By Tom Regan
In 1975, Peter Singer published Animal Liberation. The book was (and continues to be) heralded by many as the “bible of the animal rights movement.” This is unfortunate. Not only does this cede to Animal Liberation a status it does not enjoy; it gives to Singer an authority he does not deserve.
The Philosophy of Animal Rights
The animal rights movement is abolitionist in its aspirations. At the heart of the movement’s ideology is the belief in fundamental moral rights. What matters most is whether humans and other animals are treated with respect, not what good consequences are secured by failing to do so. “The end does not justify the means” is a moral truth that applies beyond the boundaries of our species.
All this Singer denies. As a utilitarian, he believes that right and wrong depend on how much satisfaction results from our actions, an outlook that leads him to accept many practices that advocates of animal rights reject.
For example, given his utilitarianism, there is nothing wrong in principle if animals are raised to be eaten. If farmed animals live a good life, are killed “humanely,” and are replaced by new animals who will be treated in the same way, satisfaction is optimized, so no wrong is done.
Singer on Bestiality
Never before has it been more important to note the vast distance that separates the author of Animal Liberation from animal rights. In a recent review of Midas Dekkers’s Dearest Pet (the review appeared in the online sex magazine Nerve.com), Singer explains why, to his way of thinking, having sex with animals need not be such a bad thing.
Granted, sex involving cruelty to animals is wrong. But, Singer notes, “sex with animals does not always involve cruelty.” In fact, when done “in private,” “mutually satisfying [sexual] activities” involving animals and humans “may develop.” In these cases, consistent with his utilitarian philosophy, Singer can find no wrong.
Why Bestiality is Wrong
No serious advocate of animal rights can agree. And none can agree because none uses Singer’s utilitarian standard as their moral standard. As already noted, for animal rights advocates, more than consequences matter.
Consider sex with infants. Animal rightists do not say that, when done “in private” there is nothing wrong with “mutually satisfying [sexual] activities” involving adults and infants. Rather, we say that there is something wrong in engaging in such activities in the first place.
A baby cannot give informed consent. A baby cannot say “yes.” Or “no.” In the nature of the case, engaging in sexual activities with infants must be coercive, must display a lack of respect, thus must be wrong.
Bestiality is no different. Animal rightists do not say that, when done “in private,” there is nothing wrong with “mutually satisfying [sexual] activities” involving humans and animals. Rather, we say that there is something wrong in engaging in such activities in the first place.
An animal cannot give informed consent. An animal cannot say “yes.” Or “no.” In the nature of the case, engaging in sexual activities with animals must be coercive, must display a lack of respect, thus must be wrong.
Sexual Prudishness, Not!
Animal rights advocates are not here paying irrational homage to out-dated sexual taboos or parading their sexual prudishness. Engaging in “mutually satisfying [sexual] activities” is one of life’s finest pleasures. By all means, then, the more such activities, the better . . . provided that those who participate are able to give or withhold their informed consent. The end of mutual satisfaction never justifies the means of sexual coercion.
So before we are treated to the all but certain avalanche of outrage and ridicule showered on partisans of animal rights because of Peter Singer’s musings regarding sex with animals, let this much be clear: Peter Singer does not speak for animal rights — or for any of us who believe in them.