Reading The Singer on "Bestiality"

Dianne N. Irving
copyright February 8, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Peter Singer's1 "global ethics"2 (read, BIOethics) is notoriously controversial, and for good reason. Among other outrageous "ethical conclusions" he has taught for decades now is that the infanticide of newborn human infants is "ethically acceptable" because they are not "persons", whereas the killing of certain animals who are "persons" is not:

"Now it must be admitted that these arguments apply to the newborn baby as much as to the fetus. A week-old baby is not a rational and self-conscious being, and there are many non-human animals whose rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel pain (sentience), and so on, exceed that of a human baby a week, a month, or even a year old. If the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee". [Peter Singer, "Taking life: abortion", in Practical Ethics (London: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 118.] (emphasis added)

I emphasize "capacity to feel pain (sentience)" in the above quotation because, contra the claims of some, as you can see "personhood" for Singer is not defined only in terms of "rational attributes" (e.g., "rationality, self-consciousness, awareness"), but also in terms of "sentience" (e.g., "capacity to feel pain" - or pleasure) - as demonstrated above. Thus, according to Singer, perfectly normal human infants are also "non-persons" (and thus could be killed) - not just those who are "defective". The issue is "personhood". If you've got it - you're OK; if you don't - watch out.

My purpose here is not to provide all the "pros" and "cons" of Peter Singer or of "preference utilitarianism" (See literature in endnotes). But it is to very briefly explain to those unfamiliar with Singer et. al. where these public policy makers are "coming from", and therefore where they must logically and necessarily end up. It is to raise the question, "Is this where we want to go as a society"?

One fun way to "test" the "logic" of any theoretical system such as Singer's is to rigorously "push their logic" to find out where else you might necessarily be led astray. Such is the case with philosopher Richard Frey (Senior Scholar at The Hastings Center). Pushing Singer's logic (correctly) one step further, Frey concludes that adult mentally ill and retarded, the physically frail elderly, etc., are only human beings and not also "persons" (because they do not actively exercise "rational attributes" and/or "sentience"). Therefore, these human non-persons should be substituted in purely destructive experimental research in place of the higher animals who are "persons". [Richard G. Frey, "The ethics of the search for benefits: Animal experimentation in medicine", in Raanan Gillon (ed.), Principles of Health Care Ethics (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1994), pp. 1067-1075].

It should not surprise any one, then, that the Singerian definition of "personhood" could be applied to human beings at the other end of the human life spectrum, influencing debates on euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, organ transplantation, withdrawal/withholding of food and hydration, etc. If there are no real human "persons" there (as defined by Peter Singer) - regardless of the age -- then it is bioethically OK to kill them. They are just human "vegetables" - sort of "worthless eaters", worth less than pigs, dogs, or chimpanzees.

One of the more incredulous conclusions that Singer firmly arrives at himself is that, under certain circumstances, bestiality is bioethically OK! Seriously. But to really understand how Singer, a very serious professional philosopher/academic, can get there, you have to understand his philosophical tenets on preference utilitarianism and "personhood". You see, if some animals are "persons", and if what is "ethical" is that which increases the happiness (or "preferences") of the greatest number of "people", then this utilitarian bioethics calculus includes "animal-persons"! That is, "society" includes "animal people". And doesn't include "human non-people". Let's take a quick look at these Singerian assumptions, then judge for yourself if you agree with his bioethical conclusion that sometimes bestiality is "ethically" OK. More pertinent, is this normative (i.e., non-neutral) ethical theory what public policy making should be based on?

Australian bioethicist Peter Singer, founder of the animal liberation movement, is also the founder and first president of the International Bioethics Institute (CIOMS/WHO), and author of the "Declaration on the Personhood of the Great Apes" submitted to the United Nations several years ago. The academic mentors for Singer's doctorate in philosophy were Oxford University eugenicists Jonathan Glover3 and R.M. Hare.4 They are "preference utilitarians", one of several different brands of utilitarianism, defined generally as:

"Moral theory according to which the good consists in the satisfaction of people's preferences, and the rightness of an action depends directly or indirectly on its being productive of such satisfaction. Like other kinds of consequentialism, the theory has satisfying and maximizing variants. The latter are the more common ones: the more people get what they want, the better. Syn. preference consequentialism." [Thomas Mautner (ed.), The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy at:]

One interesting summary of Singer's preference utilitarianism might help us understand his championing of bestiality:

