Friday, October 7, 2011

Peter Singer: 'What's an infanticidal zoophilic preference utilitarian to do?'

The Guardian:

Peter Singer was in Oxford last week. The bestselling advocate of utilitarianism was the star contributor to a conference in which he talked with a group of Christian ethicists. Given Singer's inflammatory views on matters such as euthanasia and infanticide, the dialogue was striking for its agreements, particularly the common cause that can be made between Christians and utilitarians when tackling global poverty, animal exploitation and climate change.

Singer, in case you haven't encountered him, is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. He's considered the most important academic ethicist in the world. He is the author of Practical Ethics, perhaps the most widely used college textbook on ethics. His extraordinary academic accomplishments in ethics of course should suggest to you one thing:

He's nuts. Utterly nuts.

The Guardian:

However, it was on the last issue that the conference demonstrated real philosophical interest too. Singer admitted that his brand of utilitarianism – preference utilitarianism – struggles to get to grips with the vastness of the problem of climate change. Further, there is an element that comes naturally to Christian ethics which his ethics might need in order to do so. It has to do with whether there are moral imperatives that can be held as objectively true.

Singer has endorsed zoophilia as long as the animal enjoys it too ('Well, she certainly seemed to like it-- I've never heard her cluck so loud'!),  endorsed abortion (of course), and has even endorsed killing handicapped babies under a year of age if their parents don't want them.

Singer holds to preference utilitarianism:

[The] [m]oral theory according to which the good consists in the satisfaction of people's preferences, and the rightness of an action depends directly or indirectly on its being productive of such satisfaction. Like other kinds of consequentialism, the theory has satisficing and maximising variants. The latter are the more common ones: the more people get what they want, the better.

Do what feels good!

Bummer if you're a burden to others, though.

Now Singer has found an ethical problem so huge that it defies even his utilitarian recipe:

Climate change is a challenge to utilitarianism on at least two accounts. First, the problem of reducing the carbon output of humanity is tied to the problem of rising human populations. The more people there are, the greater becomes the difficulty of tackling climate change. This fact sits uneasily for a preference utilitarian, who would be inclined to argue that the existence of more and more sentient beings enjoying their lives – realising their preferences – is a good thing. As Singer puts it in the new edition of his book, Practical Ethics: "I have found myself unable to maintain with any confidence that the position I took in the previous edition – based solely on preference utilitarianism – offers a satisfactory answer to these quandaries."
Second, preference utilitarianism also 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.
What bothers Singer is that climate change 'science' implies that healthy thriving human beings are bad for the earth, and that to be moral we must... concern ourselves with future generations!

Arrghhh... What's an infanticidal zoophilic preference utilitarian to do?

Christianity, of course.

This brings us to the issue that Christians find comes naturally, namely the claim that there exists objective moral truths. In recent moral philosophy, such an assertion has been unfashionable.

Utilitarian moral philosophers have indeed denied that objective moral truths exist. Unless you take their parking spot in the faculty lot.

No objective moral truth? Who's to blame?

The Enlightenment thinker David Hume can be blamed. He argued that the reasons anyone has for action will always actually be based upon their desires. "'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger," he asserted.

It took Singer 60 years to figure out that Hume was an idiot.

Further, as wants and desires cannot be said to be true or false, so it makes no sense fundamentally to assert that moral judgments are true or false too. This subjectivism has been held in different ways by individuals from AJ Ayer to Simon Blackburn.
Out-of-fashion Christian ethicists have always insisted that moral laws are real and exist independently of  the opinions of men. Specifically, it's not ok to destroy the whole world rather than scratch your finger. Christian ethics is controversial.

Christian ethicists have never been tempted to believe that moral values are unhinged from an objective horizon. As Nigel Biggar, regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at Christ Church, Oxford, put it at the conference, that there are moral givens is part of what it means to affirm one deity as the creator. Creation is made in order to realise what is good and true
But of course objective morality can be... oppressive:

Clearly, what Christians have claimed as divine moral givens can prove oppressive. The Bible and Christian history alike provide copious examples. But, serious as that setback is, it is not of itself a reason to deny moral givens. Singer himself now seems more inclined to accept as much.

