Joe Carter over at First Things has a post up this morning which claims, in rather strong terms, that Christians should not seriously engage with Peter Singer. Indeed, for him, doing so is “silliness.”
Carter begins by noting that Singer has “some of the most controversial ideas in American academia”, but later in the post says, “Too many Christians in academia are worried that if they dismiss Singer as unworthy of serious consideration, they’ll find themselves on the margins of academic life.” In addition to being in direct tension with his opening thought (Carter switches back to his original position in the next paragraph in saying that Singer’s view are “all but universally recognized as self-evidently wrong by those in possession of rational faculties”), it isn’t clear that this statement can be defended on its own terms. For who are these “too many Christians”? The recent conference at Oxford called “Christian Ethics Engages Peter Singer” (which Carter claimed wasn’t worth attending…in part because of the “usual tropes of academic politics”) was remarkable precisely because it was so unusual for Christian ethicists and utilitarians to systematically engage in ways that took each others arguments and views seriously.
Unfortunately, Carter simply dismisses Singer without such serious engagement:
Singer has spent a lifetime justifying the unjustifiable. He is the founding father of the animal liberation movement and advocates ending “the present speciesist bias against taking seriously the interests of nonhuman animals.” He is also a defender of killing the aged (if they have dementia), newborns (for almost any reason until they are two years old), necrophilia (assuming it’s consensual), and bestiality (also assuming it’s consensual).
It is remarkable that his first example of what is “unjustifiable” is “taking seriously the interests of nonhuman animals”. I would argue that this is hardly the case, and that Christians should be making common cause with atheist utilitarians like Singer (a habit that Pope Benedict suggests we cultivate in chapter five of Caritas in Veritate) in reforming our practices with regard to other animals. But is Carter actually interested in argument?
While I also find the other practices he lists in the above quote unjustifiable, simply asserting this, and then dismissing the whole of Singer’s thought, just won’t do. Indeed, similarly dismissive moves have been made against the whole of the Church’s thought. For many, one simply needs to list various positions of the Church on sex and procreation and then conclude that “Pope Benedict is justifying the unjustifiable” and that seriously engaging with his thought is “silliness.” Not only is it mistake to dismiss the whole of someone’s thought because one seriously disagrees with certain aspects of it, but it does a disservice to rational exchange to claim that one need not offer arguments in support of one’s disagreement.
Robert George, someone who thinks that Singer’s views are to be taken seriously, has admired his willingness to publicly and clearly follow his arguments wherever they lead:
Despite his repugnant moral opinions, he is to be commended, I have said, for his willingness honestly to face up to the implications of his principles. He knows that his views on infanticide will cause many people to regard him as an ogre or dismiss him as a crank, but he does not shrink from stating them. Nor does he sugarcoat them by suggesting, as some of his defenders do, that his belief in the moral acceptability of infanticide applies only in “extreme” cases of severely damaged infants who are suffering intolerable pain. Nor does he pretend that a principled moral distinction can be drawn between abortion and infanticide. Nor does he hold back from stating the implications of his views about sexual morality, even when the subject is bestiality or necrophilia, Moreover, I have always said, Singer argues in a fair-minded way. He does not resort to smearing his opponents or distorting their views. He tells the truth as he sees it. He does not trade in evasions or half-truths. He possesses the virtue of intellectual honesty.
George goes on to note that Singer has not been perfect in this regard, and Carter also drives this point home, but who among us has been perfect? Singer takes heat as an ethicist when he fails to meet his high moral standard, but Christians should be the last to criticize him for this. In fact, an important part of the Christian story is that we fail to meet our own standard–again, and again, and again. Hopefully this doesn’t imply anything about whether our standard is worth engaging or pursuing. In the overwhelming majority of situations (including at the Princeton abortion conference this past October when Singer defended pro-lifers on several occasions), Singer acts with the virtue George describes above.
