Peter Singer Loves Animals (Too Much)

An Application of Objectivism to an Issue of Sexual Ethics

by Jason Stotts

There are many taboos in our society. Some taboos come from sex-negative religions that denigrate the body in favor of an alleged immortal soul, while other taboos exist for valid reasons. Now, among the later class are things that are perverse: that is, things that either cause, or are symptomatic of, psychological problems or things that cause harm to the agents. We call these things perverse because they cause a decline in life.Among these taboos are bestiality, necrophilia, cannibalism, etc. These taboos are not wrong because tradition says so, but rather they all point to something being fundamentally wrong with a person.

Peter Singer, the crazy animal rights activist (forgive the ad hominem abusive), challenges the bestiality taboo in his essay “Heavy Petting,” which is a Review of Midas Dekkers’ book on bestiality called Dearest Pet. (As an aside, please note that it is “bestiality” and not “beastiality.” The former refers to having sex with animals, while the latter is not a word.)

Singer’s argument begins with the point that humans have always insisted on differences between themselves and other animals:

The existence of sexual contact between humans and animals, and the potency of the taboo against it, displays the ambivalence of our relationship with animals. […] Especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition […] we have always seen ourselves as distinct from animals, and imagined that a wide, unbridgeable gulf separates us from them. […]

On the other hand there are many ways in which we cannot help behaving just as animals do — or mammals, anyway — and sex is one of the most obvious ones. We copulate, as they do. They have penises and vaginas, as we do, and the fact that the vagina of a calf can be sexually satisfying to a man shows how similar these organs are. The taboo on sex with animals may, as I have already suggested, have originated as part of a broader rejection of non-reproductive sex. But the vehemence with which this prohibition continues to be held, 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.

Singer begins by pointing out that many people, especially christians, are uncomfortable with their own animality and hence think of humanity as something that is non-animal (or perhaps “above-animal”). He then continues by pointing out that humans are, in fact, animals. This, so far, is all absolutely correct. However, his next claim is that the taboo against bestiality originates in this fear of our animality and this is where he begins to go astray. (Also, it’s not clear in what sense he means sex with an animal would be “satisfying.” He seems to be using this word in a way that we wouldn’t generally use it in regards to sex.)

He continues his argument by agreeing with a little known author from Freud’s day by the name of Otto Soyka, who wrote a book called “Beyond the Boundary of Morals.” Here Soyka argues that bestiality is wrong “only in so far as it shows cruelty towards an animal.” Singer agrees with Soyka and then points out that: “but sex with animals does not always involve cruelty.” If bestiality is only immoral if it is cruel to the animal, and there are cases where it is not cruel to the animal, then there are cases where bestiality is moral (or at least not immoral, to follow proper syllogistic form).

Before we go any farther, I want to point out that while such a conclusion is disgusting and absurd, this alone is not sufficient to discredit Singer’s position as it does not address his argument. Unfortunately, in this case the argumentum ad absurdum is not sufficient.

In order to address his argument, we need to begin with his first point: that many people are ashamed of their animality. This is absolutely true. The judeo-christian tradition that Singer points to is certainly not the only tradition that is ashamed of their animality. In fact, the belief is necessitated by any kind of dualism, or disjunction between “soul” and “body”. The shame and disgust arises because people are afraid of their own death and so posit a part of them that cannot die or be damaged in any way. This immortal soul then becomes the higher and more worthy part (since it is eternal), while the body becomes low and base (since it is ephemeral). The most insulting thing to these dualists, then, is when the lowly body impresses itself upon the higher soul through its needs, like hunger or sex.

Now, obviously the right position is to just avoid this metaphysically dubious duality by acknowledging that humans are not two distinctly different types of things rolled into one being, but rather are just one type of being with two different aspects. This is the beauty of Aristotle’s designation of humans as “rational animals.” Now, you might think this move plays right into Singer’s hands, but we shall see that it does not. Although it does acknowledge that humans are animals, it still moves to differentiate us from other animals. However, it does so based on facts in reality instead of dubious metaphysical claims.

