Thursday, May 17, 2007

Bestiality and pedophilia.

Here is a short piece by Peter Singer defending bestiality; and here is a response by William Saletan.

Singer's argument is pretty straightforward. Humans are basically animals themselves. So, there's nothing obviously wrong (in the sense of undignified) with having sex with an animal, unless the animal or the human is being harmed. But that's not necessarily the case. So, bestiality can be justified.

Saletan's response is also pretty straightforward. He sees, correctly, that he can't touch Singer on the harm issue. So he moves to consent instead, and tries to argue that animals can't (in any meaningful sense) consent to sexual activity with humans. As Saletan notes, this leaves the problem of figuring out why it's okay to eat meat: surely animals don't consent to that, either. So, consent can't be the whole story; but, rather than flesh out this concern, Saletan takes an odd detour into concerns about pedophilia. He claims that those who defend consent as a necessary condition for sexual activity can consistently reject both bestiality and pedophilia, as neither animals nor children can (meaningfully) consent. However, he claims that since Singer has, repeatedly, claimed that animals and children can have comparable (particularly, mental) capacities, it would seem that Singer must endorse pedophilia.

I think Saletan's clearly barking up the wrong tree -- I couldn't resist -- on the pedophilia issue. Singer can always fall back on harm. It's very, very dubious that sexual activity between adults and children is ever not harmful to the child. It's logically possible, I suppose; but if the logical possibility never obtains in fact, then who cares? It's a theoretical dangler, of little to no interest.

The more interesting approach to the pedophilia problem with respect to Singer is his argument that we can't draw any kind of a line between ourselves and even the bulk of other animals, because there's no clear division, biologically, between humans and apes, or apes and primates, or primates and other mammals, etc. Similarly, though, there's no clear division between adults and children. Legally, there is a line, but I don't know off-hand of anyone who thinks that the line so drawn is anything other than arbitrary. (If you think it isn't, I'd like to know why it couldn't be moved, say, a month in either direction.) The only way I can see to get out of the problem is to either (a) bite the bullet and admit that pedophilia is morally permissible (a horrible result, but a possible move), or (b) fall back on an analysis in terms of paradigms instead of lines.

Let me explain. When doing some good ol'-fashioned conceptual analysis, there's always different ways one could proceed. One way is to try to draw sharp lines between different categories of things, sometimes by defining categories in terms of species and genus (Aristotle, if I recall correctly; those aren't the biological uses of the terms, incidentally), sometimes by defining categories in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. That method falls apart whenever there's a fuzzy case, though. It has to fall clearly into one category or the other, but which and why? Another method, though, is to proceed by paradigms, i.e., to identify a selection of cases which clearly fall on one side of the line, and a selection which clearly fall on the other. This allows for the possibility of indeterminate cases -- they're simply insufficiently paradigmatic for judgements about similarity to paradigms to decide the matter. That's not a nice result, but it's not a disaster.

I think something like that can be applied here. There doesn't have to be some special human dignity to divide humans from animals, nor does there have to be a clear demarcation between adults and children. Clearly, a 9-year-old is a child; clearly, a 45-year-old is an adult. A severely developmentally-delayed 29-year-old may qualify as a child, due to resembling the 9-year-old more than the 45-year-old. A 16-year-old may sufficiently resemble both the 9-year-old and the 45-year-old that it qualifies as an indeterminate case. That would solve the pedophilia problem, for Singer could claim (and test, empirically) that children (those that resemble the paradigm of the 9-year-old) are harmed by sexual activity with adults (those that resemble the paradigm of the 45-year-old).

So far, so good. This also introduces a way to divide humans from animals -- an animal is something that resembles chipmunks and spiders and bears, a human is something that resembles me and you, and dolphins or chimps may be sufficiently borderline to count as indeterminate. Since Singer is still deploying a harm criterion, unless it could be demonstrated (which it probably can't) that everything that's clearly in the animal category is harmed by sexual activity with anything that's in the human category, it would still follow that bestiality is okay.

Thus, then, Singer can be saved from Saletan's critique. Generally, though, I don't buy most of Singer's arguments on anything. Singer is the kind of philosopher who latches on to a couple of principles and tries to run their consequences as far as he can. That's not the way I work; I tend to use a whole network of principles, rules of thumb, and ideas more nebulous than that. The idea of human dignity and its connection to sex -- that Singer just chucks out -- seems to be something that needs discussion and augmentation, and would probably serve to supplant Singer's harm criterion. So, that would probably lead to a very different conclusion on the permissibility of bestiality.

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