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.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Camosy on Singer, personhood, and Christianity

Prof. Charles Camosy, who blogs at Catholic Moral Theology (link), has a piece in the latest Commonweal on the "evolution" of Peter Singer.  He writes, "[C]an Christian ethicists talk with Peter Singer—and can he talk with them? Are they even intelligible to one another?  The answer, it turns out, is yes."  Later in the piece, Camosy adds:

Until recently, Singer’s theory would have forced him to describe persons as merely self-aware bundles of contingent preferences, but his recent shift [RG: described in the essay] creates new space for models of personhood that are compatible with Christian ethics. According to one such model, persons are kinds of things that persist over time, require objective goods to have a happy and meaningful life, and are defined in morally significant ways by their relationships with parents, friends, spouses, and children. If Singer could accept that definition of personhood, or even just part of it, much of his disagreement with Christian ethics would disappear.

In my experience, Charlie is admirably eager to see the good, and the potential for good, in others' views.  I have to say, though, that I think the "if" in that last sentence is a big one.  It sounds a *bit*, as one friend of mine put it, like "If Singer could accept Christian moral anthropology -- which he does not and cannot -- then his disagreement with Christian ethics would disappear."  But I think Singer's account of "speciesism" (which Camosy describes) is not reconcilable with the definition of "personhood" on which Christian ethics is built.

Thoughts?  Note:  Peter Singer's views on many issues are, in my view, horrifying.  There's no need to observe, in the comments, that he has very very wrong views on some important questions.  Let's stipulate that he does, and ask, first, whether Prof. Camosy is right when he says that "[t]he recent shifts in Singer’s thinking suggest that he and Christians may soon have more fruitful ways to talk about their disagreements.  Meanwhile, there is already enough practical agreement for Christians and Singer’s followers to work together on problems that cannot wait until every theoretical question is settled."  Next, let's ask whether, actually, cooperation with "Singer's followers" actually does have to wait until that cooperation no longer requires Christians to put aside the non-trivial matter that Singer's followers believe that severely disabled neo-nates, whose care is expensive, may (should?) be killed.  On the one hand, of course Christians can and should cooperate for shared ends with people who are not Christians.  But, are there limits?  I'm not sure . . .


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This is going to come out more harsh than I mean for it to--in fact, I don't mean to be harsh at all--but my initial impression of professor Camosy's hope that Singer will continue to "grow" is of Neville Chamberlain waving a piece of paper in his hand. It's much too soon to drink the wine that has just begun to show the very first signs of aging. Perhaps Camosy is so anxious over Singer because he believes that, where Singer goes, others will follow. I think that's wishful thinking, but I sure hope I'm wrong.

The cynic in me says that if Singer believes there's nothing special about our species, then there's no reason for him not to play Camosy (or anyone) for all he's worth, enjoying the attention and encomia all the way home. But that's the cynic in me.

Posted by: Mark | Oct 31, 2011 5:33:56 PM

"The answer, it turns out, is yes."
With all due respect to Professor Camosy, the answer is no, simply because if one does not recognize and respect the inherent dignity of every human individual from the moment that person has been brought into existence at Conception, then one's definition of personhood would be a lie from the start.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Oct 31, 2011 6:09:52 PM

Couldn't the same point be made in response to any non-Christian thinker? If...then...

I mean, there are lower-hanging fruit in philosophy than Peter Singer.

Posted by: Matthew Polaris | Oct 31, 2011 6:54:35 PM

If Singer has indeed shifted from strict preference-maximization to an acknowledgment of the existence of objective moral truth, that's a development that is worth noting by Christian ethicists, no? I don't think Charlie is grabbing his guitar for a kumbaya moment, but I do think he's actively looking for inroads by which current slivers of common ground may become something more substantial. As Charlie writes, "The recent shifts in Singer’s thinking suggest that he and Christians may soon have more fruitful ways to talk about their disagreements." He's not looking past those disagreements. If Singer really is rethinking some of his starting premises, though, wouldn't it be great for Christian ethicists to be part of his conversation circle for that process?

