In this post I asked how a materialist could apply for a position as a professional ethicist. I asked: “Why should I pay someone $68,584 to say there is no real ultimate ethical difference between one moral response and another because they must both lead ultimately to the same place – nothingness.”
My point is illustrated by this quotation from professional materialist ethicist Peter Singer:
Whatever the future holds, it is likely to prove impossible to restore in full the sanctity-of-life view. The philosophical foundations of this view have been knocked asunder. We can no longer base our ethics on the idea that human beings are a special form of creation made in the image of God, singled out from all other animals, and alone possessing an immortal soul. Our better understanding of our own nature has bridged the gulf that was once thought to lie between ourselves and other species, so should we believe that the mere fact that a being is a member of the species Homo Sapiens endows its life with some unique, almost infinite value?
Peter Singer, “Sanctity of Life or Quality of Life?” Pediatrics 72, no. 1 (July 1983): 128-29.
The question at the end of the quotation is fascinating, because it highlights the branch-sawing nature of Singer’s project. People have no more intrinsic worth than pigs. Indeed, there is no such thing as “intrinsic worth,” because “worth” implies the “good” and the “good” does not exist. Everything is ultimately meaningless. But if that is true – and here’s where the branch sawing comes in – why should anyone care what a particularly clever hairless ape who goes by the name of “Peter Singer” says about anything? Are not his pronouncements as ultimately meaningless as everything else? Isn’t his solution to ethics as arbitrary as any other solution?
Here Singer is part of a larger post-modern tradition that I call the “except me” tradition. The post modern literature is full of long books by deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida who insist that long books have no intrinsic meaning (except books written by Derrida apparently). Similarly Singer insists that concepts like “good” and “evil” have no intrinsic meaning, except, apparently, when he says something is good.
The absurdity of all of this is palpable and it is hard to believe that Singer and Derrida don’t know this. Nevertheless, Derrida wrote long books and Singer makes ethical pronouncements. I suppose it is easy enough to understand why. Derrida sold a lot of books and Singer sits in a lucrative, secure and comfy endowed chair at Princeton. What is truly baffling to me is why anyone with a modicum of intelligence would listen to their self-referentially incoherent branch-sawing rantings. It is a mystery.
This brings me to a comment to my prior post by Mark Frank
I suspect Barry’s OP is based on a faulty idea of what an ethicist does. I am sure it is not his/her job to tell medical staff, patients and families what is the right thing to do. That would be incredibly patronising and lead to terrible problems if their own principles were very different from the person they were advising. It would be like Richard Dawkins coming along and telling the pregnant mother she ought to have an abortion because the child is disabled. I am sure their job is to help the people involved decide what is the right thing to do by pointing out precedents, consequences, different ways of looking at things etc.
Well Mark, I do have an idea about what ethicists do, and I hope it is not, as you say, faulty. I suppose that ethicists such as Singer say things about ethics and the basis for ethics (or the lack thereof) such as the Singer quotation above. Singer is a “preference utilitiarian” and in Practical Ethics he wrote concerning killing: “. . . the wrong done to the person killed is merely one factor to be taken into account, and the preference of the victim could sometimes be outweighed by the preferences of others.” (p. 95) Mark, I presume that if he were to advise someone regarding an “ethical” decision, he would bring the view that human beings are merely clever animals with no more intrinsic value than other animals and the view that granny’s desire to live may be outweighed by your desire to kill her to that conversation. Am I wrong?
By the way, I suspect Singer would apply the “except me” concept to considerations of whether his preference to live should be outweighed by someone else’s preference to kill him. I would bet dollars to doughnuts that he is an absolutist concerning the value of his own life.