This move is important as Singer needs to show that we are just animals, no different from any other animals (or, minimally, any other mammals). If this were the case, then there would be no special considerations on our having sex with a horse that do not also apply in the exact same way as with another human, since these would both be cases of two animals having sex with each other. This is why Singer makes the claim that: “there are many ways in which we cannot help behaving just as animals do — or mammals, anyway — and sex is one of the most obvious ones.” This is quite the interesting claim. For example, humans do not go into heat, although all other mammals do. If this were the case, then there would only be certain times of the month, or year (perhaps Spring), when humans would be capable of having sex. Yet obviously this is not true. While my dogs are bound by their heats, humans are not. This is an important difference between humans and other animals: humans are not bound by reproductive necessity and have a choice whether to have sex or not and with whom, or what, they want to have sex. Animals have no such thing as self-control; humans, however, do. This point, which Singer seems to have overlooked, disproves his claim, “that we cannot help behaving just as animals do.”

Furthermore, my need for sex is fundamentally different than an animal’s need for sex. My conception of the nature of sex is irrevocably tied up with issues of personal identity, ethics, relationships, and many others. Even sex with random strangers involves a projection of traits you desire onto the other person; a physical body alone could not actually arouse any person. In order to be aroused, I need to project the traits that I find desirable onto the body and then I respond to the person. For example, if I see a very physically attractive woman and then find out that she is monstrously evil, according to my own set of morals, then I will not be attracted to her. (For a more substantial treatment of my view on sexual attraction, see my essay: “What Causes Sexual Attraction?“) This is, however, exactly the way that animals are aroused. They do not have ideas about what is sexy and what they want in a mate. They are either in heat or they are not: if they are in heat, then they mate; if they are not in heat, then they cannot mate.

So, not only do I have some control over my sexual desires, my sexual desires are of a different kind than those of other animals. This is a function of our rationality and serves to differentiate us from the lower animals. Already, we can see that Singer’s argument is collapsing. We can acknowledge that humans are animals and still maintain that we are fundamentally different from the lesser animals. Further, we can see that sex for a human and sex for other animals are just not the same things at all. It is not “our desire to differentiate ourselves” that causes us to insist on our difference from the lesser animals, but rather the fact that we are actually different. Yet this fundamental difference between humans and animals, our rational nature, is precisely what Singer is trying to obscure. If he had been able to make humans and animals the same, then bestiality would have been permissible. Unfortunately for him, humans are in fact different from the lower animals.

Singer’s failure to show that there is no difference between humans and any other kind of animals, of course, makes his criterion of cruelty irrelevant. In order for this criterion to come into play, Singer must first establish the similarity of humans to animals. Were he to do this, then it makes sense to discuss under what conditions animals and humans could morally have sex with each other. However, since he fails to prove that humans are simply animals, the criterion is inapplicable. Unfortunately, this alone does not prove that bestiality is immoral, but simply that Singer was wrong.

Although we have only proven Singer to be wrong in his argument, it does not necessarily follow that his conclusion is also false: although it does follow that even were it true, it would lack justification. In order to show that it is actually false, we need to establish some sort of rational argument against bestiality. Simply appealing to its status as taboo is no more than the fallacy of appeal to tradition. In order to argue that bestiality is immoral, we shall have to find some sort of objective basis for its immorality in human nature.

As we mentioned earlier, sex for a human is radically different than sex for an animal. While an animal’s desire for sex is completely controlled by their heats, hormones, pheromones, etc., for humans sex is a choice. We can choose to have sex with one person rather than another, we can choose to abstain from sex because of prior obligations, or we can have our desire for sexual activity satisfied by activities other than vaginal intercourse. This is an important point, because although animals can only copulate with simple penis-vagina sex (or anally in rare cases), humans have a large realm of sexual actions open to them, including: masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, group sex, ad infinitum. In short, there is a wide realm of choice related to sex for humans, while sex for animals is an issue of instinct and necessity. Furthermore, as we also noted earlier, sex for humans is inexorably tied to ideas about love, relationships, and even personal identity. These issues do not, and cannot, arise for the lower animals as they lack our advanced faculty of reason, which gives us the capacity to understand these issues.

Among the more important issues that we need to understand is the meaning of sex in a human life. We have already shown that sex for humans is not necessarily tied to reproduction. Although humans can use sex for reproductive ends, we can also use sex simply for pleasure, as part of a power struggle, or in order to connect more closely with our partner. Indeed, there are many ways in which humans can use sex, but this does not mean that all of these are good uses. For example, although I could conceivably overpower and rape a woman, this would be a violation of her rights and a clear instance of initiating violence against her. In short, it would be immoral. Just because I can do something, does not mean I should. The question becomes, then, how do we know which ways of using sex are good and which are bad? How can we identify principles by which to judge? In order to do this, we need to look one step deeper into the nature of sex.

