There has been some time to digest the conference ‘Christian Ethics Engages Peter Singer’ at Oxford a couple of weeks ago. For anyone that wishes to watch some of the sessions, all of them are available on the McDonald Centre’s website here. Whether you want to watch Eric Gregory and Toby Ord talk about poverty, Lisa Cahill and John Haldane talk about Thomas Aquinas and consequences, David Clough and Tim Mulgan talk about animals and climate change–or just John Hare being awesome–there is a lot of good stuff to check out. The final round table (and especially the exchange between Singer and Nigel Biggar) was particularly good.
The Tablet did a piece covering the conference (available to subscribers), but the Guardian also did one that is open to all. The latter piece generated some 248 comments on the website itself, plus plenty of responses in the blogosphere. For three interesting ones, go here, here, and here.
Much of the ‘buzz’ is coming from the fact that a conference in conversation with Christians was an interesting place for Singer to reveal and publicly comment upon the fact that he is revisiting some of his most basic theoretical and meta-ethical positions. In addition to talking openly and honestly about not having a good answer to the question “Why be moral in the first place?” (and also ‘regretting’ not having a God to ground this answer), Singer revealed that he is rethinking objectivity in his moral theory.
Christians, of course, have been pressing Singer and other non-objectivist utilitarians about the tensions present in an ethical system which has no place for evaluating the desires and preferences of persons. For most of his career, Singer has agreed with David Hume who famously said that, for example, it was not irrational to prefer the destruction of the world to the scratching of one’s finger. Moral reflection is about how best to achieve our desires, and not about whether our desires are rational or irrational, objectively good or objectively bad. By contrast, most Christians have maintained that there are multiple goods to consider which have objective value independent of what anyone happens to desire or prefer.
But in part because of the influence of secular philosopher Derek Parfit (and his monumental new book On What Matters), Singer is now willing to accept that there are irrational preferences: Parfit’s famous example is ‘not caring about pleasures or pains on Tuesday.’ Both Singer and Parfit claim that we can know that this is an irrational preference the same way we know that 2+2=4. That is, by rational intuition.
Singer also admitted that he is considering the possibility of accepting ‘objective goods’. In his recently updated third edition of Practical Ethics Singer admits that future generations might prefer video games to enjoyment of the wilderness, and concludes that this would be a great loss. But as Mulgan and several Christian ethicists noted at the conference, preference utilitarianism finds it difficult to come to this conclusion. Furthermore, it is just radically counter-intuitive for most of us to locate the good of important things like friendship and education within a calculation of what people subjectively happen to prefer. Perhaps Singer’s shifting thought could eventually lead him to admit that, along with the wilderness, it would be also be a great loss—and objectively bad—if people stopped preferring to have friends and to learn new things.
If Singer accepts something like objective goods, as he appears to be thinking about doing, this would be an earthquake in the world philosophical ethics. Indeed, at the conference he mentioned that if he had had time to think through these questions his latest version of Practical Ethics would have been “a different book.” Not only would he have to find a way to weigh one good against another (a notoriously difficult problem), but he would have to find some way to ‘ground’ or explain the objective goodness of things like friendship, education and the wilderness. Why are some things good independent of what human persons happen to prefer or desire? Both problems appear to lead Singer toward metaphysical claims about an objective order of goods that make human beings happy or flourish or have a ‘life of meaning.’
And since Christians are very interested in precisely these kinds of questions, and have been for many centuries, Singer’s shift leaves even more tantalizing room for further conversation.