Current Issue
Web Exclusives
Browse the Archives
Search the Archives





Peter Singer is a 
Rational Animal
Lukas Halim • At the end of the slippery slope, there's a traumatized cow • May 2001

Peter Singer, incongruously the head of Princeton University’s Center for Human Values, recently gained notoriety for suggesting that in certain trusting and mutually supportive situations, it might be acceptable for a man to shtupp a sheep. 

Singer’s constant critics on the Right responded with the usual barrage of grimaces and “I-told-you-so”s.  Those few critics who bothered to do anything other than point and laugh made only the lame point that if human children or the mentally disabled cannot consent to sex, then surely animals cannot consent either.  This argument misses the point because Peter Singer is a Utilitarian, not a liberal. 

Utilitarians argue that an action is maximally ethical when it leads to the greatest increase in pleasure.  Loyalty, art, piety, human dignity, all should be valued only as long as they function well as tools in the production of pleasure.  Any particular act of cruelty or dishonesty can be justified by good results.  
This might seem cold, extreme, and stupid.  It is.  However, most utilitarians hide this by arguing that utilitarianism is almost identical with most people’s ordinary ethical intuitions.  For example, opponents of utilitarianism often argue that utilitarianism implies that killing the homeless is ethical because it increases overall pleasure.  Most utilitarians insist that killing the homeless would make everyone feel guilty or else cause some other unintended cost that would outweigh the benefit.  They insist that actions that most people find awful would not lead to the greatest pleasure for the greatest number.

This is false.  For example, if a nurse gives a sickly patient an overdose of painkiller, everyone could easily end up benefiting.  If the patient was getting a reasonable amount of enjoyment out of life, and his family still found him entertaining company, it would be worth it to keep him alive.  But if not, killing the patient would allow the nurse to spend her energy on other patients (thus increasing their happiness), it would eliminate the suffering of the patient, and the family could move on.  Yet utilitarians will often insist that some way, some how, the second situation never comes up. 

That is why Princeton is so fortunate to have Peter Singer.  Professor Singer is not your run-of-the-Mill utilitarian, but the real deal.  Singer is a true utilitarian, because he recognizes that utilitarian ethics seriously conflict with common ethical intuitions.  He believes that we have an ethical obligation to kill sick grandmothers and disabled infants when doing so results in an increase in pleasure for society as a whole.  

Jonah Goldberg calls Singer a “hyper-utilitarian,” but really he’s just a utilitarian who does not insist that utilitarianism is identical to everyday post-Christian ethics.  If people cling tightly to their commonsense ethical understandings, they will generally find infanticide and mercy killing cause more harm than good.  The guilt will be a cause of displeasure, and if the guilt is strong enough it can often outweigh the benefit.  However, if everyday morality can be overcome, then anything goes.  This is not just a hypothetical, since many civilizations actually have shaped their ethics to serve the general interest.    For example, infanticide has been accepted in cultures where resources are scarce, in the belief that the community could not afford to support too many people.  

There is another way that Professor Singer is more consistent than his colleagues.  Utilitarians devalue virtues such as honesty, charity and courage, because they see them as merely a means to pleasure, rather than as integral parts of human fulfillment.  They devalue the characteristics of humans that differentiate them from animals, while placing great importance on pleasure, something that many animals are capable of experiencing.  And yet they insist that “the greatest good for the greatest number” refers to humans and not to animals.  Peter Singer is consistent because he recognizes that if pleasure is the only end-in-itself then animal pleasure is no less significant than human pleasure.  If honesty, charity and courage are just means to pleasure, than they are no more important than good quality dog toys.  When we no longer value uniquely human qualities, we can no longer justify discriminating between man and beast.  

Singer in fact believes that there is no essential difference, and therefore he decries the taboos against bestiality on  Again, Singer is right – for a utilitarian there is nothing wrong with bestiality so long as it leads to an increase in overall pleasure.  

