Monday, January 09, 2006

Episode 114


  1. allow me to run the risk of inviting real debate:

    Does someone have a good argument against having sex with animals even if the animals do not suffer?

    Seems to me as if Singer is right

  2. Is this going to be an aesthetics debate? 'Cause I just don't think that animals are sexy.

    On a more serious note, I've not really thought about the topic. Here's something from the top of my head.

    Is there a difference between sex with a person and sex with another animal in the same way that there is a difference between sex with an adult and sex with a child? Is beatiality the equivalent to statuatory rape?

  3. I doubt we have very good reasons to be opposed to sex with animals.

    Matteson makes a joke, but he's got hold of something important. I suspect the reason most of us don't approve of sex with sheep or dogs or whatever is because it strikes us as being gross, or aesthetically bad. That's probably what motivates "ethical" objections to homosexuality too, even if we talk of other things.

    Things like: If everyone did that, it would spell the end of humanity.

    This argument is bogus for the same reason that any argument of this sort is bogus. It would mean that being a doctor would be unethical, or, frankly, doing anything at all might be. Since, of course, if EVERYBODY did that, we wouldn't have stuff we need. Like food, or philosophers, or whatever.

    A better version might run: If some significant proportion of people did that, we'd be in trouble.

    What would be a "significant proportion"? Who knows? I guess that would depend on what your ideal birth rate is per year. Then, if sex with animals somehow kept people from having sex with people, and contributed to the dip in birth rate below your ideal, then we'd have a 'significant proportion.' And we'd have a case for thinking sex with Rex is a bad idea.

    But there is no reason to suspect that people are not now having sex with animals because we think it unethical. Further, there is no reason to suspect that if we said it was all right to have sex with animals, that everyone and their dog would start making love to Lassie. Except for the dog. The dog would love to sleep with Lassie.

    Notice, too, that this argument would make being a priest an ethically questionable thing. If we thought it all right for people to become priests, why then lots of people might become priests! And if lots of people become priests, then there will be fewer children. Being a priest is therefore unethical. QED.

    Alternatively, some might appeal to naturalness, or some story about how we are not made to be making love to dogs and cats and so on. We are made to make love to one another.

    I've never bought any "natural" sorts of arguments, and this one is as bad as the rest. Supposing we could figure out just what is "natural" in these cases (and don't think it's obvious. It's obvious because it's conventional. But just what is and isn't natural is up in the air in plenty of cases. Like showering. Is that natural? Or heart transplants. And so on.), just what is so pressing about "naturalness" anyway? Why should we live "naturally?" What's better about doing things in accord with nature than doing them in a way that doesn't correspond with nature? Suppose jumping on one foot is unnatural. Is that even a hint of a reason not to jump on one foot?

    But, you'll say, jumping on one foot is inconsequential. Nothing bad follows, nothing good follows, it's a matter of indifference. If you say that, then it looks like all the work is being done by the consequences, and none by the naturalness.

    Maybe you think something being natural is a clue to what is best. There may be exceptions, but we have a nice evolutionary story to tell about the success of certain patterns of behaviour, and certain opinions about other patterns of behaviour. Like (as Terrence recently told me) we seem to have a cross-cultural taboo on mother-son incest. It's just something we don't do, and it's something that grosses most of us out (more than a few of us would relegate this to the "unthinkable" category). So we don't have sex with animals because precedent has been set, and it's something we just don't do.

    What's wrong with it? Who knows, it's just something we haven't done, and have intuitions about it being a bad thing, and a wrong thing.

    I think this is probably the best reason available, and, unlike (I guess) most philosophers, I take this one seriously. One reason to think a particular way about something is because most everyone else thinks that way about a particular something. You'll say that that's appeal to majority, and I'll say that I don't think that's a fallacy in all cases. In special cases, appeal to majority or tradition is probably just fine.

  4. Mike,

    To quickly respond to the second part of your comment, I think that the comparison between bestiality and statutory rape is quite apt. However, I'm uncertain that this is a reason to reject bestiality as impermissable (assuming that was your intention). Statutory rape, as far as I'm concerned, is wrong because of the harm it does to the child. If no harm were done, I don't see what the problem would be. Analogously, if the animal does not suffer, as Arthur put it, what reason do we have to reject bestiality? Now, one might argue, either in the case of the child or the animal, that the act itself necessitates a harm being done, but I think this would have to be argued for. Personally, I see no grounds for labelling either act as impermissable outright.

