Who says that philosophers are out of touch? Take Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and world-famous philosopher, controversialist, and animal rights activist. In his activism on behalf of animals, it is worth stressing, Professor Singer notoriously favors some animals over others. “Dogs and pigs may be persons,” he has argued, “and some humans are not.” Professor Singer has a lot invested in what it means to be a “person.” Your average three-year-old child, for example, doesn’t meet the Singer standard, which means that, were he in charge, that child might be killed with impunity by its parents.
Yes, yes, we know: that sounds loopy. It is loopy. But it is just the sort of thing the world has learned to expect from one of its most distinguished—or at least celebrated —academic philosophers. Think about it: no academic philosopher today is more prominent than Peter Singer. But what does it mean that someone with his views occupies a named chair at one of the world’s great universities—and not, mind you, in the department of abnormal psychology, but at the university’s Center for Human Values (“supports teaching, research, and discussion of ethics and human values throughout the curriculum and across the disciplines at Princeton University”)?
It will not, we think, be easy to come up with a consoling answer to that question. But lest you think that Professor Singer’s contemporary relevance is confined to his views on what we might call post-natal abortion, consider his suggestion that “humans should consider breeding with chimpanzees.” Talk about animal activism! But consider how, er, avant garde Peter Singer’s views are. On one side we have an Ivy League professor of philosophy championing bestiality, on the other we have Zoo, a new movie that just premiered at the oh-so-chic-and-trendy Sundance Film Festival. (Not, we hasten to add, that Zoo was “the most eagerly anticipated film” of this year’s Festival. According to PR from the Festival, that honor went to “Hounddog,” a “Southern gothic tale” involving the rape of a twelve-year-old girl.) Directed by Robinson Devor, Zoo is about what The Los Angeles Times described as “a forbidden subject … sex between men and animals.”
Gosh. The LA Times, it almost goes without saying, is very keen about Zoo, assuring readers that this “strange and strangely beautiful film” is “elegant,” “poetic,” and “eerily lyrical.” Mr. Devor apparently got the idea for the film when he read a news story about a Seattle man who died after having sex with a stallion. According to The LA Times, Mr. Devor was “shocked that nobody did an in-depth look at this, that there was no investigative reporting rounding the story out with the psychology involved. I thought, ‘This is an opportunity.’ ”
Yes, but an opportunity for what? Mr. Devor insists that he “aestheticized the sleaze right out of” the story of his film, which combines audio interviews—some of the men interviewed did not wish to appear on screen: imagine that!—and “elegiac visual re-creations intended to conjure up the mood and spirit” of the encounters. But of course this is deeply disingenuous. On the one hand, he proudly claims to be breaking down “the last taboo,” on the other he invokes the talisman of good taste and aesthetic delicacy. Which is it?
Works like Zoo raise many questions: above all, perhaps, the relation between morality and art. What, after all, does Mr. Devor mean when he says that he “aestheticized the sleaze” out of his film? Couldn’t it be that the very effort to aestheticize bestiality is itself a species of “sleaze”? Indeed, isn’t Mr. Devor’s boast that he was breaking down “the last taboo” in fact an acknowledgment of moral transgression, i.e., sleaziness? Nero is said to have fiddled while Rome burned and to have enjoyed the luminous spectacle of Christians trussed up on crosses as human lanterns. Did the aesthetically sensitive emperor manage to siphon off the sleaziness of his enormities by transforming them into works of art? Or was that very process evidence of further degradation?
In the great contest for the most misunderstood and overused classical quotation, Terence’s declaration that “Nothing human is alien to me” is a strong contender for first place. Right on cue, Mr. Devor offers the Roman poet’s saying as an excuse for Zoo. But Terence was urging an enlargement of understanding and moral empathy, not offering absolution for bad behavior. The LA Times breathlessly describes Zoo as exploring “a forbidden subject.” But of course the whole point is that its subject is not forbidden. The fact that there is an active “zoophile community” (hence the fellow who died after his close encounter with Trigger) shows that Mr. Devor was not breaking down “the last taboo” but merely exploiting a situation in which the only taboo is to acknowledge that there are taboos, i.e., indelible moral lines before which stands the legend Thou Shalt Not.
Winston Churchill used to entertain guests at Chequers by taking them round to see his pigs. “I like pigs,” Churchill would say. “Cats look down on us, dogs look up to us, but pigs treat us as equals.” Little did he know.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 6, on page 2
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