Bestiality remains taboo primarily because, as Singer explains, in the West, “we have always seen ourselves as distinct from animals, and imagined that a wide, unbridgeable gulf separates us from them.”  But the gulf is only imagined.  After all, “the vagina of a calf can be sexually satisfying to a man.”  The gulf between man and animals is not wide enough to make sex with animals distinguishable from sex with humans.

In Singer’s scheme, a sexual act is acceptable so long as it increases overall pleasure.  In fact, Singer asserts that pleasure is the only real end of sex, since man has abandoned procreation or fulfilling the purposes of “nature”—Singer cites abortion, contraception, and homosexuality as examples.

Sex might mean more than mutual gratification.  Norah Vincent of the Village Voice is one of those who reasons that bestiality can never be ethical, even when it increases overall pleasure, because animals are incapable of giving consent.  There needs to be a conscious desire on the part of both parties involved.  She holds that even if both parties enjoy the sexual act, it is immoral unless both parties consent.  Vincent at least manages to distinguish between those capable of giving consent (adults) and those not capable of doing so (children and animals).  

But her counterattack fails in that not all consensual sex is necessarily moral.  A woman might hope that by having sex with her boyfriend she could persuade him to love her.  If the boyfriend takes advantage of this situation, and has sex without planning to pursue the relationship more seriously, the woman could justifiably feel exploited.  She expected the pleasure of sex to lead to marriage, while her boyfriend saw it as an easy opportunity for another conquest.  Time and emotional investment would be wasted on someone not interested in commitment.  Consensual relationships are often harmful.  The battered wife who keeps forgiving her husband consents, even though she is being emotionally and physically abused.  People, even consenting adults, sometimes misjudge what is best for them, and so not all consensual acts are moral.  Relationships can only be moral when both parties act in the best interests of the other. 
But this does not explain why bestiality is immoral.  Bestiality is immoral not because it is bad for animals.  Under the right circumstances, animals could conceivably enjoy it.  And so what if animals can’t give consent?  Animals engage in sexual acts with members of their own species all the time, but PETA does not complain about this exploitation.  Simply put, bestiality is not necessarily bad for animals, but it is certainly bad for humans.  Bestiality causes men to see sex as nothing more than using another creature’s flesh for pleasure.  It is impossible to agree to a perpetual union with a pet as a partner.  It is impossible to raise children with a pet.  In order to judge bestiality wrong, one must accept a different understanding of the purposes of sex.  It is either something important, or an urge, an itch to be scratched to increase pleasure.  The former demands some element that distinguishes it from mere impulse.  This feature is subjectivity.  Sex is important and unique because it brings one person into the closest possible union with another who still remains not a predictable object but a separate and surprising subject. Only this conception of sex wards off the specter of bestiality.  But if sex can just be a mutual enjoyment of pleasure, bestiality is acceptable.  

There are two basic options in the debate on utilitarianism.  Ethics can be based on the assumption that pleasure is the only end-in-itself, or they can have richer understanding of human fulfillment.  Professor Singer presents the first option, without pretending that this option looks anything like the American ethical consensus.  Others pretend that when pleasure is valued above all else, somehow nothing really changes.  

Peter Singer’s work is useful precisely because of its lack of insight.  The work of Nietzsche, Dosteyevski, Keirkegard and Heidegger, is interesting both because of its weaknesses and its strengths.  Singer, on the other hand, has grasped on to only one truth (that pleasure is good) and missed everything else.  Hopefully, some in the liberal orthodoxy will realize that they do not have the resources in their worldviews to argue against Singer.  Like Singer, many liberals assert the value of pleasure over all else, but unlike Singer they are inconsistent because they continue to hold to parts of an intellectual tradition that opposes infanticide, mercy killing, and bestiality.  Liberals should realize that bestiality is wrong even if the animals want and enjoy it, but to do this they must reject the notion of sex as a mere means to pleasure, and with it much of their philosophic bases.
Lukas Halim is a junior in Trumbull College

The Yale Free Press is published by students ofYale University. 
Yale University is not responsible for its 
contents. By the same
token, The Yale Free Press is not responsible for the contents of Yale



Designed by
Joseph A. P. De Feo

Return to Top