Cory Bernardi is right, in Peter Singer’s world

Senator Cory Bernardi has been reviled for associating homosexuality with something repugnant, bestiality. Yet Australia has just awarded its highest civilian honour to a philosopher who provides a moral defence of sex with animals.

Professor Peter Singer, the renowned Australian philosopher at Princeton University, believes that the taboo on bestiality is an anomaly, a prohibition that will crumble like all the others. But in the last Queen’s Birthday honours list he was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) for “eminent service to philosophy and bioethics”. The award is equivalent to a knighthood in Britain—Sir Peter Singer.

In defending “consensual” sex between humans and animals Singer is concerned only with whether the sexual contact is “mutually satisfying”. What it means for an animal to give consent to sex with a human is unclear. Wag your tail three times for a yes Fido? And the same criterion of mutual satisfaction could be used to justify sex between adults and children. Indeed, pedophiles have been known to deploy just that argument.

If Singer’s moral universe were to pertain, Bernardi would be quite right to claim that we are on a slippery slope to having sex with animals, a slope on which gay marriage is but a way station. Yet Bernardi is excommunicated from respectable society for articulating a slippery slope argument while Singer is given its top honour for celebrating it.

Singer’s advocacy of animal rights and charitable giving has won him a wide following, although most of his supporters seem to agree with his conclusions without grasping the implications of his arguments, which is perhaps why so many, including those who advise the Governor-General, seem willing to pass over his scandalous positions. The defence of bestiality is not his only breach, nor the worst.

Singer is famous too for endorsing infanticide. He argues that newborn infants are not rational or self-conscious and therefore do not deserve the regard that more fully developed humans are owed. In his view, the life of a newborn is of less worth than the life of a self-conscious adult or a higher animal.

So in his book Practical Ethics he writes that “human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons … [and] the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee”.

Singer explicitly rejects all notions of the sanctity of human life. He has argued that the decision over whether an infant with even a mild disability should live or die can be left to the parents. If the parents believe that they will be blessed with a healthy baby next time around then they may kill the defective one because doing so will maximize the amount of happiness of all concerned.

Professor Singer’s defence of infanticide contradicts the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all humans as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Forms of social engineering that disregard these rights have in the past been used to justify elimination of “defective” members of society.

The victims are first dehumanized, although usually not in such a clinical fashion as Singer does when he equates humans with great apes and replaces the sanctity of human life with an evaluation of the individual’s “rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness”. The disturbing proximity of Singer’s defence of infanticide and Nazi eugenics explains why he is persona non grata in Germany.

The philosophy that leads Singer to these and other anti-human conclusions—a form of utilitarianism—is rooted in an autistic faith in rationality at the expense of feelings of empathy and compassion. In Singer’s utilitarianism there is nothing inherently good or bad; there are only decisions based on the assessment of preferences.

Singer’s philosophy is the same bloodless moral calculus that underpins free market economics. The same ultra-rationality that justifies the killing of defective infants also allows neoclassical economists to argue that it makes perfect sense for rich countries to dump their lethal toxic waste in poor countries where the value of life is lower, as former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers did when he was chief economist at the World Bank.

Professor Singer has a right to be heard and the fact that his views are contrary to the shared ethical sentiments of Australian society should not in itself disqualify him from official recognition. But the weird glossing over of his cold-blooded views is hard to comprehend when the same views expressed by others are met with widespread condemnation.

It is one thing to regard Singer’s defence of infanticide and bestiality as provocative contributions to public debate; yet if Cory Bernardi has been spurned by respectable society because he used the near-universal revulsion at bestiality to smear a social group, why has respectable society given legitimacy to Singer’s support for bestiality by bestowing on him its highest form of official esteem?

(Published in The Conversation, 25 September 2012)


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