A while back I wrote a paper against bestiality for an environmental ethics class. I was never quite satisfied with it. As a result, my friends have been tormented by the distant but ever-present threat that I might try to talk about why bestiality makes me so unsettled. Obviously, I’m incredibly popular at parties. I think I’m in a more satisfactory place now, thanks to my developing Terranic doctrine and my friends’ eternal patience. I’ll put an edited version of the paper down here, along with my Terranic interpretation. Hopefully, this will put my mind at ease.
Animal Rights and Bestiality
In his book, What’s wrong with homosexuality? John Corvino discusses bestiality. He specifically considers the slippery slope argument that homosexuality will lead to bestiality and incest. Corvino argues why bestiality will not be accepted by general society in spite of the thrust of progressive ethics.
It is entirely possible – and I would add, quite common – for someone consistently to believe that sex with animals (of any sex) is intrinsically immoral but that sex with persons of the same sex is not. Gay-rights advocates are as entitled to basic premises as anyone else. But basic premises about bestiality do not entail basic premises about homosexuality – or about any other behavior.(Corvino, 2013, pg. 129)
Corvino claims that his arguments for homosexuality cannot and should not be co-opted for arguments in any other field, specifically bestiality in this case. The fundamental reason for this is that the premises are different; a relationship between humans is different than interspecies relationships.
Some disagree. In All Animals are Equal Peter Singer argues that animals be extended similar rights to humans as a natural extension of liberal ethics. According to their kind and their needs, animals should be given certain inalienable rights and freedoms, since the extension of rights and freedoms to humans is an arbitrary extension, there is no reason to end the logic in our species. He uses the equality language of progressive logic to convey his meaning, emphasizing that literal equality is not, and never was, the point of this logic. He uses similar arguments that are used against racism, mainly that various exclusions are unjust. Convincingly, this argument is used to argue for social movements towards animal rights.
The racist violates the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of his own race, when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Similarly the speciesist allows the interest of his own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is the same in each case.(Singer, 1974, pg. 108)
He even seems to anticipate my objections here:
There are important differences between humans and other animals, and these differences must give rise to some differences in the rights that each have. Recognizing this obvious fact, however, is no barrier to the case for extending the basic principle of equality to nonhuman animals.(Singer, 1974, pg. 104)
However, when we compare these arguments of Singer and Corvino against each other, we run into a problem. They appear to invalidate each other. If we are going to argue that bestiality is wrong because the premises invalidate it from progressive logic, then we will have difficulty arguing for animal rights with progressive logic since the premises remain different. On the other hand, if we argue that we should extend progressive logic towards animals, thus granting them rights and equality, we must then concede that bestiality might be justifiable. This becomes especially clear with animal rights proponents returning to racism as a foundation for extending rights to animals; since there was once an argument against mixed race relationships that hinged upon a separation of “kinds.” Such a racist argument is similar to the speciesist argument that humans and animals should be sexually separated as different “species.” Another interesting problem is that many of the objections I personally have against the practice of bestiality are knocked down quite effectively by Corvino’s own book; I find it disgusting, unnatural, immoral etc. If we do not take Corvino’s word that the premises are different for bestiality, we can easily justify bestiality by extending his arguments towards animals.
In this paper, I will argue that Singer’s logic is faulty. I will first go through the arguments for bestiality by demonstrating how they are the natural end of the faulty progressive logic people like Singer bring to the table when they talk about animal rights. Then I will show how this logic is invalid by demonstrating that Singer misunderstands how progressive logic works and why differing premises are so important. Once this is done, we will be able to see how the logic for animal rights is flawed in a similar fashion.
Homosexuality and Bestiality
Corvino discusses several arguments against homosexuality in his book. The arguments include discussions about the behavior not being natural, and that the behavior is risky to health. These two arguments are the ones we will be focusing on here.
