Intelligent Design

Animal rights philosopher Peter Singer expands on why he is backing away from his famous philosophy

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In The Guardian (25 May 2011), Mark Vernon reports on Princeton’s Peter Singer’s gradual coming round to the view that, if there is no objective truth, morality – and specifically the immorality of ignoring climate change – cannot be grounded in anything. Speaking to a group of Christian ethicists at Oxford, Singer said that his current focus is climate change, but he sees that the “preference utilitarianism” he was previously comfortable with,

… runs into problems because climate change requires that we consider the preferences not only of existing human beings, but of those yet to come. And we can have no confidence about that, when it comes to generations far into the future. Perhaps they won’t much care about Earth because the consumptive delights of life on other planets will be even greater. Perhaps they won’t much care because a virtual life, with its brilliant fantasies, will seem far more preferable than a real one. What this adds up to is that preference utilitarianism can provide good arguments not to worry about climate change, as well as arguments to do so.

Worse, some would add,

(See also: “Ed Feser on Peter Singer’s shift, and “Objective morality and Peter Singer.”)

it untethers climate change concerns from objectivity – either moral or evidentiary. That, alas, suits folk who enjoy running others’ lives while remaining free of objective moral and intellectual demands themselves.

Urban dwellers may recognize that Peter Singer scenario all too well: “Concern” becomes – in itself – evidence of virtue and intelligence. It justifies bafflingly stupid assertions like “Raccoons are people too.” One daren’t respond, “Raccoons are not people, and if they were, they’d be guilty of trespassing, vandalizing property, and behaving cruelly toward cats and dogs.” That shows “lack of concern.” Which is the worst sin in the fact- and value-free philosophy that birthed Singer’s animal rights.

Vernon tells us that, at the conference, Singer

described his current position as being in a state of flux. But he is leaning towards accepting moral objectivity because he now rejects Hume’s view that practical reasoning is always subject to desire. Instead, he inclines towards the view of Henry Sidgwick, the Victorian theist whom he has called the greatest utilitarian, which is that there are moral assertions that we recognise intuitively as true. At the conference, he offered two possible examples, that suffering is intrinsically bad, and that people’s preferences should be satisfied.

Both assertions are false. All learning involves suffering and satisfying one’s preferences often points to jail, hospital, or hell on earth. In philosophy, there is no ducking the hard questions, it seems.

It’s good that Singer recognizes these problems now. But climate change seems quite the wrong place to begin because so little depends on one’s individual actions. And that is where all serious schools of moral thinking begin. Hence the temptation so many fall into, of (mentally at least) jetting the globe to tell others not to join the jet set.

10 Replies to “Animal rights philosopher Peter Singer expands on why he is backing away from his famous philosophy

  1. 1

    To honor his ethical theses he should have let his mother die with no medical assistance…

  2. 2
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    Vernon reporst that Singer thinks “that suffering is intrinsically bad, and that people’s preferences should be satisfied.”

    O’Leary says that “Both assertions are false. All learning involves suffering and satisfying one’s preferences often points to jail, hospital, or hell on earth. ”

    Regarding your first point: “all learning involves suffering” – does it?

    I don’t think so.

    It may be that we learn through suffering, and that learning may be an occasional benefit of suffering, but that doesn’t mean that suffering isn’t intrinsically bad. In fact it’s hard to think of a definition of suffering that doesn’t include the concept of “badness” somehow (not moral badness, but something you’d rather not have).

    Regarding your second point: I think what Singer is getting at isn’t that “you must satisfy your preferences” but that satisfying preferences is a good. That makes sense. But that doesn’t mean there is a moral imperative to satisfy your own preferences – if satisfying your own preferences means that someone else’s preferences go unsatisfied, then you have brought about bad, not good (there is nothing I see in the precept that says that prioritizing your own preferences is a good).

    It seems to me that the minimisation of suffering and the maximisation of people’s satisfaction is a worthy moral goal. It’s subverted of course if you regard yourself as first in the queue however; on the other hand, by prioritizing the welfare of others we are, by the same token, aligning our own preferences with those of others.

    This seems to me to be a Good Thing.

    Jesus said something along those lines, didn’t he? 🙂

  3. 3
    junkdnaforlife says:

    Singer is flipping because he realizes that

    “Love thy enemy”
    JC

    Is no, more or less, valid, no, more or less, correct, no more or less, moral than…

    “What I did was not for sexual pleasure. Rather it brought me some peace of mind.”
    Andrei Chikatilo (serial killer)

    There is no distinction in a morally subjective, relativistic world. One of the best demonstrations of this point was made by Lane Craig. In his pimp hand to Sam Harris, he made this crystal clear.

  4. 4
    vjtorley says:

    Elizabeth Liddle,

    Thank you for your post. You argue that “the minimisation of suffering and the maximisation of people’s satisfaction is a worthy moral goal” and ask, rhetorically, “Jesus said something along those lines, didn’t he?”

    Except that He didn’t. He did tell us that we should love our neighbour as ourselves (that being the second greatest commandment, after the command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength), and He also said: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). But the fulness of life is not the same thing as the maximisation of satisfaction.

