Peter Singer Reconsiders His Ethics

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.

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6 responses to “Peter Singer Reconsiders His Ethics

  • Marilyn

    Very interesting. Now I’m going to have to read the revised edition of “Practical Ethics.” Eventually.

  • Brian Green

    Get his new book? Maybe it’s all just a ruse to sell books! 🙂

  • Mary Anne Ashley

    Thanks so much, Brian, for bringing this shift to our attention–Mary A.

  • Scott Forschler

    Part of this makes sense, but parts sound rather odd. Singer was never a subjectivist in any meaningful sense, so I find the journalist’s comments on this odd and suspect they don’t convey what Singer meant. Perhaps he meant that he was leaning towards continuing to defend moral objectivity, despite some apparent challenges to it. The objective-subjective distinction is also sometimes applied to interests as opposed to broader moral norms, so one could, for instance, believe that is an objective moral norm that we should satisfy people’s subjective moral interests, or be an objectivist on both levels. I can’t tell what is meant here, but I don’t think you or your readers can either–we’d have to look at Singer’s original statements in context or we’re just guessing.

    Also, the issue about our actions possibly shaping the preferences of future generations is a real worry, and worth debating. But the first paragraph doesn’t actually state any concerns for preference utilitarianism as such, but rather raises a problem for what is called *total* preference utilitarianism–which I happen to know is (or was) Singer’s view. A competing view, *average* preference utilitarianism, handles this problem well–we cannot maximize the *average* utility of a population by increasing numbers of miserable people, so this is forbidden, which matches intuition. I find this view more plausible myself; in one of the two short conversations I had with him once I asked why he rejected it, and he described a brief counter-example. I’ll spare the details, just noting that I don’t find the counter-examples to the average view nearly as compelling as objections to the total view (where we have to maximize the total amount of utility, regardless of what the average per person is).

  • Brian Green

    Scott! Good to see you again. Thanks for chipping in your knowledge on Singer and utilitarianism. I too found the article lacking, but at the time I didn’t find that the lack was as deep as you found it to be. I should have looked harder, because you are correct, there is definitely something not right about it. The subjectivity-objectivity issue just doesn’t come out quite right. It raises more questions than answers. Hopefully Singer will clarify at some point.

  • Peter Singers utilitarisme | exphil

    […] er blitt hevdet at klimaforandringene utfordrer preferanseutilitarismen på minst to punkter. For det første krever klimaforandringer at vi tar i betraktning preferansene ikke bare til de […]

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