Later today I get a on flight to the UK for one of those events that come around once in a lifetime. The McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Policy at Christ Church, Oxford is putting on a historic conference this Thursday and Friday called ‘Christian Ethics Engages Peter Singer.’ My friend and colleague John Perry (check out his new book on Political Theology from OUP here) has been working very hard planning an event which is bringing together heavyweights from both Europe and the United States who have decided that it is time for these approaches to ethics to have serious conversation.
Christian ethicists like Lisa Cahill, John Hare, Eric Gregory, and Nigel Biggar will be engaging with utilitarians like Julian Savulescu, Tim Mulgan, Toby Ord, and Peter Singer himself…discussing everything from our duties to the poor, to various understandings of non-human animals, to differences between utilitarianism and a Christian focus on the common good. Singer and I will be giving the opening papers on Thursday morning (UK time) to set the stage for the rest of the conference, so please keep all of us in your thoughts and prayers.
In some ways, it is strange that this kind of interaction hasn’t happened until now. After all, Singer’s work in applied ethics (as an analytic philosopher) has made him arguably the most influential living intellectual for many years now, while the Christian tradition (much to Singer’s dismay) powerfully influences morality around the world. But in other ways, it is not strange at all why this kind of thing hasn’t happened yet. Much of the problem can be traced back to the rhetoric and lenses of each approach. Those like Singer often begin by naming the supposedly speciesist sanctity of life ethic as ‘the bad guy’ and by claiming that our ethics is in need of another Copernican revolution against the kind of unwarranted religious belief which puts homo sapiens at the center of our moral universe. And many Christians see Singerites as little more than crass utilitarians making dubious calculations leading to everything that is wrong with a culture of death.
But I want to argue that Singer’s sweeping rejection of Christian ethics comes largely from the same place as does the Christian dismissal of his point of view: a specific kind of ignorance, brought about by ‘defining by opposition.’ This has led to misreadings and caricatures on both sides—which, perpetuating the cycle, further limits actual engagement. I hope that this conference can be an important first step toward breaking this unfortunate cycle. My basic thesis in my paper is that if Christians and those who take Peter Singer’s approach engage each other in the spirit of intellectual solidarity, rather than defining by opposition, we will find that our disagreements are remarkably narrow and that we can work together on many important issues of ethics and public policy.
Achieving the intellectual solidarity necessary to see this is much easier when, beyond merely reading words on a page, we have the opportunity for the kinds of embodied interactions that will be possible at this conference. As my friend John Perry pointed out to me some years ago, this insight has a deep and profound theological history. The second person of the Trinity did not reach us by becoming an abstract philosophical proposition, but rather embodied God’s Word in the person of Jesus of Nazarath—and thus provided an opportunity for real engagement with this Word. Thinking about this conference excites me with the hope that new personal relationships, and therefore new insights, lie just around the corner. Indeed, it gives me hope that for what Pope Benedict called in his latest encyclical Caritas in Veritate is not naïve optimism, but a realistic goal:
Fruitful dialogue between faith and reason cannot but render the work of charity more effective within society, and it constitutes the most appropriate framework for promoting fraternal collaboration between believers and non-believers in their shared commitment to working for justice and the peace of the human family. (57)