Fuck Peter Singer
This document is also a perpetual WIP and should not be regarded as a "finished" essay. Singer seems to enjoy digging himself deeper into his shitholes, so you can expect periodic updates to this page.
Peter Singer is a really influential ethicist. His philosophical contributions have shaped - for better or for worse - everything from animal activism to solutions to worldwide poverty. I was introduced to Singer's work through his 1975 book Animal Liberation. It wasn't that book that made me think about animal ethics as a legitimate moral debate (that would be David Foster Wallace's essay "Consider the Lobster"), but his name has popped up in the discourse again and again. Since the book's publication, he has also elaborated on his opinions about topics such as healthcare and the Effective Altruism movement - not to mention eugenics, for which he has garnered a lot of criticism from the disability community.
I agree with some criticisms people in the disability community have leveled against Peter Singer's positions. I'll try to describe some of them here as this page develops. This page also provides examples of Singer's disturbing views on sexual consent, which are frequently absent from discussions on how his philosophical views cohere. However, this page is not intended as a detailed rebuttal of every single thing Singer says. Many philosophers and other commentators have done that already, but I can try to reference such objections here.
This page was originally written for other vegans who, I assume and hope, are striving to be intersectional in their activism. Later I found out that non-vegans also wanted to find out why Peter Singer is so loathable. Even if you do not agree with everything - or even anything - on this page, you can absolutely use and distribute this page freely as long as you credit me.
In this document, I try my best to cite primary sources to describe what Peter Singer has actually said. I also try to quote him as fully as I consider necessary to evaluate his statements in their original context. This results in some rather lengthy quotations, but I do not want to be accused of misrepresenting Singer by quoting too little of him. Therefore, I recommend you read the quotes in full if you can, while I will try to provide my own summaries. (These summaries are, of course, inevitably influenced by my own philosophical views.) I also try to provide reliable, static web sources and citations so that readers can check for themselves and determine whether my interpretations are accurate and fair.
Singer has stated that he is reconsidering some of his stances in light of his switch from preference utilitarianism to hedonistic utilitarianism (Singer n.d.). Both are classifiable as types of consequentialism, which you may wish to familiarize yourself with if you have not already (i.e., Sinnot-Armstrong 2019) In other words, Singer's opinions as described below should not be regarded as set in stone. Again, this page is under constant construction.
In 1994, Verso published an English translation of Dearest Pet: On Bestiality by Midas Dekkers, and reprinted it in 2000 (Dekkers 1994; "Dearest Pet" 2021>. The book describes the history of bestiality in many human cultures. I have not read it, so I cannot say whether it opposes, supports, or stands neutral on bestiality, but I do not think the book's stance is relevant to this section anyway.
In 2001, Singer wrote a review about the book for Nerve, a now-defunct online magazine about sexual topics ("Nerve" 2022). The review graphically portrays nonhuman animals being sexually assaulted by humans, often in a positive light. While Singer notes that some kinds of bestiality are "cruelty, pure and simple," he defends acts that are "mutually satisfying" and, presumably, consensual. He blames modern Western opposition to bestiality on the anthropocentric "Judeo-Christian tradition," broadly claiming that this supposedly unjust taboo is less prevalent in the nebulous "East" (Singer 2001b).
Singer does not elaborate on whether and how nonhuman animals are able to understand and clearly demonstrate sexual consent to humans. Nor does he account for the imbalance of power between many humans and the nonhuman animals they may live with and possibly exploit. Although Singer considers himself an advocate for animals, his explanations of bestiality do not include considerations of power and consent in human-nonhuman relationships.
In a 2016 interview in Journal of Practical Ethics, Singer said he somewhat regrets writing the review, but still stands by what he wrote (Pummer and Singer 2016):
With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it would have been wiser for me not to agree to review Dearest Pet. Many people have attacked me because of what I wrote in reviewing it; but it was only a book review, for goodness sake! Anyway, I stand by what I wrote there (which basically just raises the question of why it should be a criminal offense to have sexual contact with animals in a way that does not harm them). A psychotherapist who works with people troubled by their sexual feelings for animals told me that he gives my book review to his patients, and some of them find it helpful to see that the topic can be discussed in a calm and rational way. So I'm not even sure that, with hindsight, I regret having written it.
The Stubblefield case
In 2015, former Rutgers University professor Anna Stubblefield was convicted of sexually assaulting a mute man with cerebral palsy (Engber 2015). D.J., as he was called in legal documents, was considered by his family and the court cognitively disabled in a way that made it impossible for him to consent to sex.
