For those of us doing Catholic moral theology, we most often hear and read the name “Peter Singer” invoked by our colleagues in a dismissive way. Indeed, if one can somehow show that another’s argument is heading in a Singer-like direction, then for many of us one essentially has reduced it to the absurd. Furthermore, and very unfortunately, Singer remains consistently dismissed as a ‘popularizer’ who can’t be taken seriously as an academic given how widely his work is read.
But when I actually look carefully and systematically at his work I see not only how consistent and even rigorous it often is, but also how much it common it has with Christian Ethics. Consider, for instance, the topic of abortion. Though Peter Singer is pro-choice for abortion and infanticide, and the Catholic position condemns the intentional killing the fetus and early embryo as intrinsically evil, the actual disagreement between the two on this very complex topic turns out to be very narrow. Both believe that public policy cannot retreat into a privacy-centered moral neutrality with regard to (1) the moral status of the fetus and (2) whether one can kill or refuse to sustain a fetus. Both also agree, assuming for the sake of argument that a fetus is a person, that no unintended negative effects of making abortion illegal would justify allowing for the legal killing of fetuses. Both reject the American Supreme Court abortion decision Roe v. Wade. Both agree (again, assuming a fetus is a person) that not only would it be morally wrong to kill a fetus, but that one has a moral duty to support a fetus for nine months with one’s body. Both reject the idea that viability is a morally significant dividing line. Both also see a strong logical connection between one’s view of abortion and one’s view of infanticide. In fact, it is my contention that the wide divergence in their ultimate conclusions comes from a very complex argument involving the distinction that Aristotle and Thomas made between “active” and “passive” potential. On every issue but that one, Peter Singer looks a lot like John Paul II on abortion.
Singer also criticizes Christianity for being speciesist, but he (along with, to be fair, many Christians) is largely unaware of how complex the tradition is on this topic. For instance, the traditional definition of a person is “an individual substance of a rational nature”—with no mention of biological species as morally significant. Indeed, the Christian tradition makes explicit room for non-human persons (angels and aliens are good examples) and even (in the past) for the concept of human non-persons (human beings who are “slaves by nature”, for instance). Furthermore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church insists that it is seriously morally wrong to needlessly cause non-human animals pain and suffering, and even PETA has used the words of Pope Benedict (now known as “the Green Pope” for his heroic ecological work) criticizing factory farming in their advertisements. This should not be a surprise to anyone who reads Genesis and learns that not only are non-human animals created “good” without any reference to human beings, but that God intended other animals to be our companions, not our food.
The most overwhelming case of all for overlap involves how each understands our duties to the poor. Singer broke on the academic scene with his 1972 article on Famine, Affluence and Morality, and continues to hammer away at the problem of poverty through his continued work (especially his recent book: The Life You Can Save) and personal giving. Modern-day Roman Catholic movements to aid the impoverished (led by the American Bishops via their poverty arm called Catholic Relief Services) are not only absolutely massive in scale and trend-setting among their peer organizations, but their roots go back to the very beginnings of Christianity. Indeed, though Jesus himself rarely speaks of Hell, when he does so it is almost always connected to a failure of one’s duties to the poor, and the early Christian Church largely served as the social welfare system of the ancient world. Singer himself built on precisely this point when, in the second edition of Practical Ethics, he suggested we give 10% of our resources to those in absolute poverty in part because this was the tithing percentage required by the social welfare mechanism of the age: the Catholic Church. In a shocking indictment of most of us, I suspect, both approaches insist that a selfish failure meet one’s duty to aid the global poor is seriously immoral behavior—akin to something like indirect homicide.
Those who are familiar with ethical theory are probably the most skeptical of conversation between Peter Singer and Christian Ethics—especially because Singer is utilitarian and the Church is a big fan of exceptionless moral norms. But even here the possibilities for overlap are striking and important. The Catholic Church has a teleological ethic which, yes, is ultimately directed toward union with God, but is proximately directed at the flourishing of the “universal common good.” Even exceptionless moral norms are teleological in nature given that they are at the service of this kind of flourishing. Furthermore, Singer is exploring a new kind of objectivity in his moral theory—even to the point where it is no longer clear that he will remain a preference utilitarian. Indeed, in his latest edition of Practical Ethics he admits that preference utilitarianism is at variance with his moral intuitions about replacement theory (especially of persons), the good of distant future persons, and whether the existence of persons at all is a morally good thing. Especially as Singer moves to include more objectivity into his theory and go beyond preference utilitarianism, he becomes an even better conversation partner for Christian Ethics.
Much more needs to be said to back up these ideas and arguments, of course, and I try to do just that in my new book Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization—just released this weekend in the United States by Cambridge University Press. (Available in both paperback and Kindle versions.) I’m certainly interested in any feedback about the book, so feel free to send me a note (either here or via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), or join the discussion on the book’s Facebook page. The book will also serve as the basis of an exchange/debate between Julian Savulescu and myself next Autumn, so if you are in or around Oxford October 17th-19th, come by and see us.
Fordham University (webpage is here)
Practical ethics aims to offer advice to decision-makers embedded in the real world. In order to make the advice practical, it typically takes empirical uncertainty into account. For example, we don’t currently know exactly to what extent the earth’s temperature will rise, if we are to continue to emit CO2 at the rate we have been emitting so far. The temperature rise might be small, in which case the consequences would not be dire. Or the temperature rise might be very great, in which case the consequences could be catastrophic. To what extent we ought to mitigate our CO2 emissions depends crucially on this factual question. But it’s of course not true that we are unable to offer any practical advice in absence of knowledge concerning this factual question. It’s just that our advice will concern what one ought to do in light of uncertainty about the facts.