Right. 'Oppressive' Christian morality.  Like the view that we have a special obligation to help the the poor and the sick, and that it's wrong to kill children before they're born and to kill them after birth if they are inconvenient to us,  or that it's wrong to cheat on your wife or have sex with animals. Christian morality has proven such a hinderance to man!

Christian history is one oppression after another.
[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. He has not yet given up on preference utilitarianism. 
Keep working on it, Peter.
Neither is he any more inclined to belief in God, though he did admit that there is a sense in which he "regrets" not doing so,

Singer will regret it more, later.
[Belief in God]  is the only way to provide a complete answer to the question, why act morally?
"Duh!" will be the title of Singer's next textbook.
Only faith in a good God finally secures the conviction that living morally coincides with living well. 
What difference does this make to climate change? Tim Mulgan, professor of moral and political philosophy at the University of St Andrews, explained why ethical objectivism may be vital to making a robust ethical case against environmental degradation. Only a doctrine of creation can affirm that we are fundamentally linked to the natural order manifest on Earth. The fantasy of fleeing this planet, or disappearing into virtual reality, won't actually do. Our island home matters because the lives of human beings go well only when her natural systems go well too. Or, as the psalmist intuited many centuries ago: "Truth shall spring out of the earth."
Bottom line: 

The specter of killing handicapped children and having sex with animals didn't budge Singer from his utilitarian philosophy. However, the climate change hoax has caused him to rethink things.

My head hurts...


  1. Michael,

    Thank you for your book recommendation. I've just purchased it for my various non-carbon data retrieval units and I'll write a report, when I've finished Steven Pinker's latest book, and one or two others I've got in line, hopefully before the end of the month when the latest Michael Connelly novel comes out.

  2. This post shows no evidence of actually having read Peter Singer.

  3. Anonymous,

    Why are you so naive as to think that Michael might actually be interested in facts. He specializes in speculation and third hand reporting. If he wants to attack someone he'll 'cut and paste' a blog written by one of his conservative friends, and then comment on a comment, which usually turns out to be wrong anyway. You only have to look at his recent UNESCO thread. I doubt he read the original 2005 document either.

  4. Anonymous,

    On reflection 'naive' wasn't the correct word. Undoubtedly, you realized facts and Michael aren't exactly on first name terms. I've dipped a little into Peter Singer's book, and it doesn't seem bad, but I need to read from the start later.

  5. Mike wrote:
    "...However, the climate change hoax has caused him to rethink things.
    My head hurts.."
    Hey! Whatever it takes to get his head out of his ass. Maybe something GOOD will come out of the climate change debate after all?

  6. You are right, he is nuts. What to do? Well, let's make fun of him or ignore him.

  7. Anon,
    Thanks for the link.
    I'll have a good look through that blog.

  8. A recent survey found that something on the order of 80% of philosophers are nonbelievers. Given that these are mostly people who study metaphysics for a living, it kind of ruins Egnor's often touted claim that if only atheists knew their metaphysics they would be believers.

    As usual, Egnor, and the rest of his parrot crew here, haven't got a clue what they are talking about.

  9. Are they mostly people that study metaphysics? Oh really. I think you are talking nonsense.

  10. Nice post, Michael, but you forgot to compare atheists to Stalin.

  11. "A recent survey found that something on the order of 80% of philosophers are nonbelievers."
    So they are AGNOSTIC?
    Okay. Maybe.
    They do not believe one way or the other? That does not surprise me. Lots of bright folks in the 'undecided' category. Many deep thinkers.
    I would like to see a citation of this study so I could see the results for myself.
    Thanks in advance for that citation.

    "As usual, Egnor, and the rest of his parrot crew here, haven't got a clue what they are talking about."
    Way to prove a point, Anon....
    What do you do for an encore?
    Call us @$$holes?
    Grow up.

  12. Great evaluation of the certifiably insane Singer, and of course all that follow him.

    But Singer is simply taking his atheist Darwinism to its logical conclusions.
    Now I'm not sure whether one should think that its too bad that none of the other insane atheist Darwinists around here do the same, or, whether one should think its good that they don't!