  5. I’m glad we brought up this topic. I think it’s the most important part of the moralist/shmoralist debate. (according to Simon Blackburn a “shmoralist” is one who accepts J.L. Mackie’s contention that we invent right and wrong as opposed to a moralist who does not) If we invent or don’t invent right and wrong, it isn’t going to affect our aversion to violent crime. But it will affect how we look at sex.
    If shmoralism is right and we invent right and wrong then there is no such thing as a sexual practice that is categorically unethical. Inventing right and wrong seems to favor minimizing harm. The only sexual practice that is off limits is one that harms someone else. As Singer has noted, bestiality probably doesn’t harm the animal. Both the animal of the two legged and four-legged kind find it enjoyable. The same goes for sex with a minor, sex with a major, even sex with a corpse. But what if we don’t invent right and wrong? What if there is something about sex that goes deeper than pleasure. What if shmoralism is wrong?
    Now Peter J. has rightly said moralists resort to natural law or function arguments to argue for some sexual ethics and that we don’t invent right and wrong. They often commit this fallacy we can call the “extinction fallacy” If you can will your action as universal moral law and it ends up destroying civilization as we know it, then don’t do your action. Peter’s right, this precludes people becoming priests or from engaging in any dangerous activity from skydiving to listening incessantly to Celine Dion. However, at the risk of being the ant at the J L Mackie memorial picnic, let me suggest that there might be another way of justifying sexual ethics without resorting to the “extinction” form of the categorical imperative.

    So the argument goes:

    1. If we invent right and wrong there is no such thing as sexual ethics (i.e. there is nothing inherently wrong with bestiality, sex with minors, etc. as long as there is no harm--and the more harm, the worse the act)

    2. Attitudes about sex aren’t just about sex. They have the potential to affect other areas of our lives. They are connected to our beliefs about other things.

    3. Having no sexual ethics creates the possibility of un-virtuous behavior

    4. The possibility of becoming vicious is reason enough to make a virtuous person abstain from that behavior.

    5. Therefore, the virtuous person should oppose the idea that there are no sexual ethics (from 3 & 4)

    6. A virtuous person should not consider himself as more privileged than others in terms of virtue and vice and its effects. (a virtuous person should just worry about themselves)

    7. Therefore, the possibility of many people becoming vicious should make a virtuous person morally opposed to anyone engaging in vicious behavior.

    8. Therefore, a virtuous person should oppose the propagation of the idea that there is no such thing as sexual ethics for all people.

    Now by “oppose” I don’t mean necessarily criminalization. Opposition might take the form of trying to convince everyone he or she sees (say on a blog like this one) that there is such a thing as sexual ethics and that accepting sex with animals is accepting a particular view about sex that will make us bad people.
    Now let me unpack a few of these premises. I will assume that premise one is fairly uncontroversial. Notice when I say there is no sexual ethic. I don’t mean if we invent right and wrong there is no real ethics. On the contrary, ethics gets really focused. Harm really becomes a major issue. I just mean there is no “sexual” ethic
    per se. If we invent right and wrong there is nothing special about sex. It is an instrumental good. Pleasure seems to be the default unqualified good that sex is instrumental in achieving. (Someone might argue beauty or some other good is the unqualified one, but most shmoralists seem to opt for pleasure as the end of the sex.)
    Premise two might be a bit more controversial. My contention is that if we say sex is merely an instrumental good then it becomes just one more instrumental good within our belief system. In order to be consistent, we would have to believe all instrumental goods are for pleasure. This means that what we accept about sexuality is really what we accept about gratifying pleasure as a whole. So our attitudes about sex aren’t screened off from our attitudes about pleasure. If we
    accept that sex with animals is legitimate, as we would have to do if premise one is true, then we accept that sex is about pleasure satisfaction.
    Premise three is where I get into trouble. I mentioned virtue (stop making that face!). I will admit that my whole argument rests on whether or not some form of virtue ethics is justified. Which means my argument rests on whether on not we accept that we invent right and wrong. If we invent right and wrong, maybe virtues are just invented. But consider the following possible implications of accepting that
    there are no sexual ethics:

    1)Is it possible that we could become people who interested in net pleasure rather than avoiding harm? If we are inventing right and wrong and what is important about avoiding harm as long as at the end of it all there is more pleasure than pain, why worry about harm? What makes harm so all fired bad? What if Dolly really doesn’t appreciate being surprised in the barn? As long as the net pleasure is maximized what’s the problem? The same goes for sex with minors too.

