Note, added September 7, 2011: If you are reading this, it is probably because you have clicked through from Mark P. Shea's blog, or from Rod Dreher's Twitter feed. Welcome! I see that these two writers view my little trifle about bestiality unsympathetically (Dreher, for example, called me a 'perv'), so I wanted to help contextualize it for you, dear reader. I am a philosopher by vocation, and this means most importantly that it is my job to investigate presuppositions. This vocation is not incompatible with religious faith, or even with saintliness. In a number of other posts, I have reflected on my own difficult and unsaintly, but by no means hostile, stance towards my own Catholic heritage and towards the problem of faith in my own adult life (go, e.g., here). I do not see myself as a member of a unified secular academic liberal front, but rather as an unfettered questioner in the tradition of, e.g., Diogenes the Cynic (whose rejection of the prevailing social order appears to have been historically closely linked to Christ's insistence, which I affirm, that 'my kingdom is not of this world' (John 18:36)). My principal purpose in this post was to argue against the standard line in the liberal academic circles I gather you despise, according to which there is an absolute and perfectly clear moral distinction between same-sex sex and interspecies sex. I take it rather that there is a good deal more that needs to be said about a pairing than simply an enumeration of the taxonomies and anatomies of the creatures involved before we can make a judgment as to its salutariness. This is not 'relativism'; this is just the disposition one is required to adopt in order to be able to understand, say, Weerasethakul's film, or any number of Greek myths, with any sophistication. In any event I was arguing as much against Corvino as against Santorum, and if you care to take the time to read attentively, you will notice that. As for bestiality itself, I personally think it's disgusting as a real-world phenomenon (though potentially beautiful as a mythological trope); but whatever my own affective response to it is, it poses interesting conceptual problems that it is very much my business to take on. --JS
To the extent that philosophers have felt the need to argue against sex with animals at all, the most common strategy has been to appeal to the fact that these beings lack life projects, and thus that a sexual relation with them cannot amount to a shared life project with a human being. It is further presumed, without argument, that any morally praiseworthy sexual relation ought to be such a project.
Something like this account is often heard in response to the conservative complaint that to accept homosexuality in our society will lead quickly to an 'anything goes' atmosphere in which bestiality, among other perversions, thrives. As former congressman Rick Santorum worried, or pretended to worry, in 2003, once you've got man-on-man sex, why not man-on-dog?
In a 2005 article ("Homosexuality and the PIB Argument," Ethics 115 (April, 2005): 501-534), the philosopher John Corvino responds to Santorum's reasoning with a lengthy account of the various respects in which same-sex activity differs from what has come to be called 'PIB', that trifecta of unacceptable sexual relations: pedophilia, incest, and bestiality. Corvino would keep bestiality in its traditional place, while promoting same-sex relationships from their traditionally marginal place into a mainstream one. His argument is based largely on the claim that sexual contact with an animal cannot, by definition, contribute to a profound interpersonal interaction, while a same-sex, intraspecies relationship is as well-suited to do so as a heterosexual one.
Corvino's point is correct, as far as it goes, but it presupposes that such profundity is an intrinsic feature of any morally salutary sexual contact. As Corvino himself acknowledges, it is the job of philosophers to investigate presuppositions.
There are in fact all kinds of sexual activity that one could argue are morally salutary, or at least not morally nugatory, but that nonetheless do not involve mutual growth and profound interpersonal communication. Consider Jan Švankmajer's film, Conspirators of Pleasure. This is the story of people who build elaborate masturbation machines, spending weeks or months collecting the requisite equipment, working away with artisanal devotion on the devices that will ultimately bring them sexual gratification. These machines count as projects, to say the least, and it follows that masturbation --a form of sexual activity that cannot by definition involve mutual growth or communication, since there is only one person involved-- is not necessarily just a sexual release.
Potentially, one may approach bestiality in the same way in which Švankmajer’s characters approach masturbation, as a project and a passion. The rural adolescent with limited options is one thing; the protagonist of Edward Albee's play, The Goat --who falls in love with the titular animal after looking into its eyes and sensing, deep in his soul, that the beast understands him-- is quite another. We may say Albee's character is warped, and leave it at that. But (and this is something Albee clearly wants us to consider) the same point has often been made about same-sex desire, and it is incumbent on any philosopher who takes on the topic of bestiality to provide an account of what it is about this particular class of entities that makes desiring them something only a warped person could do.
We might also consider Roberto Benigni's character in Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth, who recounts to a priest his past affairs, and how he decided to move on from a watermelon to a sheep after realizing that a meaningful sexual encounter involves a creature 'with a soul'. We might, finally, recall the stunning sex scene with a catfish in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's wonderful 2010 film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Here, the catfish is a reincarnation of a dead loved one, and the sex is an act of love if there ever was such a thing.
This is an act of love, moreover, that neither Santorum nor Corvino can fathom: they've got the wrong metaphysics for it. As Wittgenstein would say, they are telling themselves different things. The Buddhist metaphysics underlying Weerasethakul's tale is one according to which species boundaries need not be so rigorously maintained as in the Western tradition flowing from Aristotle, which eventually engulfs Christianity, and, finally, comes to define the secular ethics of the modern world in terms of which same-sex, intraspecies sexual activity has been compellingly defended.
Now Uncle Boonmee is a work of magical realism, a fiction, and should not be taken as representing the sexual norms of any real culture. But the part of our imagination to which this fiction appeals is one that might also help us to maintain a greater flexibility when it comes to assessing the real-world beliefs and commitments of others, and the way these beliefs and commitments lead them to pursue projects that might seem peculiar, or even perverted, to us. And this in turn would enable those of us who are sure there is nothing wrong with same-sex relationships to respond to a Santorum-style slippery-slope argument about men-on-dogs with something more subtle than indignation. We could respond: maybe there is no categorical moral boundary between same-sex intraspecies sex, on the one hand, and cross-species sex on the other. But give me a richer, more imaginative description of the zoophile's motivations; give me a thicker description of what's going on. Assure me, moreover, that no sentient being will be harmed, and my conclusion about your worry might well turn out to be not, "That's silly, the two cases are completely different," but rather, "Maybe there is a connection. So what's your point?"