Many atheist utilitarians have long resisted any concept of objectivity in ethics, in part because they do not have any metaphysical beliefs which are capable of grounding such claims.   But with the release of Parfit’s On What Matters there will be renewed interest in philosophical circles about what sorts of goods are ‘objective’ and what, in fact, can ground the claim that something is objectively good or that a particular desire or preference is irrational or bad.  There will also be renewed interest in explicitly theological/metaphysical approaches to ethics which have thought long and hard about how to ground objective claims.

Peter Singer is in the midst of reconsidering just how much he believes in objectivity in ethics, but we can see that old habits die hard in this interview he had with Oxford’s Nigel Biggar in the UK’s Standpoint magazine.   In a discussion about the proper role of autonomy in ethics and public policy, Biggar brings out the big guns:

The question then is what the bounds of autonomy are because if individuals are given complete freedom to decide upon the value of their lives, and they then take it to extremes, then logic would move us to sanction masochistic suicide. I’m thinking of the notorious 2001 case of Armin Meiwes, who advertised on the internet for someone to be dismembered and eaten. A volunteer came forward and together they engaged in “consensual cannibalism”. Now it was consensual, it was the victim’s preference, but he nevertheless undervalued his own life. I don’t see how society’s condoning of that is compatible with generating a social norm of high regard for human life. Autonomy — yes, we all agree that there should be some scope for individuals to decide about what to do with their lives. The question is where you draw the bounds around autonomy.

Singer’s response was, because the situation was “bizarre”, to question whether each of them were actually thinking clearly and rationally about what they were doing.  But Biggar presses him further and the following fascinating exchange breaks out:

NB: For reasons I understand, you are quite reluctant to affirm any kind of objective, moral reality or order, and you want to articulate your ethic in terms of individuals’ preferences —although I continue to see in you inadvertent affirmations of some kind of objective morality. For example, in the case of the man who volunteered to be dismembered and eaten, you wondered whether he could have been treated, implying that his understanding of his own good was wrong.

PS: Well, it was not a well-informed and considered understanding. Not that it was wrong in some other sense.

NB: He thought it was well-considered and informed.

PS: I don’t know enough about the case to know whether or not he did.

NB: The issue is that even if he thought really hard about it, I think you would still think that he was wrong. It’s not really a matter of how long he has thought about it.

PS: It is to some extent whether he has really considered it and decided if that is something that he really wants.

NB: Suppose he really had?

PS: Maybe I would go along with it. I mean, it’s really grotesque, but it’s consensual and it doesn’t harm anyone else. If that’s what he really wants, then maybe I’m not going to object.

NB: I do see reluctance on your part to affirm any kind of moral objectivity.

PS: I thought that I made it really clear at the conference in the last day or two that I have been influenced by Derek Parfit’s arguments in On What Matters to think that maybe there is an objective basis for ethics so in that sense it’s not inadvertent references, or some references that you think I make are inadvertent, but I am now prepared to say that some moral claims are objective truths in the same way that we think of mathematical truths as being so.

But is it really obvious that we know it is wrong to eat another human being, and to consent to being eaten, in the same way we know that 2+2=4?  In other places, Singer calls this a ‘rational intuition’…and perhaps we can make judgments of trivial preferences (like ‘not caring about pleasure/pain on Tuesdays’) with this faculty, but with regard to the complex and divisive issues of our time, one person’s rational intuition could and and often does directly contradict the rational intuition of someone else.  And what then?

No, I am more inclined to side with the St. Andrews utilitarian philosopher Tim Mulgan who argues that objective moral truths needed to be grounded in something more substantial–and he calls it “unconventional theism.”  But what say our readers?  Is it possible to ground objective moral truth by rational intuition in the way that Parfit and Singer are trying to, or do we need something more substantial?