Sex for humans is irrevocably tied to our emotions and our values. No matter how much we might try to deny this fact or evade our knowledge of it, all of us implicitly recognize it. Sex is not always about love, but love is not the only emotion that we can have about sex. We could have sex because we are lonely and want to feel a connection to another person, or in order to achieve a sense of self esteem (even if it is false), or because we want our partner to love us, or for many other reasons. We never have sex simply to have sex; were that the case, the person we had sex with would be completely irrelevant, as long as they had the proper genitals. However, we all have certain characteristics we wish our partners would have. Whether these are simply physical characteristics, or character traits, or a desired profession, is irrelevant. All of these things stem from our desire that a sexual partner embody our values: whatever our values happen to be. Even in the case of completely casual sex with a stranger, we project onto this person the qualities that we desire. We simply fantasize that this person is the kind of person that we would want to have sex with and our ignorance of them provides us with a blank canvas upon which to paint our fantasy. We, as humans, are unable to sever sex from our values or emotions. This point is perhaps even clearer if we acknowledge that one can value pleasure and that even if we were to desire sex simply for the pleasure it would bring (although I am not sure this is even possible), it would still be the case that this is tied to our values and beyond the realm of action open to other animals who have sex from necessity and not in order to feel pleasure.* Even when we try to have sex simply for pleasure in order not to get our values involved, we involve our values nonetheless for if we didn’t value pleasure (as ascetics do not), then we would not want to have sex for pleasure. (Again, let me refer you to my essay “What Causes Sexual Attraction?” for a fuller account.)

Since it is not possible to sever sex from our values or emotions, it is irrational to attempt to do so and engage in sex for the sake of sex or pristinely empty sex. In order to even try, we would need to evade about the nature of our own actions and our reasons for doing them. In short, in order to engage in pristinely empty sex, we would to perform the impossible task of severing sex from any desire to have sex, and then what would be the point? Were we able to succeed in this task, we would no longer want to have sex and, presumably, be physically unable to do so. This radical process of self-deception would in no way be psychologically healthy as it would be a full out attack on the mind’s connection to reality and we all know that insanity is when one’s mind loses its connection to reality.

Thus, since trying to engage in empty sex, to sever sex from its necessary connection to our values and emotions, we are engaging in irrationality and attempting to push ourselves into insanity, we can see that to attempt to engage in empty sex is immoral. By immoral, I don’t mean some vague idea of “bad” or an appeal to the irrationality of faith. Instead, by immoral I mean that which is anti-human life. Since one of the most important parts of human nature is our rationality, irrationality is immorality. Thus, we can say unequivocally that bestiality is immoral.

So, not only was Singer completely wrong in his arguments, his entire enterprise was doomed to fail from the start because of his lack of understanding about human nature. An enlightening question, then, is what motivated Singer in the first place? Although it is possible that his attempt to justify bestiality was merely a self-serving rationalization for his desire to have sex with an animal, let us be somewhat more generous to Singer. Indeed, bestiality is the logical consequence of Singer’s misunderstanding (or purposeful misrepresentation) of human nature and his desire to push his “animals are not food” agenda. Ironically, this agenda relies on some sort of “humans are animals” argument. Since it is a fact of nature that carnivores eat other animals and humans are omnivorous (both herbivorous and carnivorous), it is simply a fact that humans eat animals. In order to try to argue that they should not, Singer must assert that either humans are somehow not animals or else attempt to claim that a lion eating a zebra is immoral (which is obviously absurd). Consequently, we cannot help but to see that Singer is fundamentally misguided about his position and is simply railing against the reality of the human condition. He is trying to argue that “I want things to be this way, therefore they should be this way”, but it is not clear that this “should” has any more moral import than the fact that Singer wants it. Unfortunately for him, even were he to spend his life wishing, we lack the causal power to change reality through our minds alone.


* The only exception might be that some scientists believe that dolphins are able to engage in sex for pleasure.This is a complicated question and there are no clear answers about whether they can or not and how we would know this.However, even if it is the case, it hardly destroys our argument as there could be special considerations for certain animals based on the degree of their rationality.This would not make it okay to have sex with them, but perhaps we would need more nuanced understandings of the way sex functions for them.Indeed, for the more rational animals, like higher primates, sex can have more than a simple reproductive function.However, unless one of these lower animals could become rational enough to be a person, or a moral subject, it would still not be moral to have sex with it.If this were to ever happen, perhaps we would have to revise our position here.

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