    I'm sorta leaning towards, "they simply don't have the IQ to be able to take much of anything to a logical conclusion" - judging on past readings of witless Darwhiners posting here.

  13. Anon,
    "Nice post, Michael, but you forgot to compare atheists to Stalin."
    Stalin WAS an Atheist. What comparison?

  14. An animal experiment cannot be justifiable unless the experiment is so important that the use of a brain-damaged human would be justifiable.
    Peter Singer

    In that case, I think we can justify using Peter Singer as a replacement for rodents in lab experiments!

  15. @Anon
    A recent survey found that something on the order of 80% of philosophers are nonbelievers...

    Most doctors believe in God, afterlife

    I quote: In the survey of 1,044 doctors nationwide, 76 percent said they believe in God, 59 percent said they believe in some sort of afterlife, and 55 percent said their religious beliefs influence how they practice medicine.

    When your sick, who do you want to talk to?

  16. @Pépé and any other Canadians who may be on here, and before I forget:

  17. @crusadeREX


    We have a LOT to be thankful for. As former PM Jean Chrétien use to say: Canada is the best country in the world. I would add: and the US of A is second best!


  18. Pepe,

    When I'm sick, I want to be treated by a competent physician. It doesn't matter one bit whether the person is atheist, fundamentalist Christian or Muslim, provided the science behind the treatment is valid.

    But why did you bring up medical practitioners when the discussion was about philosophers?

  19. Pepe,

    Also, you're wrong again. Australia is the best country in the world, followed by Denmark.

  20. Cheers, Pépé!

    If I had to rank my top 7 (places I have been) it would go like this.
    1. Canada
    2. UK/USA (depending on region - tied)
    3. New Zealand
    4. Spain
    5. Chile/Mexico (regions)
    6. France/Holland/Swiss (regions again)
    7. Windward Isles (dutch/french carib)

    I have been through Australia, but did not stay long enough to judge or it would prob be there with NZ.

  21. @bach...
    But why did you bring up medical practitioners when the discussion was about philosophers?

    The discussion was about belief! Medical practitioners are more important (i.e., necessary) to us then philosophers, especially at the end!


    While Canada is the best, I would love to spend some time in the Seychelles islands... beat any winter!

  22. Pepe,

    Thank you for thinking that we medical practitioners are so important, but actually that's not true. Most people with illnesses get better despite medical treatment not because of it. Most illnesses are minor for which treatment is at best symptomatic. Diseases of old age are incurable.


    If I had to rank my 7 top countries, I'd go:

    1. Australia, but regional, Western Australia.
    2. Denmark.
    3. Germany
    4. Switzerland
    5. Finland
    6. New Zealand, although if I had to live in another country other than Australia, New Zealand would be the first choice, because I wouldn't need a visa, it drops in preference because of the earthquakes
    7. New England or British Columbia

  23. My Top Seven would be :

    France. (all over)
    South Africa (Cape Town)
    Italy (Venice)
    USA (NY)
    Brazil (Rio)
    Spain (Barcelona)
    Lebanon (Beirut)

  24. @Pépé
    I HEAR that. For me it would be the southern pacific coast of Mexico. I love to surf, and down along the coast between Punta Mita (Nayarit) and Puerto Angel (oax) it is HEAVEN for peace, quiet, and nice swell.
    @Iko...all Urban I note ;) 'City - Slicker' :P
    I like OPEN places. Grew up in a big nasty cities. I like trees, hills, and coastline these days. But you sure have some FUN cities there. Been to a few of them, and I can see that being a pattern. If you like these types of places , I highly recommend you check out Montreal next time you're in NA. It has one of the most enjoyable night-life scenes and (many) cultural districts.... full of that 'Joie de vivre' that exudes from your list. PLUS it has a underground city like Tokyo or Toronto city, so you can still revel in the sub zero. Fun place, if you like the big burgs.\
    @Bach This one is for you!

    @All: What a well travelled bunch!

  25. CrusadeRex,

    Yep, that says it all. When are you going?

  26. "Do what feels good!

    Bummer if you're a burden to others, though."

    Hahaha! Do you even bother to learn the definition of the things that you make fun of?