Peter Singer is one of the most famous philosophical ethicists in the world. His book Animal Liberation gave voice to a movement. His views on euthanasia, infanticide (excellent, must-read NYTMag article by a disabled woman critiquing Singer), bestiality (warning, explicit), and incest make headlines. He gives 20% of his income to charity. And he doesn’t like global warming.
The last point might not seem so important, except that apparently it has lead him to wonder about his entire ethical system, preference utilitarianism, where good is maximizing happiness by maximizing the attainment of preferences.
At a conference in Oxford in May Singer met with Christian ethicists to discuss various issues in ethics and find common ground where possible. I heard about the conference from others who were there and Singer definitely pleasantly surprised them.
Apparently global warming has jarred Singer into reconsidering preference utilitarianism. Mark Vernon of the Guardian describes Singer’s position thus:
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.
That’s not all. This is the part that is really news:
He 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
That is incredible. The world’s foremost preference utilitarian, a moral subjectivist, is reconsidering subjectivism and now leaning towards moral objectivism. He’s not all the way there and he’s not becoming a theist. But he is doing something interesting.
For those of us who disagree with Singer, or agree with him, we should know about this “flux” or we might make mistakes when referring to Singer’s thoughts.
So all ethicists out there be aware: Peter Singer’s philosophy is getting more complicated.