    2)Is it possible that we could become people who would rationalize and
    paternalize pleasure calculation: If we get Billy’s permission to pictures of him having sex on the internet (hey, Billy you’ll be famous!) then there is more net pleasure than harm. After all Billy is a child and can’t calculate all of the pleasure very well. An adult like Father Tom or Uncle John can calculate whether the sex is really is good for both a lot better. Or maybe we think a 14 year old is capable of seeing all the ramifications of sex with an adult on a semi-regular basis?

    3)If sex is seen completely as pleasure satisfaction (and occasionally for procreation) and the more pleasure the better, why not have three wives and three husbands. Pleasure for everyone. But polygamy is illegal you would say. Pish Posh, why worry about legality, if sex is just pleasure satisfaction, then why worry about any sort of binding commitment. Couples would stay together as long as they blooming well want to. They leave when they want to. What’s the big deal?

    So then it is reasonable to assume that if we accept that there are no sexual ethics, It could lead to callousness about harm (as long as there is more pleasure overall than harm, we are okay)? It could lead to manipulation and paternalism when it comes to sex with minors. It could lead to people no longer valuing committed relationships. It could lead to people calculating that since sexual pleasure and the pleasure associated with harming others aren’t really that different.
    With premise four, I might get into trouble with more than shmoralists. We could believe in virtue theory without believing that the mere possibility that an action could lead to viciousness is reason enough to abstain from it. This is I think the weakest premise in my argument even if you accept virtue ethics. Feel free to nail me on this.
    Premise six merely holds the virtue ethicist up to the same standard as the utilitarian (or consequentialist). One of the objections Mill made (I think) was that ethics should not privilege the point of view of the individual. It should apply to all people.
    Seven and eight I think follow from six, so I won’t belabor those. I would be particularly interested in criticisms that would show me where I’m wrong about seven and eight.
    Now one might say something like this: Miles, all you’ve done is modified your own self-titled “extinction” fallacy. Even if it were true that changing our sexual ethics . . . I mean changing our views on sexuality . . . would end up where you say (and I’m not so sure your right), it doesn’t follow that we should stigmatize sex with animals or that I . . . or a friend of mine actually . . . should feel guilty about having a rendezvous with a sheep.
    To this I respond, a virtuous person doesn’t do things that might reasonably result in her becoming un-virtuous and opposes those things that have the potential to make others vicious. I have argued that accepting that there are no sexual ethics at all reasonably leads to being un-virtuous about other things. Virtue ethics says the most important thing is what our action will make us become. Sex isn’t pursued in a vacuum. Our attitudes toward sex affect the whole self (if you think you have one). It affects how we look at all pleasure not just sexual pleasure.
    I’m sure I’ve missed something here. And someone will point it out to me. But if nothing else this whole discussion brings to light is that there is a lot at stake with whether one is a moralist or a shmoralist about right and wrong. So we have one more reason to suggest moralism really is quite different than shmoralism.

  6. Jonathan,

    Great post. I'll take a crack at a few of your points, but there are others I'll need to think about for a bit before responding.

    First, I'm not sure that the moralist/shmoralist distinction is as relevant here as you think it is. I suspect that there are moralists and moral realists who also deny that sexuality carries any uniquely ethical questions. Nagel comes to mind, but I also wonder about Brink, for example, who is a Realist, and a utilitarian. It seems as if the driving force of your argument comes from the virtue ethics camp, not from moralism generally.

    There is a slippery slope argument at work here (premises 1-5), and there is reason for everyone, not just virtue theorists to worry about this slope. The assertion is that certain kinds of "harmless" behavior, since they break norm x, can lead to certain other kinds of "harmful" behavior. We have norm x for such a reason, so let's not break norm x. Harmless is in scare quotes, obviously, because the thought is that the act itself may be harmless but lead to future harm.

