*Peter Singer and Christian Ethics*

The author is Charles C. Camosy and the subtitle is Beyond Polarization, you can buy it here.

Most philosophies draw heavily from religion, as Ross Douthat suggested recently.  Peter Singer is no exception, as Camosy ably demonstrates.  There should be more books like this.

My new question for visitors to the lunch table is: “What is it you really believe in?”


My answer: mathematics

I'll start:

I believe that the question of whether or not deity exists is meaningless. If it's true or false, it does not change how we should conduct our lives and how we should treat each other.

"If it’s true or false, it does not change how we should conduct our lives and how we should treat each other."

You are stating your opinion, your "it" does not follow logically. In other words, 'should conduct' according to who? If according to you, why? If according to the law, why? If according to the majority, why?

It's definitely an opinion. It's my belief, after all.

As to how one "should" be, it is according to an ideal that would maximize utility for (as I admittedly arbitrarily choose) humanity and the actor.

I also believe we don't yet know what this perfect path is, we're just making the best guess we can.

But thank you, that's an excellent question.

That just leads to "how does one define 'utility', and why?" At some point someone (or some group) has to decide what the foundations of right and wrong are.

Agreed. But the main thrust of this belief is that a lot of effort dedicated to saying that God does or does not exist, would be better purposed toward determining what, precisely, these foundations of right and wrong are.

Why would there be a foundation for right and wrong? Morality is normative and ethics are situational.

If there is no afterlife, why should I care about anybody else's utility?

Is your new question intended to allow you to enjoy your lunch in solitude?


The scientific method. Everything else is just guessing.

Even the scientific method consists of a lot of guessing, but over the long term it's proven pretty good at eliminating bad guesses.

Science is the new religion. How can we make that palatable for believers and non-believers alike?

It's not new.

My point precisely. Not so long ago science was only a thing for scientists. Science was small and a lifetime of work meant a very strong affinity for all the sciences. Now even the sharpest mind with the freest of time must leave some areas of science untouched. We are left to take faith in the scientific method as an ideal rather than a procedure, but few are willing to accept it.

Your guess, then, is that Feyerabend will not be vindicated by 21st century science.

Tyler, is that a serious statement from you about the lunchtime question?

IVV says: "I believe that the question of whether or not deity exists is meaningless. If it’s true or false, it does not change how we should conduct our lives and how we should treat each other."
This is objectively true and not just a subjective view of anyone. Theft would be wrong even if it is conclusively proved God does not exist.

How do you know theft is wrong?

Exactly. Perhaps it is the rule against theft that is wrong -- after all, one could argue on the basis of religious or moral principles that people should be required to share their resources with others -- that is why I do not put any faith in religion or morality

Herr Nietzsche, is that you?

--in which case "theft" is only "borrowing" and "borrowing" is the equivalent of "labor", no? If your sense of generosity and sharing are so principled, you might want to forswear allegiance to all locks and keys and begin to advertise your physical address.

certainly explains why Yglesias is so market oriented....

Ah, yes, Peter Singer. Another weirdo leftist with a prominent position at an Ivy League university:

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Singer#Zoophilia

In a 2001 review of Midas Dekkers' Dearest Pet: On Bestiality, Singer argues that sexual activities between humans and animals that result in harm to the animal should remain illegal, but that "sex with animals does not always involve cruelty" and that "mutually satisfying activities" of a sexual nature may sometimes occur between humans and animals, and that writer Otto Soyka would condone such activities.[29] The position was countered by fellow philosopher Tom Regan, who writes that the same argument could be used to justify having sex with children. Regan writes that Singer's position is a consequence of his adapting a utilitarian, or consequentialist, approach to animal rights, rather than a strictly rights-based one, and argues that the rights-based position distances itself from non-consensual sex.[30] The Humane Society of the United States takes the position that all sexual molestation of animals by humans is abusive, whether it involves physical injury or not.[31]
Commenting on Singer's article "Heavy Petting,"[32] in which he argues that zoosexual activity need not be abusive, and that relationships could form which were mutually enjoyed, Ingrid Newkirk, president of the animal rights group PETA, argued that, "If a girl gets sexual pleasure from riding a horse, does the horse suffer? If not, who cares? If you French kiss your dog and he or she thinks it's great, is it wrong? We believe all exploitation and abuse is wrong. If it isn't exploitation and abuse, [then] it may not be wrong." A few years later, Newkirk clarified in a letter to the Canada Free Press that she was strongly opposed to any exploitation of, and all sexual activity with, animals.[33]
Singer believes that although sex between species is not normal or natural,[34] it does not constitute a transgression of our status as human beings, because human beings are animals or, more specifically, "we are great apes"."

