Tag Archives: morality

What makes something right or wrong?

Here is another of the  4 animated videos produced by the British Humanist Association. They are all narrated by Stephen Fry.

This one deals with aspects of morality – an important subject where the voice of non-theists is often ignored.

“What makes something right or wrong?” Narrated by Stephen Fry 

See: That’s Humanism: Four animated videos about Humanism narrated by Stephen Fry

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Sin is relative


dress-code1
Love this photo I saw on Facebook – actually says a lot about the nature of morality as it is often practiced.

Credit: Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc.

The origins of ethics and violence

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Moral animals

I am spending some time dealing with family business so I am reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days. These could be useful with Christmas coming up.

Here’s a book for lovers of animals – and philosophy. But also for those who are willing to delve into the evolutionary origins of human morality.


Book review: Can Animals Be Moral? by Mark Rowlands

Price: US$29.95; NZ42.99
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (November 1, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0199842000
ISBN-13: 978-0199842001

Interested readers need to know – this is a book about philosophy, not science. I guess this makes the book more interesting to philosophers than scientists. And some familiarity with the philosophers whose arguments the author quotes and criticises will add to that interest.

However, Rowlands does not ignore the science. He refers to the scientific evidence for moral considerations by non-human animals (see video below for an example). A plus in my view as some philosophers seem to happily debate these sorts of issues without relying on any empirical evidence at all. But, as a philosopher, Rowlands assumes “only that the evidence makes a prima facie case for the claim that animals can be motivated to act by emotions—all   species of concern—that have an identifiable moral content. This assumption is the point of departure for the arguments to be developed in this book.”

Rowlands is also very clear from the beginning that his answer to the book title’s question is definitely “Yes.” He describes the purpose of his book this way:

“I try to show that the blanket dismissal of the possibility of moral action in animals cannot be sustained because it rests on certain assumptions that are controversial and would be rejected by many, often the majority, of philosophers. Essentially, the blanket dismissal requires that one be willing to pitch one’s tent in certain philosophical camps—camps in which many, perhaps most, philosophers would not be seen dead. Second, and equally important, I shall try to show that there are indeed good reasons to eschew these camps.”

Apparently, among philosophers, Rowlands’s view is a minority one:

“The history of philosophy has reached a near unanimous decision on the central question of this book. No, animals cannot be moral. They cannot act for moral reasons, or on the basis of moral considerations.”

And

“The positive goal of this book  is to show that animals can be motivated by moral concerns, and these concerns take the form of emotions that have identifiable moral content. The corresponding negative goals of this book are to show that the respectable reasons against this claim fall far short of   compelling, to unmask confusions, and to banish the fruits of magical thinking.”

I won’t go into the philosophical details but Rowlands argues for animals being moral because they can act on the basics of moral emotions. They have feelings and emotional reactions to situations and acting on these is enough for acting morally. But he acknowledges that emotions and sentiments are not the only sorts of moral reasons there are, saying, “I certainly would not object to the claim that there are moral reasons available to humans that do not reduce to emotions or sentiments.”

Moral agents and moral subjects

This leads him into definitional issues. We consider moral agents, moral subjects, etc. Moral subjects can act on the basis of motivations such as emotions and feelings. But a moral agent has the ability to reflect on these motivations and actions, can explicitly formulate or understand the principles behind the action and may be able to adopt an impartial perspective of the sort required for a sense of justice.

“All moral agents are moral subjects, but not all moral subjects are moral agents.”

Rowlands sees many, particularly social, non-human species as being moral subjects. But only humans have the ability to reflect, deliberate and consider abstractly, to be moral agents.

Many of the philosophers Rowlands argues against will demand that morality requires more self-awareness and abstract consideration than we normally consider possible by non-human animals. Thereby restricting morality to humans. However, research into human morality show that rational consideration and abstract thought occurs very rarely in moral situations. In fact our reactions have to be almost automatic and unconscious, as there just isn’t time to apply abstract thought or consult holy books and learned papers in ethical journals. If human animals relied only on rational consideration and abstract thought for their morality the species just would not have survived.

Using this book’s terms in many ways and many situations humans, although capable of moral agency, will behave as moral subjects. Rowlands discusses this in his philosophical arguments and provides explanatory examples. But this could have been helped by the scientific evidence showing that a lot of human moral actions are unconscious.