The main problem with Carter’s view is not that he himself holds it, but that so many other Christians also hold it. He is correct that Singer’s views are becoming increasingly popular in the secular academy, but the answer is not to ignore this or dismiss such views without argument. (This simply feeds into the narrative that Christians don’t have a response…other than, perhaps, restating our conclusions more forcefully.) Instead, we should engage in the spirit of intellectual solidarity, allow ourselves to be challenged by these views, and craft challenges that push back. If do this honestly, we might find that our differences are more narrow and interesting than we suspect, and also that we can make common cause on several pressing important issues.
I replied to your post here: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2011/06/22/peter-singer-and-the-christian-scholar/
Hey Joe…good to hear from you. I appreciate the chance to exchange.
At least if I have you right, I just can’t imagine why even the obvious (at least to you and me) moral claims you highlight wouldn’t need arguments for those who disagree with us. For instance, if George and Singer are correct that infanticide cannot be distinguished morally from abortion, and we think about how complex the debate over abortion is, then surely we DO need arguments to respond to Singer’s defense of infanticide, don’t we? I just can’t imagine simply calling the view crazy and walking away…especially given that before Christianity arrived on the scene, infanticide wasn’t that big a deal…and still isn’t that big a deal in some places. Plenty of perfectly rational have defended, and continue to defend, infanticide. They deserve a serious response.
And when you dismiss Singer in the broad the way you do, you miss not only the chance to respond to his arguments, you also miss the important ways in which he can challenge your point of view. For instance, his arguments about non-human animals and global poverty have challenged me such that I have rediscovered my own tradition on these issues in important ways…and I found that there is tremendous common ground to be had. And important common ground it is given the powerful twin secular forces of radical autonomy and consumerism (enemies, incidentally, of both Singer and Christianity) at work which support factory farming and marginalization of the global poor.
I also think you too quickly dismiss how much what you are doing is like what many do to the Church. Some will simply say it is ‘self-evident’ that, for instance, an embryo isn’t a person. And many dismiss the whole system that produces the Church’s ‘morally repugnant’ conclusions on these matters. But I suspect that you would challenge these people to make an argument, wouldn’t you? You’d feel as if they weren’t interested in serious exchange, wouldn’t you?
And if so, why couldn’t Singer say the same of your approach toward his work?
So if I can sum up (but likely get one or both of you wrong – apologies in advance):
Joe seems to be chiefly concerned that Christian scholars are overly focused on what the academy wants and less with being faithful to the gospel. Serious engagement with Singer seems, to him, to be overly focused on the novelties and fads of academia, especially given that many Christian scholars have previously rejected Singer’s work for a variety of reasons. And, there is something to his point about “I believe that most natural philosophers (e.g., children) would be able to recognize bestiality, necrophilia, genocide, and rape as actions that are “self-evidently” immoral. Ironically, about the only morally serious people who would dispute that assertion are academic philosophers. ” I would want to use Wittgenstein – or at least Wittgensteinian theologians – to say that communities are formed by language and linguistic habits that do circumscribe what we see as a moral problem (or not).
But calling into question those linguistic assumptions is also on the table, in academic discourse or otherwise. We learn to question the presumptions- our own sins – precisely because others raise questions for us. Charlie seems to be chiefly concerned that scholars not reject arguments out of hand simply because they look, on the face of it, to be against church teachings. Serious engagement with Singer leads toward better understanding of church traditions, not necessarily because he agrees with Singer but because some of Singer’s points are important to listen to.
I’m worried y’all are arguing past each other, because these are each vitally important questions – but distinctive questions. And I think the point hinges on the lovely moral theology term, “intention.” I think Joe’s right to be concerned about Singer’s arguments as dangerous, especially if theologians are looking at his work for the reasons he’s worried about. But Charlie’s worried about rejecting arguments that could, in fact, be beneficial even if not all of the philosopher’s arguments are helpful. Tertullian comes to mind here: rather heretical in many ways but still, someone who is quoted all the time to the present day because he did have some things worth saying.