Posted by: rob vischer | Oct 31, 2011 11:56:42 PM

Hey Rick, thank for taking this up! As you know, I have a book coming out on this topic this Spring, and I would really need all 300 pages or so to make the full case. But let me say a couple of things in response.

First, as a Christian I actually agree with Singer's critique of speciesism. Human beings are not persons in light of being Homo sapiens, but rather because of what being Homo sapiens indicates: being a substance of a rational nature. The Church will, of course, claim that angels are also persons and even has recently admitted the possibility that some aliens could count as persons should they exist. What the Church means by 'rational' and what Singer means by 'rational and self-aware' (his criteria for personhood), it turns out, are quite similar.

Second, as I point out in the book, Singer already has views which require a substance metaphysics. Furthermore, his recent shift to objective goods draws him ever closer to admitting this.

I think Singer IS actually low-hanging fruit for Christians, but few can get past the polarization that currently exists in order to see it.

Posted by: Charlie | Nov 1, 2011 8:26:48 AM

I don't share Singer's metaethical views nor his fundamental ethical principles, nonetheless, his conclusions on several subjects of interest to ethicists and laypersons alike are provocative and important, and one might reach them from different premises. I'm thinking here of his work on "famine and affluence," animal ethics (including vegetarianism), and globalization and a cosmopolitan ethic. His views on these topics I find anything but "horrifying," indeed, they're rather courageous, bracing, and suggestive of a deep compassion for his fellow sentient creatures, human and non-human. And they've had the salutary effect of stimulating other philosophers to further explore these urgent matters.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Nov 1, 2011 9:02:37 AM

Patrick, I didn't say Singer's views on those matters are "horrifying", and understand that many people reach conclusions similar to his without resort to his unsound premises (that is, to those of his premises that are unsound) or method. But, there's no getting around it (is there?): Singer holds some views that should be horrifying -- we might think he is "courageous" in reaching them, given the tendency of so many to avoid embracing the implications of their premises, but they are horrifying, nonetheless. Rob and Charlie, as always, I admire your determination to engage, and to find points of agreement, but I cannot help thinking that it is important, in today's world, for there to be no unclarity about the fact that Christian moral anthropology and Singer's are very, very different. I think it might be more important to bear clear witness to that difference than to put it aside in the interest of noting those conclusions or policies that Christians and Singer might both embrace. To be clear: I *do* think that it makes good sense for Christians to work with those whose understandings of the person and of morality are different from ours, in order to promote the common good in a world where (this side of Heaven) disagreement is a given. But, Singer strikes me (and I realize that Charlie and I disagree about this) having gone too far; the way in which he is (very) wrong seems, to me, more salient than the ways in which he might be right.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 1, 2011 10:05:00 AM

Rick, with respect, I see a difference between opposition and/or bearing witness clearly to one's disagreement, and not being able to talk to someone else, engage with them productively, discuss useful aspects of their thought or potential points of common ground, etc. I do think--and it's not limited to Catholic and/or Christian moral anthropology versus Singerian moral anthropology--that people sometimes don't foreground enough the basic premises on which their views rest; sometimes the most productive thing one can do in a conversation is to identify and explore the points beyond which agreement is impossible, which may make the rest of the conversation more honest and clear. But I think that enhances, rather then erases, the possibility of productive engagement. I understand everyone will have can't-help points, and also that even if they don't make it impossible to engage with someone altogether, they may influence the ways and occasions in which one engages: I might engage on an academic level with illiberal ideas and groups, but not invite a neo-Nazi to speak on a panel I'm organizing and participating in; and as a citizen, rather than an academic, I may think it necessary to express my disagreement in a more full-throated civic, rather than academic, way. But again, that leaves a lot of room for potential engagement, especially if you think there is at least *some* room to do so.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 1, 2011 10:50:41 AM