The continuity inherent in an evolutionary understanding of animals blurs customary distinctions between human and non-human animals. It’s therefore not surprising that moral concerns, emotions and feelings as a major reason for action are shared by human and non-human animals.

Moral autonomy – a degree of agency

Even among humans the degree of moral agency can vary. Some individuals may be more morally autonomous than others. They may often indulge in abstract moral reasoning, discussion and reading. They may possibly consciously reject some contemporary moral ideas and values. Other individuals may not be so reflective. Their rational consideration may be restricted to rationalising the automatic behaviour they exhibit. And they may be more unquestioning of the contemporary social mores and customs. They may even be willing to rely on social and religious authorities as the source of their moral values. Moral agency for many humans may be more potential than actual.

“A stronger view might claim that one possesses moral autonomy only when one is actually engaged in these processes. That is, moral autonomy turns on the exercise of the ability and not simply possession of the ability. This view entails that humans are morally autonomous individuals only on relatively infrequent occasions— and that some humans are, perhaps, never morally autonomous.”

Moral learning, or training

The book does not really discuss the way humans learn their morality during their development, or manage to adjust their moral codes to accommodate changing social values. Not surprising as it is about non-human animals. But it does discuss briefly the somewhat equivalent role of training that can influence those non-human animals who live closely with us. Some of this training can involve moral concerns – such as where pets are taught to be careful with young children.

Given the continuity of life inherent in a scientific evolutionary view  a continuity among different animal species in their moral instincts and concerns is not surprising. This supports modern changes in the way we consider non-human animals. Rowlands reflects this with the last sentence in the book:

“If animals can, and sometimes do, act for moral reasons, then they are worthy objects of moral respect. That is why it matters.”

Conclusions

I give more credence to scientific findings than philosophical deliberations. However, these are interesting in this case – even if more for characterisation of different philosophical schools. But while such deliberations may well appeal to the philosophically inclined by their very nature they usually cannot settle the argument. At times I felt the book had a tendency to philosophical argument at length where reference to empirical evidence may have sufficed.

Another criticism I have is the occasional use of Latin terms without definition. And use of philosophical shorthand not usually familiar to the lay person.

However, I felt the author’s presentation is careful. He gives reminders of his own position from time to time so one is not trapped into thinking he is advocating another position when he is merely outlining opposing arguments. This is helpful to the reader.

On balance I think the thorough philosophical consideration in this book does complement other, scientific, texts. For example, consideration of differences between moral subjects and moral agents provides a clearer picture than use of terms like “pre-moral” which authors like Frans de Waal and Michael Shermer have resorted to when describing the moral behaviour of non-human animals. Rowlands provides a philosophical clarity to the scientific findings.

Capuchin monkeys reject unequal pay

See also:
Scientist argues that animals are moral creatures
Can Animals Be Moral?

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An aside – philosophers who naively use science

Rowlands does not distort the science on this issue – he uses it honestly. Some philosophers are not honest when discussing issues related to non-human animals. They can resort to subtle differences in definition – even to motivated reasoning, usually to support their own bias. W. L. Craig’s recent attempts to claim that non-human animals might feel pain but don’t suffer is a rather blatant example. He misrepresents the science in his justification – claiming humans are the only animals with a pre-frontal cortex necessary for the self awareness required to experience suffering. (Misrepresenting science so as to use it as “evidence” for his religious and supernatural beliefs is a common trick of Craig’s as anyone familiar with his treatment if cosmology knows). Craig also relies on selective definitions if awareness, self-awareness and suffering to bolster his argument. (See this video for details).

Can animals suffer? Debunking the philosophers who say no, from Descartes to William Lane Craig

This cartoon seems relevant.

(Thanks to Jerry Coyne – William Lane Craig argues that animals can’t feel pain)

Christianity has hijacked human values

A short answer to a question often asked of atheists and other non-believers. Professor Jim Al Khalili points out that those people asking the question have got it the wrong way around

 ‘Christian values have hijacked human values’ – Professor Jim Al Khalili

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Christian ethics and Peter Singer

I am spending some time dealing with family business so I am reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days. These could be useful with Christmas coming up.

This book is a good read for anyone interested in ethical debates – particularly those between ethical philosopher Peter Sinclair and Christian spokespersons. Singer is usually heavily criticised for his secular ethics –  but this author provides a much more in-depth consideration of the differences – which are not as great as many Christians believe.


