Back in March, a group of North American Catholic moral theologians started an intriguing new blog called Catholic Moral Theology. Since its inception I’ve read nearly every post and have found the contributors to be consistently thought-provoking and always worth reading.
My opinion hasn’t changed, despite the disappointing response by one of their contributors to my article on Peter Singer. Charles Camosy, an assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University, takes exception to my call for Christians to take Singer less seriously. Although I disagree with much of what he says, I appreciate that it gives me the opportunity to clarify my own view.
For instance, early in Camosy’s post he makes a statement that I believe highlights why we have a difference of opinion. Noting my statement that Singer’s view are “all but universally recognized as self-evidently wrong by those in possession of rational faculties” he adds, “it isn’t clear that this statement can be defended on its own terms.”
While I don’t want to make too much of a single sentence of a blog post, I think this is a revealing claim. The examples of actions that I listed as being self-evidently wrong (though I don’t claim that Singer supports them) were rape, genocide, and torturing babies for fun. From Singer’s positions we can add bestiality and necrophilia.
Perhaps I’m mistaken but I believe that most natural philosophers (e.g., children) would be able to recognize bestiality, necrophilia, genocide, and rape as actions that are “self-evidently” immoral. Ironically, about the only morally serious people who would dispute that assertion are academic philosophers.
I plan to write about this topic for my column next week so I don’t want to give away too much now. But I believe that when we unnecessarily allow the shift in ethical language from “self-evidently immoral” to “arguably immoral” we have completely ceded the semantic ground. It is a short distance from “Necrophilia is always objectively morally wrong” to “Well, I’m personally opposed to necrophilia but who am I to judge?” When the unthinkable becomes arguable, it is only a matter of time before it becomes inevitably acceptable.
But more on that next week.
Camosy takes issue with my challenging Singer on animal rights:
It is remarkable that his first example of what is “unjustifiable” is “taking seriously the interests of nonhuman animals”. I would argue that this is hardly the case, and that Christians should be making common cause with atheist utilitarians like Singer (a habit that Pope Benedict suggests we cultivate in chapter five of Caritas in Veritate) in reforming our practices with regard to other animals. But is Carter actually interested in argument?
I am indeed interested in argument—at least when they engage what I actually wrote. I think if Dr. Camosy will look at the part of Singer quote I cited that he accidentally left off he will see why I consider it “unjustifiable.” Here is the full quote:
[T]he present speciesist bias against taking seriously the interests of nonhuman animals.
There is a considerable difference between finding common cause on a particular conclusion (protecting animals from unnecessary suffering) and thinking a particular premise is worth taking seriously. Singer’s premise is that humans are really no different than animals so we need to consider their “rights” just as we do our own. That is in no way compatible with the Christian view of charity toward God’s creatures.
Imagine that a member of jury determines, based on evidence, that a defendant is guilty of murder and should be sentenced to life in prison. Another member, however, doesn’t care whether the accused committed the crime or not but believes that all Chinese men (including the defendant) should be put in jail. Would the first juror truly be in “common cause” with the second?
Camosy’s next statement is even more surprising:
While I also find the other practices he lists in the above quote unjustifiable, simply asserting this, and then dismissing the whole of Singer’s thought, just won’t do. Indeed, similarly dismissive moves have been made against the whole of the Church’s thought.
Are the two situations really similar? I think not. The reasons for dismissing certain claims matters considerably.
For instance, I believe not only that we can know some absolute moral truths (e.g., it is wrong to torture babies for fun) but also that these truths can be self-evident. I also believe that this is a claim about knowledge (justified true belief) that I have and not mere opinion.
While I agree that Singer’s quote is “unjustifiable” I believe that is because is it unable to be justified—not just by me or Dr. Camosy, but by anyone. Why should we treat unjustifiable claims with the same respect that we would debatable assertions?
Not only is it mistake to dismiss the whole of someone’s thought because one seriously disagrees with certain aspects of it, but it does a disservice to rational exchange to claim that one need not offer arguments in support of one’s disagreement.
Herein lies another difference I have with the modern academic paradigm: I do not believe that we are required to have a rational argument against a claim before we can dismiss it. If I am wrong, and we do need to be able to justify every moral claim that is made, then we are headed for an amoral hell on earth.
This is not to say, of course, that we never need to provide rational justifications for moral claims. Obviously, we often do. But to claim that all moral claims require justification is itself unjustifiable. If we are not within our epistemic rights to dismiss other views unless we can shore up our own with rational justifications, then reason is the final arbiter of morality—Reason becomes God.
In the next section, Camosy once again fails to provide a full quote. Although he provides a paragraph saying why Robert George thought that Singer should be taken seriously, he left off the very next line:
Or so I thought.
But now I see that Professor Singer has brought shame on himself precisely by an act of intellectual dishonesty.
That sort of changes things, doesn’t it? Instead of quoting Professor George in full he adds:
George goes on to note that Singer has not been perfect in this regard, and Carter also drives this point home, but who among us has been perfect?
The accusation is not that Singer is less than perfect but that Singer is intellectually dishonest. I will go even further than Dr. George and say that Singer has always been a fraud. It is not that he sometimes fails to live up to the philosophy that he claims others should follow, it’s that Singer doesn’t even try to follow it himself. Time and time again, both Singer’s critics and his champions have noted that he claims to believe one thing and then makes excuses for why he doesn’t adhere to his own beliefs.
As I asked in my post, why should we be expected to take Singer’s views seriously when he himself doesn’t take them seriously? Isn’t ethics more than just a semantic game that is played out in lecture halls? Isn’t is a searching for how we should actually live?
Camosy ends on this note:
[Carter] is correct that Singer’s views are becoming increasingly popular in the secular academy, but the answer is not to ignore this or dismiss such views without argument. (This simply feeds into the narrative that Christians don’t have a response…other than, perhaps, restating our conclusions more forcefully.) Instead, we should engage in the spirit of intellectual solidarity, allow ourselves to be challenged by these views, and craft challenges that push back. If do this honestly, we might find that our differences are more narrow and interesting than we suspect, and also that we can make common cause on several pressing important issues.
The only reason that Singer is becoming “increasingly popular” is because respectable philosophers like Dr. Camosy are providing intellectually cover for Singer’s odious views. As I’ve often said, too many Christian scholars are more worried about protecting their place in the halls of academia than they are with defending the moral ecology.
Honestly, who cares if some tenured cranks do not think Christians have an argument against necrophilia? The fact that Christian academics are more worried about such concerns than they are with speaking the truth—that some ideas held by their fellow professor are simply too stupid and too immoral to be taken seriously—is a prime reason why they are increasingly irrelevant both in the Church and the broader world.