Which is to say: I think intention is something we moral theologians don’t think about enough in our work as academics and church people – but I also think that we can and should examine others’ arguments, even and especially when they run counter to our own. It’s one of many ways of trying (heh – I said trying) to avoid self-deception. But yet another way is to be considering the concerns of our Christian communities first. I do think there can be dangers in doing academic work – and both of you have mentioned several of those dangers.
***At least if I have you right, I just can’t imagine why even the obvious (at least to you and me) moral claims you highlight wouldn’t need arguments for those who disagree with us.***
I should clarify that I think that all erroneous moral claims that are held by people need to be presented with argument for why they are wrong. I would make a distinction, though, between arguing without someone who actually holds such a belief someone like Singer who merely plays games for attention. If an issue is worth debating there is likely to be a serious thinker that should be engaged. Singer, however, is not that person. As the climate issue shows, he is willing to start with a conclusion and search around for a theory if his philosophical views conflict with his political opinions.
***then surely we DO need arguments to respond to Singer’s defense of infanticide, don’t we?***
Yes, we do need such arguments when they are made by morally seriously people—i.e., people who actually believe that infanticide is not immoral. Singer has made it clear, though, that he himself wouldn’t actually kill a child and doesn’t think other people should either (at least once it is out of the womb). That shows that he does not really believe his own claims.
***And when you dismiss Singer in the broad the way you do, you miss not only the chance to respond to his arguments, you also miss the important ways in which he can challenge your point of view.***
Instead of Singer, let’s substitute in the head of the KKK. Everything in your sentence would still be true—by not engaging their arguments we miss important ways in which that person could challenge my point of view. Does that mean I should carefully listen to the Grand Wizard? I don’t think so, even though I suspect he could make arguments that are better than the one’s Singer makes.
I’ve read quite a bit of Singer’s work and find it inexplicable that people take him so seriously. Maybe I’m missing something, but he doesn’t seem to have ever had an worthy idea that was not better expressed by someone else first.
***For instance, his arguments about non-human animals and global poverty have challenged me such that I have rediscovered my own tradition on these issues in important ways…and I found that there is tremendous common ground to be had. ***
I’m a firm believe that premises matter as much as conclusions. The fact that Singer can start with irrational/immoral/unjustifiable premises and somehow get to an acceptable conclusion does not mean, in my opinion, that we share common ground. The enemy of my enemy is not my friend when they claim me as an enemy too (this is the same reason I oppose Ayn Rand).
***But I suspect that you would challenge these people to make an argument, wouldn’t you?***
Indeed, I would challenge them to explain why something that is supposedly self-evident was not evident to most people throughout human history. I try to be careful about what I put under the umbrella of self-evident. For instance, I don’t think it is self-evident that an embryo is either a human person or a non-person human.
There are some arguments (like infanticide) that Singer makes that are not self-evident and must be argued. But as I said, we should save our breath for people who actually hold those views and are not simply using them to justify other positions that they really care about (such as animal rights).
***Joe seems to be chiefly concerned that Christian scholars are overly focused on what the academy wants and less with being faithful to the gospel.***
That’s actually a better summary that even I could have come up with.
I would add to that, though, that Christian scholars also tend to be selective about what is important based on the rules set down by their secular counterparts. For instance, an unapologetic racial supremacist could not get a hearing in academia because secular scholars wouldn’t allow it. Because that is the case, Christian scholars don’t feel the need to debate them despite the fact that they hold views that are more in need of rebutting than the one’s Singer argues for. So Christian scholars are not only failing to be faithful to the gospel, they are failing to address other issues that are important because they are overly focused on what the academy wants.
***Charlie seems to be chiefly concerned that scholars not reject arguments out of hand simply because they look, on the face of it, to be against church teachings.***
I share that concern too. And if it were only that the *church* teaches that something is wrong, then I would say that we need to be open to hearing the other side. But the fact is that many of the things that Singer argues for are believed by no morally serious people (not even him).