Book review: Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization by Charles C. Camosy

Price: US$25.75; Kindle US$16.80
Paperback: 286 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (May 28, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0521149339
ISBN-13: 978-0521149334

We all “do” morality – its part of being human. We will debate ethical questions till the cows come home. And we will take sides on moral issues, often reacting emotionally, even violently, to those who disagree with us.

But here’s a strange thing. Very few of us could name an ethical philosopher. Perhaps because moral questions are of such practical and personal importance ethical discussions at the philosophical level seem to not interest us.

But, those who can produce a name might, in most cases, come up with Peter Singer. This probably supports Charles Carmosy’s suggestion that “Singer is probably the world’s most influential living philosopher.”

Singer won recognition for his work on animal rights – a topical issue  today. He has written and lectured extensively on secular morality. But his reputation must also come from the publicity he gets from his philosophical opponents. Particularly philosophers of religion who have demonised some of Singers ideas, and the man himself. It’s no accident that in debates with theists Singer’s ethical ideas are the most often quoted, by theists, as negative and inhuman examples of secular ethics.

Even bad-mouthing creates recognition so these religious critics may be responsible for making Singer’s name so recognisable. That negative propaganda may not stick when people make their own efforts to read Singer.

There’s no shortage of mudslinging across the ideological divides of religion. So it’s not surprising that there is plenty of hostility and misrepresentation in even the more academic religious critiques of Singer’s ideas (See for a local example Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part One and Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part Two).

But “truth will out” and Charles Camosy, a Catholic ethicist who is Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University, New York, sees “small cracks . . . starting to form in the intellectual wall separating Peter Singer and Christianity.” Camosy’s book, Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization is a significant contribution to widening these cracks.

That’s not just my judgement. Peter Singer himself recommends the book. He says:

“Philosophy makes progress through criticism that is based on a sound grasp of the position under scrutiny, acknowledging its strengths as well as seeking to expose its weaknesses. Charles Camosy does exactly that, which is why, despite the deep disagreements between us, I regard Peter Singer and Christian Ethics as a valuable contribution to philosophy in general, and to applied ethics in particular.”

Overlapping ethical positions

The book provides a detailed consideration of the ethical positions of the Catholic Church and of Peter Singer in 5 main areas (devoting a chapter to each):

  1. Abortion,
  2. Euthanasia and the end of life,
  3. Non-human animals,
  4. Duties to the poor, and
  5. Ethical theory.

Each chapter concludes with an assessment of how close, or how different, the two positions are. For example:

  1.  “the disagreement between the two approaches with regard to abortion is actually quite narrow.”
  2. “The overlap between Singer and the Church with regard to euthanasia and decision making at the end of life is considerable. . . . it does seem as if proponents of Singer’s position and those who support the Church could come together and support certain important public policies.”
  3. “there is significant and wide-ranging overlap between Singer and the Church on non-human animals. Such common ground opens the door for productive exchanges which can challenge both approaches in various ways.”
  4. “Both approaches react strongly against the violence and injustice that our consumerist and hyper-autonomous culture inflicts on the vulnerable poor. The enormity of what is common might also suggest yet another duty: taking advantage of the resources and loyalties proper to each approach and unleashing their combined power toward the mutual goal of ending absolute poverty and restoring broad social participation for the poor.”
  5. On ethical theory – “we have seen a dramatic overlap between Singer and the Church. Both approaches, for instance, value consequence-based reasoning while at the same time having an important place for moral rules. Both also believe that many of these rules can be overruled for a sufficiently serious reason.”

Camosy has  found large areas of agreement (by the way, he does not neglect the difference between the two positions). But I really like that he goes further and suggests this agreement provides ground for cooperation, discussion and common public platforms.

Readers might be surprised at the amount of agreement Camosy finds between Singers ethical ideas and those of the Catholic Church. However, the common ethical positions found by Camosy does not surprise me. Despite claims of revelation and infallibility the Catholic Church has had to deal with real world issues for a long time. It’s natural that much of the ethical positions they arrive at will basically be secular anyway -  even if presented with religious phrases and terms.

I think Camosy’s concept of ethical objectivity residing in human flourishing and happiness reinforces this. (Although, interesting he does take that further to the flourishing of the universe as a whole). I found refreshing Camosy’s references to objective morality without the annoying evangelical habit of seeing that as “divine,” without dragging in his god.

