Wednesday, May 18, 2011
I apologize for my light blogging as of late, but I'm spending the month at Oxford trying to finish a manuscript and, well, the distractions of this fine city (namely big old libraries and small old pubs) are so enticing as to crowd out most everything else. I do want to call attention to a fascinating new project by Charles Camosy, "Peter Singer and Christian Ethics." I had the opportunity to participate in a colloquium on Camosy's manuscript this morning, and there will be a two-day conference on the project here beginning tomorrow. Camosy tries to push through the caricature of Singer and show that his work should be taken seriously by Christians, while pushing through the caricature of Christian ethics to show that the tradition should be taken seriously by Singer and his utilitarian sympathizers. Kicking off the book with abortion, Camosy shows that the disagreement between Singer and Christian ethics is narrower than assumed. He writes:
Both agree that, assuming that a fetus is a person, the supposed unintended negative effects of making abortion illegal would not justify its continuing to be legal. Both agree that a constitutional (rather than a legislative) approach to abortion is a mistake. Both agree that one has a moral duty to support a fetus for nine months -- again, if the fetus is a person. Both have non-speciesist definitions of personhood. And both see a logical connection between one's view of abortion and one's view of infanticide. Their very narrow disagreement is with regard to what role, if any, potential should play in the moral status of the fetus. Both approaches agree that passive potential (or mere probability) adds nothing to the moral status of an entity, but the Church's position is that any being of a rational nature -- that is, a being with active potential for personhood -- counts as a person. Indeed, it is difficult to make sense of the claim that severely mentally disabled human beings (especially if they have been so from birth) are persons, to say nothing of the mildly comatose or even the asleep, without an appeal to the active natural potential of such individuals. If the argument of this chapter is correct, then SInger's claim that a woman's interests always outweigh the interests of a fetus is false.
I'm not sure if this disagreement on the moral significance of "potential" is best termed "narrow," rather than "singular." I could just as easily characterize the difference as a "gaping chasm." In any event, the chapter is a helpful distillation of the real and imagined tensions between Singer and Christian ethics.
On the moral status of non-human animals, Camosy criticizes the Christian community for hypocrisy in supporting factory farms and (in many circumstances) the eating of meat, and notes that the Christian tradition has richer resources for addressing these issues than Singer's utilitarianism offers. He writes:
[Singer] finds it difficult to condemn the wanton slaughter of certain animals . . . in a way which doesn't violate their interests -- perhaps by painlessly killing a non-self-aware creature with no capacity to have an interest in continuing to live, for example. But the Christian tradition -- which can appeal to the intrinsic goodness of non-human animals apart from human beings, the telos of all members of the created order, the spiritual reality of non-human animals, and the morally problematic nature of the (often vicious and violent) act of snuffing out a non-human animal's life -- has resources to condemn practices that Singer does not.
This chapter alone will be worth the price of the book, as it both rattles the my own Christian conscience while showing significant shortcomings in Singer's capacity to pursue the cause with which he is most closely identified. Camosy also addresses euthanasia, duties to the poor, and ethical theory. On this last topic, Camosy notes that Singer seems to operate with some conception of objective truth because he ranks some preferences as more worthy of satisfaction that others. I'm no expert on Singer, but I'm not sure whether this leads Singer to objective truth, or whether he is simply ranking preferences that maximize the individual's ability to choose over other options. It's a fascinating question to finish the book with, and it suggests the possibility of further development in Singer's work that may bring him even closer to Christian ethics on some important issues.
Look for the book sometime next year -- it is well worth reading and should spark many productive conversations.