In the chapter A risky lifestyle, Corvino knocks down the argument that the homosexual lifestyle is dangerous to those participating. Similarly, he mentions in his paragraphs on bestiality, “While homosexuality is often harmful to animals, it need not be…. Ultimately, the problem with bestiality seems to be less about the effect on the animal than the effect on the person, damaging his or her capacity for appropriate human relationships” (2013, pg. 128). But he unfortunately provides no support for this. There appears to be conflicting information either way. Some evidence indicates that bestiality doesn’t cause much damage. One study showed that the majority of men and women who engaged in bestiality are happy with their lives, have had sexual relationships with humans within a year before the study, and were also considering engaging in bestiality again because they enjoyed it so much (Miletski, 2006). However, other evidence is against this, like this case study of an adolescent male who engaged in bestiality:
During psychological analysis, the findings such as physical and sexual inadequacies, emotional and sexual immaturity, difficulty in emotional attachment, low self-esteem, voyeuristic tendencies, infantile social behaviour, excitement seeker, inability to delay gratification of impulses, aggressiveness, very poor self-discipline, less conscientiousness and less sensitive to criticism are revealed in the present case which were in in accordance to findings of study by Beetz. (Satapathy, Swain, Pandey, & Behera, 2016)(Satapathy, Swain, Pandey, & Behera, 2016)
It is difficult to know whether poor psychological conditions encourage bestial behavior, or whether bestial behavior causes poor psychological conditions. Taboo around bestiality further confounds finding correlation, causation or otherwise.
In that regard, it is important to consider what practitioners of bestiality think about their own behavior. An important distinction proponents of bestiality make is that there is a difference between bestiality and zoophilia (Miletski, 2006). This distinction is usually made to show that zoophilia is not damaging to either the human or the animal, and is framed as a sexual orientation where the human loves and cares for the animal while maintaining a good standing in society (Francis, 2009). Zoophilia communities online consider their acts morally justifiable towards the animals they have sex with. Whether we can definitively say bestiality (whether zoophilia or otherwise) is harmful to human psychology remains unclear; there is scant research on bestiality in general. Considering my limited research for this paper, I do not feel comfortable making a claim either way.
But bestiality doesn’t have to just cause psychological damage; it can cause physical damage too. Zoonoses are infections and diseases that spread between animals and humans, making bestiality dangerous in that regard. However, Corvino’s arguments are easily mapped upon this objection; “…gay sex doesn’t kill people, AIDS does. And if the HIV virus isn’t present, people can have as much gay sex as they like without worrying about AIDS” (2013, pg. 57). I can easily translate this onto an argument for bestiality; bestiality doesn’t kill people, zoonoses do. And if zoonoses aren’t present, people can have as much bestial sex as they like without worrying about zoonoses. This sort of argument might be accompanied by familiar sounding encouragements; get the partner checked, wear a condom, have fun! Ignoring Corvino’s claim to different premises, we find his progressive logic accommodates bestiality easily.
The argument against a behavior being natural is another one that Corvino addresses against homosexuality, “…it often seems that an act is unnatural when the person making the claim finds it abhorrent or revolting. Thus homosexuality, but not masturbation; eating dog meat, but not eating pork; interracial relations generally, but not John Rolfe and Pocahontas….’Unnatural’ according to this view is simply a term of abuse, a fancy word for ‘disgusting,’ a way to mask visceral reactions as well-considered moral judgements. We can do better” (2013, pg. 97). This conclusion comes at the end of a series of excellent arguments showing how vacuous the accusation of something being unnatural is. Interestingly, Singer makes a similar point, “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 offense to our status and dignity as human beings” (Singer, 2001).
In fact, Singer seems rather approving of bestiality under appropriate circumstances and suggests that our cultural abhorrence for bestiality comes from deep seated speciesism (which to him is an insult), “…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, 2001). Singer is not alone in asserting differentiation is the reason for our disgust with bestiality. The core of the argument for bestiality seems to look at the taboo against it as a means by which human exceptionalism can be asserted. Human exceptionalism is necessarily framed as a bad thing, enabling the abuse and exploitation of animals by our differentiation. When bestiality is practiced, it destroys that boundary between human and animal, redefining the human subject and animal object as the same thing participating in an activity of mutual pleasure, “By criminalizing a crossing of the species barrier, the law tries to establish and naturalize ontological categories that it simultaneously reveals to be highly unstable. Human subjectivity emerges via the criminalization of bestiality” (Boggs, 2013, pg. 102). The argument is that bestiality is frightening to a speciesist because it breaks down barriers, so there develops a necessity to reinforce the distinction through taboo; “the disgust that bestiality invokes in people because the behavior blurs the distinction between humans and animals makes people judge it as an immoral, regardless of whether or not bestiality constitutes another sexual orientation” (Grune, 2008).
