What's Wrong with Bestiality Anyway?

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Acts that are considered to contravene moral norms elicit emotional responses from those who witness or contemplate them. Depending on the nature of the act, they may make us feel annoyed, bewildered, outraged or disgusted. Such feelings are inspired both by acts that breach universal ethical principles and by acts that merely contravene social conventions or etiquette, although the intensity of the reaction is usually greater in the former case. Having noticed these strong emotional reactions, moral philosophers typically set out to understand the rules or principles that have been breached to cause such effects.

With the possible exception of necrophilia, no purely sexual act elicits in us more revulsion than bestiality.

In Good Sex, his recent study of sexual ethics, American philosopher Raymond Belliotti uses a post-Kantian ethical framework to discern why bestiality might be morally wrong. With admirable philosophical honesty, he declares himself unable to reach an obvious conclusion as to the immorality of bestiality. Belliotti notes that even though animals have moral status because they have interests, they do not necessarily have a moral status equal to that of humans.

The strongest argument against bestiality is the lack of consent. It is not, however, apparent that animals suffer as a result of bestiality or that their interests are greatly impaired. As a result, Belliotti says, lack of consent seems inadequate to establish the wrongfulness of bestiality.

Next he asks whether it is wrong because the animal, a sentient being, is used as a mere means to a human end. Once again, it is not apparent that the interests of the animal are affected by being used as a mere means. The animal might be exploited during the act itself but otherwise be very well treated. Despite the lack of obvious reasons, Belliotti does conclude that bestiality is immoral, although the grounds for his conclusion are weak.

Reflection on the matter does not produce any compelling explanation for why we find bestiality repugnant. This "moral dumbfounding" is not uncommon. When Rolling Stone Keith Richards told an interviewer he had snorted his father’s ashes, the hostile public reaction caused him to hastily announce that he was only joking — although it is not at all clear why snorting one’s father’s ashes should be immoral.

Jonathan Haidt gives the example of the brother and sister who one night in a remote cabin decide to have sex out of curiosity. They take all precautions against pregnancy and enjoy the experience but decide not to do it again and to keep it secret. It is hard to find a good reason to condemn them. They were fully consenting, there was no chance of conception, and both enjoyed the experience. In cases like this we can reach strong moral judgments without a maxim in sight. Haidt argues persuasively that moral reasoning typically occurs after a moral judgment has been made intuitively and is used to rationalise the reaction.

Nevertheless bestiality remains a powerful taboo. So perhaps we should try a different approach and work backwards. Instead of trying to explain why we feel revulsion, let us accept revulsion as a given and ask what this fact can tell us about the ethical framework I have developed.

That one feels disgust at something — as some do with homosexual sex — does not make it morally wrong, but the enduring and universal social taboo relating to bestiality makes it reasonable to accept that it is wrong. Note first that, because the interests of the animal are involved, it is legitimate to take a universalising stance: we would not just advise against a proposed act of bestiality; we would condemn it as immoral. Moreover, there are good grounds for believing that the person who engages in bestiality suffers from a perversion that may have an effect on other humans. Society therefore has a moral interest in bestiality.

If bestiality does not necessarily contravene a practical rule we must go to the basis of moral rules. That basis cannot be found in Kantian reason or in utilitarian calculus: it is to be found only in the notion of metaphysical empathy and the understanding of each human being as both phenomenon (that is, as a physical self existing in the world of everyday experiences) and noumenon (an "essence" or moral self). As we have seen, the reasons for the immorality of bestiality are hard to situate in the phenomenon.

So what is it in our moral selves that makes the practice repugnant?

Considering the functions of sex, it seems that the source of the problem must lie in the idea of metaphysical union, the joining of Selves. It is reasonable to hypothesise that there is something intrinsically different between the universal Self of each species and that the attempted merger of two differing Selves in the sexual act is an offence against what might be called "the noumenal order".

In The World as Will and Representation, Arthur Schopenhauer argued that each species can be considered the representation of a Platonic Idea. If the world is the expression in phenomenal form of the noumenon, it is expressed in many grades or forms. Thus, while two rocks of a specific type scarcely differ, higher animals are differentiated into individual forms. Each species of animal reflects a Platonic Idea that captures all that is universal to the species and resides unchanged in its individual forms.

These "species ideas" are the unique manifestations of the noumenon before they appear in the phenomenon. This is what lies behind Schopenhauer’s conclusion that bestiality is "really an offence against the species as such and in the abstract, not against human individuals". As a result, each of us has a moral interest in any act of bestiality.

If this argument holds it provides a basis for judging bestiality as immoral because it violates the essential integrity of both human and animal. The repugnance we feel is an inbuilt mechanism that discourages offences against the noumenal order, a metaphysical reaction that is expressed as a visceral one — perhaps analogous to the physical disgust people feel when confronted by rotten food. If we accept that there is such a thing as the noumenal order, the way we consider the morality of bestiality must change.

Although the interests of an individual animal might not be harmed, the interests of each species can be. Such a view contradicts the rights-based approach shared by post-Kantians (such as Belliotti and John Rawls) and utilitarians (such as Peter Singer), which assesses an act as right or wrong according to how it affects the interests of individuals.

It is worth noting that if there is something existentially distinct between species, the position of animal ethicists — notably Peter Singer, who argue that humans and animals are in the relevant sense the same and their interests should therefore be given equal consideration — is undermined. Accepting Singer’s view has a number of ethical implications, including vegetarianism. The noumenal order I propose leads us to declare bestiality immoral because it violates the essence of the species, but eating meat does not have the same metaphysical implications.

It might seem curious that in setting out to uncover the ethical case against bestiality we end up questioning the ethical case for vegetarianism. It seems we can eat animals but we cannot have sex with them. This is not so surprising when we remember that almost all humans feel disgust at bestiality but not many feel disgust at eating meat.

Of course, this does not mean there are no other reasons for deciding to avoid meat, among them the cruelty inflicted on animals destined for human consumption and the environmental degradation associated with meat production. Nor does it mean an ethical approach to the treatment of animals should disregard their sentience and thus our obligation to respect them as manifestations of the noumenon.

But if we accept our revulsion at bestiality as a given fact it does seem to make intuitive sense that animals are metaphysically distinct from humans. This deepening of our understanding of the noumenon has wider implications for the relationship of humans to the natural world.

This is an edited extract from Clive Hamilton’s latest book, The Freedom Paradox: Towards a Post-Secular Ethics (2008), published by Allen and Unwin.

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