This fursuit set a record high $11,575 auction price.
Imagine you are walking by yourself and see someone drowning. You could easily save the person, but your shoes will be ruined and you would have to buy another pair. Would you rescue the drowning individual anyway despite the monetary cost of new shoes?
Most furries, I’d wager, would reply in the affirmative. So if you would sacrifice $50 or $100 (depending on your taste in footwear) to save someone’s life, why spend $2000 on a full fursuit if that same $2000 could prevent the needless deaths of even more people in need somewhere in the world?
This is the dilemma that Peter Singer poses to us. Singer is an influential modern ethicist in the utilitarian tradition, both well known and rather infamous for his various viewpoints on euthanasia, veganism, zoophilia, and economic equality (none of which are the subjects of this article).
One of his central conclusions, based on the thought experiment just provided, is that everyone in the developed world can and should live on a basic subsistence level, with all their surplus money being given to the poor around the world. These could take the form of donations to various NGOs and charities, governmental foreign aid, or self-funded projects. (Assume the programs in question are the kind that have measurable results and where most of the money goes directly to those in need; Charity Navigator is a valuable tool for this).
In his utilitarian calculus (which prioritizes the results of actions and emphasizes the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ and overall human happiness and freedom from suffering), any spending on luxuries while others are starving is immoral.
This means my fursuit is killing people. Since rather than donate the thousand or so dollars spent on head, tail, hands and feet (not to mention the reproduction 19th century Prussian uniform) to needy third world people, I instead spent it on something novel that I don’t really *need*…at least not like needy people need food, clothing, and medicine.
Think of the men, women or children that money could have gone to – here or abroad. From a strictly utilitarian perspective, I can understand his point: I am, indirectly at least, responsible for the suffering or even deaths of others less advantaged and privileged than myself. All for a velociraptor costume.
From a frequently read Dogpatch Press article about highest priced fursuits – $17,500 Primal Visions Cheetah.
As a furry and a fursuiter, I sometimes encounter people who think it odd that I would spend money on a fursuit, even a partial. Yet they usually come to understand when I ask them how much they spend each year on beer, or auto parts, or eating out. They realize everyone has a hobby that costs money, and this is mine. Yet Singer is posing a moral problem, so I believe we as furries should address it, if anything to gain a better understanding of our own actions.
One way to respond to Singer would be to admit that we are being unethical from his perspective, and simply dismiss that perspective as incorrect by denying his ethical system or interpretation of it in the first place. There are many systems out there apart from utilitarianism such as deontology and virtue ethics, and Singer has been criticized by other utilitarians as well (more on that later). They avoid the issue by dismissing the indirect harm as not being problematic, since our intent when we buy fursuits is not to kill another, even if that is a side effect.
We can also argue that helping others and suiting isn’t an either/or thing, and point out the volunteer or charity work we already do, both as individuals and as a fandom. Singer’s reply may be that we could do more – but that opens the issue of how much we should do in the first place.
I personally hold to an admittedly more extreme version: denying the universalist moral project, or even morality as conceived by modern philosophers like Singer, to begin with.
When a utilitarian like Singer asks me, “what makes your perspective on your silly costume more important than the perspective of those suffering?” or “wouldn’t you like others to spend money on you if you were suffering in the third world rather than enrich their lives with a costume?” he invokes universalist morality and the modern interpretation of the golden rule.
I would bring up the fact that humans will always privilege some people and their sometimes mutually exclusive needs (self, friends and family, fandom, community, nation, etc.) over those of others (strangers, other countries, etc.) when push comes to shove (and Singer is implying that push has indeed come to shove).
To love requires focus, time and emotional resources that we as individuals cannot give to all: love is ultimately a discriminatory, marginalizing act. So while I do not feel a twinge of guilt in refraining from helping starving people far away to pay for my suit, I would sacrifice my suit to help my mother, father or brother if they were in desperation. In fact I would sooner help them than the starving strangers, even if the money spent on one family member means that dozens of strangers (themselves with family) are not helped and hence suffer or even die. By the same token, I would never expect a stranger to privilege my life over the life of someone they love. It’s an amoral issue of preferences and values.
Taken to fursuiting, someone like myself would say the happiness and social interaction with people he cares about through the suit, the joy he gains, and his preference for a fandom that wants him to suit for their own enjoyment, exceeds his regard for strangers.
I doubt most furries would go that far, and the purpose of this article is not to argue for my personal view on ethics (or lack thereof). Most of us have what we regard as a system of morality, and it often does have a utilitarian flavor. (“As long as no one is hurt by it” is a very consequentialist statement, of which utilitarianism is a subset). So it will be far more productive to take Singer on through his own system of ethics.
For one, fursuits (and most other furry media like art and writing) are often made by modern day cottage industries, so your money is going directly into the pockets of people to use for the necessities of life. Given how hard it is to make a good deal of money from furry arts and crafts alone, most of these makers will prioritize their financial needs over financial wants. My payment to the maker of my head and tail, for example, was used to purchase her medicine. Even with prefabricated components of fursuits such as 3D printers, paint, ink, airbrushes, petrochemical-derived synthetic fur, plastic teeth and claws, the money is going to a company to pay its workers and otherwise spread out into the economy.
With a more particularist bent, we can also point to benefits arising from the purchase and use of a fursuit such as social capital, human interaction, and spreading amusement to others. These are all ways of spreading value that I feel utilitarianism, or most other ethical systems would recognize.
Singer may reply that the dire need of starving people overrides the emotional and social benefits of fursuits, since the dead cannot experience those benefits in the first place. He may also insist that fursuit makers can get other forms of employment that directly benefit those in need or that are less focused on leisure than say, food production or health care. Or perhaps we should only buy from suit makers who give all their excess money to charity.
These seem unsatisfactory, since even utilitarians disagree regarding whether or not to prioritize life over social fulfillment, or how to gauge the life-saving or life-enriching benefits to suit makers versus charity cases abroad. This is a raging debate in utilitarianism, because we are basically trying to quantify things that are qualitative so we can compare them like numbers. I’m sure everyone has their own ideas on the matter, and I’d love to hear them.
Finally, someone of a Marxist bent may critique the capitalist modes of production that go into the making of mass-produced fursuit components as canceling out any benefits to the employees. Although I’m not a Marxist myself, that opens an entire new tangent on the debate.
There are probably many more arguments for and against Singer’s position vis a vis the ethics of fandom and our decision to create and purchase fursuits, as well as art and stories. Is it frivolous and unethical? Does it satisfy utilitarian morality in some other yet equally beneficial way? Is it justified in another ethical system such as deontology or virtue ethics?
I look forward to any comments and perspectives.