At least, most of the time. Towards the end of the book Camosy does seem to sneak his god into the discussion, as a grounding for objective ethics. But only in the last chapter.

The “rich tradition” of Christian ethics

While Camosy’s ability to find the large extent of ethical agreement he did is heartening to me, some problems do bring me down to earth. Camosy says, and I agree, that the Catholic Church has a very rich tradition of writings and pronouncements on ethical issues.  This must have been an immense help to Camosy as he searched for some commonality. However, sometimes I felt this very richness presents a problem. Which piece of contradictory evidence does one rely on? Which particular pronouncement is considered more “official” than the others. The richness itself provides difficulties of choice, and can make a certain amount of “cherry picking” inevitable.

So I sometimes found myself contrasting Camosy’s claims with the modern public positions commonly attributed to the Catholic Church, or at least Catholic spokespersons. For example – meat-eating, vegetarianism, abortion and euthenasia. Some Catholics might not agree with Camosy’s conclusion about the extent of commonality because they don’t completely recognise the Catholic ethics Camosy describes.

Perhaps that’s the common problem of differences between church office holders and lay parishioners. But I suggest that in some cases there a more basic disagreements at the level of the office holder or “official.”

On the other hand, as an individual with an easily accessible and definitive set of writings, it is much easer to establish Singer’s “official” ethical positions.  There is less scope for “cherry picking” and one can usually find suitable quotes to show Singer’s position on various ethical questions.

A problem with philosophical labels

In their criticisms of Singer religious apologists have a common habit  of inferring an ethical position (and not find a specific quote) from their own biased understanding of ethical labels.  Perhaps I have a thing about ideological and political labels, and I am sure Singer objects to their use less than I do. He does, after all, sometimes use descriptive ethical labels in his writings. However, I think some of the more extreme interpretations of Singer’s positions does not come from specific quotes or writings of Singer. Instead they come from the description of him as a proponent of “preference utilitarianism,” for example, and then inferring a specific ethical position – often relying on the commentators own hostile or simplistic understanding of the label’s meaning.

Fortunately Camosy  relies on quotes from Singer’s writing to describe his ethical positions. Well, at least most of the time. He does slip into use of the “preference utilitarianism” label to ground an inference a few times. And they stood out to me – especially as Camosy himself is arguing towards the end of the book that Singer’s ideas are shifting. That “Singer is in the process of fundamentally rethinking his preference utilitarianism.” Even more reason to avoid labels.

Conclusion

I believe this book will be very useful to anyone interested in Singer’s ethical philosophy, especially comparing it with that of the Church. Camosy relies mostly on direct quotations from Singer’s writings so the book provides a useful summary of his ideas, particularly in the 5 areas mentioned. In fact, there may be more disagreements among Catholics on Camosy’s description of Catholic ethical positions. A curse of the “rich tradition” perhaps.

It should help correct some of the misunderstandings that Christians have about Singer’s ideas – if only they are open-minded enough to read books like this. I hope their approach top a book by a Catholic ethicist is more sympathetic that their approach to the original writings of Singer.

Considering the ideological differences between singer and the Catholic Church I think Camosy has done his job well. I can excuse him the few lapses that my sensitivities have identified.

And I think Camosy’s identification of the possibilities of common action between supporters of Singer and the Catholic Church is very useful. Dare I hope that the church can be open to these possibilities in the future?

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Source of moral authority has shifted

A recent poll in the UK confirms a trend I have noticed elsewhere – the movement of younger people away from organised religion, and to a slightly lesser extent, from religious beliefs. But also to a decline in respect for religion and its leaders.

The YouGov poll for the Sun  shows a decisive turn against religion among 18 – 24 year olds. And a very low belief in a god (see Poll: Young people turn decisively against religion).

Fifty six% of people in this age group say they have no religion while 38% don’t believe in a god.

Religion-2

In common with other polls there is still substantial support for not believing in a god but believing in “some sort of spiritual greater power” – the halfway house.

religion-4

Only 12% said religious leaders have any influence on them – lower than for politicians, who scored 38%, brands, which scored 32% or celebrities, who scored 21%. Eighty two% declared religious leaders have no influence.

religion-what

Finally, a high 41% told pollsters ‘religion is more often the cause of evil in the world’ while only 14% said it was a cause for good.

religion-3

I think we might find the same attitudes in this country.