What is your point? Seems like some solid reasoning. However, you are well off-topic with that post.

I am not sure solid is the word I would use. Rather I would say that Singer is a third rate mind who managed to find a small protected niche where he could make some second rate contributions in the absence of any real competition. He continues to exploit this niche by making absurd statements designed to attract media criticism which will force the rest of the chattering classes to come to his defense. Especially those on tenure committees.

As can be seen by the last time MR had a link to anything Peter Singer said where an economist - an expert not even remotely close to Singer's field - schooled Singer big time in his area of "expertise".

As can be seen here. Sex with other species is as normal and natural as homosexuality - the naturalness of which Singer would, of course, defend to his dying breath. Or he wouldn't get the right invites to the right dinner parties. As can be seen by anyone who has had a dog hump their leg. Singer does not even make it to first base, so to speak, on this issue.

what is it with you people and dinner parties?

Religion does not serve to philosophically ground any ethical proposition, it simply punts the questions up one tier. Why is A the right thing to do --> Why does God say A is the right thing to do? Religion does serve as a basis for the vocabulary of ethics, but I'm not sure how important that is to the key questions.

I'd be willing to grant that "God says so" answers the why.

But there would still be the problem of "what did God mean when he said...?" Interpretation never goes away.

Human reason and progress.

And what if reason is only the intellectual faculty that placates our volition to confirm us in our prejudices? And why need anyone be concerned if some mindless asteroid decides to indefinitely postpone the arrival of "human progress"?

I believe in humanity, specifically for the selfish reason that I'm human. Actions are righteous based on their ability to improve the human condition. No system can ever hope to define what improves the human condition. I'm a believer in chaos theory. Consciousness is the greatest expression of chaos theory. All of existence can be boiled down into a mathematical equation, but utilization of that equation requires more energy than exists. 42 is a solid answer to any question on this thread.

But why not Zamyatin's square root of negative one? Does mathematics itself express or describe a preference?

Certainly not. I had forgotten that some consider math to be part of the fabric of existence. I suppose I should have said that I believe in the unified theory of everything, but that the theory would require so much setup that it is effectively useless. Exploring life's absurdities provides endless fun!

I'm agnostic towards the existence of god, the world and myself, but I believe inthe existence of the experience of myself in the world created by god.

As per my name on this board, I feel compelled to throw out cosmicism. All of it sounds pretty reasonable to me. The part of that philosophy I find least appealing is the idea that the search for knowledge ends in disaster. However, when the requiem is written for the human race it probably won't sound too absurd to put it that way. Our technology has made it possible to multiply our numbers dangerously and pollute our environment in a fashion that may very well contain the seeds of our demise. In the optimistic scenario maybe knowledge allows us to solve those problems and then cosmicism will look wrong so hopefully that's the way it works out.

Folks, don't get hung on up the concept of a "deity." I think what's being asked here is something like this, "What is your source of ultimate concern? Why? On what is it based? Why do you orient your life (or, sadly, let your life be oriented) the way you do?"

My answer as a Christian is that the source of my ultimate concern is the kind of other-centered, non-violent, marginalized-preferring Love that was exemplified in the person of Jesus Christ.

What drives you, ultimately? It surely isn't Math and Science. You might "really believe" in those things, but they don't ultimately drive what you do. They are tools for doing something else.

First and foremost, propagation of my genes, I want to give my children the best shot at survival, a far second would be own satisfaction (beer,books). Somewhat meshed is behaving in a way that contributes to a good living environment. I want as more much money for my family, but not by any means, too many ripped off customers and exploited workers leads to a break down of society, not good for my children.

"My answer as a Christian is that the source of my ultimate concern is the kind of other-centered, non-violent, marginalized-preferring Love that was exemplified in the person of Jesus Christ. " Charlie, are the values you hold dear derived from your faith in Jesus or independent of it? if hypothetically the person of Jesus exemplified violence and selfishness would you adopt those values?

ve believe in nuzing, lebowski

"Most philosophies draw heavily from religion"

I wouldn't expect to read that on MR, since the next obvious point is where religion draws heavily from.

The religious would answer: "God(s)."
By asking your question you assume the antecedent, which is a logical fallacy.

I'd say the problem with the claim in the post is that Singer "derived" from religion in areas where his ethics happen to align with Christianity's. While I haven't read the book, the abstract indicates that it's primarily a book on common ground between Singer and Christians, not who derived what from whom.

That humility is the only virtue.