In response, Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan (another philosopher who writes about animal ethics) wrote an op-ed for The New York Times defending Stubblefield and lambasting the legal system for treating her unfairly. Some members of the disability community have also defended Stubblefield, and the op-ed repeats many of their arguments. (These arguments question the assumption that D.J.'s disability makes him incapable of bodily and sexual autonomy [Taylor 2015].) However, Singer and McMahan have added their own original contribution (Singer and McMahan 2017):
If we assume that he is profoundly cognitively impaired, we should concede that he cannot understand the normal significance of sexual relations between persons or the meaning and significance of sexual violation. These are, after all, difficult to articulate even for persons of normal cognitive capacity. In that case, he is incapable of giving or withholding informed consent to sexual relations; indeed, he may lack the concept of consent altogether.
This does not exclude the possibility that he was wronged by Stubblefield, but it makes it less clear what the nature of the wrong might be. It seems reasonable to assume that the experience was pleasurable to him; for even if he is cognitively impaired, he was capable of struggling to resist, and [...] it is implausible to suppose that Stubblefield forcibly subdued him. On the assumption that he is profoundly cognitively impaired, therefore, it seems that if Stubblefield wronged or harmed him, it must have been in a way that he is incapable of understanding and that affected his experience only pleasurably.
According to Singer and McMahan, there are "profoundly cognitively impaired" persons who cannot understand consent due to their disability. Because they are unable to understand consent, it does not matter whether they actually give consent to have sex at all. Unless such a person attempted to physically resist (which somehow does not qualify as an indication of consent or lack thereof), there is no evidence that sexual assault occurred. Left unanswered is the problem of other, non-physical methods of sexual coercion. D.J., it should be recalled, was Stubblefield's student at the time the relationship supposedly began.
This section is not as important to many people (that is, most non-vegans), so I will keep this part short. Because of his advocacy for animal welfare (well, at least welfare for some animals), he has become a darling of vegans who want to discuss philosophical underpinnings for their ethical stances. Ironically, Peter Singer is not a vegan. Animal activist Gary Francione has provided examples of this on his own website (Francione 2007).
(Note that Singer's approach to animal ethics focuses on the "welfare" of human and nonhuman animals who meet certain criteria, whereas Francione supports abolition and animal liberation. However, since this part is more contentious, I do not think it is necessary to go into detail about it at this time.)
“Dearest Pet: On Bestiality.” Verso, Verso Books, https://www.versobooks.com/books/2063-dearest-pet.
Dekkers, Midas. Dearest Pet: On Bestiality. Translated by Paul Vincent. London and New York: Verso, 1994.
Engber, Daniel. “The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield.” The New York Times, 20 Oct. 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/25/magazine/the-strange-case-of-anna-stubblefield.html. Accessed 14 Nov. 2022.
Francione, Gary L. “Peter Singer: ‘Oh My God, These Vegans...".” Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach, 23 May 2007, https://www.abolitionistapproach.com/peter-singer-oh-my-god-these-vegans/. Accessed 14 Nov. 2022.
McMahan, Jeff, and Peter Singer. “Who Is the Victim in the Anna Stubblefield Case?” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 3 Apr. 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/03/opinion/who-is-the-victim-in-the-anna-stubblefield-case.html. Accessed 14 Nov. 2022.
“Nerve (Website).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nerve_%28website%29.
Pummer, Theron, and Peter Singer. “Twenty Questions.” Journal of Practical Ethics, University of Oxford, Dec. 2016, http://www.jpe.ox.ac.uk/papers/twenty-questions/. Accessed 14 Nov. 2022.
Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. Ecco, 2001.
Singer, Peter. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Peter Singer, https://petersinger.info/faq.
Singer, Peter. "Heavy Petting." Review of Dearest Pet: Ob Bestiality. Nerve, 4 Mar. 2001. http://www.nerve.com/Opinions/Singer/heavyPetting/main.asp.
Sinnot-Armstrong, Walter. “Consequentialism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 3 June 2019, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/.
Taylor, Astra. “Anna Stubblefield Was Convicted of Raping Her Disabled Student. But Was the Trial Fair?” Splinter, G/O Media, 12 Nov. 2015, https://splinternews.com/anna-stubblefield-was-convicted-of-raping-her-disabled-1793852818.