But it does raise some important questions about the public perception of the role of religion in today’s society. It’s commonly described as a source of good. But Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association and first vice president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, won’t have it. In a commenting article, Religion is in decline – so why are people so well behaved?, he says:

 

“One of the most mystifying aspects of recent governments’ emphasis on religion as a source of individual and social values has been its total mismatch with reality. Survey after survey has shown the population as a whole, and young people in particular, increasingly turning away from religious beliefs and influences entirely – and yet there has been no detrimental effect on the wellbeing of the nation.”

He concludes “there has been a change in recognised moral authority away from religion and towards secular influences.” And asks “when a government is going to realise this change and accept the implications for public policy.”

With polling like this it is about time that we all recognised that religion is not the source of our morality and public utterances claiming it is should stop.

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Marriage equality, retribution and moral progress

Durer_Revelation_Four_Riders_2

Retribution?
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” by Dürer

Colin Craig, leader of New Zealand’s Conservative party, is upset at last night’s parliamentary vote supporting marriage equality. On twitter (@ColinCraigNZ) he warned “The day of reckoning is still to come.” Some Catholic Bishops in Auckland issued a similar warning.

The religious connotations are obvious – war, pestilence, etc. But Craig’s press release hints at electoral consequences for parliament ignoring the expressed will of the people. He said: “Last night was not a vote of the people of New Zealand. If it had been, the answer would have been no.” (sic). And went on to claim: “Next year’s election will be the opportunity for New Zealanders to finally have their say. . . . . we expect our support to continue to increase.”

The Catholic Bishops also implied that the next election might see loss of support for those MPs who supported the law as an angry electorate took vengeance.

Craig and those bishops should get out more. Polling has shown majority support in New Zealand for marriage equality. And comments in the twitter stormduring the parliamentary debate last night indicated people were considering electorally supporting good speakers even though they represented political parties they hated.

The overwhelming assessment of the parliamentary debate on this legislation was that it was a high quality, reasoned and non-partisan approach made possible by the conscience vote. Bloody hell, the parliament TV channel must have had a huge following – patrons in bars and at parties were watching the debate. On this issue parliament TV was the best viewing of the night.

Watch Maurice Williamson’s speech on the legislation

Human rights the issue

The legislation was passed by an overwhelming majority (77 to 44). Members of parliament supporting the legislation impressed in their speeches because they were arguing in favour of human rights, and removal of discrimination. That resonated with viewers – and will do those speakers no harm in the next elections.

The few MPs speaking against the legislation instead argued for “tradition,” “authority” and conservative religious, even supernatural, morality.

I think this illustrates a clear difference in foundational values some moral psychologists describe as underlying human morality. I have written about this in reviewing Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (see Morality and the “worship” of reason and Human morality is evolving).

Haidt lists six foundational values in human morality:

  1. Care/Harm
  2. Fairness/Cheating
  3. Loyalty/Betrayal
  4. Authority/Subversion
  5. Sanctity/Degradation
  6. Liberty/Oppression

I think this is a useful hypothesis (although I don’t agree with his conclusions about political values and the way he treats each foundational value as equal). We all have underlying intuitions and values driven by these sort of instincts.  However, I just don’t treat all these “foundational values” as equal. Or the resulting moral outlooks as always valid.

While these instincts evolved in humans, and some other animals, some, to me, seem more valid in today’s society. For example, foundational values related to survival, harm and care seem fundamental, arising naturally from the inherent biological value of survival. But those related to purity, sanctity authority, etc., while often relying on instincts developed for survival (eg purity of food), are actually hijacked to emotionally justify features of society and religion.

Foundational values of purity are important in considering unusual food, authority and loyalty in times of war, natural catastrophe, etc. But purity in considering beliefs, social arrangements like marriage and sexual relations? Authority and loyalty when considering behaviour in a democratic and pluralist, multi-belief and secular society? I think in the latter situations these foundational values are being misused and the moral conclusions are unjustified. They are relying on the hijacking of human instincts to give emotional support for outmoded social relations.

The moral drift?

Many people have commented that the marriage equality legislation is long overdue – others have commented  that “it is time.” Clearly it’s passing is possible now, and not 5 or 10 years ago, because of the change in our moral outlook. Conservatives may lament that – they may see this moral change as a decay or degradation. Others (the majority in this case) see it as progress.

