Unsurprisingly, then, soon after Princeton University’s Center for Human Values announced it had hired Dr. Singer as its Ira DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in 1998—a position he still holds—the campus was besieged by protesters. The university trustees and president Harold T. Shapiro all vociferously defended Singer’s appointment on grounds of academic freedom. Since then, articles on Singer have been appearing steadily, some pro, some con, and some quite simply puzzled about why the Australian, Oxford-trained philosopher has kicked up such a fuss.
Recently, Singer’s name has appeared in the news again, this time in the online magazine Nerve. As usual, he’s piqued the righteous and profane alike by questioning the bestiality taboo. In a review of Dearest Pet: On Bestiality by Midas Dekkers, Singer writes, “This does not make sex across the species barrier normal, or natural, whatever those much-misused words may mean, but it does imply that it ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings.” He stops short, however, of endorsing bestiality outright. Still, the clear implication of the review seems to be that so long as the animals in question are not harmed in the process, sex with them should not be considered unethical.
Now, one of the most interesting things about Singer’s approach is the way he dismisses the common arguments against bestiality, for they are the same arguments that have often been made against homosexuality. On libertarian grounds, they are also the same arguments that might incline us to agree with Singer about bestiality—i.e., that what one does in one’s own barn is none of the government’s business.
The key words here are, of course, “normal” and “natural.” Both are terms that have been used to condemn gay sex, and both are equally meaningless when applied to interspecies sex—which is why Singer’s phrasing here is savvy. The words “normal” and “natural” carry no inherent moral weight, and never have. They are statements of fact, to be sure, but not arguments. They should, then, have no more legal or philosophical bearing on bestiality than they should on homosexuality.
There is, however, still the matter of consent, which brings us again into close proximity with homophobia. The commonly propagated myth about homosexuals is that they’re all child molesters. Most reasonable people, however, have seen this for the lie it is, and agreed that sexual acts between consenting adults should be beyond the prurient reach of the state.
But when it comes to sex with animals, this argument is not so easily dismissed. When someone has sex with an animal, he foists himself on a creature that has the mental and emotional capacity of a child. Thus, it is no more capable than a child of giving meaningful consent. So when Singer argues that there is such a thing as cruelty-free bestiality—when, for example, the animal either initiates sexual contact, or is not killed or physically injured receiving it—he does so by ignoring the obvious truth that if you have had sex with someone who is constitutionally incapable of giving anything that might constitute meaningful consent, you have committed rape. At the very least you have taken advantage of a creature over which you exercise considerable power.
It’s hard to see how Singer, who so admirably champions the rights of animals, could fail to see that sexualizing them is immoral, not because it offends human dignity, but because it degrades and assaults the animals in question.