Even in animal rights circles, there is an abhorrence of bestiality. There is a common understanding that it constitutes a form of animal cruelty (Satapathy, et. al, 2016). However, defenders of bestiality tend to save face by making distinctions between bestiality that harms the animal, and zoophilia which they claim doesn’t harm the animal. They first assert that certain practices of bestiality are morally acceptable because of the age of the animal, and their anatomical features that allow them to have pleasurable sex with a human (Francis, 2009). But they go a little deeper as well, asserting that the protective feelings these activists feel towards animals is distancing themselves from nature in the same way, “Nonetheless, the claim that humans need to protect nature once again places humans outside of nature: humans are superior to defenseless wildlife, because they serve as its guardian” (Grune, 2008). The primary thrust of all these arguments remains “we are all animals”, and any emphasis on distinction becomes wrong to them, which, on the surface, is quite similar to the progressive argument “we are all humans”. Both arguments appear to rely on a broad categorization (“animal” or “human”) which applies to all the parties involved, then arguing that this common categorization warrants similar considerations. This argument is echoed by Regan in Animal Rights, Human Wrongs:
The racist believes that the interests of others matter only if they happen to be members of his own race. The speciesist believes that the interests of others matter only if they happen to be members of his own species. Racism has been unmasked for the prejudice that it is. The color of one’s skin cannot be used to determine the relevance of an individual’s interests. Singer and Ryder both argue that neither can the number of one’s legs, whether one walks upright or on all fours, lives in the trees, the sea or the suburbs. Here they recall Bentham. There is, they argue forcefully, no rational, unprejudiced way to exclude the interests of nonhuman animals just because they are not the interests of human beings.(Regan, 1980, pg. 100)
So then, does sexual exclusion of animals extend from these arguments? Well, if we are willing to make comparisons between race and species, why not? If all prejudice is wrong, then it doesn’t matter against what, it must be stopped. By extending this logic (which Singer does readily), there is no reason to consider bestiality immoral. Bestiality seems to be an extension of animal rights as long as we maintain that human sex and interspecies sex aren’t different premises. Without acknowledging the differing premises of animal rights from homosexuality (or any other progressive cause) we can extend those arguments towards bestiality.
Before researching this paper I wanted to suggest some premises that would differentiate bestiality from homosexuality in order to work with Corvino’s point. The primary one I was counting on was the inevitable damage (psychological, physical, or social) that bestiality can have upon the participants. However, while researching this paper, I realized that this premise, while founded, was not strong enough to build an argument on (Francis, 2009). Another argument I was considering was the problem of consent, where an animal would be incapable of consenting to sexual relations with a human. Again, not only is it argued that animals can consent (Singer, 2001), they can and do initiate sexual actions with humans (“Amorous dolphin targeting swimmers,” 2002). The only premises remaining are that animals cannot participate in politics, and that they are not humans. But we still encounter issues when we notice that political participation does not have much to do with the morality of sexuality (the morality of homosexuality has little to do with whether a homosexual person votes). If we base our entire argument on difference of species, these animal rights authors feel we are in danger of following the logic backward into racism, sexism, and homophobia. But why does it feel this way to them? Turns out, it’s because of their framing.
A lot of the problems we discover by dealing with the bestiality argument emerge because we are tackling it on Singer’s territory. Singer is a well-known utilitarian, and so he structures the frame of the argument in utilitarian terms: maximize pleasure over pain, reduce experiences to physical phenomena, and calculate morality based on these criteria. The arguments he espouses also view morality in negative terms, as a series of prohibitions. Bestiality, being a prohibition, is subject to dismantling by breaking it down into its pieces and explaining why each of those pieces is inoffensive. Once that is done, the whole is put back together and the taboo is solved. If the prohibition is shown to be “irrational”, thus negating its negative moral status, then it suddenly becomes neutral territory, and open to experimentation. This framing works in Singer’s favor, and functions to confound objectors by asking them, “why is intercourse wrong?” or “if the animal is pleased, what is the problem?”