But in terms of Haidt’s “foundational values” I see it as society giving more credence to foundational values related to survival, care, harm, fairness, liberty and human rights. And giving less credence to foundational values related to loyalty, authority, purity, sanctity and sacredness in human relations.

I think that is progress.

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Talking sense about morality

Here’s a great blog post by Jerry Coyne outlining a scientific approach to morality (see How should we be moral?: Three papers and a good book) it gives a summary of his current ideas and a reading list of papers and a book which have influenced him.

I go along with Jerry’s conclusions but I would add a couple of things  to his summary:

  1. I agree that there is no such thing a objective morality – but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. I think we can show an objective basis for morality. We can understand how some of our values have an objective basis (others may not) and this is important in our evaluation of moral codes.
  2. I think we should extend our understanding of an instinctual morality model (as opposed to a rational one) beyond the simple proposition of an evolutionary origins of our instincts. We need to see that the instincts or intuitions driving our moral feelings or emotions can also develop, or evolve, via cultural mechanisms. I think this is important to understanding of the moral zeitgeist, the way that our moral codes tend to change over time.

An objective basis for morality?

There is a difference between objective morality – which implies some sort of moral truth existing independently of humanity – and objectively based morality. This latter implies that there is a basis for our morality – the nature of our species – which means that we generally come to the same moral conclusions. Our morality is not just a matter of personal choice.

I see the simplest basis of morality in the simple facts of life itself. Living organisms, even the most primitive, have the property of valuing life and its continuation. Without this basic biological value such organisms would not survive and reproduce. Just imagine a simple organism which ignored indications of nutrients in its environment and had no ability, or “desire,” to reproduce. Natural selection would soon have put paid to it.

While initial organisms may have had simple physical and chemical mechanisms putting biological value into effect evolution eventually led to development of neuronal structures and brains. Biological value could be expressed as instincts and emotions.

Evolution of social animals provided requirements for a finer structure to biological value. The interactions between organisms became more important and this finer structure became represented in the instincts and emotions of social animals – including humans.

Long story short – I see an objective basis for human morality in human nature itself. The fact that we are a sentient, intelligent, conscious, social and empathetic species.

Hijacking human instinct

Of course, there is not necessarily a direct line between our evolved instincts, objectively based in biological and social value, and the morality we profess.  Jonathan Haidt described his useful theory of foundational moral values in his recent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (see my review in Human morality is evolving). While some of our moral codes related to life, care, harm and well-being are related to foundational human values involved with life and its survival – biological and social value – others are not. Or at least they are driven by instincts which have been hijacked. For example instincts of purity may well be related to survival and life, but moral codes related to sacredness, racial superiority and religious purity (unrelated to life and survival) rely on the hijacking of such instincts.

So while I assert that there is an objective basis for some of our morality – especially that related to life, care, harm and well-being -  some of our morality may well not have a genuine objective basis, even though it utilises basic human instincts.

Moral learning and moral zeitgeist

A simple instinctive model of morality, relying on evolved instincts and not conscious deliberation, really doesn’t explain how and why human morality changes. It doesn’t explain the moral zeitgeist.

I think it’s necessary to include both rational consideration as well as instinctive, emotional reaction, to explain this. As Jerry said, our “instinctive judgments are largely a product of evolution.” But it doesn’t stop there. Our intuitions, and hence our emotions, are produced unconsciously, without delineation, but over time they are influenced by our conscious deliberation and learning.

When we learn to ride a bike, or even to walk as a toddler, our actions are deliberate. We consciously consider them and put them into effect. But with learning these actions no longer need conscious deliberation. They are incorporated into our unconscious brain and carried out automatically. Just as well – imagine that adults had to continue all the conscious activity the toddler uses when they start walking. With all the inevitable conscious mistakes. Just imagine grown-ups walking along the footpath, but every so often falling on their backside like a toddler! Because the process of walking had not been learned and incorporated into their unconscious.

I argue, that the conscious moral deliberations of individuals and society produce the same sort of learning. These deliberation may be active – as, for example, our current discussion of marriage equality. Or the learning could be almost passive. Exposure to our culture. I think many people have unconsciously shifted their attitudes towards working mothers, racial integration and homosexuals because of their exposure to TV shows, books, and life itself, where these modern moral attitudes are accepted.