Paul, all that you say makes sense -- in most, and perhaps nearly all cases, I would agree entirely (I think you'd agree my own practices are consistent with what you say) -- and I guess I don't mean to say that I couldn't, or that one shouldn't, "talk to" Singer. (I've sat with him at dinner, and he seems a wonderfully nice and decent person.) But, I guess I am at a can't help: When it comes to *this* particular disagreement, I think it is risky -- I'm not saying I think it's wrong, just that I'm troubled about it -- to be over-willing to bracket and aside the very wrong stuff in the interest of exploring and celebrating the shared stuff. I guess I'm just sharing an unease, rather than making an argument or staking out a position. I think it is more important, at this moment, especially for Christians, to engage, and reject, Singer's wrong views about what human beings are and what may be done to them than it is to note that Christians and Singer agree that, say, the suffering of the poor ought to be of greater concern to the well-off than it is (which is, again, not to say that the latter cannot be noted, too).

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 1, 2011 10:59:32 AM

Professor Garnett, perhaps the reason you are troubled is because you recognize Christ to be The Truth, and that Christians have already rejected Singer's erroneous view of personhood because they have accepted Christ.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Nov 1, 2011 11:38:27 AM

Rick, I quite understand, and yes, I'd think your practices fit that match. (I've never had dinner with Singer!) I just want to emphasize, in slight response, the view that it needn't necessarily be an either/or; even in the course of a conversation about common ground, I think there may be good reasons to foreground rather than bracket one's disagreement with the "very wrong things." I think one can bear witness to one's intellectual and moral adversaries in a forthright and emphatic way while still proceeding to converse. But, again, I think this is generally your practice and I agree that everyone has can't-helps about these things; my general view, I think, is that an academic in an academic setting (and not, say, a civic setting) will, and probably should, have a fairly low can't-help setting, or one that is focused more on intellectual and disciplinary rather than moral qualifications.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 1, 2011 11:50:09 AM

Paul -- Maybe, then, what I'm trying to say is that, with respect to Singer, I think it's important to foreground (in a humane and civil way, of course), rather than bracket, the profound differences that Christians necessarily have with him at the level of first principles and premises -- even in the context of conversations (academic and civil) about those policy-matters with respect to which there might be common ground. Otherwise, the risk (as I see it) is that we convey that those differences are not very important.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 1, 2011 11:55:33 AM

Fair enough, Rick! As I said, I do think there is value--and not just here--in doing so. Indeed, I think at the Matters of Faith conference some of my questioning was directed at teasing out Caroline's first premises, and yours. I think about this a little in terms of my writing on religion in political discussion, and Jeffrey Stout's terrific discussion of how to have talks of this sort. I think that while it's useful to explore areas of common ground, even the discussion on questions of common ground will be influenced by our starting premises, and may lead to misunderstandings and failures when those differences become apparent. It's OK to have discussions that reach and acknowledge the point beyond which common ground is impossible, and indeed once we do that it may be easier to have productive discussions within the remaining common ground. People should always be willing to examine their moral priors, but not obliged to surrender them.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 1, 2011 12:05:02 PM

Perhaps the subtleties of the argument are lost on me, but I would be hard-pressed to name a single secular moral philosophers who is more than a degree or two away from being in some significant agreement with Christian ethics.

This seems like a low bar, but perhaps I'm misunderstanding.

Posted by: Matthew Polaris | Nov 1, 2011 12:30:45 PM

I think there are (at least) two different problems here. First, is it wise or desirable to engage those with different moral-political philosophical and theological views where there can be common cause and fruitful engagement? To which I answer, "of course" (and I'm inclined to think any view to the contrary is a straw man or the product of petulance). As Patrick O'Donnell and Paul Horwitz variously note, one can have productive engagement with those with whom one otherwise has profound disagreements, and Singer's view about our responsibilities to the poor may well be an argument that all of us, of whatever commitments, should find powerful, even if we disagree with, say, the permission of intentional killing of the innocent. There are a range of plausible, coherent views I don't find finally persuasive (Rawlsian liberalism, for example, though I think it's much closer to the mark than Singer's utilitarianism), but that doesn't and shouldn't prevent Christians from engaging such views and working with adherents of such views when we find shared political or policy objectives.