I think the Christian tradition has done a bad job of preserving the real motivation behind its ethical system, which, much like Judaism, is not merely based on what God says is right, but rather on what God has done and promises to do. For instance, the Torah was traditionally based on the fact that God delivered the Israelites from Egypt. Likewise, Christian ethics are traditionally based not on an abstract theory, but rather on what God did in Jesus Christ, and on what he plans to do in the future, to redeem the human race and indeed all of creation. Eschatology guides ethics.

Ultimately, I don't think anyone engaged in discussions about public morality can escape this principle. Modernism developed a new eschatology, that of continual human progress through the use of reason, and this created a new foundation for thinking about ethics. Some of that has been good, some of it bad. But in general, if you don't believe in any sort of destiny of any kind, or at least that "progress" has some sort of meaning, then there's not much ground for agreeing that we should all live under certain guidelines.

I'm a Christian, perhaps fairly liberal in my theology. I believe that ultimately there is something to look forward to, and that we should start living like it.

I'm not convinced that "eschatology" is the right term for what you're describing, but I do agree that there must be some concept of a future state that acts as a guideline for measuring the morality of a present action. Whether that guideline extends to the afterlife, to the next generation, or even to five minutes from now or not at all, our views on the morality of an action are in turn informed by the view of what the end effects of that action are.

For example, I could splash a glass of water on my coworker. She wouldn't appreciate it. It would damage our working relationship, although I could probably apologize enough for it to be patched over. Also, I'm out a glass of water that I (or someone else) could have drunk.

Ultimately, I sincerely doubt that the end effect on my soul, humanity, the world, whatever, would be meaningfully impacted by the action. But I can see a number of unfavorable consequences occurring as a result of my action, even if I might otherwise think it's a fun thing to do. Thus, I say that splashing a glass of water on my coworker is wrong.

I might think differently, however, if, for example, it was a hot day, we were dressed for swimming, and we were in a playful mood. Then, it would no longer be wrong, because the consequences would be more favorable.

I am sorry, I don't like to be rude, but given the Catholic Church has a massive 2000 year effort to prove that its religious beliefs are entirely in alignment with natural law, and indeed are deducible from first principles without any direct revelation from God, I find this a remarkable statement.

What God has done and what God promises to do is of some interest to Christians (using Christians as a first order approximation for Catholics, which is reasonable and necessary given the spectrum of non-Catholic beliefs), but that does not change the fact that they have explained at enormous length and in enormous detail the precise logical and philosophical framework that underlies those beliefs.

Err, I really beleive in lots of things. Off the top of my head, the ordering has been deliberately scrambled:

* Natural selection happens.
* Cricket is better than *any* type of football.
* The Maxwel equations
* Perceptions exist.
* The laws of thermodynamics and their statistical interpretation.
* The universe exists.
* Conventional morality is mostly correct.
* Freedom is good.
* There are no Gods.
* The world is very, very, complicated.
* Conventinal maths is valid.

... and many more.

These beliefs are not independent, or totally "fundamental" in the sense that they cannot be derived from other beliefs. But I don't have a core belief from which I derive all the others, instead I put a little faith lots ideas and then see whether the reinforce each other.

"But I don’t have a core belief from which I derive all the others, instead I put a little faith lots ideas and then see whether the reinforce each other."

You are incorrect. This just means you haven't examined your core beliefs, probably because they are so obvious to you that you don't even think of them as "beliefs" at all.

Some of us think that on those points about which Singer and Christianity agree they are *both* wrong.

Do yourself a favor and smoke some DMT if you haven't already. Then tell me what you believe.

I must concur with my friend Anon.

Radical self-ownership.

I won't be buying this book. I'm only familiar with Peter Singerin regards to animals and am not impressed with his beliefs. He has holes in his arguments to anyone grounded in ecology and how life works.

Sorry, I haven't read the book, but does it explain why Peter Singer, a non-Christian, from a non-Christian family, who is in a long tradition of non-Christian political activism, has had any influence from Christianity at all?

Given the usual lurkers here at MR I don't want to belabor the point, but Peter Singer comes from a Marxist-Leninist background, or more specifically, he is a Trot. He comes from a family of Trots. Who before they were Trots were Jews. Not a lot of Christian influence there. Except as something to reject and rebel against.

Peter Singer grew up in the absence of two faiths - Judaism and eventually Trotskyitism. Not Christianity.


You trollin'?

Not that it matters for the legitimacy of a comparison, but Singer not only attended a Presbyterian school as a child, but he studied with a Christian philosophy at Oxford, R.M. Hare. Furthermore, he was educated in a cultural context that was (and remains) profoundly affected by a Christian world-view that none of us can escape any more than we can escape being Westerners.