Incorporation of this moral learning into our subconscious means that  homosexuality, for example, no longer automatically provokes our instincts of purity and disgust. Or meeting an atheist no longer causes us to react out of disgust or respect for authority.

So while our day-to-day moral functioning relies on these intuitional reactions and not logical consideration, these unconscious intuitional reactions have been modified by our learning and exposure to cultural changes.

Moral progress?

On the one hand, that moral attitudes related to care, life, harm and well-being can have an objective basis in biological value, in the very nature of life, means we have ways – both emotional and logical – at arriving at common agreement on what is “right” and “wrong.” On the other hand, although our morality is instinctive or intuitional and not rational (at least in common day-to-day activity) the deliberate intellectual consideration of moral issues, as well as our passive exposure to a culture which is changing because of that deliberate consideration, means that we are capable of moral learning. Of adjusting our automatic moral reactions over time. Of making moral progress.

And I think we can conclude that this has happened on issues such as human rights and discrimination – even if not uniformly and evenly.

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A sensible Christian perspective on Peter Singer

Book review: Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization by Charles C. Camosy

Price: US$25.75; Kindle US$16.80
Paperback: 286 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (May 28, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0521149339
ISBN-13: 978-0521149334

We all “do” morality – its part of being human. We will debate ethical questions till the cows come home. And we will take sides on moral issues, often reacting emotionally, even violently, to those who disagree with us.

But here’s a strange thing. Very few of us could name an ethical philosopher. Perhaps because moral questions are of such practical and personal importance ethical discussions at the philosophical level seem to not interest us.

But, those who can produce a name might, in most cases, come up with Peter Singer. This probably supports Charles Carmosy’s suggestion that “Singer is probably the world’s most influential living philosopher.”

Singer won recognition for his work on animal rights – a topical issue  today. He has written and lectured extensively on secular morality. But his reputation must also come from the publicity he gets from his philosophical opponents. Particularly philosophers of religion who have demonised some of Singers ideas, and the man himself. It’s no accident that in debates with theists Singer’s ethical ideas are the most often quoted, by theists, as negative and inhuman examples of secular ethics.

Even bad-mouthing creates recognition so these religious critics may be responsible for making Singer’s name so recognisable. That negative propaganda may not stick when people make their own efforts to read Singer.

There’s no shortage of mudslinging across the ideological divides of religion. So it’s not surprising that there is plenty of hostility and misrepresentation in even the more academic religious critiques of Singer’s ideas (See for a local example Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part One and Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part Two).

But “truth will out” and Charles Camosy, a Catholic ethicist who is Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University, New York, sees “small cracks . . . starting to form in the intellectual wall separating Peter Singer and Christianity.” Camosy’s book, Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization is a significant contribution to widening these cracks.

That’s not just my judgement. Peter Singer himself recommends the book. He says:

“Philosophy makes progress through criticism that is based on a sound grasp of the position under scrutiny, acknowledging its strengths as well as seeking to expose its weaknesses. Charles Camosy does exactly that, which is why, despite the deep disagreements between us, I regard Peter Singer and Christian Ethics as a valuable contribution to philosophy in general, and to applied ethics in particular.”

Overlapping ethical positions

The book provides a detailed consideration of the ethical positions of the Catholic Church and of Peter Singer in 5 main areas (devoting a chapter to each):

  1. Abortion,
  2. Euthanasia and the end of life,
  3. Non-human animals,
  4. Duties to the poor, and
  5. Ethical theory.

Each chapter concludes with an assessment of how close, or how different, the two positions are. For example:

  1.  “the disagreement between the two approaches with regard to abortion is actually quite narrow.”
  2. “The overlap between Singer and the Church with regard to euthanasia and decision making at the end of life is considerable. . . . it does seem as if proponents of Singer’s position and those who support the Church could come together and support certain important public policies.”
  3. “there is significant and wide-ranging overlap between Singer and the Church on non-human animals. Such common ground opens the door for productive exchanges which can challenge both approaches in various ways.”
  4. “Both approaches react strongly against the violence and injustice that our consumerist and hyper-autonomous culture inflicts on the vulnerable poor. The enormity of what is common might also suggest yet another duty: taking advantage of the resources and loyalties proper to each approach and unleashing their combined power toward the mutual goal of ending absolute poverty and restoring broad social participation for the poor.”
  5. On ethical theory – “we have seen a dramatic overlap between Singer and the Church. Both approaches, for instance, value consequence-based reasoning while at the same time having an important place for moral rules. Both also believe that many of these rules can be overruled for a sufficiently serious reason.”