But if practical ethics should take empirical uncertainty into account, surely it should take moral uncertainty into account as well. In many situations, we don’t know all the moral facts. I think it is fair to say, for example, that we don’t currently know exactly how to weigh the interests of future generations against the interests of current generations. But this issue is just as relevant to the question of how one ought to act in response to climate change as is the issue of expected temperature rise. If the ethics of climate change offers advice about how best to act given empirical uncertainty concerning global temperature rise, it should also offer advice about how best to act, given uncertainty concerning the value of future generations.
Cases such as the above aren’t rare. Given the existence of widespread disagreement within ethics, and given the difficulty of the subject-matter, we would be overconfident if we were to claim to be 100% certain in our favoured moral view, especially when it comes to the difficult issues that ethicists often discuss.
So we need to have an account of how one ought to act under moral uncertainty. The standard account of making decisions under uncertainty is that you ought to maximise expected value: look at all hypotheses in which you have some degree of belief, work out the likelihood of each hypothesis, work out how much value would be at stake if that hypothesis were true, and then trade off the probability of a hypothesis’ being true against how much would be at stake, if it were true. One implication of maximizing expected value is that sometimes one should refrain from a course of action, not on the basis that it will probably be a bad thing to do, but rather because there is a reasonable chance that it will be a bad thing to do, and that, if it’s bad thing to do, then it’s really bad. So, for example, you ought not to speed round blind corners: the reason why isn’t because it’s likely that you will run someone over if you do so. Rather, the reason is that there’s some chance that you will – and it would be seriously bad if you did.
With this on board, let’s think about the practical implications of maximising expected value under moral uncertainty. It seems that the implications are pretty clear in a number of cases. Here are a few.
One might think it more likely than not that it’s not wrong to kill animals for food. But one shouldn’t be certain that it’s not wrong. And, if it is wrong, then it’s seriously wrong – in the same ballpark as murder. So, in killing an animal, one risks performing a major moral wrong, without any correspondingly great potential moral upside. This would be morally reckless. So one ought not to kill animals for food.
One might think it more likely than not that it’s not wrong to have an abortion, for reasons of convenience. But one shouldn’t be certain that it’s not wrong. And, if it is wrong, then it’s seriously wrong – in the same ballpark as murder. So, in having an abortion for convenience, one risks performing a major moral wrong, without any correspondingly great potential moral upside. This would be morally reckless. So one ought not to have an abortion for reasons of convenience.
One might think it more likely than not that it’s not wrong to spend money on luxuries, rather than giving it to fight extreme poverty. But one shouldn’t be certain that it’s not wrong. And, if it is wrong, then it’s seriously wrong – in the same ballpark as walking past a child drowning in a shallow pond. So, in spending money on luxuries, one risks performing a major moral wrong, without any correspondingly great potential moral upside. This would be morally reckless. So one ought not to spend money on luxuries rather than giving that money to fight poverty.
Katherine Viner of the Guardian has just chosen The Smiths’ Meat is Murder as her favourite album.
The album came out in 1985, in the middle of a decade in which I myself was an enthusiastic advocate of vegetarianism. I began by being swayed by the arguments of Stephen Clark, but it was the horrible images in The Animals Film (the first film shown by Channel 4, though sadly it was censored – I saw it complete at the Phoenix in Oxford) that motivated me to change and try to change others.
I became a keen vegetarian cook, and did manage to persuade a few friends, for a while, to become vegetarian themselves. But then, having read more philosophy, I began to think further about whether killing non-human animals is in itself wrong, in such a way that benefiting from such acts might itself be thought to be wrong. I decided that things were not as clear as I’d thought. First, not only is killing sometimes right, not killing is sometimes wrong, as sometimes in war or in justified voluntary euthanasia. Second, what is wrong with killing, if we consider only the individual killed, is its depriving them of future goods. This raises the question whether, even if killing is bad for an individual, a practice involving killing may be justified if it is the case that the individuals killed would never have existed in the first place without that practice. It seemed to me that it could be, if the individuals concerned had had a life worth living – that is, a life better than nothing.
Many of the animals now produced for human consumption, under intensive conditions, can plausibly be said to have lives which are worse than a life which is neither good nor bad. So there is no argument here for intensive farming. But non-intensive farming, especially those varieties which give special attention to animal welfare, does seem justified. So here there is an argument in favour of eating non-intensively-reared meat, one that I continue to find plausible.
There is one rather obvious objection to this argument: it could be applied to human beings. Imagine some group of cannibals who set up a practice in which they produced children, who had happy but short lives, and were then painlessly killed to be eaten. If everything else were equal – as that slippery phrase has it – then the argument carries across. But of course in the real world they are not. There are huge benefits to us arising from the general acceptance of a moral principle forbidding the killing of innocent human beings other than in unusual circumstances.
This is not to deny that there are other powerful arguments against eating meat, especially at the levels at which we now do so in the developed world. The production of meat uses resources highly inefficiently, resources which could be put to far better use now or in the future. There are issues here about whether what I do will make a difference either way. But meat is expensive, and there is little doubt that the money spent on it could itself be used to make large positive changes for the better in the world (a point that applies to any luxury good, of course). These arguments, however, do not rely on the assumption that meat is murder. The Smiths’ album may have been a good one, but its central message was a mistake.