However, we can get out of Singer’s territory by redefining the framing. This is what Corvino is talking about when he says that the premises of homosexuality are different than those of bestiality. I would not be presumptuous enough to level myself with the likes of Singer or Corvino. However, to follow Corvino’s guidance, a short sketch of possible premises can move us forward for this paper which don’t rely on negatives. Premises like: humans gain psychological and social benefits from romantic and sexual relationships with other humans; the sexual act is more than the sum of its parts; humans are different from animals; animals are different from other animals. With these premises, we can begin to say that bestiality is immoral. We don’t say this because it violates a principle of maximizing pleasure or because the stimulation of genitalia to orgasm is immoral. We can say it because a human practicing bestiality is depriving themselves of greater goods.
As Corvino puts it, “Bestiality is not comparable [to homosexuality], since (virtually by definition) it does not provide the same opportunity for interpersonal communication, intimacy, and so on” (Corvino, 2005, pg. 532). This is empirically supported by the (admittedly patchy) evidence that bestiality is linked with psychological problems (Satapathy et al., 2016). In this positive framing, bestiality cannot be condoned because it does not provide the same opportunities for a person that a human relationship does.
In addition, whatever assertions a zoophile may make about consent and pleasure, their experiences are incredibly variable and unpredictable, and each species of animal would be a different case to consider in validating these claims. For example, it is widely accepted in the zoophile community that sex with a chicken is immoral because there is no way to do it without harming the chicken (Singer, 2001). This reveals that relying on utilitarian arguments about pain or pleasure for bestiality is, at the very least, an enormous scientific undertaking since there is no generalizable principle that can be applied to all bestiality. While the utilitarian model could technically be applied, it can only be reasonably done in the future when we are able to understand, as if each discrete animal could say so directly, how they’re feeling. Without that certainty, the arguments speaking on behalf of the animal are shaky at best.
Now, if we lived in a future where we could know, with empirical precision, how much pleasure or pain bestiality caused animals, would there still be a reason why progressive logic does not extend to animals directly? There is, and it is inherent to a proper understanding of social progress.
These authors misunderstand social progress. Social progress is about advocating justice, not extending our ethical reach. It’s the reason why Singer’s progressive arguments must march relentlessly forward into bestiality. To them, social progress feels like an endless destruction of barriers; an unravelling of old taboos and norms by making our ethical framework ever larger. It is for this reason that they think a racist or sexist can be compared to a speciesist, and that to maintain a boundary between humans and animals is to open up logic which can work backward into racism (or any other social injustice). To them, social progress is an extension of rights (from the historical nucleus of the cis-het white man).
But this is not the case.
Every socially progressive argument has different premises. Why? Because different people are making them. Women fought for women. People of colour fought for people of colour. The queer community fought for the queer community. They are not just “more others I should extend my care about” they are discrete groups with unique needs who advocate for themselves. They did not need a philosopher abstractly considering the boundaries around them to know they needed justice.
Because people, not categorical boundaries, are at the foundation of social progress, myriad premises are used for their arguments. It is reductive and misleading to assert that social progress stems from “equality” and that alone. A person who fights for racial equality can be deeply sexist. A person who fights for sexual equality can be transphobic. A person who fights for religious equality can be terribly xenophobic. The reason is because “equality” is not the point. If people were truly fighting for “equality” they would be paralyzed by their ethical responsibility to everything. They’re not fighting for “equality”, they’re fighting for themselves. Social progress marks how many people have fought for their rights.
It is disingenuous to say that logic concerning racism or sexism can apply to speciesism too. After all, arguments against sexism, racism, and homophobia entail different premises from each other! The reasons why women should have the same rights as men are different from the reasons why homosexuals should have the same rights as heterosexuals. Their similarity comes not from identical arguments, but from the fact that they are both oppressed groups. Corvino’s arguments for homosexuality can’t be directly translated onto arguments for feminism or against racism, because the premises are fundamentally different. Conflating all these groups together under the term “equality” and then unifying the arguments into one broad utilitarian stroke is both inaccurate and disrespectful.