I think someone would first have to provide a fairly rigorous definition of "Christian world-view" and what the distinguishing features of it are. What is it that South Indian Christians, Ethiopian Christians and Irish Catholics have in common aside from certain core theological beliefs about Jesus, the resurrection, the authenticity of the New Testament and other such things?

There almost certainly is a "world-view" shared by people of various Western countries but the degree to which it is "Christian" can be debated. Christian theology itself was influenced by the world-views of Greeks like Plato and Aristotle who were certainly not Christian.

Those who look to the observable past for their answer(s) are afforded the luxury of objective derivation, yet they are often haunted by the justification required as a defense against material evidences, or perceived evidences, brought forth by their nonconformity-embracing critics. The empiricism that is foundation to their beliefs grows heavy under the weight of verification-insistent scrutiny.

Those who look toward the transcendental future for their answer(s) are able to unabashedly pursue empathetic, utilitarian solutions to the sociocultural issues that will shape our tomorrow; however, they struggle to articulate a derivation of authority that fickle rationality seems to quietly demand. As a result, the gratification of a liberated spirit carries with it the "scent of unseen roses."

These broad observations are not meant to promote any form of what might otherwise be perceived as postmodernist thinking; even the most abstract of today's philosophers (and countless others happy to self-proclaim this designation) appear to be growing weary of their ride around the cul de sac of relativism, dizzying as it perpetually relativizes itself.

The irony of mutually exclusive yet equally challenging struggles to reconcile truth within the framework of divisively dichotomous worldviews stands to paint a picture that we are all flawed creatures who could stand to gain from "playing a little nicer in the sandbox." Please don't interpret this as a tolerance of the universalist's variety, as the irrationality in a web of mutually exclusive opinions somehow weaving a paradoxical (read: "nonsensical") tapesty of ultimate truth evades my limited comprehension. However, the desire for comradererie, community, empathy, and love with and for those around us has evidences of being written on the hearts and minds of many tongues, tribes and nations throughout much of Friedman's ever-flattening world, and with this rapid advancement toward homogenization comes wisdom in promoting education that flows through economics and into social welfare.

The ultimate practicality of these "action items" is in no way lost on me, but lofty aspirations are the common origin of radical impact. Critical reponse to my claims is encouraged, as everyone is well entitled to their own opinions. Unless we come to discover Calvinism as wholly true...



just stop trying.

Zhuangzi gives a compelling argument for the a priori nature of indidual liberty during the warring states period of ancient China. He was cerainly not influenced by Christianity or a deity.

Even the leading Christian apologist William Craig does not justify the Old Testament episodes where God commands the massacre of innocent children on the ground that God gave the command so it was morally right. Just the other way around: he looks for ethical justification of God's command. In other words, even God's actions have to be morally justified , which implies that ehtical principles exist independent of God.

I really believe in Good, and Evil (and evil and good). I know all religions, plus the anti-religion atheism, claim to believe in Truth, and that their beliefs are, in fact, true. Logically, most such inconsistent beliefs can not be mutually true.
But, truth is overrated. If the optimal non-True belief is better, leads humans to act in better ways and for civilization to prosper more, isn't such a non-Truth better than a Truth which leads to less good civilization?

In comparing beliefs of the 20th century, or the last 100 years (keeps moving), it is clear that Atheism has been used by its believers to justify far more crimes against humanity than has Christianity.
Belief in Christianity is far better than belief in atheism. This comparative result is true even when judging groups on atheist criteria of "goodness" (excluding the goodness of believing in no deity, or not, which cannot be proven).

Atheism is most logically compared to other categories of beliefs about deities like monotheism and polytheism, not to specific religions like Christianity.

The vast majority of the crimes you allude to committed by atheists (and, let's be clear, Nazi and Eastern European fascist crimes are not among them) were tied specifically to the collectivization of agriculture. But holding all "atheists" somehow responsible for the horrors caused by agriculture policy in the Soviet Union, China and Cambodia is like holding Episcopalians responsible for the crimes of their fellow monotheists in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Actually, atheist communism: not just Russia, but China, N. Korea,Vietnam, Cambodia.

In the US, the still vast majority of "believers" are Christians, so it's more relevant to compare atheism to Christianity. And many atheists have no trouble complaining about ...
the Spanish Inquisition.
(With or without a comfy chair.)

Atheists with gov't power vs Christians with gov't power in the last 100 years seems the most relevant and important comparison to make -- including comparing more Christian Texas to more atheist California over the last 30 years.

I believe I'm Cherokee. I'm looking for fellow Cherokees to eat lunch with.

I'm glad you linked this, Tyler.
Here's a different theistic motivation for living morally: You should act the way God designed you to act, because creations 'work better' when operating according to their design.

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