Singer is regarded as a rationalist. He supports a philosophical system based on reason rather than on sentiment, self-interest, or social conditioning. He has taken a preference utilitarian approach to the ethical issues involved in embryo experimentation, genetic engineering, surrogate motherhood, abortion, and euthanasia. This approach regards an action as ethically correct if it satisfies the preference of those affected and has the best consequences for the greatest number of people. Singer also rejects the idea that killing is wrong regardless of the circumstances. [] (emphasis added)

Singer thus applies his form of rationalistic "preference utilitarianism" to bestiality, in a recent article, "Heavy Petting". He concludes that bestiality can be an "ethically correct" action, if it is not performed as a cruel "domination of animals", but rather as a ""love for animals", and if it is mutually "preferred" ["Heavy Petting", a review by Peter Singer [ Caution: Singer's article is posted on a pornography website, and discretion should be used in reading the article itself.]

In this "philosophical" defense of "ethical" bestiality, Singer explains that sex with animals does not always involve cruelty, in which cases such sex could be "ethical". Singer cites as an example his discussions with Birute Galdikas, sometimes referred to as "the Jane Goodall of orangutans" and the world's foremost authority on these great apes, at Camp Leakey -- a rehabilitation center for captured orangutans in Borneo. Galdikas blithely dismissed being sexually pressed by a large male orangutan by assuring Singer that the orangutan "would not harm her".

As Singer explained, we are animals, indeed more specifically, we are great apes. 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 can be ethical -- i.e., "it ceases to be an offense to our status and dignity as human beings."

In other words, according to Singer's preference utilitarianism, bestiality is ethically correct as long as (1) it is not cruel; (2) if it satisfies the mutual preferences of those affected (i.e., the human and the animal); and (3) if it has the best consequences for the greatest number of people involved (i.e., the total amount of "pleasure" experienced in the world would be increased).

Thus "those involved" in this case are the woman and the ape. If they have a mutual "preference" for having sex, and if it is not cruel, then it is "ethical" -- if (and only if) it also produces "the best consequences for the greatest number of PEOPLE." And, of course, for Singer, "people" are defined ONLY in terms of actively exercising "rational attributes" and/or "sentience". He thus defines many animals as "persons", including the great apes. Therefore "the greatest number of people", for Singer, would include this particular great ape, as well as the woman. Thus bestiality can be ethically acceptable and rationally defended.

Is this where we really want society to go?


1 The literature on Peter Singer and for preference utilitarianism is extensive. For starters, see For a representative defense of preference utilitarianism by Singer, see Julian Baggini, "Defending Consumersist Ethics: An Interview with Peter Singer" (The Philosopher's Magazine Online, at: Arguments against Singer's preference utilitarianism, e.g., Andrew Sloane, "Singer, Preference Utilitarianism and Infanticide", Studies in Christian Ethics, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Nov., 1999), pp. 47- at:

Singer was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1946. He is Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University. He has taught at the University of Oxford, New York University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of California at Irvine, and La Trobe University. He is the author of Animal Liberation, first published in 1975, and is widely credited with triggering the modern animal-rights movement. His Practical Ethics is one of the most widely used texts in applied ethics, and Rethinking Life and Death received the 1995 National Book Council's Banjo Award for non-fiction. He is the author of the major article on Ethics in the current edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and, with Helga Kuhse, co-editor of the journal Bioethics. Singer was also the founding father of the International Association of Bioethics.

Some of Singer's other booksare: Democracy and Disobedience; Animal Rights and Human Obligations (with Thomas Reagan); Marx; Animal Factories (with Jim Mason); The Expanding Circle; Hegel; Test-Tube Babies (with William Walters); The Reproduction Revolution (with Deane Wells); Should the Baby Live? (with Helga Kuhse); In Defence of Animals (ed.); Ethical and Legal Issues in Guardianship (with Terry Carney); Applied Ethics (ed.); Animal Liberation: a Graphic Guide (with Lori Gruen); Embryo Experimentation (with Helga Kuhse, Stephen Buckle, Karen Dawson and Pascal Kasimba); A Companion to Ethics (ed.); Save the Animals! (with Barbara Dover and Ingrid Newkirk); The Great Ape Project (with Paola Cavalieri); How Are We to Live?; Ethics (ed.); Individuals, Humans and Persons (with Helga Kuhse); Rethinking Life and Death; The Greens (with Bob Brown); The Allocation of Health Care Resources (with John McKie, Jeff Richardson and Helga Kuhse); A Companion to Bioethics (ed. with Helga Kuhse); Bioethics (ed. with Helga Kuhse); Ethics into Action; A Darwinian Left; Writings on an Ethical Life; Unsanctifying Human Life (edited by Helga Kuhse); and One World: The Ethics of Globalization. Singer and His Critics (edited by Dale Jamieson), a collection of essays focusing on Singer's work, was published in 1999. Forthcoming: Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna. [at:] [Back]