Progress for the queer community, racial minorities, women, etc. are all separate battles that require their own arguments because they too, have different premises from each other. Yet, when they are all conflated together as Singer, Regan, and the rest so easily seem to do by talking about “equality,” the jump to animals seems to make sense. This is why Singer spends so much time in the beginning of his essays defining equality; he seems to think that it’s the only important part of progressive logic. The nuances of the arguments are lost when the only important point is that this idea of “equality” reigns supreme. This easy conflation allows jumps towards bestiality that are unsubstantiated. The topics are not equal. They should not be treated as such.
Why is a utilitarian argument that doesn’t understand social progress the popular defense for individual animals? It might be because someone who is not a member of the community is arguing for it. Many of the strides forward in progressivism have come from members of the community that are being oppressed. The suffragette movement was led by women. The movement for homosexual rights was led by homosexuals, Corvino being one of them. Once slavery as an institution was abolished, the movement against racism was led by people like MLK and Malcom X. But no animal is capable of speaking on their own behalf. Perhaps if the animals were capable of constructing arguments for their own rights, the arguments would be better. But as it is, their incapacity leaves us projecting onto them and trying to create arguments on their behalf. This is not wrong. Unlike other humans, we must extend our ethics to animals, but it is incorrect to imagine that doing so would look the same as an oppressed group fighting for rights. Animal rights will necessarily look different from homosexual rights or racial rights because animal rights need to extended, where human rights are fought for. To imagine both types of rights would look the same is to be stuck in the mindset which led to oppression and marginalization in the first place. When your logic can easily slide backward into bigotry if you don’t keep marching forward, then you probably see problems rather than people.
Animals are obviously sensitive creatures that deserve to be considered ethically. But there is such variety among them and all of it below a threshold that gives them a capacity for arguing for themselves. This reality should be considered for the morality we extend towards them. Understanding and respecting the differences between humans and animals, while also respecting that all beings are members of a global community, we make progress. Such respect can be seen here:
Nature ruthlessly limits animal populations by doing violence to virtually every individual before it reaches maturity; these conditions respect animal equality only in the darkest sense. Yet these are precisely the ecological relationships which Leopold admires; they are the conditions which he would not interfere with, but protect. Apparently, Leopold does not think that an ecological system has to be an egalitarian moral system in order to deserve love and admiration. An ecological system has a beauty and an authenticity that demands respect – but plainly not on humanitarian grounds.(Sagoff, 1984, pg. 299-300)
Perhaps we can take some wisdom from Pollan in An Animal’s Place, “…people who care should be working not for animal rights but animal welfare–to ensure that farm animals don’t suffer and that their deaths are swift and painless” (Pollan, 2002). We definitely need to consider animals, but not by conflating their rights with human rights. To do so would be a great disrespect to the people who fought for their rights.
So what about the arguments for bestiality? Human sexuality and interspecies sexuality are different enough that these arguments don’t follow from each other. As we have shown, progressive arguments all have different premises, so the arguments for bestiality cannot vaguely gesture to “prejudice” and “equality” for them to work. As it stands, the arguments for bestiality I’ve explored here are not valid as generalized extensions of progressive logic, so they don’t need to be considered. Even if Corvino’s arguments sound semantically similar, they aren’t translatable. No dog made arguments for Corvino. Corvino is fighting for himself and his love. It would disrespectful to Corvino if we claimed his argument for his love is the same as an argument for bestiality.
My Mindset Going Further
That paper needed an embarrassing amount of edits, but that is how I ended it. At the time I wrote it, it was probably getting close to the midnight deadline, forcing me to hand it in. But my mind was not at rest.
I argued why the arguments for bestiality don’t hold up under scrutiny, and even that animal rights arguments are sloppy when they rely on co-opting progressive arguments from other causes. Hopefully, that was successful. But it is not an argument against bestiality. Under the appropriate premises, arguments for bestiality might still be made. So how would I defend against those?
But more importantly, what is my foundation for saying bestiality is immoral?
I will be exploring problem this using Terranic assertions in a future post.
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