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Event Summary: Peter Singer on Disagreement

On 11 June, Professor Peter Singer presented the very first Ethox-Uehiro lecture, entitled ‘Disagreeing on Ethical Questions, Fruitfully and Otherwise’, at St Cross College, Oxford. The lecture room was full, and well over 100 people watched the livestream, which is now available here.


Singer’s lecture was about not the more abstract or a priori epistemic question of how to respond to disagreement, especially between epistemic peers, but which actual disagreements – in metaethics, normative theory, or applied ethics – he has found fruitful.

He began with metaethics, and his supervisor, one of the most well-known moral philosophers of the C20, R.M. Hare. Hare was a non-cognitivist, who believed that morality ultimately depended only on our own attitudes, but he sought to provide definitive content for moral requirements through analysis of moral language itself. According to him, when I say ‘X ought to p’, I am committed to prescribing that any person in any situation with the same universal properties as that in which X finds themselves ought to p. Singer described how he attempted to persuade Hare that his theory proved less than he thought, since one might use a different concept (‘ought*’) the logic of which didn’t involve prescribing universally.

This conclusion itself worried Singer, and he sought to find a role for reason in morality, such that one might claim that, for example, someone has a reason to raise their hand, if it will prevent someone else’s suffering severe agony, whatever their own attitudes or desires. His thinking here, influenced by Derek Parfit’s challenges to Hume, later led him to accept a non-naturalist form of ethical objectivism, according to which moral or other normative properties are not describable in the language of natural science and statements about such properties are straightforwardly truth-apt. It was while working on a book on Sidgwick co-authored with Kasia Lazari-Radek that Singer finally accepted this position. These metaethical disagreements Singer found very helpful, as also those that played a part in inspiring Derek Parfit’s discussion of normativity in the third volume of On What Matters.

Singer then turned to normative ethics, where of course there has for centuries been much disagreement between utilitarianism and deontology. Here Singer argued that these disagreements have been fruitful, at least in the sense that they have changed people’s minds. He emphasized the importance of so-called ‘thought experiments’, in which utilitarians might – using a case such as that of Bernard Williams’s ‘Jim’ – ask someone who claims that, say, innocent people should never be killed whether they believe this to be the case even if such a killing will prevent many other people from dying or even being killed. He also noted the importance of evolutionary explanations of our moral intuitions, such as those provided by Joshua Greene in connection with so-called ‘trolley cases’. Singer ended this section of the lecture by mentioning another of his changes of mind, again influenced by Sidgwick – from preference to hedonistic utilitarianism — and plausibly concluded that there is still much to be discovered about the source of our intutions and how we should approach them in ethics.

Turning finally to practical or applied ethics,  Singer drew the audience’s attention to another important issue on which he had changed his mind in response to arguments by Parfit and others: ‘person-affectingness’. He is at least now willing to take seriously the idea that there is no strong moral objection to eating meat from non-human animals who have an overall good life, a position he denied in his highly influential book Animal Liberation.

Singer has of course been criticized by many religious believers, especially Christians, for his views on issues such as assisted dying. Those disagreements he found less helpful, though some discussions on the role of religion in a pluralist, democratic society were possibly worthwhile, and, while his being silenced in Germany in the early 1990s was frustrating, the meetings he went on to have with people from disability advocacy organizations led to his changing his position on where parents should go to be informed. Unfortunately, however, unfruitful disagreements continue, and Singer mentioned that he still receives abusive and threatening emails.

Singer ended his lecture with a discussion of the unhelpful controversy that arose in response to Rebecca Tuvel’s article ‘In defense of transracialism’. But even this has had some good consequences, such as the establishment of the Journal of Controversial Ideas, which allows its contributors to express their opinions anonymously if they wish.

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