Our interlocutors know that necrophilia is morally wrong and if they are honest with themselves, they’ll be able to admit it. Since that is the case, we are free to move on to arguing about issues on which we truly disagree.
***I’m worried y’all are arguing past each other, because these are each vitally important questions – but distinctive questions.***
I think you’re probably right about that.
I’ve had some disagreements with Joe Carter over at First Things (as well as with pretty much all of the commenters!) but there is a point I didn’t make there that I would like to make here regarding “self-evident” truths. When one faction designates a belief they hold as a self-evident truth—and one sometimes sees this in the abortion debate—those who disagree with them are not merely deemed wrong or mistaken, they considered as self-deluded at best, and more likely liars and frauds. “Everybody knows” that abortion is murder, so those who support abortion knowingly promote murder. Perhaps the self-deluded are a little less culpable, depending on how much you are willing to let people of the hook for fooling themselves, but the others are out-and-out supporters of murder, and they’re just lying when they claim to believe an embryo is not a person.
When you take such a position on the self-evidence of your own moral beliefs, forget about “open hearts, open minds, and fair-minded words.”
I think Joe needs to think more about “self-evidence” in the history of philosophy. This is itself not a biblical concept (though one might strain really hard, and fail, to read it into Romans 1). No, “self-evidence,” particularly as Joe is using it, is an Enlightenment trope freighted with political baggage; think only of the Declaration of Independence, in which claims to self-evident truths about all manner of things were used to justify a rebellion (which, interestingly enough, rather clearly contradicted the spirit and the letter of Romans 12 and 13!). I appreciate, as does Jana, Joe’s desire to preserve the gospel, the desire to have our ethics rooted in the same, as well as the desire to resist silly academic trends. But the idea that one simply avoids a perceived evil interlocutor is, in my view, itself a betrayal of the gospel. Just think of how many people Jesus would have spoken to if Joe’s dialogical ethic had been his own—zero; at least zero Gentiles (certainly if we stay with Paul’s logic in Romans 1!).
Singer’s views are abhorrent from the perspective of Christian belief and practice. But declaring him “unclean” and refusing to engage him is not only a bad tactic, it is to step away from the ethos of vulnerability, witness, and self-denying humility that ought to be the ethos of the ecclesia, even if it is clearly not the ethos of the secular academy. Moreover, Joe’s rhetorical tendency to reduce Singer’s views into a simple caricature—Singer’s just about being an academic celebrity, his arguments about infanticide are really just about what he really cares about, animal rights, etc.—these are *the results* of not taking someone seriously, and it’s bad form to turn around and use these results as *reasons* for not taking someone seriously! Put differently, this is the problem with refusing in advance to take someone seriously—you’re left in vicious and self-reinforcing circle of your own devising.
Lastly, the academy, so often derided by Joe, and sometimes deservedly so, actually needs to be reformed and defended, not simply rejected or resisted. The ancient Platonic effort to interrogate the difference between appearance and reality, which lies at the origins of our notion of “the academy,” is actually quite consonant with the Christian desire to be freed from sin, self-deception, etc. Moreover, the works of philosophers that cut against the grain of common sense have often been radical and far-reaching in their implications. For example, Joe shows how much he’s been influenced by the very academic trends he otherwise seems only to want to resist when he appeals to expansive claims about “self-evidence.” This is not an argument a Christian would have made prior to certain academic inventions a couple of hundred years ago. Just listen to how different Aquinas sounds on the topic of self-evidence: “No one can mentally admit the opposite of what is self-evident; as the Philosopher (Metaph. iv, lect. vi) states concerning the first principles of demonstration. But the opposite of the proposition ‘God is’ can be mentally admitted: ‘The fool said in his heart, There is no God’ (Psalm 52:1). Therefore, that God exists is not self-evident.” Did you get that? A fool is not self-evidently wrong; if a claim can be mentally admitted, it is not self-evidently wrong.