But there's a second question--and the more serious intellectual problem--about what moral-political philosophical and theological views can be accommodated within Christianity. I don't think utilitarianism can be, and, in fact, I will pay utilitarianism the compliment of saying that I think it's an especially pernicious moral view. As Charlie knows, I worry that he has let his affirmative answer to the first question override an adequate assessment as to the second question and elide crucial distinctions between Christian ethics and utilitarianism. But that doesn't mean I'm not willing and eager to engage in conversation with those who disagree with me (I've been with Peter Singer on a handful of occasions at Princeton, and he is--as noted here--a delightful and warm person). That's pretty much what the academic life consists in, after all--it would be immensely boring to be around only people with whom one agreed. I just think it's important, echoing some of Rick's comments here, that the understandable desire for common cause and finding agreement not come at the expense of noting (carefully, respectfully, constructively) genuine and profound disagreement.

Finally, Charlie and I have been around on this topic before, but I'll just ask in response to his comment here how it is that the utilitarian insistence on "self-awareness" is so minor as to make the utilitarian anthropological account "quite similar" to the Church's. And I should think every view implies a "substance metaphysics," even if disavowed. What would be worth knowing is whether the substance metaphysics of utilitarianism--in whatever Benthamite, Singerian, Parfitian, or other form--can be reconciled with Christianity.

Posted by: Michael Moreland | Nov 1, 2011 12:30:54 PM


What you said, as I read it, is that "Singer's views on many issues are, in my view, horrifying." My point was to the contrary, in other words, that his views, on many issues, are NOT "horrifying."

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Nov 1, 2011 1:08:49 PM

That which cannot be reconciled with Christ cannot be reconciled with Christianity.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Nov 1, 2011 1:35:27 PM

That which cannot be reconciled with Christ cannot be reconciled with Christianity.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Nov 1, 2011 1:35:28 PM

Rick and (perhaps especially) Mike...maybe this little excerpt from my book will help explain why I don't think they are so far apart. It seems that many simply assume without argument that utilitarianism is obviously wildly incompatible with Christianity, and while there are certainly crucial differences, I just don't see this monster gap. Consider this point made by MacIntyre:

"How then should we formulate the Thomistic and Aristotelian claim that I am advancing? Thomistic Aristoalians [sic] agree with utilitarians that moral rules have to be understood teleologically. They agree with Mill—or rather Mill agreed with them—that there is no inconsistency in asserting of certain kinds of action both that they should be done for their own sake and also for the sake of achieving some further end." Lawrence Cunningham, Intractable Disputes about the Natural Law: Alasdair MacIntyre and Critics, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), 49-50.

In a fascinating example of theoretical overlap with approaches like that of Singer, MacIntyre claims quite clearly and directly that his ethical theory agrees with utilitarianism that moral rules need to be understood teleologically—that is, with a primary focus on the end or ends towards which an act is aimed.

[Back to my comment here...]

But perhaps the skeptic will argue that Singer's preference utilitarianism assumes Hume's understanding of practical reason: that there is nothing objectively good or bad about the end or ends human persons happen to prefer. This might create the monster gap that both of you seem to think is there. But one of the major points of the Commonweal piece is to show that his understanding of objectivity in ethics is in the process of changing. To the extent that it keeps changing the direction of objectivity, Christians will have even more interesting disagreements and areas of overlap to explore.

Also, to Mike's specific question, when we invoke the Church's understanding of personhood as being a substance of rational nature, that 'rational nature' (became it presumes the capacity to know and love God), requires the kind of self-awareness for which Singer also calls in his moral anthropology. Of course, the Church's view doesn't require that it be always-everywhere operational, but it does require that the being be the 'kind of the thing' that is self-aware. And, again, Singer already has several claims which rest on substance metaphysics, and from there, I argue, it isn't that far of a leap to a Catholic moral anthropology.