    Utilitarians, though you seem to picture us skiing gleefully down the slope, are concerned about this, because certainly it is a psychological occurrence that we're familiar with. The US military takes advantage of precisely this slope when training soldiers. They need soldiers that will kill a human when ordered to, and since normal folks will not do so, they need to break down certain societal and psychological barriers. If a utilitarian (either a realist or anti-realist)were shown evidence that having sex with a sheep would have adverse future effects, the utilitarian would need to take that into account. This could be some external phenomenon, but I agree that it could be related to character. Utilitarians ought to be concerned with character in this regard: it seems possible that doing an act affects my character, which in turn, makes me more likely to act in a certain way. It is surely not a central concern - we do not value good character for its own sake, but for what it can bring about.

    That said, your premises 3 and 4 are open to empirical scrutiny. They are claims about what certain kinds of acts will do to someone's character, and then how a certain type of character will act. If I were shown a study that found that sheep-fuckers (that's really fun to type) were more likely to harm humans than non sheep-fuckers, then I'd probably consider a prohibition on sheep-fucking. I suspect that this is not the case, but I'm willing to admit that such a thing is not impossible. It should be noted that attempts have been made on similar grounds to show that homosexuals are more likely than heterosexuals to commit sex crimes, and this is certainly false.

    I would add that you mention a couple of different slippery slopes, a few of which I want to negate. The evidence is overwhelming that performing sex acts on children causes them long-term emotional damage. This is good reason to prohibit it. A 20 year old having consentual sex with a 14 year old, though illegal, I doubt falls into the same category, but maybe there's evidence that that's harmful too.

    Though sex may be entirely about pleasure satisfaction, there may be reasons not to be polygamous (though it can't be ruled out categorically). I haven't seen studies, but I know lots of people who find great pleasure in long-term monogamy. A one-night stand might bring me some brief pleasure, but measured against ruining a relationship which will be fulfilling for decades, it is not worth it. Polygamous relationships tend to be unequal (such as one man with 5 wives) and therefore I suspect that there is a certain amount of control going on. There are likely other reasons to resist polygamy also, but I have to say that I can imagine plenty of scenarios in which it might work just fine. Arguments for against polygamy have the burden of showing that it causes harm.

    A small note about sexual ethics: I wonder what the virtue theorist with a code of sexual ethics would think about cultures with radically different sexual practices. A tribe in Papua New Guinea I read about comes to mind. They believe that in order for a boy to become a man and produce semen, the boy must ingest the semen from another man. The more this happens as a boy (I seem to remember), the stronger the seed will be when the boy grows up. Aside from being obviously innacurrate as a scientific theory, it is shocking to many people. Not just for the homosexuality, but because this is probably not fully consentual (the way we would conceive of consent). Nevertheless, the culture has thrived for centuries with this practice without it causing destabilization or the increase in adult rape. I'll try and find the study if anyone's interested.

    I haven't fully responded to your argument, but I hope I've opened it up a little. I'm interested in what others think about it.

  7. Jonathan - I agree with Arthur, you have a fine post here, and one worthy of plenty of attention.

    My main concern, however, is that you appear to admit the main point of the consequentialist argument. Namely, that what matters are consequences of actions (and current and future harms) rather than some inherent "fact" about the rightness or wrongness of a particular action.

    I wrote: "But, you'll say, jumping on one foot is inconsequential. Nothing bad follows, nothing good follows, it's a matter of indifference. If you say that, then it looks like all the work is being done by the consequences, and none by the naturalness."

    Notice that your argument appeals to consequence and not to metaphysical facts about right and wrong, or something similar. All the persuasive work, it seems to me, is being done by arguing that, without some sort of sexual ethics, harm will follow. As Arthur makes plain, that's an empirical question. But I strongly doubt that you would be willing to look at the empirical matter as being decisive in this debate. Instead, you would probably say that there is a sexual ethic, that sex with animals is wrong, even if no harm follows.

    I'm interested in the other questions as well, and I will get to them, because I think you and I agree a great deal (especially if we take a Hayekian position on the issue of possible psychological connections between one act and another, and the role of tradition and consensus within an evolutionary story... but that's inside baseball). But here's the big big question I'd like you to answer:

    Supposing sex with animals lead to no harm at all, would there still be something wrong with it? Supposing, that is, there were no psychological connections between doing Dolly and doing other bad things (harms), there was no slippery slope that led to bad outcomes (harms), and the act itself caused only pleasure and no harm, would you still say that it is wrong?