A big thank you to everyone – and I do mean everyone – who has commented on Why children may want to keep a secret. This has been an exceptionally lively debate, now amounting to well over 11,000 words and it ain’t necessarily over yet. Inevitably, some words of real wisdom in all this will be overlooked, failing to make the impression they deserve.

The ones I most strongly feel need to be rescued from oblivion came in a contribution by T. Rivas, when he talked about the development of society over decades or centuries. In his view, “the development of human and ‘even’ animal rights since the period of Enlightenment is part of an inevitable progress in civilization and leaving behind barbarity”. After a certain point, he says, “the moral and emancipatory progress cannot be undone anymore, because it has become an intrinsic part of rational moral progress. This point has been reached with women’s and gay rights in many parts of the Western world and more and more people are realizing that animal rights are simply another strictly logical consequence of respect for the individual. One day, the same will happen with erotic and relational rights of children and pedophiles.”

Heretic TOC will not here be concerned with whether Rivas is right or wrong as to the inevitability of moral progress, except to say that brilliant minds have argued the point at least since the great burgeoning of rationalist optimism in the 18th century Enlightenment to which he refers. The political philosopher John Gray, for example, insists in his book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, that “the old Adam” will out: human moral frailty is always with us; the perfectibility of man is an illusion; our selfishness, arrogance and shortsightedness render us vulnerable to all sorts of disaster, such as man-made climate change apocalypse. Psychologist Steven Pinker, on the other hand, argues in his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature, that we are gradually becoming less violent.  He suggests that moral progress, although not inevitable, is likely to continue thanks to factors which have already proved beneficial, such as increased education, mutual interdependence through trade, and the spread of democracy.

Among those impressed by Pinker’s analysis is moral philosopher Peter Singer, a name particularly relevant here in view of Rivas’s reference to animals, concern for whom was pioneered by Singer in his 1976 book Animal Liberation. When Rivas speaks of “people…realizing that animal rights are simply another strictly logical consequence of respect for the individual”, he appears to be invoking something like historian W.H. Lecky’s concept, developed by Singer, of human concern as an expanding circle which begins with the individual, then embraces the family, then ever wider social groups up to nations, and eventually all humanity and even beyond, with animals included.

There is a long tradition, subscribed to in their very different ways by Hobbes, Kant, Rousseau and numerous other such luminaries, that the needs and interests of individuals might be given consideration if they are rational beings capable of thrashing out between themselves what the rules of good conduct should be. Having agreed on the rules (which find some approximation in law and government) and come to a sort of social contract, social justice is then expressed primarily in terms of individuals’ rights and responsibilities. As non-rational creatures, so the reasoning went, children and animals (and women!) might be owed a duty of care by their “owners” but if they had no responsibilities they could have no rights.

Jeremy Bentham bypassed all that contractual thinking. Regarding animals, he said the key question was not “Can they reason?” but “Can they suffer?” His so-called Utilitarian (a ghastly word which fails to capture the majestic power of the concept) philosophy focused on the amount of happiness or unhappiness we experience, which translates in crude but very important terms to pleasure versus pain. We all know about pain, in particular, whether physical or emotional, and the tremendous imperative to avoid it, especially as regards extreme suffering.

Singer’s approach, like Bentham’s, is Utilitarian. This has enabled him to focus our thinking on making choices that maximize the amount of pleasure we all experience and minimize the pain. The former might sound a bit trivial and hedonistic, but the latter is definitely not, especially when it comes to concerning ourselves with such questions as the horrors and degradation of keeping slaves or exploiting workers in dangerous sweatshops – or the suffering of battery chickens and laboratory animals. What he asks us to do, rather than legalistically concerning ourselves with rational capacity (which includes, incidentally, the concept of “informed consent” as applied to children), and rights tied to responsibilities, is to focus instead on the consequences of our actions when measured against a very clear ethical principle: will our actions tend to increase or decrease the sum total of suffering?

