Bestiality is, in fact, wrong. What a world we live in, where that sentence needs writing. Of course, to be fair, recent discussion has not quite argued that bestiality is, in fact, good. Rather Tom Chivers, in his recent foray on the subject, wanted to claim there was no rational argument for why bestiality is wrong, particularly compared to, e.g., eating meat. Now, if Mr Chivers spoke just for himself, this would be a mere ripple in a teacup; but he represents a wider set of assumptions shared among progressive western liberals, particularly those who see themselves as “rationalists” or “utilitarians”, and those assumptions affect moral and political issues far outside the niche realm of man-horse love. Especially since that caste of elite progressives hold disproportionate influence in Western society, in academia, business and politics.
Within the moral framework of rationalists, there is no rational argument against bestiality
To be fair to the “rationalists”, they are right about their own assumptions. Within their moral framework, there is no rational argument against bestiality. But that is just a demonstration of how one-dimensional and stunted that moral framework is, not a deep insight into ethics in general. There are rational arguments against bestiality that do not depend on sheer “disgust”, but not within a moral outlook that believes the only things that really matter are harm and consent.
Self-identified “rationalists” are attracted to that framework because it flattens out ethical thinking, making it abstract and almost numerical. They approach ethics with thought experiments like the famous Trolley Problem, hoping if you strip ethical issues down to a simple model you can get to the core of them. This tries to replicate the approach of mathematical or economic modelling in ethics, hoping to create the possibility of equivalent rigour or rationality. Now, that last statement may already have made you snort into your tea. The record of economic modelling, or most recently, Covid modelling, does not exactly inspire total confidence, even less so by analogy.
And that caution is justified. To paraphrase Einstein, things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. Physics can do marvels with only Newton’s few laws and a bit of trigonometry. But once you’re dealing with people, things get far more difficult, as any social scientist could tell you. In dealing with ethics things get more complex again, because it is the details of a situation, and the full range of values involved, that determines its nature. Literature and history both provide a far more useful armoury of moral problems, because when done well, they present life in its complexity. Both the complexity of individual emotions and intentions, and of interacting external responsibilities. Thought Experiments like the Trolley Problem have no answer because they abstract away relevant values that would allow you to decide the correct action in reality. This is not making a problem simple, it’s making it simplistic.
When “rationalists” are in a more accommodating mood they often refer to Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, as Chivers does. This discusses psychological research that shows whereas liberals (in the American sense) think of morality almost solely in terms of harm and fairness; conservatives (including almost all non-westerners) think that morality includes further principles like loyalty, sanctity and authority. While it’s good Haidt became aware of that fact, and that he has enlightened others, it’s odd they should need such a book, like a field report from some Victorian anthropologist, rather than just talking to the people around them.
It should be rapidly apparent when engaging in almost any political or ethical discussion in Western society that the sides involved – whether on Abortion or Brexit – do not just disagree about the facts, neither is one side generally logical and the other illogical, rather each approaches the problem with a different set of moral priorities. The result is that on various issues, most public discussion just involves people begging the question at an increasingly loud volume.
The sides involved in almost any political or ethical discussion in Western society approach the problem with a different set of moral priorities
Writing a Century ago, the philosopher Max Scheler argued that different societies and individuals can hold different logically coherent ethical frameworks because they prioritise different values, or have a different conception of those values. For example, what “freedom” means in different countries and societies. In America the right to own a gun is considered a core component of freedom, in Britain it is not. In Britain there is strong resistance to ID cards and banning items of clothing, in France ID cards are accepted, and the Niqab is illegal. Much more important historical developments in moral attitudes almost always reflect changes in the accepted structure of values as much as changes to material facts: whether the Christian rejection of infanticide and embrace of charity in the Ancient World, the shift to seeing slavery as an absolute evil, or the growing acceptance of homosexuality in the last century.
Scheler argues these cases are not just examples of moral relativism, but rather shifts in the values we are aware of, how we conceptualise them, and how we prioritise them; hopefully from less profound values to more fundamental and noble ones. To analyse this kind of change properly, determining whether it is for good or ill, can only be done by understanding the nuances of values involved, and so being able to properly weigh them against one another and come to a fully informed decision. A moral framework that takes pride in recognising as relevant as few values as possible is the opposite of a rigorous, “scientific” approach.
We can see this applied to our original topic of bestiality, though it applies more importantly to many of the ethical and political issues that plague our society. Having sex with an animal is more immoral than killing and eating it. Sex intrinsically reflects our personality, our existence and dignity as moral persons, and our ethical regard and perception of ourself and others. It is intimate. This is recognised, in different ways, in our ethics around casual sex as well as life-long marriage; it’s why sexual assault is a different crime to assault, it’s why there are situations in law that allow a person to be killed but never to be raped.
I think, trolling to one side, Chivers is aware of this as well, as shown by a slip at the end of his article. “I will go on record here and say that, yes, morally, it is worse to have animals tortured and eaten than it is to allow them to have sex with you.” But of course, while we do allow animals to be killed and eaten, we have laws against them being tortured, and there is nothing inconsistent about that either. Animals are not persons with an individual right-to-life, but torturing them would cause suffering for no purpose, and degrade the person who does it, and so is rightly prohibited.
These lines of argument may appear like sophism to people who share the rationalist’s limited moral framework, but there is nothing illogical or irrational about them. The rationalist has an intuition that only fairness and harm really matter, but that is no more rational, and far less common, than the intuition that other things matter too.
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