Friday, June 3, 2011
Singer “in a state of flux”
The Guardian reports that Peter Singer is having second thoughts about some aspects of his moral philosophy. In particular, he now has doubts about whether preference utilitarianism provides satisfactory moral advice about climate change. (As the reporter puts it, “preference utilitarianism can provide good arguments not to worry about climate change, as well as arguments to do so.”) Singer is also now open to the idea that moral value must be grounded in something objective; and though he is still not inclined to believe in God, he acknowledges that a theologically-oriented ethics has the advantage that it provides the only complete answer to the question why we should act morally.
This is progress, though it seems to me that Singer’s conception of moral objectivity is dubious. Apparently he would ground our knowledge of objective moral truths in “intuition.” As I have said before, this is bad methodology, at least from an Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law point of view as I understand it. Moral intuitions track objective moral truth in only a very rough, general, and mutable way. Practically they are useful – that is why nature put them into us – and they might provide a useful heuristic when philosophically investigating this or that specific moral question. But intuition does not ground moral truth, it is not an infallible guide to moral truth, and it should never form the basis of a philosophical argument for a controversial moral position.
One must also be very careful when asserting that religion provides the only complete basis for morality (though in fairness to Singer, the article does not say how he would flesh out his views about religion). This does not mean – or should not mean – grounding morality in arbitrary divine commands or threats of eternal damnation. To be sure, in my view there certainly are such things as divine commands and eternal damnation. But (again, at least from an Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law perspective), the content of the moral law is not determined by some arbitrary decree (it is determined by human nature, which even God cannot change), and the rational motive for acting morally is not fear of punishment (it is rather the motive of fulfilling our nature and thus attaining happiness, toward which end practical reason itself is directed by nature). Conceiving of God as a kind of cosmic Saddam Hussein and of the universe as a Baathist police state is no way to ground morality, and it is not how a writer like Aquinas does ground morality. That is the vulgar atheist’s caricature of theological ethics, not the real McCoy. (For what I take to be the correct understanding of the relationship between ethics and religion, see chapter 5 of Aquinas. I have also discussed the relationship between morality and divine commands here and here.)
But again, this is progress. The moral positions Singer is usually associated with are odious, but it takes some courage and intellectual honesty for someone with Singer’s extreme views to admit that Christian morality might have something going for it.