I have often heard the reason given for bestiality being wrong is that animals are incapable of giving consent.

However, I'm a meat eater - I regularly eat animals that have been raised, slaughtered and butchered for me to eat in a manner that (in most jurisdictions) no human would be able to consent to.

I tend to believe Bestiality to be wrong but feel I cannot use the "consent" justification, and struggle to find a different one.

Is there a consistent approach to this that doesn't render me a hypocrite?

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    Can't we just say "Eating is a survival need" and be done with it? Eating meat might in contemporary society be done away with in the provision of suitable human sustenance, and we might reasonably argue that more ethical alternatives exist which you should pursue instead, but in a hypothetical scenario of a human society where such did not exist, you would be justified in eating meat, whereas no form of self-sustenance involves you having sex with animals.
    – Paul Ross
    Jul 20 at 20:02
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    The consent argument was always a poor one. It is a transparent attempt to walk back the consequences of sexual libertinism in order to rule out bestiality and pedophilia, but "consent" in this context is a merely legal term without moral or philosophical implications. Jul 20 at 20:23
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    There surely are some strong taboos around animals, not only sexual but also about what species are open for consumption as food (for example I vividly remember being strongly criticized for having, once, tasted whale meat while in Japan. Might as well have said I tried human flesh...). I think the main reason people oppose bestiality but not slaughtering is that they find the former icky while the latter is done far from them and provides them with yummy food. I do find it gross myself, but at least from a utilitarian perspective at least I see no reason to prohibit it.
    – armand
    Jul 20 at 23:03
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    Perhaps consider the antithetical position; if having non-consensual sex with another human is less damnable than murdering them (aside from whether you wish to eat their body, take their possessions etc), then on what grounds would you say that having sex with an animal is more damnable than killing it?
    – Frog
    Jul 21 at 5:14
  • Just stop eating animals if you cannot justify that it is necessary for you! That's the consistent approach that doesn't render you a hypocrite.
    – user21820
    Jul 30 at 17:08

As you note, the "consent" objection to bestiality is unconvincing, and not only because animals presumably do not consent to being eaten, but also because "consent" is a legal term that has no objective relevance. In legalese, "consent" is not the same as "willingness". In many jurisdictions, there is an age of consent such that someone below that age can be willing to have sex, but they can't consent to have sex. Obviously nothing magical happens on a person's 18th birthday; they don't magically acquire knew powers of judgment, so this is an arbitrary division put there for legal reasons (when I say "arbitrary" I don't mean that there is no justification for laws about consent; I mean that the dividing line is arbitrary).

As far as I know, even the legal definition doesn't apply to animals, so the notion of a distinction between consent and willingness doesn't even apply in bestiality, and there are certainly cases where animals are willing to engage in sexual activities with humans.

There are other moral arguments for why bestiality is wrong, but those arguments inevitably lead to other things being wrong that people don't want to think are wrong. One argument has to do with proper function and disordered desires. The argument goes like this: our bodies are designed to function in a certain way, and our parts have specific purposes. The digestive/elimination system, for example is designed to nourish the body, but eating is pleasurable even when it is not nourishing, so some people are prone to a disordered desire to eat more than they need. It is morally wrong to give in to this disordered desire.

This position leads to the conclusion that it is wrong to eat more than you need, and it is especially wrong to eat and purge, which abuses both the eating and the elimination functions of your body. Smoking would also be morally wrong because it abuses the function of your lungs.

Sex would be just another example of a bodily function with a specific purpose. Sex has the purpose of propagating the species and of creating male/female emotional bonds (to keep the male around to help the female support the children). This would imply that any sex other than than vaginal intercourse between a bonded male/female pair is immoral. In particular, masturbation and sodomy would be wrong.

Now, the words "function" and "purpose" don't have any moral implications on their own. The function of a claw hammer is to pound and pull nails, but that doesn't mean it would be immoral to use the claw hammer to break through a wall. Similarly, the function of the sex organs is to reproduce, but that does not mean that it would be immoral to use them for other purposes. Therefore, we need an additional premise or an additional argument to move from function or purpose to moral obligations.

One thing we could do is to have a simple moral axiom (a premise that is just known to be true and is not the conclusion of an argument). If you believe that moral truth is objective and real (as opposed to subjective or reducible to another form of truth), then you have to admit the existence of moral axioms. That is, there are moral truths that are just true; they can't be explained or justified on other grounds.

Most people do believe in moral axioms at some level, although they acknowledge different axioms. Some people believe there is an axiomatic moral obligation to support family members. Others believe that there is an axiomatic moral obligation not to torture people. Others believe that there is an axiomatic moral obligation not to indulge disordered appetites.

