Friday, May 20, 2011

Utilitarians and Christians... thoughts on a conference featuring Peter Singer.

Yesterday and today I attended a conference here at Oxford's McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life, featuring the (in)famous utilitarian ethicist, Peter Singer. The goal was to create a dialogue between Singer's brand of preference utilitarianism and Christian ethics, in order to discover what areas of common ground, if any, might be found between them.

All in all, I would say this goal was accomplished, which was a pleasant result for someone like me who appreciates it when people actually listen to each other, instead of vilifying each other. Nevertheless, there were (of course) disagreements, and quite a few important (I think) points for consideration. So, let me provide a quick overview of the conference and what I took away from it.

First of all, Peter Singer's views are, even by most secular standards, rather extreme. He is committed to the following views (though this is not an exhaustive list):

- All sentient beings deserve equal moral consideration. In other words, if a creature can feel pain and pleasure, we ought to take their desires or preferences into account. This means that quite a few non-human animals deserve, in principle, the same rights as human beings. It is this thesis which first made Singer famous, as one of the fathers of the animal-rights movement.

- Following from this are quite a few ethical positions which may seem counter-intuitive or even appalling, depending upon one's own ethic, but which nevertheless seem to be quite consistent, given Singer's premises. Indeed, this is one reason Christians experience both loathing for and respect for Singer: he follows through with the logic he presents. For example, if it is true that human life is no more valuable than the lives of other higher mammals, it may be that killing a human to save animals is the right thing to do.

- Further, if a human life is less beneficial than an animal life, there is no reason, in principle, why we should save that life if we would not do the same with another animal. For example, if we think it's ethical to 'put down' an ailing dog or cat, there's no reason why we shouldn't do the same to a human. This would also apply to severely handicapped people.

- With regard to abortion, Singer not only argues that abortion should be allowed (if we can show that there is nothing ethically problematic about it), but that there is no reason, in principle, why this should only apply to children inside the womb. In other words, there is no ethical prohibition on infanticide.

- In other areas of life, preferences again are the guide. Bestiality? Pedophilia? Other sexual behaviors considered taboo? If it can be shown that, all things considered, the overall benefit outweighs the harm, then why not? The same would be said for creating human/non-human hybrids, or various bio-ethical issues.

Now, it must be said that Singer is not endorsing all of these acts; he is simply pointing out what being a consistent preference utilitarian involves. And, in that regard, Singer's commitment to his ethic is somewhat refreshing. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most Christians actually agree with Peter Singer's logic--but they quite clearly disagree with his premises. So the problem is not with Singer's consistency, but with his apparent (from a Christian perspective) lack of care for the dignity and special worth of the human being before God.

Of course, Singer does not believe in God; he is a committed atheist. So why would anyone expect him to give weight to, for example, the imago Dei? In any case, it is clear that, on a wide range of issues, Peter Singer and Christian ethics seem to be separated by an unbridgeable chasm.

This makes it all the more surprising, perhaps, to find that Singer also has a great deal to say about preferential treatment for the poor. This is, of course, also of great importance to the Christian faith, and is (along with perhaps animal rights and environmental ethics, to some extent) an area where Christian ethics and Singer's utilitarianism seem to be able to work together for a common cause. Both Singer and the majority of Christians seem to agree that providing for the needs of the poor is ethically mandated. For Christians, it is mandated by Scripture. For utilitarians, it is mandated by the overall flourishing of persons--that is, the concept of providing the greatest good for the greatest number of persons would seem to dictate that caring for the poor is not optional, ethically.

So, I am pleased that most, if not all, of those attending the conference recognized this key area of potential partnership between two very different ethical approaches. My hope is that we will begin to see more partnerships between persons and groups who, though in disagreement on other issues, will begin to work together to create more possibilities through which the global poor might be assisted and given the health, life, and sustenance they deserve.

OK. So, now onto just a few thoughts I had, from a more theoretical or methodological point of view: (If you aren't interested in my speculations, I completely understand if you read no further! :-D)

One thing which became clear at the conference is the importance of establishing one's grounding presuppositions. This is actually not as simple as it sounds, partially because it usually means recognizing that one's views are far less rationally grounded than one is initially willing to admit.

For example, the utilitarian view presupposes that there is a rational standard by which preferences can be measured, in order to provide us with ethical responses to given issues. While this may be true in a general sense, it is far more difficult to establish methodologically. This was seen in an exchange between Singer and Professor Nigel Biggar, which went something like this:

Biggar: Peter Singer's view seems to leave open the possibility that anyone, no matter what their views, can claim to be ethical if they have enough support for their preferences.

Singer: No, different preferences do not all have equal weight. Some preferences have a higher priority than others.

