SciBlogs

Posts Tagged Peter Singer

Christian ethics and Peter Singer Ken Perrott Oct 09

No Comments

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?

Similar articles

Peter Singer on effective charity Ken Perrott May 30

No Comments

Peter Singer is one of the best known philosophers, especially on ethical questions. His book The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty makes the case for charitable giving from the viewpoint of secular ethics. In it he answers many fo the questions and uncertainties people have about charity – especially how to give appropriately depending on one’s own circumstances. And how to give effectively – ensuring that your charity has the best possible effect.

The video below repeats many of these arguments – bringing them up to date.  As the “blurb” says, “Singer talks through some surprising thought experiments to help you balance emotion and practicality — and make the biggest impact with whatever you can share.”

Peter Singer: The why and how of effective altruism.

See also:  A sensible Christian perspective on Peter Singermy review of  Charles C. Camosy’s book Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization.

Similar articles

A sensible Christian perspective on Peter Singer Ken Perrott Feb 27

No Comments

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?

Peter Singer on the misrepresentation of Peter Singer Ken Perrott Jul 11

3 Comments

We have been having a raging debate here in the comments on a previous post End of life decisions. A lot of it is centred on the writings of the moral philosopher Peter Singer. One of the commenters posted a video where Singer explains his views in this and other issues. Its well worth watching, part of the Uncut Interviews recorded for the series The Genius of Darwin

Peter Singer – The Genius of Darwin: The Uncut Interviews

Singer is controversial because he is dealing with controversial ethical subjects. Subjects where there seems to be a taboo on discussion or even active attempts to present discussion. In the 2nd edition of his book Practical Ethics.
Singer describes the extreme reaction his writing had received in Germany. Speakers were prevented from speaking – even physically attacked, conferences closed down, academic invitations withdrawn and there had been difficulty in getting academic books published.

I thought his description of the way his ideas get distorted was very useful because it seems to happen all the time in controversial areas, or just in areas where some groups oppose ideas where there is actually a consensus.

Here it is:

For the most part each of the books [criticising Singer's ideas] appears to have been written to a formula that goes something like this:

1:  Quote a few passages from Practical Ethics selected so as to distort the book’s meaning
2:  Express horror that anyone can say such things.
3:  Make a sneering jibe at the idea that this could pass for philosophy.
4:  Draw a parallel between what has been quoted and what the Nazis thought or did.

But it is also essential to observe one negative aspect of the formula:

5:  Avoid discussing any of the following dangerous questions: Is human life to be preserved to the maximum extent possible? If not, in cases in which the patient cannot and never has been able to express a preference, how are decisions to discontinue treatment to be made, without an evaluation of the patient’s quality of life? What is the moral significance of the distinction between bringing about a patient’s death by withdrawing treatment necessary to prolong life and bringing it about by active intervention? Why is advocacy of euthanasia for severely disabled infants so much worse than advocacy of abortion on request that the same people can oppose the right even to discuss the former, while themselves advocating the latter?

These are important ethical questions and should be discussed. It’s a pity that people with fixed opinions attempt to close down discussion by presenting extreme  parodies of participants in the possible debate.

Similar articles

End of life decisions Ken Perrott Jul 08

No Comments

Such titles always bring euthanasia to my mind, but I realise that is my perspective – I am just so much close to the problem of dying with dignity than I am to problems related to death and quality of life at the initial stages of life. But I recently came across this blog post – Why Infanticide Can Be Moral – which got me thinking. This issue is actually very relevant to young parents and parents to be.

The author, Tauriq Moosa – a tutor in ethics, bioethics and critical thinking at the University of Cape Town – wrote it as an introduction to a series of articles he is doing on the morality of infanticide. As we might expect, several commenters reacted very emotionally to his raising the subject of infanticide. In this introduction he tries to reduce the emotion by explaining why he thinks “it’s moral, in certain cases, to ‘let’ an infant die or deliberately end its life humanely.”

“Child euthanasia” more appropriate

Like euthanasia, this is a morally difficult subject, but nevertheless one that many people have to confront. Especially young parents and medical professionals. The word “infanticide’ is really so tainted as to make it inappropriate here and “child euthanasia” is probably more appropriate.

These days many researchers into human morality stress the intuitional basis and emotional nature of morality. That we all react quickly, and emotionally, to moral situations – far too quickly for any reasoned processing of the issues. Reasoning usually comes later when we rationalise our behaviour to provide reasons for it. In some cases I think the researchers’ concentration on the emotional and intuitional nature of morality underplays the role that reason must play in some of our moral decisions.

Surely end of life decisions are the very situations when we, especially parents and relatives, must make rational decision based on careful reasoning, rather than knee jerk reactions based on dogma, emotion and social pressure. And society at large sometimes has to take part in such reasoned decision-making because of their involvement in producing and approving laws related to euthanasia, assisted suicide, child euthanasia and capital punishment.