Posted by: Charlie | Nov 1, 2011 1:37:04 PM

Setting aside for the moment Michael's provocative comments on utilitarianism above, I simply want to note that "utilitarianism" is rarely a full-fledged "worldview" on par, say with Catholic or Christian ethics and that utilitarian or consequentialist reasoning of one kind another is often unavoidable in responsible decision-making on the collective level, say, by government or public agency officials. For the reasons why, please see Robert Goodin's Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy (1995). I'm not a utilitarian, but that hardly prevents me from engaging in, or appreciating the value of, consequentialist reasoning (often with important non-consequentialist 'side-constraints' involving, for instance, human rights). Wholesale dismissals of utilitarianism strike me as childish or silly, evidence of a lack of deep familiarity with the tradition and/or its latest incarnations. Historically, it was utilitariansim (and its philosophers: Jeremy Benthan, the two Mills, etc.), as David Wiggins has pointed out, that allowed moral philosophy, "At barely one remove, [to involve] itself intimately at first and then simply by virtue of its conditioning influence) in campaigns for law reform, prison reform, adult sufferage, free trade, trade union legislation, public education, a free press, secret ballot, a civil service competitively recruited by public examination, the modernization of local government, the registration of titles to property in land, safety codes for merchant shipping, sanitation, preventive public medicine, smoke prevention, an Alkali Inspectorate, the collection of economic statistics, anti-monopoly legislation.... In sum, philosophical utilitarianism played a leading part in promoting indefinitely many of the things we take for granted in the modern world." This fact alone should sensitize to the possible value of utilitarian reasoning for some purposes, even if one is not in any way a self-defined "utilitarian."

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Nov 1, 2011 1:37:28 PM

Patrick, I guess I don't see that as a "contrary" point, but rather a supplemental one. What you say, and what I say, can both be (and probably both are) true. We can quibble, I guess, about how many makes "many", but that's not the point, I imagine.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 1, 2011 1:37:50 PM

Everyone agrees that consequences matter, and none of Singer's critics object (how could they?) to the notion that responsible decisionmaking very often requires decisionmakers to consider, and guess about, the consequences of proposed actions. (This is one reason why it is wrong to imagine that one who endorses a policy on the ground that it coheres with the preferential option for the poor is absolved from thinking carefully about, and studying carefully whether, the policy actually does enhance the well being of the poor.) That said -- and with the caveat that Michael, Charlie, and Patrick are much better trained in these matters than I am -- I was surprised by this, in Charlie's comment: "MacIntyre claims quite clearly and directly that his ethical theory agrees with utilitarianism that moral rules need to be understood teleologically—that is, with a primary focus on the end or ends towards which an act is aimed." Are MacIntyre and utilitarianism really "teleological" in the same way, or in a way that is similar enough to make the similarity important? I would not have thought so, but I certainly could be wrong.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 1, 2011 1:52:13 PM

Charles Camosy wrote in Commonweal:

"Until recently, Singer’s theory would have forced him to describe persons as merely self-aware bundles of contingent preferences, but his recent shift creates new space for models of personhood that are compatible with Christian ethics. According to one such model, persons are kinds of things that persist over time, require objective goods to have a happy and meaningful life, and are defined in morally significant ways by their relationships with parents, friends, spouses, and children."

I would like to draw an important ontological distinction. *Constitution* should be distinguished from *persistence*. How an object (a concrete particular) is individuated is a different question from how it extends in time. Camosy's description of Singer's view of personhood ("merely self-aware bundles of contingent preferences") sounds something like a 'bundle' view of concrete particulars, which denies that any underlying substratum is required to instantiate the properties of an object. An object is simply a bundle of properties, nothing more. Nothing like an 'invisible, shapeless' pincushion plays a role in 'holding' the object's qualities together. To say that persons are "kinds of things that persists over time", on the other hand, is to give an account of the temporal dimension of an object. Singer's supposedly new view sounds like a type of 'endurantism'. In this theory, the life of a concrete particular is a metaphysical whole and not a series of temporal slices. The very same object exists at different times. Opposite to this are the 'perdrantist' family of views, according to which an object's life is made up of different temporal parts. What we take to be a concrete particular is, quite literally, a infinite collection of sub-particulars, each existing in its own time. It would appear on this set of views that one and the same object does not exist at different times.