Biggar: Who decides, then, what preferences have priority?

Singer: We do, as rational human beings.

Essentially, this is an argument over what counts as rationality. For the utilitarian, appeals to rationality only work as long as it can be shown that human beings are not only capable of making such statements, but that they are not biased or being manipulative in their claims. Of course, the counter-argument is, essentially, "I don't buy it." Those of a Christian or otherwise opposing view are unwilling to rely upon the supposed neutral rationality of the utilitarian's claims. At the root, this is a question of human reliability.

In other words, there is a skepticism as to whether the utilitarian approach really can conceive of what is best for persons or how they ought to ethically behave. Rather than rely upon what appears to be an ever-shifting calculus by which ethical decisions may be measured, many Christian ethicists (for example) prefer to look to established principles, such as an Aristotelian telos, or the Christian Scriptures. But, there is a shift from a rational ethic that comes from the human subject to an objective ethic which comes from outside the subject.

Of course, the methodological problem remains the same. Christians may believe that we have been given an ethic by God, but there is often just as much disagreement among Christians as to how that divine ethic ought to be interpreted as there are debates over what preferences ought to be given priority in utilitarianism. This is not surprising, given that we are all finite creatures with limited knowledge, but it does create something of a dilemma: if we are all incapable of establishing a solid ground for our ethical presuppositions, then are we really ever going to establish an ethical consensus?

The answer would clearly seem to be 'no'. But, then, this simply leads us back to the pragmatic, or utilitarian, side of things. Only now, we are approaching the problem in reverse, as it were. Given that we have different presuppositions grounding our ethical stances, and recognizing that we nevertheless need a stable society in order to function, we begin to look for points of connection between ourselves and those with whom we disagree. But this would seem, I imagine, precisely to prove Singer's point that even if there are objective goods (as he seems to be nearer to conceding than previously), the method by which we assess the value of those goods becomes preferential. After all, we are preferring a society where humans do get along to one where we don't.

So, what do we do? Do we simply admit that our preferences are grounded in the presuppositions we hold as Christians and 'try to get along' with everyone else by seeking some common consensus? This would seem to be rather self-deceptive, since we would know that such a consensus is, in practice, not possible. Yet we would proceed with the assumption that we have no other choice. At this point it would appear that Christian ethics is far more 'Singer-ian' than we would like to admit.

On the other hand, if we take a somewhat more 'Hauerwas-ian' route (sorry if this is a bit of a caricature!) and say something like, "Forget about ethics. It can't help us. We simply need to trust in the Christian revelation and stop trying to yoke ourselves unequally with the world's norms and values." Well... obviously this can only be taken so far before it leads to some very problematic conclusions for human interaction. And yet, it does seem to be somehow more honest.

So where does this leave us? I'm not sure. I agree with a point made by John Haldane that Christian ethics is going to have to become more 'clever' if it intends to respond to some of these questions. But, thankfully, I don't have to answer any question today. This is just some food for thought. It's a discussion that no doubt will continue and, in that regard, I look forward to the possibility of more conferences like the one this week.


ʅʧɐɖɳɭɻʋʖɾɦɖʮʒɥɧɘʥʃɓ said...

"ever-shifting calculus by which ethical decisions may be measured".

I think a solid moral epistemology should be skeptical, and this approach is no different from what happens in science where you can never be sure that something is "true", but you can only falsify the predictions made by existing models. Yes, things might change in the future as we learn more, but that doesn't make our current knowledge useless.

Geoff said...

I'm not in substantial disagreement with your view, other than to say that I think it would be logical difficult to show that ethics and science are parallel disciplines. Science seems, as far as I can tell, to be methodologically non-ethical, since it makes no value judgments about the knowledge ascertained using scientific methods.

Of course, many scientists do then make ethical claims in response to their findings, but that seems to me to be relying upon a different ground of knowledge, one which cannot be accurately predicted or falsified using science.

For example, if a scientist says, "we are evolutionarily designed to feel pain and thus to avoid painful situations, therefore we ought to develop an ethic based on the avoidance of pain," it seems to me the second part of the statement is not something logically within the purview of science. The statement may made as an appeal to 'common sense' or 'what's best for our survival', but that seems to be just another way of saying something like, 'this is all we have, so let's make the best of it'.

I think, at the end of the day, that's what people like Singer are saying. And it can be very helpful in certain situations. But it doesn't really seem satisfactory in many ethical dilemmas, and thus leaves the question open of whether there is some other foundation we can appeal to for ethical behavior.

Geoff said...

oops... that should be "logically difficult."

RC said...

Glad to hear this was a good and thoughtful experience.