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Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization
by Charles C. Camosy
Cambridge, 284 pages, $29.99

Peter Singer has long argued that we need a revolution in our ethical thinking every bit as radical as the Copernican revolution in cosmology. One of the central tasks of this revolution is the rejection of both the prohibition on killing the innocent and of the Christian idea of the sanctity of human life on which it is based.

The metaphor of the Copernican revolution is never an encouraging one for those seeking common ground, but in Peter Singer and Christian Ethics Charles Camosy, an assistant professor of theology at Fordham, tries.

He believes that while there are real conflicts between a Christian approach to ethics and Singer’s utilitarian philosophy, the extent of the disagreement between them has been greatly exaggerated an unfortunate result of the kind of mutual misunderstanding that is all too common in our polarized culture. Camosy attempts to show that if Christian ethicists are willing to engage Singer in a charitable and fair-minded spirit, they will find that their “disagreements are actually quite narrow and interesting.”

If someone is looking for points of agreement between proponents of rival views, he will always find many. Ptolemy and Copernicus differed on the question of whether the world on which they stood was at the center of the cosmos, but they both believed that it was round.

Identifying shared beliefs is an important part of the process by which we locate the source of our disagreements, but two theories can share many beliefs and the differences between them nonetheless be profound. The problem with the catalogue of shared beliefs Camosy provides is not that the beliefs are trivial but that their significance varies depending on the other beliefs with which they are combined.

In a chapter on Singer’s ethical theory, Camosy offers as “a fascinating example of theoretical overlap” the observation that both Thomistic natural law and utilitarian theories of ethics are teleological in the sense that they hold that moral rules are justified by reference to the goods that they serve. The same observation could just as easily be taken to show just how different two theories can be while sharing a teleological structure.

Similarly, when discussing Singer’s views on abortion, Camosy again finds common ground, noting that both Christian ethicists and Singer deny that there is a fundamental human right to abortion. But this point could also serve as an example of the gulf that separates the two views. The difference between denying the existence of such a right because you deny that there can be a right to kill the innocent and denying that there is a fundamental human right to an abortion because you deny that there is any such thing as a human right may be interesting, but it is hardly narrow.

Abortion is the first topic that Camosy considers in detail, a choice that seems intended to address skeptical doubts about his project, since this is one of the issues on which the prospects for finding common ground will seem hopeless to many. Camosy, a Catholic, defends the Church’s teaching that abortion is absolutely prohibited. Singer not only holds that abortion is permissible at all stages of pregnancy, but also notoriously defends the view that there are circumstances in which it would be moral to kill a newborn child.

Singer arrives at this position by running a familiar anti-abortion argument in reverse. The anti-abortion argument is that because a child does not undergo any transformation in the course of being born that could plausibly be supposed to give it a right not to be killed, the unborn have such a right, since to deny this would lead to the absurd conclusion that there is nothing inherently wrong in killing the newly born.

Singer reasons in the other direction and denies that both the unborn and the newly born have a right not to be killed. (His ethical theory has no room for natural rights, but he sometimes uses rights language as a shorthand for referring to fundamental moral considerations.)

Singer believes newborn infants are not yet persons because they lack the rationality and self-awareness required to possess a desire to go on living. It is the thwarting of that desire, rather than the taking of life as such, that he believes accounts for the wrongness of killing in those cases in which killing is wrong. In the most recent edition of Singer’s Practical Ethics , he writes that strict conditions should be placed on the circumstances in which infanticide is permitted, but “these restrictions should owe more to the effects of infanticide on others than to the intrinsic wrongness of killing an infant.”

This view shocks many, including many who admire Singer for his work on our duties to animals and the world’s poor. But his position is exactly the one that his utilitarian theory implies, and the way that he arrives at that position can serve to illustrate features of the utilitarian approach to ethics that make it attractive even to those who are reluctant to accept the conclusions that it implies.

In Practical Ethics , Singer considers the case of a woman whose child is born with hemophilia and who decides that the burden of caring for the child will make it impossible for her to a cope with another.

We have to take account of the probability that when the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second.

This is the morality of the spreadsheet. The moral calculus that it involves may seem unfathomably callous, but it exerts a powerful appeal because the managerial mode of reasoning that it employs is the dominant model of rational decision-making in our culture.

If the goal of ethics is the maximization of happiness, the work of ethics is a matter of optimization, of finding ever more efficient distributions of resources. It would be hard to conceive of a view of ethics better suited to the technocratic spirit of our times.

One reason utilitarian ethical thinking proves so persistently attractive even to those who are reluctant to accept the conclusions it implies is that many of us have difficulty imagining what else ethical thinking could be. This is in part because ours is a culture that places more confidence in the application of theory than in the exercise of judgment, which is one reason utilitarianism has proved so curiously impervious to the reductio ad absurdum arguments that are most frequently used in attempts to refute it.

When Singer claims that we need a Copernican revolution in ethics, he is not casting himself in the role of Copernicus or Galileo. Camosy refers to those who share Singer’s views as “Singerites,” but this reinforces the misleading impression that Singer is the originator of those views. Singer is often described as the world’s most influential philosopher, and it is natural to assume that his prominence is a sign of fundamental originality.

Yet the opposite is closer to the truth. Singer’s writings on our duties to animals and the world’s poor, and his attack on the sanctity of life, could not have been as influential as they are if the reasoning with which he arrives at his conclusions were not already widely accepted, even if many of his conclusions are not.

It is sometimes argued that even to engage with Singer is a mistake because it only serves to give respectability to views that should be unthinkable, by treating them as if they are within the bounds of reasonable, and hence debatable, opinion. If his views about infanticide were simply an example of moral eccentricity, it really would be counterproductive to engage with them. But they are not.

They are the result of an application of a way of thinking about ethics that many people find attractive, though not always consistently and not all of the time. Camosy is right to think that Christian ethicists have good reason to engage seriously with Singer, the better to understand their disagreements, but he is mistaken to think that the justification for doing so depends on showing that the disagreements are narrow.

The British philosopher Philippa Foot once observed that utilitarianism can haunt even those who do not believe in it: “It is as if we forever feel that it must be right, although we insist that it is wrong.” Those more sympathetic to utilitarian thought might claim that the tenacity of utilitarianism’s appeal suggests that it must contain at least an element of truth, but the appearance of truth is not always the result of the presence of truth.

Peter Wicks teaches in the Ethics Program at Villanova University.