Used properly, this approach can be very illuminating: see for instance the way Singer uses it to test the mettle of our moral beliefs in his essay The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle.  Lesser thinkers than Singer, however, have invalidly seized upon very well known and obvious limitations of “consequentialist” thinking (e.g. the impossibility of predicting the consequences of one’s actions with certainly), in an effort to trash it entirely. I encountered a classic example myself only recently, when a certain person who shall remain nameless sought to consign my review of Margaux Fragoso’s Tiger, Tiger memoir to the garbage can on the basis that it is “wrapped up in consequentialist morality”, as though that automatically invalidated it.  My interlocutor appeared to believe that consequentialism can be used to justify anything, such as slavery. And so it can, if it is misapplied, and all the other major systems of ethics can be misapplied too: “virtue” ethics, for example, can be used lazily to make a virtue of anything that is traditionally approved of, no matter how dubious – “virtuous” paedophiles please note! For instance, even a “proper” philosopher, such as Roger Scruton, manages to conclude that cruelty to animals can be justified as the legitimate pursuit of a virtuous man when it happens to be the traditional pursuit of respected people, such as the fox-hunting English gentry. Ironically, after bad-mouthing consequentialist reasoning, my critic then proceeded to deploy it himself in a way which might be worth examining in a future blog.

For now, though, I’ll just give another prize example – this time used against Singer – of what we might dub “consequentialism abuse”. Perhaps we need a law against it.  Victims such as Singer and myself might then get lots of sympathetic media coverage and be able to claim compensation! This time the villain is one Moshe Averick, who was ordained as a rabbi but became a theology teacher rather than a priest. Unsurprisingly, the rabbi dislikes atheism, and he wrote:

…the logical and philosophical consequences of atheists’ belief systems are inescapable. When asked by journalist William Crawley if he thought that pedophilia was “just wrong”, Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University – a world-famous philosopher of “ethics” – responded as follows:

“I don’t have intrinsic moral taboos. My view is not that anything is just wrong…You’re trying to put words in my mouth.”

Singer went on to explain that he is a “consequentialist.” For the benefit of the philosophically challenged let me explain “consequentialism” in a nutshell: If you like the consequences it’s ethical, if you don’t like the consequences it’s unethical. Thus, if you enjoy child pornography and having sex with children it’s ethical, if you dislike child pornography and having sex with children it’s unethical. In an article entitled Heavy Petting, Singer likewise gave his stamp of approval to bestiality. As a reward for producing such pearls of wisdom, he has been granted the privilege of teaching our children “ethics” at an Ivy League university.

Apart from making it clear via this satirically outrageous misrepresentation why the rabbi does not teach at an Ivy League university, this little extract from his snappily titled article A Plea to Atheists: Pedophilia Is Next On the Slippery Slope; Let Us Turn Back Before It Is Too Late usefully alerts us to matters of rather greater interest than himself. One is the claim that Singer supports “bestiality”, despite the fact that his fame was built on a radical insistence animals should be treated well, with respect and dignity. Another is the hint that Singer may not necessarily be against paedophilia either. But is any of this true?

Let’s take “bestiality” first, as this is easy to check out. The article in question, Heavy Petting, is a review of a book by Dutch biologist Midas Dekkers called Dearest Pet: On Bestiality, which I have read and highly recommend. Singer is careful to say that sexually violent acts towards animals are clearly wrong, but that is not the whole story. He says:

But sex with animals does not always involve cruelty. Who has not been at a social occasion disrupted by the household dog gripping the legs of a visitor and vigorously rubbing its penis against them? The host usually discourages such activities, but in private not everyone objects to being used by her or his dog in this way, and occasionally mutually satisfying activities may develop.

As for paedophilia, Singer has understandably been less forthcoming: he has an Ivy League job, after all, and presumably wants to keep it. So he did not allow journalist William Crawley to put words into his mouth, nor did he rise to the bait, so far as I am aware, when another journalist, William Saletan, in a Slate article none too subtly titled Shag the dog, tried to hook him with this challenge:

What about Singer? He has often compared the mental ability of higher animals to that of children. Does he think this level of comprehension is sufficient to give consent to sex? If the answer is no, isn’t zoophilia wrong? If the answer is yes, isn’t pedophilia OK?

Singer’s fellow philosopher Tom Regan, himself a supporter of animal rights, agrees with the implication from Saletan: the argument that favours “bestiality” could be used to justify having sex with children. Regan writes that Singer’s position is a consequence of his adopting a consequentialist approach to the moral status of animals rather than a strictly rights-based one, and he argues that a rights-based position distances itself from non-consensual sex.

Regan’s position is logical, I think, but that does not mean Singer is wrong; indeed, it would be fascinating to hear what the latter might say about paedophilia were he free to do so without suffering serious consequences. Unfortunately, though, that is a “consequentialist” consideration Singer is unlikely to overlook!