Singer may now believe that persons persist through time, but this is compatible with the view that personhood is not constituted by an essence (such as a rational nature). He has held that having interests is what confers moral status on an object and I am not aware of where he has abandoned this view. Since having interests is clearly an attribute that varies by degree, it is related to the theory that personhood merely consists of consciousness of one’s contingent preferences. That is quite a ways from the historic Christian view that we are made in *Image Dei*. It is the kind of being we are, not the having of interests, that should matter.

Posted by: Clement Ng | Nov 1, 2011 2:28:43 PM

Charles Camosy wrote:

"Also, to Mike's specific question, when we invoke the Church's understanding of personhood as being a substance of rational nature, that 'rational nature' (became it presumes the capacity to know and love God), requires the kind of self-awareness for which Singer also calls in his moral anthropology. Of course, the Church's view doesn't require that it be always-everywhere operational, but it does require that the being be the 'kind of the thing' that is self-aware."

Robert George and Patrick Lee's *Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics* helpfully illuminates the distinctions overlooked here (in an argument with Singer, on pages 83 to 94)). It is true that, on the historic view, being a substance of a rational nature presumes the development of capacities. This is not the same as self-awarness, however. There is arguably a difference between first and second order capacities. Self-awareness is exhibited in degrees, since the ability to form desires and be conscious of them lies along a graident, on which different people (the adult, the infant, the genuis, the mentally disabled) are differently situated. These are first-order functions. The capacity to develop first-order functions, by contrast, is a higher-order ability. It is the potential to become a subject that is *even capable* of constructing desires and aquiring awareness of them. This higher-order capacity does not comes in degrees but is an 'all or nothing' property (or so George and Lee maintain). Even the severely mentally disabled have this higher-order function, for it follows on upon being a certain type of substance, namely a thing with a rational nature. In short, being a substance of rational nature is not the same as being a kind of thing that is self-aware, since self-awareness is contingently developed and substances are not contingent things. Personhood is not constituted by self-consciousness, but it is certainly characteristic of the human species as a whole that it is self-conscious. The difference, though subtle, is important.

Posted by: Clement Ng | Nov 1, 2011 3:18:57 PM

"Even the severely mentally disabled have this higher order function, for it follows upon being a certain type of substance, namely a thing with a rational nature..."

A thing is not a person, nor can a person be a thing.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Nov 1, 2011 4:54:49 PM

Singer, as a Utilitarian, is just now catching up with what Mill recognized 150 years ago--not all pleasures and pains are the same. Faced with the objection that Utilitarianism is an ethics for pigs, Mill famously responded that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. But Singer's brand of Utilitarianism (Consequentialism) won't allow for that difference to depend upon the difference between WHAT IT IS TO BE a human being and WHAT IT IS TO BE a pig, as Mill came to acknowledge. (Capitals only indicate a technical term from philosophical reflection, not shouting.) They are free floating untethered preferences.

Singer's Utilitarianism is, however, very much an ethics for pigs, and unapologetically so, insofar as Singer thinks most pigs are more worthy of having their lives protected than many human beings. Singer wants to expand the scope of human beings who may be killed while expanding the scope of other animals like pigs whose lives are to be protected. Like the woman's waste of precious oils on the feet of Christ, too much of our precious resources and efforts are devoted to the halt and the lame, when they could be spent more usefully on the pig, the cow, the fish, the chicken.

This most recent shift of Singer's on the hierarchy of preferences is perfectly in line with the goal of killing more human beings and saving more pigs, indeed with protecting, promoting, and furthering that goal. When Singer first began arguing for infanticide, it was not uncommon to hear that unborn and new born babies didn't feel much by way of significant pain, and certainly didn't exhibit much by way of a mental life, particularly so in the case of babies with conditions like Down syndrome, and so their pleasure-pain quantity didn't amount to much, or so one might think. Singer famously empathized with the imaginary bourgeois parents of a newborn with Down syndrome whose hopes had been dashed at the realization that their child would never amount to being much of a basketball player or ever appreciating the humor of a Woody Allen movie, although Woody Allen hadn't made a funny movie in years. That quantity of dashed hopes associated with mature human beings comes out much higher. This empathy was the basis for a narrative argument designed to elicit from readers, and by extension the law, an acknowledgement of the appropriateness of the parents killing the child with Down syndrome in order to open up the prospect of trying again unburdened by the child with Down syndrome, and with the possibility of their hopes being fulfilled by a still non-existent but potentially healthy future baby--kill the child that exists on behalf of the child that might exist, in order that your dreams may come true.