I don’t doubt that medical professionals sometimes must make decisions not to intervene, and therefore allow a new-born child to die, because they recognise he or she has no prospects for a proper life. In other cases where intervention would still result in very limited prospects of life, or a life of any quality, I imagine parents would, or should, be involved in such decisions.

Examples that come to mind are the condition of spina bifida which require an operation on the new born infant to close the spine. In some cases the existing damage to to the baby may be so great as to morally justify non-intervention. A tragic decision but a morally justified one.

Dismissing the ethics out-of-hand

The ethics of end of life decisions potentially concern us all. But especially they concern those professionally involved. So, of course, this is a proper subject for philosophers specialising in ethics. Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher, has written at some length on this subject. His arguments, which relate to other sentient animals as well as humans, are certainly worth considering – even if one doesn’t agree with all of them. After all, this is a difficult but important subject. We need to discuss it. And the arguments of such an important contributor should not be dismissed out-of-hand, or judged dogmatically or irrationally.

After all, if a commenter attacks Singer for rehearsing the issues, they are also effectively attacking the parents and medical professionals who must do the same and are far more emotionally involved.

But that is what happens for some people. I have noticed a tendency for Christian apologists to misrepresent and attack Singer.They will use his arguments for child euthanasia to claim, for example, that Singer is (in)famous for his advocacy of infanticide, the killing of newborn infants. They create a picture akin to someone running a death camp during the holocaust rather than an ethicist seriously considering the issues faced by parents and medical professionals considering the morality of intervening to save the life of a seriously damaged infant and the consequent repercussions.

Mind you – I think people like Peter Singer and Tauriq Moosa could defuse their opponents somewhat by using the more correct term “child euthanasia” and not “infanticide” – with its connotations of murder and crime.

Singer as a diversion

Lately I have noticed that religious apologists resort to attacking Singer for his “advocacy of infanticide” as diversionary tactic. Specifically when the Christian apologist William Lane Craig is criticised for his justification of biblical genocide, ethnic cleansing and infanticide using “divine command” ethics (see Concern over William Lane Craig’s justification of biblical genocide).

Credit: http://www.hakani.org/en/what_is_infanticide.asp

Specifically Craig justifies the biblical infanticide by saying:

“I would say that God has the right to give and take life as he sees fit. Children die all the time! If you believe in the salvation, as I do, of children, who die, what that meant is that the death of these children meant their salvation. People look at this [genocide] and think life ends at the grave but in fact this was the salvation of these children, who were far better dead…than being raised in this Canaanite culture.”

Of course, there is plenty in the bible which can be used by a literalist to justify all sorts of evil.  And that is a real problem for advocates of “divine command ethics.” They don’t help themselves with the mental gymnastics they have to perform to claim that the evil is actually good because it was commanded by a “loving and just god” who could not order anything evil!  Or that this “killing brings about some greater good.” Or that Craig’s view is that his god’s command was “to drive the inhabitants out of the land (land to which the Israelites had legal title), with only the die-hard occupants who refused to leave being killed.” And anyway his god was commanding destruction of “the nations as a collective group, not to destroy every individual.”

Now I think “infanticide” is an appropriate word to describe what Craig was justifying. This was ethnic cleansing, the denial of the right to life based on ethnicity of the children. Craig was justifying behaviours more typical of a death camp commander in the Holocaust than that of a moral philosopher considering the issues faced by young parents and medical professionals when new-born infants face certain or likely death with little chance of intervention enabling a reasonable quality of life.

Perhaps we will yet see Holocaust deniers resorting to attacking Peter Singer as a diversion.

Similar articles

Science and morality — a panel discussion Ken Perrott Dec 31

No Comments

This is the panel discussion at the Great debate “Can Science tell us Right from Wrong?” (See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this debate and workshop).

The panel includes Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, Patricia Churchland, Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Peter Singer and Roger Bingham. They respond to questions from the audience (and the size of the audience for such a subject is heartening).

Their interaction is useful as it helps to overcome any misunderstanding any participant may have had about others points of view. Its a useful supplement to the individual presentation I have posted during this week (see Telling right from wrong — unreligiously, A philosopher comments on science and morality and A physicist comments on science and morality).

This video is 42 min long.


TSN: The Great Debate Panel, posted with vodpod

Similar articles

Enhanced by Zemanta

Waking up to morality Ken Perrott Oct 27

No Comments

I have come to the conclusion that a lot of what is said and written about morality is rubbish. So I am pleased to see that, at last, science is opening up to the idea that it can investigate this area of human interest.

Part of that rubbish has been the idea that morality is “off limits to science.” That it is ring-fenced. I think this attitude partly explains the hostility we see expressed towards the scientific study of morality and scientists speaking out on the topic. And this hostility is coming from some scientists, as well as theologians and philosophers.

