One of the major underpinnings of much animal rights thought is the notion of speciesism — this is the claim, advanced by animal rights philosophers such as Peter Singer, that there is no rational basis for commonly held moral distinctions between human beings and non-human animals. Singer, and many others in the animal rights movement, maintain that the impetus behind such distinctions is based on an irrational attachment to the importance of human beings above all other species, which is deplorable in much the same way that arguing in favor of special moral distinctions for whites vs. non-whites or men vs. women is deplorable.
Critics of such views have maintained that not only is speciesism morally justifiable in ways that racism or sexism are not, but that animal rights advocates do not apply the concept of speciesism in ways that are internally consistent. In fact, most animal rights activists seem to veer away from the genuinely radical implications of speciesism.
But not Singer. In an article published in the online magazine, Nerve, the philosopher takes the speciesism idea to its logical extreme and argues that there is no rational reason to deplore sexual relations between human beings and non-human animals. The condemnation of inter-species sexuality, according to Singer, is just another example of a speciesist distinction.
In reviewing Midas Dekker’s book, Dearest Pet: On Bestiality, Singer explicitly defends the morality of inter-species sex. First, Singer argues that although the origin of the taboo against bestiality probably originated in the general taboos on non-reproductive sex (a questionable hypothesis in my opinion), this doesn’t explain the basic revulsion that most people have toward the practice. “But the vehemence with which this prohibition continues to be held,” Singer writes, “its persistence while other non-reproductive sexual acts have become acceptable, suggests that there is another powerful force at work: our desire to differentiate ourselves, erotically and in every other way, from animals.”
In other words, the bestiality taboo is just another way that human beings reinforce speciesism and cast themselves as completely separate and distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Singer then launches into a lengthy discussion to make it clear that he doesn’t think sexual acts that involve violence with animals are permissible, but seems to leave the door wide open for non-violent sexual acts between humans and non-human animals. Describing a woman who live with Orangutans and was almost sexually attacked by one of the animals, Singer writes,
The potential violence of the orangutan’s come-on may have been disturbing, but the fact that it was an orangutan making the advances was not. That may be because [Birute] Galdikas understands very well that we are animals, indeed more specifically, we are great apes. 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.
This doesn’t come right out and say that bestiality is okay, but it is hard to imagine what Singer is getting at if he still thinks such contact is immoral. The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Debra Saunders contacted People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to get its take on the Singer piece, and Ingrid Newkirk carefully hedged her words, telling Saunders, “It’s daring and honest and it does not do what some people read into it, which is condone any violent acts involving an animal, sexual or otherwise.”
I’m not sure how daring it is for a man who has previously said that retarded infants and Alzheimer’s patients can be killed because it is for the greater good is exactly making a “daring” statement by endorsing bestiality, provided it doesn’t include violence against the animal involved. That Newkirk is apparently willing to stomach this nonsense (going so far as to talk about the philosophical issue surrounding animals and the concept of consent) demonstrates just how radical and far reaching the animal rights view is at its core.
If Singer’s claims about animals and pain are true, this conclusion about bestiality does seem completely consistent with that view, and represents another example of just how incoherent the animal rights philosophy is.
Heavy Petting. Peter Singer, Nerve.Com, 2001.