If you don't accept that last moral axiom, there are other arguments to justify the prohibition on disordered appetites. These arguments must appeal to some more fundamental moral principle. One example would be an appeal to God's will. The idea is that God designed the human body to function in a certain way, and that we have an obligation to follow God's will.

Another example would be an appeal to the moral axiom that we have an obligation to live our best possible life. Indulging in disordered appetites will have consequences, some we can predict and some that we cannot. These consequences may be physical, emotional, social, or something else, and although we can't be certain the consequences are all bad, we can reasonably assume that doing things that are unnatural will lead to consequences that are against our nature. Indulging these passions, then, is an immorally reckless behavior.

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    The argument of design is not a robust one, so much so that it can be used to justify about anything. Ever noticed how the human arm is just long enough to reach and manipulate our genitals without effort ? How a male hand is just rightly sized to grab and shake ones own penis? It fits perfectly, and it's pleasurable, as if our body had been designed purposefully so that we can all masturbate all day long. It must be God's will. Those who refuse to masturbate should be stoned. And don't get me started on how a human penis can fit in a goat's privy. It can't be a coincidence... Etc...
    – armand
    Jul 21 at 7:07
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    This is not a serious response. Purpose and function are not determined by mere mechanical possibility. Jul 21 at 8:24
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    Then by what ? It's tongue in cheek but very serious. Isn't your purpose of vaginal intercourse determined only by mere mechanical possibility and your preconceived opinion as to its purpose ? What if the purpose of sex was pleasure, and reproduction a mere by-product of it? Outside of scripture or revelation, which count for nothing as anyone can write whatever and claim it to be the word of God, what allows you to claim that its purpose is reproduction and not mere pleasure? Or what if simply this whole notion of purpose for naturally occurring mechanics just made no sense ?
    – armand
    Jul 21 at 9:40
  • Think about all the impracticalities of reproduction, the necessity to find and convince a mate, the fact that women are fertile only about 20% of the time, the mechanical problems I won't get into details here... On the other hand (pun intended) everything about masturbation is easy. Clearly, if we assume we have been designed for a purpose and just consider the facts and not some old book written by goat herders who didn't know much about anything, God purposely made us to jerk off.
    – armand
    Jul 21 at 9:50
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    @armand, my purpose in the answer was to offer an alternative to the consent objection, not to prove the truth of classical teleology. Still, practically everybody who studies biology without philosophical or religious preconceptions concludes that the purpose of the sexual organs is reproduction. It is the obvious and natural conclusion. It is, however, a judgment (much like moral axioms), and so can be rejected by someone who does not have the same judgment. Jul 21 at 18:14

Although you can't legislate morality, it's an interesting insight to look at the legal history.

Bestiality is legal in a number of US states, largely legal in Canada, and legal in three European countries.

The earliest sodomy laws were focused on the perceived loss of status and authority by someone recieving penetration, in a highly patriarchal world focused on military preparedness (eg Ancient Rome). The origins of bestiality laws were in how sodomy was defined, which used to be a much more general term, meaning in some contexts almost any non-reproductive sexual act.

Sodomy was not defined explicitly. In the biblical account of the destruction of Sodom it was allegedly for their sins of 'haughtiness and egoism' and attempted (same sex) rape as a public punishment of strangers. Penetration of males in the ancient world was seen as a violation of maleness, identified with being able to have personal sovereignty (in societies where women couldn't own property or represent themselves in court). Many bestiality laws, like Canada's, still focus on penetration as defining the crime.

Rape as only about consent is in some ways a modern concept, with marital rape only made illegal in the UK in 1992, for instance. A wife's ability to give consent or not to her husband was effectively forfeited at marriage.

Jonathan Haidt has done a lot of practical research on morality, moral intuitions and moral reasoning. He looks at what he calls moral dumbfounding using examples like consenting non-reproductive adult legal incest. Some examples of bestiality would seem to fit the same kind of challenge to our moral intuitions. And we discussed How do ethicists tackle the question "Is it immoral to have sex in public places?" Is it possible to use rational and empirical ideas to answer?

We have to reconcile that morality has evolved, genetically and socially, along with it being subject to reason and reconsideration. In the end, morality is about what kind of people we want to be, and what kind of society we want to live in. There is a schism in our attitude to animals, I personally turn to Peter Singer and his model of moral progress as 'expanding the circle of moral concern', that is we should go from concern about the impacts of bestiality and animal killing on humans, to concern also about impacts on animals.

  • When you downvote, it's good to add a comment why
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 28 at 16:03

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