Camosy has  found large areas of agreement (by the way, he does not neglect the difference between the two positions). But I really like that he goes further and suggests this agreement provides ground for cooperation, discussion and common public platforms.

Readers might be surprised at the amount of agreement Camosy finds between Singers ethical ideas and those of the Catholic Church. However, the common ethical positions found by Camosy does not surprise me. Despite claims of revelation and infallibility the Catholic Church has had to deal with real world issues for a long time. It’s natural that much of the ethical positions they arrive at will basically be secular anyway -  even if presented with religious phrases and terms.

I think Camosy’s concept of ethical objectivity residing in human flourishing and happiness reinforces this. (Although, interesting he does take that further to the flourishing of the universe as a whole). I found refreshing Camosy’s references to objective morality without the annoying evangelical habit of seeing that as “divine,” without dragging in his god.

At least, most of the time. Towards the end of the book Camosy does seem to sneak his god into the discussion, as a grounding for objective ethics. But only in the last chapter.

The “rich tradition” of Christian ethics

While Camosy’s ability to find the large extent of ethical agreement he did is heartening to me, some problems do bring me down to earth. Camosy says, and I agree, that the Catholic Church has a very rich tradition of writings and pronouncements on ethical issues.  This must have been an immense help to Camosy as he searched for some commonality. However, sometimes I felt this very richness presents a problem. Which piece of contradictory evidence does one rely on? Which particular pronouncement is considered more “official” than the others. The richness itself provides difficulties of choice, and can make a certain amount of “cherry picking” inevitable.

So I sometimes found myself contrasting Camosy’s claims with the modern public positions commonly attributed to the Catholic Church, or at least Catholic spokespersons. For example – meat-eating, vegetarianism, abortion and euthenasia. Some Catholics might not agree with Camosy’s conclusion about the extent of commonality because they don’t completely recognise the Catholic ethics Camosy describes.

Perhaps that’s the common problem of differences between church office holders and lay parishioners. But I suggest that in some cases there a more basic disagreements at the level of the office holder or “official.”

On the other hand, as an individual with an easily accessible and definitive set of writings, it is much easer to establish Singer’s “official” ethical positions.  There is less scope for “cherry picking” and one can usually find suitable quotes to show Singer’s position on various ethical questions.

A problem with philosophical labels

In their criticisms of Singer religious apologists have a common habit  of inferring an ethical position (and not find a specific quote) from their own biased understanding of ethical labels.  Perhaps I have a thing about ideological and political labels, and I am sure Singer objects to their use less than I do. He does, after all, sometimes use descriptive ethical labels in his writings. However, I think some of the more extreme interpretations of Singer’s positions does not come from specific quotes or writings of Singer. Instead they come from the description of him as a proponent of “preference utilitarianism,” for example, and then inferring a specific ethical position – often relying on the commentators own hostile or simplistic understanding of the label’s meaning.

Fortunately Camosy  relies on quotes from Singer’s writing to describe his ethical positions. Well, at least most of the time. He does slip into use of the “preference utilitarianism” label to ground an inference a few times. And they stood out to me – especially as Camosy himself is arguing towards the end of the book that Singer’s ideas are shifting. That “Singer is in the process of fudnamentally rethinking his preference utilitarianism.” Even more reason to avoid labels.

Conclusion

I believe this book will be very useful to anyone interested in Singer’s ethical philosophy, especially comparing it with that of the Church. Camosy relies mostly on direct quotations from Singer’s writings so the book provides a useful summary of his ideas, particularly in the 5 areas mentioned. In fact, there may be more disagreements among Catholics on Camosy’s description of Catholic ethical positions. A curse of the “rich tradition” perhaps.

It should help correct some of the misunderstandings that Christians have about Singer’s ideas – if only they are open-minded enough to read books like this. I hope their approach top a book by a Catholic ethicist is more sympathetic that their approach to the original writings of Singer.

Considering the ideological differences between singer and the Catholic Church I think Camosy has done his job well. I can excuse him the few lapses that my sensitivities have identified.

And I think Camosy’s identification of the possibilities of common action between supporters of Singer and the Catholic Church is very useful. Dare I hope that the church can be open to these possibilities in the future?