2 See Singer's new book, One World: The Ethics of Globalization (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002); see also international interest in "global ethics" at, e.g.,, The Institute for Global Ethics, at; The Center for Global Ethics, at [Back]

3 British eugenicist Jonathan Glover, a lecturer at Carnegie Mellon, has written many articles and books on preference utilitarianism, including: Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century and Causing Death and Saving Lives -- in which he almost imperceptibly deconstructs the "Sanctity of Life Ethics" to engineer it to state (erroneously) state: "It is wrong to kill a person whose life is worth living." He chaired a European Commission Working Party on Assisted Reproduction, is interested in questions raised by the Human Genome Project, and is currently working on ethical issues in psychiatry. Glover is currently the Professor of Ethics at King's College, University of London, and the director of the Centre for Medical Law and Ethics. For many years, Glover was Fellow of New College, Oxford. See Glover, "After Iraq: The Making of a New World Order?", in The Politics and Psychology of a New World Order at: Other books of his include: Women and Development: a study of capacities, edited with Martha Nussbaum, 1995; Utilitarianism and Its Critics,editor, 1990; The Glover Report: The Ethics of New Reproductive Technologies, a report for the European Commission, 1989; I: The Philosophy and Psychology of Personal Identity, 1988; What Sort of People Should There Be?, 1984; Philosophy of Mind, editor, 1979; and Responsibility, 1970 -- see [Back]

4 British eugenicist R. M. Hare taught at the University of Florida at Gainsville after his retirement from Oxford University. Oddly enough, an obituary on Hare stated: "In the last years of his life, when he was severely handicapped by several strokes, her [his wife's] devotion enabled him to attend many of the concerts and seminars which meant so much to him."

[]. For Hare, the early human embryo, fetus and even young child are also not "persons". They are not "real people"; they are just "possible people" -- and therefore have no serious "interests" or "preferences" to be respected. We do, however, have "some" duties" toward "them". Thus, applying a sort of mathematical trigonometry to the problem, his international public population policy proposals go like this: "The maximum duty that is imposed is to do the best impartially for all the 'possible people' there might be by having an optimal family planning or population policy, which means necessarily excluding some possible people." Indeed. Hare asserts that the best policy will be the one which produces that set of people, of all "possible sets" of people, which will have in sum the best life, i.e., the best possible set of future possible people." [Hare, "When Does Potentiality Count? A Comment on Lockwood", Bioethics (1988), 2:3:214]. Hare's bioethics interests lie largely in translating the Gloverian theory of "preference" utilitarianism into national (i.e., British) and global population public policies. See brief description of Hare's preference utilitarianism in, "R.M. Hare", The Widipedia Encyclopedia, at: Some of his works include: "Embryo Experimentation: Public Policy in a Pluralist Society," Bioethics News 7 (1987); "Philosophy and the Teaching of Medical Ethics," Medical Education (1988); "Possible People," Bioethics: Journal of the International Association of Bioethics 2 (October 1988): 279-93; "The Role of Philosophers in the Legislative Process ", Essays on Political Morality, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 1-7;

"One Philosopher's Approach to Business and Professional Ethics." Business and Professional Ethics Journal 11 (summer 1992): 3-19; "What Are Cities For? The Ethics of Urban Planning," Ethics and the Environment; Essays on Religion and Education. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992; at See also: The Language of Morals (1952; Oxford University Press); Freedom and Reason (1963; Oxford University Press); Practical Inferences (1971; London: Macmillan; University of California Press); Applications of Moral Philosophy (1972; London: Macmillan; University of California Press); Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method, and Point (1981; Oxford University Press); Plato (1982; Oxford University Press); Essays on Philosophical Method (1971; London: Macmillan; University of California Press); Essays on the Moral Concepts (1972; London: Macmillan; University of California Press); Essays in Ethical Theory (1989; Oxford University Press); Essays on Political Morality (1989; Oxford University Press); Essays on Bioethics (1996; Oxford University Press); at and [Back]