    Aldous Huxley’s soma produced a society of satisfied people. But I would say that satisfaction in and of itself is not a worthy goal unless that which satisfies us also makes us realise our fullest human potential. That is why I concur with Aristotle’s view that any happiness worthy of the name must consist in the performance of an activity which fulfils us.

    Normally we do strive to eliminate suffering, but that is not because the suffering itself is bad, but because the thing causing it is bad, or (in the case of pain) because the bodily state associated with it is an unhealthy or abnormal one. But where the thing causing suffering is recognised as good, or as something which should not be avoided as part of one’s maturation process, then it would be wrong to want to eliminate the suffering caused.

    My two cents.

  5. 5
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    Can you give me an example where “the thing causing suffering is recognised as good”?

    My point, really, was that evil (if I dare use the word) arises when we prioritise our own freedom-from-suffering and satisfaction-of-preferences over those of others. But if we seek those things as much for others as we do for ourselves (“Love our neighbour as we love ourselves) then that seems to me the ultimate good.

    Jesus said we should heal the sick, feed the hungry, visit the prisoners etc. He did not say: “unless it’s good for them to suffer”.

    I don’t mean that suffering cannot bring about good. I was infertile for many years – finally had a son with my last egg! – and in many ways I learned a lot through that experience. But that doesn’t mean the suffering was good in itself. The learning was good, but the suffering wasn’t, and one of the good things that came out of it was the opportunity to help others suffering in the same way (i.e. reduce suffering).

  6. 6
    junkdnaforlife says:

    Liz: Can you give me an example where “the thing causing suffering is recognised as good”?

    If suffering is defined as…”an individual’s basic affective experience of unpleasantness and aversion associated with harm or threat of harm…”

    Then there are many things that can cause, “affective experience of unpleasantness…” [suffering] both mental or physical that can be defined as good:

    Physical: Giving birth
    Mental: Forgive your rapist.

  7. 7
    junkdnaforlife says:

    Using “your” in a general sense, not specific to anyone

  8. 8
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    junkdnaforlife:

    But those two things aren’t suffering-that-is-good. Childbirth may be a good thing that entails suffering, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be an even better thing if it didn’t (which is why I think the idea that suffering is good in itself is potentially pernicious, and at worst led to the idea that pain relief in childbirth was Wrong).

    As for forgiving rapists: That may be a good thing (I think it is) but again, the suffering arises from the rape, which is not good.

    It may be a subtle point, but I think it’s an important point, and you hint at it yourself: suffering is, by definition, something aversive. It is true that good can come of it, but regarding it as good-in-itself can lead to absurdities, and, I would even argue, cruelties.

    Suffering may sometimes be unavoidable that good may come, but it is not good.

    Is my position.

  9. 9
    Lamont says:

    Elizabeth,
    The pain one experiences as a result of some physical injury is in itself a good thing that motivates us to avoid dangerous things, situations, actions, etc. Without pain we would continue doing stupid things until we finally destroyed ourselves. It is suffering that teaches us the difference between good and evil.

    Whatever contributes to our wellbeing is an objective good even when the subjective experience is unpleasant. The goal of a moral life is to do what is objectively good. Pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain at all costs leads to all sorts of addictions and self-destructive behaviors that are objectively evil.

    If you think that Jesus just wants us to feel good, but not actual be good you are sadly mistaken.

  10. 10
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    @ Lamont:

    Elizabeth,
    The pain one experiences as a result of some physical injury is in itself a good thing that motivates us to avoid dangerous things, situations, actions, etc. Without pain we would continue doing stupid things until we finally destroyed ourselves. It is suffering that teaches us the difference between good and evil.

    Well, it teaches us the difference between what should be avoided and what not. Not the same as good and evil, IMO! Fire isn’t evil, but best not to touch.

    The ability to suffer (well, the ability to feel pain) is good. That doesn’t mean that pain is good. It’s not – that’s what it’s for!

    Still, that is a quibble I guess. hmmm. But important to keep in mind, because it can have important ramifications (for instance with regard to the ethics of pain relief).

    Whatever contributes to our wellbeing is an objective good even when the subjective experience is unpleasant. The goal of a moral life is to do what is objectively good.

    Right, and I would say that what is objectively good is the minimisation of suffering.

    That doesn’t mean that it’s never worth suffering, nor that good cannot emerge from it. But suffering, IMO, should not be the goal, either for ourselves or for anyone else.

    We should not knowingly make people suffer.

    Pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain at all costs leads to all sorts of addictions and self-destructive behaviors that are objectively evil.

    Which is exactly why I said prioritizing the self is where the problem lies. Pursuing pleasure is fine as long as it is not at the expense of another’s pain. That’s more restrictive than it sounds.

    And pursuing pleasure at the risk of your own future pain is also restrictive. The adage works as long as you don’t apply it trivially.

    If you think that Jesus just wants us to feel good, but not actual be good you are sadly mistaken.

    I’m not sure why you thought that. I quoted Jesus as saying “love your neighbour as you love yourself”.

    Nothing in there about “feeling good”.

    Or, actually, about “being good”, which would beg the question (he had stern words for the Samaritans about that).

    But the story that followed was about relieving suffering!

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