The problem for this way of thinking is that we now know that unborn and newborn babies experience a good deal of pain, and babies, even babies with Down syndrome participate in significant cognitive life from the very beginning--witness the successes achieved for later life in the case of Down syndrome by early intervention programs. So we can't treat their suffering any longer as inconsequential. However, if we recognize the moral significance of "higher and lower" pleasures and preferences understood qualitatively, as Singer now appears to do, we can still judge unborn babies and newborn babies and human beings with significant cognitive disabilities as inferior to pigs in relation to these higher characteristics, these higher metrics, if we but assume that such notions as 'pleasure', 'pain', and 'intelligence' mean the very same thing irrespective of WHAT IT IS TO BE SOMETHING--the intelligence of a pig and of a human being is merely a difference of degree, not of kind, and saying a pig is intelligent isn't an analogy but is said univocally.

So despite our increased knowledge of the mental life of unborn and newborn babies, and human beings with cognitive disabilities, we can continue to kill them, and move our resources from alleviating their suffering to protecting and promoting the life of the pigs, since the pigs score more highly on Singer's chosen rationality metric. All you need is that the pig is smarter than your baby, and can disregard that both like to roll around in the mud, that being a qualitatively lower metric. On the qualitatively higher but same metric of rationality, we can then just return to quantitative judgments within that particular metric that we relied upon before. Those who achieve live--those who don't don't.

The general problem, however, with simply claiming that A is consistent with B, (and that therefore A and B can coexist and even talk,) is that it may also be true that not-A is also consistent with B. "It's raining outside" is consistent with the ground being wet, but so is "it's not raining outside." So B, being consistent or compatible with both A and not-A, can work actively to promote not-A in preference to A. Recognizing higher and lower preferences is consistent with an ethics that protects human life, but it is also consistent with an ethics that destroys human life. Indeed being consistent with both, it may certainly be used in conjunction with other principles to advance the killing of human life.

But there is a more fundamental mistake here. Concentrating upon higher and lower plays very much into the hands of an anti-Christian and anti-humanist ethics, since it can lead Christians to think that it is the height of achievement, actual or potential, that is the basis of human worth—you meet the bar, you get Woody Allen's joke and can shoot a three pointer, you live. And Singer very much believes if you make it an issue of higher and lower, the pig beats the 7 day old child with Down syndrome every time.

Far from moving Singer away from his bottom line, the killing of human beings and the saving of pigs, this movement of his advances that cause. But in Christian humanism, human dignity is not an ACHIEVEMENT of any man or woman, much less a preference. Singer at least knows that about what Christians believe, which is why he wants to deny it exists, because if it did it would not allow us to kill our fellow human beings in preference for saving pigs.

Failure to acknowledge all this will simply lead Christians to being distracted from protecting human life and toward being used for anti-humanist "consequences." So I do not anticipate that Singer and Christians will any time soon have much to agree upon, since far from being a move toward a Christian humanism, Singer's recent moves are perfectly consistent with a move to protect his anti-humanism from the advance of our understanding of the humanity of the weakest amongst us.

But I suppose this is all merely polemical.

As for having him join our practical efforts to feed hungry human beings, heal the sick, and comfort the dying? Before WE answer that question, why don't we ask our friends with Down syndrome what they think of it? But as for me personally, I suppose I could do it, if I could stomach having him around my son.

