the way we live now

Geoffrey Kirk has been discovering parallels in the unusually horrible musings of the animal rights philosopher Peter Singer

Is there a liberal agenda? And if so, where is it headed?

The answer to the first question must surely be that there is. Time was when the proponents of women priests and bishops denied that there was any necessary connection between the innovation they were advocating and other liberal causes (for example same sex marriages). I can remember, only a dozen years ago, being roundly ridiculed for even entertaining such a thought. Women’s ordination, it was asserted, was a stand-alone, quite unconnected to any other issue.

Now that the same a priori ethical, exegetical and sociological arguments have been successfully employed to secure the appointment of a practising gay bishop such ridicule would scarcely be credible and has largely ceased.

In order to answer the second question, consider the case of the Australian-born animal rights activist Peter Singer. Singer, it has to be admitted, is an extremist. He has a nasty but remarkably effective way of pushing everything to extremes. His arguments on abortion try to induce the reader to believe that unless you think all contraception is immoral (a notion he naturally supposes to be absurd) you should support abortion to the time of birth and then infanticide for thirty days afterwards just for good measure.

Now the University of Princeton’s favourite ethicist has tired of defending killing disabled babies and has started defending something completely different: bestiality.

Singer recently published, on a sex website called <nerve.com>, a review of Midas Dekkers’ Dearest Pet, an account of the long and storied history of humanity’s not-so-platonic interactions with animals. Under the title ‘Heavy Petting’ (I am afraid the puns come thick and fast, like the heavy breathing) he throws in a few extreme reflections of his own:

‘Not so long ago, any form of sexuality not leading to the conception of children was seen as, at best, wanton lust, or worse, a perversion. One by one, the taboos have fallen. The idea that it could be wrong to use contraception in order to separate sex from reproduction is now merely quaint. If some religions still teach that masturbation is ‘self-abuse,’ that just shows how out of touch they have become. Sodomy? That’s all part of the joy of sex, recommended for couples seeking erotic variety.

‘In many of the world’s great cities, gays and lesbians can be open about their sexual preferences to an extent unimaginable a century ago. You can even do it in the U.S. Armed Forces, as long as you don’t talk about it. Oral sex? Some objected to President Clinton’ choice of place and partner, and others thought he should have been more honest about what he had done, but no one dared suggest that he was unfit to be President simply because he had taken part in a sexual activity that was, in many jurisdictions, a crime.’

What is disturbing about Singer’s position is not the open advocacy of bestiality for those who like that sort of thing, but the logic he uses to arrive at his position. For him it is axiomatic that the Judaeo-Christian differentiation between humans (‘made in the image of God’) and the animal creation is an artificial construct which has been scientifically disproved. Those were the premises on which he based his long career in animal rights. Re-apply them to a different situation and you get a startling result:

‘We copulate, as they do,’ Singer insists. ‘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 vehemence with which people react to bestiality ‘suggests that there is another powerful force at work: our desire to differentiate ourselves, erotically and in every other way, from animals.’ He quotes with approval the work of one of Freud’s contemporaries, Otto Soyka, who argued against the prohibition of various ‘unnatural’ sexual acts, because they limited the ‘inexhaustible variety of human sexual desire.’ Bestiality, Soyka wrote, should only be illegal because it can be cruel to animals.

Singer has (how did you guess?) summarized his overall position in five new ‘commandments’:

‘Recognize that the worth of human life varies’ because all life is not of equal value. ‘Take responsibility for the consequences of your decisions’ because the old commandment ‘never intentionally to take innocent human life’ is too absolutist to deal with all the circumstances that can arise. ‘Respect a person’s desire to live or die’ because ‘incurably ill people who ask doctors to help them die are not harming others.’ ‘Bring children into the world only if they are wanted’ because being fruitful and multiplying now causes serious overpopulation. ‘Do not discriminate on the basis of species’ because what is ‘human’ can no longer be demonstrated to apply to Homo sapiens alone.’

Whilst it is probably some while before the General Convention of TEC approves the election of its first bestialist bishop, the principles upon which Singer bases his argument are not a million miles from the language one has come to expect from reports to the General Synod of the Church of England and guidelines issued by the Archbishop’s Council. They are a chillingly logical development of notions already current among those who have replaced scriptural injunctions with ‘reason’ (= human experience).

Singer’s motives in arguing as he does (bearing in mind that common public acceptance of bestiality is not likely in the foreseeable future) may seem impenetrable. But the opposite is the case: they are all too transparent.

Singer is trying to push the envelope. In his world of extremes, if bestiality can be pushed into philosophical discourse, then debates over whether Boy Scouts should have gay scout leaders or whether people should be allowed to redesignate themselves sexually start to seem quaint. If he busies the rest of us with trying to put out brushfires like this one on our left fringe, then the long, slow burn in the centre of the culture war becomes less relevant. It becomes almost… normal. And that’s what radicals like Singer want. That’s how the liberal agenda gains impetus. Just watch.

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