Common Ground: Singer and Christian ethics

A meeting between Christian ethicists and Peter Singer has resulted in some common ground, as reported by Mark Vernon in the Tablet Newspaper (28th May 2011 www.thetablet.co.uk; www.markvernon.com/friendshiponline/dotclear/index.php?post/2011/05/27/Preferential-treatment).

Peter Singer, the controversial advocate of Preference Utilitarianism, is not a figure one would think to have much common ground with Christians when it comes to matters of ethics. He has specifically rejected and opposed many aspects of Christian thinking on ethics and has ideas about abortion, infanticide and euthanasia that many Christians would find abhorrent.

Singer thinks “Once we admit that Darwin was right when he argued that human ethics evolved from the social instincts that we inherited from our non-human ancestors, we can put aside the hypothesis of a divine origin for ethics.”

He views Christianity as a system of making people do things because of a fear of punishment and out of a desire for salvation. He sees within the New Testament examples of evil done to animals such as when Jesus cast out demons and sent them into a herd of pigs.

Though a utilitarian, Singer’s precise form of utilitarianism is different from traditional forms such as those of Jeremy Bentham and J S Mill. Traditional forms say that the choice that brings the greatest pleasure to the greatest number is the good one. Singer’s version, which is called Preference Utilitarianism, is a variation of this. It is not focussed on pleasure, something that is often quite difficult to define, but people’s preferences. Preference utilitarianism seeks to find out how such preferences should be weighed against those of other people. One person’s preferences should not count for more than another’s. This requires some empathy. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of others. We have to take account of their interests, their preferences. This act of empathy is required also in Christian ethics, in the commandment to love one’s neighbour and do unto them what you would wish they do unto you. Singer gives away a third of his income to charity and encourages others to do the same, something that Christians would approve of.

Singer is also well known for his views on animal ethics and his concern, in particular, for the industrial slaughter of huge numbers of sentient animals for food and other products. Singer has argued that we must live more simply and consume less. These themes are also shared by many Christian ethicists who argue that humans should be just stewards of creation and should avoid over consumption.

So Singer advocates compassionate empathy in his ethical system and self-sacrifice and charity; virtues and principles that Christians would support. However there are differences. Singer’s view about animals extends further to give them moral significance especially when they show signs of personhood. He believes that humans are not the only persons. Christian ethicists tend to give moral importance to human beings over other living things because humans are made in the image and likeness of God and also because God became man. These two doctrines elevate human standing to a level above the other creatures. Human beings are identified as uniquely special in the moral economy.

The divide increases when it comes to questions of euthanasia, abortion and infanticide. Singer holds controversial views on these because he does not believe humans always have personhood. It arrives in later stages of development than conception and so the preferences of others, such as the mother, override those of the unborn or even the newly-born.  Christian ethics have revealed absolutes such as those about the sanctity of life and the prohibition of certain specific actions such as murder. Here, Preference utilitarianism is different. It has no revealed absolutes and this leads to the essential conflicts between Singer and Christian ethics, over those things which are strongly prohibited by sacred texts and beliefs.

You can watch recordings from the conference here: mcdonaldcentre.org.uk/resources/peter-singer-conference/

It is important to be able to identify features of ethical theories and systems which are common, even when the theories are characterized as opposing. This shows a deeper understanding of the processes involved in ethical systems and precisely where the differences and similarities are.

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