Posted by: John O'Callaghan | Nov 1, 2011 5:44:58 PM

1. Patrick O'Donnell is right that utilitarianism in one form or another gave rise to a variety of public philosophical arguments with results that we now applaud, though it seems to me that there's a danger--not in Patrick's post or the passage from David Wiggins that he cites, but in the neighborhood--of committing a variant of the genetic fallacy by moving from agreement that, say, universal sufferage and penal reform are good to the view that the philosophical account that gave them their most forceful and successful defense is a sound moral theory. And while I agree that cost-benefit analysis and other considerations of efficiency and maximization have their place, it is only within an overall framework that includes absolute moral prohibitions (more than "side-constraints," I think, but it would depend on what we mean by that) and a (non-consequentialist) account of human goods, which is precisely what utilitarianism (speaking broadly and notwithstanding the long, varied, and distinguished tradition to which Patrick points) rejects.

2. Charlie writes (quoting from his book):

In a fascinating example of theoretical overlap with approaches like that of Singer, MacIntyre claims quite clearly and directly that his ethical theory agrees with utilitarianism that moral rules need to be understood teleologically—that is, with a primary focus on the end or ends towards which an act is aimed.

I will look forward to reading the book to see this argument in its full context, but I'll say again (as I said in an exchange with Charlie at the Catholic Moral Theology blog a while ago: http://tinyurl.com/3pcautz) that I think there's an imprecise and equivocal use of "teleological" here. Only at the highly abstract and formal level of mere common use of a phrase is "acting for an end" in consequentialism and "acting for an end" in MacIntyre's Aristotelianism an "overlap[ping]" understanding of acting for an end (because widely divergent understandings of "action" and an "end," for starters).

Posted by: Michael Moreland | Nov 1, 2011 9:47:32 PM

With regard to the use of Alasdair MacIntyre's work to suggest a common ground between Utilitarian ethics and Thomistic Aristotelian ethics allowing for a fruitful discussion between the two, it is true that at a high level of formal abstraction one can say that they agree, namely that moral rules have to be considered in light of teleological considerations--after all teleological just means, etymologically, for the reason of an end. And Utilitarian consequences are ends as are Thomistic-Aristotelian goods. So at that very general level of abstraction, the passage Prof. Camosy quotes from MacIntyre expresses that formal agreement. But there is much more to be said about what the nature of an end is.

So the passage quoted is from the beginning of a paragraph in which MacIntyre is summarizing the difference of Utilitarianism historically embodied in the likes of Mill and so on from Thomistic-Aristotelianism. And so he goes on to point out in that paragraph that this formal and abstract agreement is not the end of the story on considering the relationship between Utilitarianism and Thomistic-Aristotelianism. To adequately understand both accounts, one also has to consider what it is about an end that it provides a reason for action and an adequate explanation of why one ought to act in one way rather than another, not simply that the action brings about an end (the merely formal consideration). And in that light, the conclusion of MacIntyre's paragraph that begins in such apparent amicable but very formal agreement is important. Here is what MacIntyre concludes. "But the kind of finality that an end possesses, so that it is not only that for the sake of which actions are performed, but also that by appeal to which we can understand which types of actions should be performed and why, cannot belong to any psychological state.  So the project of constructing a moral teleology that has been evacuated of its metaphysical content by the erasure of the notion of an end turns out to be an incoherent project." What begins in a judgment of formal agreement at a high level of generality ends in a material judgment of incoherence. And having made that material judgment of incoherence MacIntyre begins the next paragraph by saying, "that this is so can only be adequately grasped by those who have understood and know how to find application for the concept of an end."

Posted by: John O'Callaghan | Nov 1, 2011 11:53:00 PM

So, when folks argue, "It is important to remember, while utilitarianism is like Thomistic teleology in X ways, it is also unlike it in Y ways", I think this is exactly right. But this is actually presumed in the point of the piece which tries to highlight ways in which Singer is moving closer toward a Thomistic teleology with respect to Y.

Posted by: Charlie | Nov 2, 2011 6:58:43 AM

I want to thank John O'Callaghan and Michael Moreland for their contributions to this thread. You've taught me a lot! Thanks for taking the time.

Posted by: Matthew Polaris | Nov 2, 2011 8:57:22 AM



Without The Truth of Love, the errors of utilitarianism reflect the errors of arianism.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Nov 2, 2011 11:05:30 AM