Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Peter Singer embracing moral objectivity?

I recently mentioned a conference at Oxford designed to cultivate a dialogue between Peter Singer and Christian ethicists.  Here is the Guardian's coverage, which is fascinating and, dare I say, promising:

[Singer] described his current position as being in a state of flux. But he is leaning towards accepting moral objectivity because he now rejects Hume's view that practical reasoning is always subject to desire. Instead, he inclines towards the view of Henry Sidgwick, the Victorian theist whom he has called the greatest utilitarian, which is that there are moral assertions that we recognise intuitively as true. At the conference, he offered two possible examples, that suffering is intrinsically bad, and that people's preferences should be satisfied. He has not yet given up on preference utilitarianism. Neither is he any more inclined to belief in God, though he did admit that there is a sense in which he "regrets" not doing so, as that is the only way to provide a complete answer to the question, why act morally? Only faith in a good God finally secures the conviction that living morally coincides with living well.

What difference does this make to climate change? Tim Mulgan, professor of moral and political philosophy at the University of St Andrews, explained why ethical objectivism may be vital to making a robust ethical case against environmental degradation. Only a doctrine of creation can affirm that we are fundamentally linked to the natural order manifest on Earth. The fantasy of fleeing this planet, or disappearing into virtual reality, won't actually do. Our island home matters because the lives of human beings go well only when her natural systems go well too.


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So let me see if I have this straight:

Peter Singer is rethinking some of his most basic philosophical commitments because he's discovered they lead to a truly grotesque conclusion....a lack of clarity about climate change.

Where is our Jonathan Swift?

Posted by: Matthew R. | Jun 2, 2011 8:40:37 AM

I guess it's hard to get good coverage from a newspaper about philosophy, but this is an odd passage for sure. For one, it's at least misleading to describe Sidgwick at a "theist". At the very least, he was no orthodox believer of any sort quite early in his career (he even resigned his fellowship at Cambridge over this, until the rules were changed to allow people who didn't accept the tenants of the Church of England to hold fellowships. It wasn't anything specific about the C of E he objected to.) He maintained, it seems, some vaguely deistic and "spiritual" (in a pretty literal sense) beliefs for some time, but these faded, and by the end of his life, around the time when the definitive version of _The Method of Ethics_ was published, it's not clear that he could be called a believer in any sense at all. It's also odd, and I think confused, to say that Singer's type of utilitarianism isn't a type of "moral objectivity". His view, as I understand it, is that the right thing to do is to maximize utility, where this isn't (always, at least) interpreted in a hedonistic fashion (like Bentham) but as the satisfaction of preferences. But whether a course of action maximizes the satisfaction of preferences (and so utility, on this account) is perfectly objective, even if difficult to know, and I am pretty sure, as well, that Singer thinks that this account is objective in the sense that it's being right isn't due to anyone believing it's right or thinking it is, so it's not "subjective" in that sense, either. What might be called "subjective" would be the preferences- but even that is a bit of an odd way to look at things, and from what I can gather, Singer's account is still not a significant departure from utilitarianism. An odd and misleading article, I think. More often than not I wish newspapers would not write about philosophy, as they can't seem to do a minimally competent job, though I guess people in other fields often feel the same way.

Posted by: Matt | Jun 2, 2011 9:07:04 AM

As someone who went to the conference, I actually thought the article (which should be read in full for context) was very well-done.

The comment on Sidgwick could have been nuanced, sure, but given that Sidgwick believed that some kind of theism was necessary for utilitarianism to be viable (John Hare and Tim Mulgan made similar points at the conference), it isn't really misleading in context.

Furthermore, Singer himself said at the conference that he is rethinking objectivity in his moral theory...and the author gets what is going on with him basically right. Though through most of his career Singer thought that preferences were neither rational nor irrational, he has been convinced by Parfit's new book that some preferences are objectively irrational. He said is also willing to consider the possibility of objective goods apart from what people prefer. For instance, he wants to say that it was be 'bad' if people preferred to live virtual realities rather than enjoy the actual wilderness, but he is also aware that his current, non-objectivist, utilitarianism doesn't provide a way for him to say that.

Finally, in a remarkable opening statement, Singer said that he 'regrets' not having a god to ground the answer to the question, "Why be moral in the first place?" Something else that his theory doesn't know what to do with.

Posted by: Charlie | Jun 2, 2011 10:29:16 AM

Thanks for the update about Singer's thinking, Charlie.

I can't believe I'm going to write this but here goes: I look forward to hearing what Peter Singer is going to say next.

Posted by: Matthew R. | Jun 2, 2011 1:34:22 PM

I must admit that I have a lot more interest in Sidgwick than in Singer, so I went back and read more Sidgwick and looked again at the best single book on him, Schneewind's _Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy_, and I'm quite convinced that the claim that, at least in his mature philosophy, Sidgwick thought that "some kind of theism was necessary for utilitarianism to be viable" is, at best, rather misleading and probably just wrong. Sidgwick did think that a benevolent God could solve what he saw to be the problem raised by the "dualism of practical reason", but he also held both that 1) there was no good evidence at all for the existence of such a good, and that our knowledge of morality was more certain than whatever evidence we might have, 2) Utilitarianism was still the best ethical system to be had. I don't have a copy handy to check, but my recollection of Bart Schultz's account in his biography of Sidgwick is that it's similar to Schneewind's. So, I think this claim is at least somewhat misleading as to Sidgwick's views. (The fact that Sidgwick of course know of theological utilitarianism as suggested by Paley and Austin but did not follow or recommend it also supports my understanding, I think.)

Posted by: Matt | Jun 3, 2011 10:30:02 PM

Singer has modified his position because of the recent work of Derek Parfit ("On What Matters"). It has nothing to do with God. He still subscribes to all the positions made him famous (animal liberation, abortion, ...)

Posted by: 8dVbc9xSnT4y56v7ESsP | Jun 7, 2011 7:31:37 AM

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Posted by: Virtual Data Room | Jun 10, 2011 10:12:06 AM