So I am looking forward to any debate resulting from the recent New Scientist opinion special “Science Wakes up to Morality.” (See October 16 issue No 2782).

This includes short articles by eight scientists, philosophers and journalists. Well worth reading.

Fiery Cushman, a moral psychologist at Harvard University, writes in Don’t be afraid — science can make us better:

“We have long thought of moral laws as fixed points of reality, self-evident truths rooted in divine command or in some Platonic realm of absolute rights and wrongs. But new research is offering an alternative, explaining moral attitudes in the context of evolution, culture and the neural architecture of our brains. This apparent reduction of morality to a scientific specimen can seem threatening, but it needn’t. Rather, by unmasking our minds as the authors of morality, we may be better able to bend its narrative arc towards a happy end.”

Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, writes in Beyond intuition:

The Enlightenment philosopher David Hume pointed out long ago that no combination of statements about what “is” the case could ever allow one to deduce what “ought” to be. After all, in deductive arguments, the truth of the conclusion is already contained in the premises. But when scientists deal in morality, deducing an “ought” from an “is” is often precisely what they attempt to do.”

And:

“So let’s assume that we have instinctive moral responses to a variety of situations of the kind encountered by our ancestors throughout our history, though modified by our culture and upbringing. What would follow from this about what we ought to do?

It certainly doesn’t follow that we ought to do what our instincts prompt us to do. That might have enhanced our survival and reproductive fitness in an earlier period, but may not do so now; even if it did, it could still be the wrong thing to do. Consider the ethics, for example, of having a large family on an overpopulated planet. Rather, by undermining the authority that some philosophers have given to our intuitive moral responses, the new scientific lines of evidence about the nature of morality open the way for us to think more deeply, and more freely, about what we ought to do.”


Singer’s most recent book is The Life You Can Save: How to Play Your Part in Ending World Poverty.

Paul Bloom, a developmental psychologist at Harvard University, writes in Infant origins of human kindness:

“A theory of human kindness needs two parts. the core of our moral sense is explained by our evolved nature, but its extension to strangers is the product of our culture, our intelligence and our imagination.”

Joshua Knobe, an experimental philosopher at Yale University” writes in Our hidden judgements:

“It seems that our whole way of thinking about phenomena that appear to lie outside the bounds of morality may actually be rooted in hidden moral jusdgements.”

Pat Churchland, a philosopher of neuroscience at the university of California and the Salk institute, says in Brain roots of right and wrong:

“Morality seems to be shaped by four interlocking brain processes: caring, rooted in attachment to and nurture of offspring; r4ecognition of others’ psychological states, bringing the benefit of predicting their behaviour; problem-solving in a social context, such as how to distribute scarce goods or defend the clan; and social-learning, by positive and negative reinforcement, imitation, conditioning and analogy.

These factors result in a conscience: a set of socially sanctioned responses to prototypical circumstances”

And:

“The interplay of our neural and cultural institutions comprises our moral history.”

Martha J. Farah, Director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, argues that we will be required to rethink our sustice system to take into account how morality is linked to brain function (see My brain made me do it).

Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, is interviewed by Amanda Gefter.

I like his comment rejecting religious notions of morality:

“Consider the Catholic church. This is an institution that excommunicates women who attempt to become priests, but does not excommunicate priests who rape children. This church is more concerned about stopping contraception than stopping genocide. It is more worried about gay marriage than about nuclear proliferation. When we realise that morality relates to questions of human and animal well-being, we can see that the Catholic church is as confused about morality as it is about cosmology. It is not offering an alternative moral framework; it is offering a false one.”

Having just started reading his book, I am going to write more about Sam’s ideas later. Some early reviews are in and he is certainly getting some debate going.

Similar articles


Enhanced by Zemanta

The origins of science? Ken Perrott Mar 31

No Comments

Have a look at this short video for a humorous explanation of the origins of science. Then listen to this podcast of Professor AC Graylings version.   (Download AC Grayling on ’Atheism, Secularism, Humanism: Three Zones of Argument’). A little more serious – but fascinating.

YouTube – Mr. Deity And The Equation.

I mentioned Grayling’s talk in my post Are science and religion compatible? It was presented at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne a few weeks back.

While the convention will be out on DVD eventually it’s possible to catch up with some of the lectures as audio files on-line. The ones I have seen recently are those by Taslima Nasrin, Peter Singer on ’Ethics Without Religion’ and John Perkins (’The cost of Religious Delusion: Islam and Terrorism’). The All in the Mind podcast is also providing audio of a number of presentations. The first of two parts (2010-03-27 A matter of mind-sets? Religion and science – Part 1 of 2) includes talks by PZ Myers, Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins.

Thanks to the ABC religion blogs Questions of Faith:  The 2010 Global Atheist Convention – Embranglement.

Permalink

Similar articles

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Share

Network-wide options by YD - Freelance Wordpress Developer