Mark D. Linville on Peter Singer’s Bestial Loss of Moral Reasoning
Paul’s discussion in the first chapter of Romans reads like the script for a tragedy, but a tragedy on a grand scale, telling of the ruination not of one man, but of an entire race of men. The fatal flaw is a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the Creator and a propensity to worship created things instead. If the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, the rejection of God is the source of folly. A fool and his money may soon be parted, but his dignity is not far behind.
Scripture records several boneheaded business transactions in which fools swapped the priceless for the worthless. Esau exchanged his birthright for a bowl of soup. The people of Israel bypassed an artesian spring, choosing instead to sop up what stagnant water remained in their broken cisterns. And the idolaters Paul describes in Romans exchanged the glory of the Creator for mere likenesses of mere creatures. It is as if the prisoners in Plato’s cave, having been brought outside to see a colored and textured world and offered their freedom, opted to return to the world of pale shadows on the fire-lit wall.
The analogy is a fair one because those idolaters were also captives held in dark places. Their rejection of God resulted in a darkening of their intellect—including a loss of moral discernment—and an enslavement to degrading passions. When God is eclipsed by either an idol or an idea, moral vision grows dim. When the divine nature is denied, human nature is diminished.
The “degrading” and “shameful” deeds that Paul describes are today not merely practiced but celebrated. As C. S. Lewis observed, our collective instincts are all askew on sexual matters. Malcolm Muggeridge once observed that the motto of Western society was copulo ergo sum. This could wind up on the dollar.
Still Shocking Singer
Paul might have told us that such practices are just business as usual in a society that has cast off any ties to the Creator and been set adrift. But even a divinely inspired apostle might have been surprised by the direction in which we may be headed.
Consider Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University. He is perhaps best known for his 1975 book, Animal Liberation, in which he argues that the interests of sentient animals count equally with those of individual humans.
In that book, Singer compares chicken magnate Frank Perdue to Adolph Hitler, as each is responsible for his respective “holocaust.” In one essay, he balances the interests of children who are bitten by rats against those of the rats themselves and asks if we are morally justified in exterminating the rats for the sake of the children’s health. For him, this is a genuine moral dilemma because the rats enjoy moral standing equal to that of the children.
The dilemma might be relaxed (in favor of the rats) if the waifs are below a certain age. According to Singer, there is no good sense in which we may say that infants have any rights, such as a right to life. “Killing a disabled infant is sometimes not wrong, given that the infant, like any infant, is not a person as I see it,” he told CBS News. (Are you keeping score? So far we have “Save the chickens! Kill the babies!”) One might think that there is little else that Singer could say that would shock.
But then I happened upon a more recent article by Singer. “Heavy Petting” is his defense of the permissibility of bestiality: sex with animals. Reading this reminded me of a Weird Al skit in which he plays a talk-show host. “Sex with furniture: What do you think?” he asks an audience member.
But Singer is serious.
He begins by noting that many sexual taboos—from the use of contraceptives to sodomy (a “part of the joy of sex,” he says)—have been broken down. But “not every taboo has crumbled. Heard anyone chatting at parties lately about how good it is having sex with their dog? Probably not. Sex with animals is still definitely taboo.”
Why, Singer asks, the lingering opposition to bestiality? He suggests that it stems, in part, from the old, “out of touch” view that all non-reproductive sex is immoral (“heavy petters” are probably not knitting baby stockings).
Christians think that only humans have been created in God’s image, and that this sets them apart. To the contrary, Singer asserts, “we are animals, indeed more specifically, we are great apes.” And because this is so, bestiality “ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings.” Bestiality is morally objectionable only when it entails cruelty to the animal. “But sex with animals does not always involve cruelty.”
As far as I know, no furred or feathered participant has given his opinion on the activity, but cruel or not, bestiality is a perversion. The word is gathering dust these days, but its original sense meant the “twisting” of a thing away from its purpose and towards inappropriate ends—a misuse of the thing.
But the concept of misuse makes sense only within the context of design. Table knives, for instance, are designed to cut meat or spread butter, not to screw wheels onto go-karts. A rock, on the other hand, is not designed for anything, and is not “misused” as a hammer, a paperweight, or a weapon.
Singer’s worldview has no place for the concept of design. He would affirm with Bertrand Russell that “man is a product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving” and with Jean-Paul Sartre that we are more like rocks than table knives, that we are not for anything.
For all three, if there is no God, then, as Sartre famously put it, “existence is prior to essence.” “First of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene,” and then it is up to each individual to determine his own “essence” or establish for himself what it means for him to flourish or live well. Sartre does not mince words: “If I’ve discarded God the Father, there has to be someone to invent values. You’ve got to take things as they are.”
A Christian, indeed anyone who accepts the moral law (the thing Lewis called the Tao), believes that, to invoke Sartre’s language, perversion is an egregious instance of failing to align our existence with our essence. If we “take things as they are”—or as Singer supposes they are—there can be no serious talk of sexual perversion of any kind. Such failure is just impossible in a purposeless universe. If God does not exist, bestiality is permitted.
And other things even Singer has not (yet) advocated. Why not incest? Indeed, if “Heavy Petting” were bound up in a collection of essays that also included an essay on “Filial Love,” the latter would be no more outrageous than the first.
On Singer’s worldview, it is likely that the origins of this “taboo,” like those against bestiality, are rooted in “epigenetic rules”—propensities to believe and behave in certain ways—that were selected for their reproductive advantage. Now, as Michael Ruse observes in Taking Darwin Seriously, “our technology has outstripped our biological nature.”
Sentiments that helped ensure success on the savannahs might prove either inadequate or irrelevant in a modern urban setting. Thus, as Lewis summarized the position in The Abolition of Man, “the old taboos served some real purpose in helping to preserve the species, but contraceptives have modified this and we can now abandon many of the taboos.” With their ability to reduce the risk of pregnancy and inbreeding, contraceptives may be of assistance here as well.
We have thus learned from our ethicist that sex with animals is okay so long as we keep these strict moral guidelines in mind: Always remember that “no” means no, whether bleated or barked, and, whatever you do, be gentle. Similarly, why not suppose that the taboo against incest may be circumvented, so long as it is consensual and one remembers to “practice safe sex”?
“One by one, the taboos have fallen,” Singer gloats. His ensuing discussion is a tragic example of descent into a moral abyss. It is the same story that Paul told us, but this time told from the perspective of the idolaters themselves, who see it as a comedy. Perhaps Singer is cheerful about such implications of his worldview. I, on the other hand, see a reductio.
Moral reasoning must begin somewhere. The observation that sex with animals is perverse is as good a starting point as any. If the denial of the imago Dei puts us in bed with the beasts, then so much the worse for that denial.
Singer’s article can be found at www.nerve.com/Opinions/Singer/heavyPetting/main.asp;
Mark D. Linville is Professor of Philosophy at Atlanta Christian College and author of Is Everything Permitted? Moral Values in a World Without God (RZIM Critical Questions Series). He and his wife Lynn have four grown children and four grandchildren, and live in Fayetteville, Georgia, where they attend the Christian Church.
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“Livestock Exchange” first appeared in the October 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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