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Singer and Morality

Entry 616, on 2007-09-28 at 20:25:38 (Rating 2, Philosophy)

I recently listened to a podcast where influential philosopher, Peter Singer, was interviewed. His views are quite extreme and many people have trouble accepting his ideas. Most of what he says makes sense to me, and I generally agree with him, but there are a few areas where I think he makes rather unsubstantiated claims.

On the other hand I have to keep reminding myself that this is philosophy, not science. One of the key attributes of philosophy is that it doesn't rely on the same methodology as science and that empirical evidence and formal confirmation of theories often aren't required. This gives the philosopher more freedom in the ideas he explores but I always find it rather frustrating that some philosophical conclusions seem to be based on rather thin evidence.

But most of Singer's ideas are solidly based on real science. He rejects criticisms of evolution which claim it is immoral. Clearly this is nonsense. How can a theory about the way the natural world works be either moral or immoral? Its an explanation of real phenomena and a statement of fact. Should biologists create a new theory which is moral but untrue? Evolution is neither moral nor immoral: the term moral just doesn't apply to scientific theories.

In fact, where does the idea that morality even exists come from? Why should there be such a thing as morality, or absolute good and bad? There's no science behind the idea apart from theories of evolutionary psychology and they give rise to subjective social norms, not absolute morals. Singer claims that morality arises from innate moral intuitions which evolved across societies. This seems to make a lot of sense in the context of evolutionary psychology.

Where things get a bit more debatable is in ideas like farm animals having more rights than the early stages of a human foetus. From this idea he claims that its more immoral to eat meat than to abort a human life (at the earliest stages before the nervous system develops). I can see the logic behind this: killing the animal causes suffering but aborting a foetus causes none, but I still find the idea very uncomfortable.

Carnivorousness (I think that's the right word) has been a part of the natural world for billions of years so how can it be immoral? I know that Singer has more of an objection to the way food animals are raised than to the actual process of killing and eating them, but this doesn't change the basic problem. And he discounts the idea of removing the potential of a human life through abortion because that is a potential rather than a real source of suffering, but again that could be supported either way.

In the end the only logical approach to morality seems to be through Utilitarianism where we judge actions based on the consequences in terms of happiness and suffering. But this is still open to a lot of subjective interpretation. Maybe the debate needs to go back to whether morality even exists, and if it does exist what actually is it.

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Comment 2 (894) by OJB on 2007-10-02 at 13:40:26: (view earlier comments)

OK, I see what you mean. I guess you're right. If evolution was just some sort of evil plot to lead people astray then I guess it would be immoral. Its a totally different way of thinking that I didn't even consider as a possibility because I tend to think scientifically. But I agree that it does make sense if you are prepared to accept evolution as some sort of huge conspiracy instead of a genuine theory.

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Comment 3 (925) by sbfl on 2007-10-15 at 03:57:47:

WF99 - Why do you blatantly lie? What's this nonsense about Christians finding evolution to be immoral - I want you to produce evidence that the vast majority of the worlds 2 billion Christians hold this belief. Or are you just talking about a certain group, mainly fundamentalists? If so, say so. Making such broad generalizations is incorrect and bigoted.

OJB - you too are guilty of this, especially in your religion vs science posts (remember my mentioning of you finding easy targets?). You would do well to be specific about the groups you target/discuss to ensure the credibility of your blog.

Also I haven't listened to the podcast but who is saying carnivorousness is immoral? And what's with this warped comparison with abortion? I'm starting to worry about what influences your opinion these days. Anyway, I am sure it would only be the lefty-Greenpeace-activist-vegan types would find carnivorousness immoral, surely you're not embarking on some more Christian bashing with this one?!

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Comment 4 (936) by OJB on 2007-10-15 at 21:09:21:

The person I was referring to is one of the most famous modern philosophers: Peter SInger. Have a look at Wikipedia. You might also be interested in his opinions on zoophilia!

I agree that my criticisms can't be applied to all Christians, but its usually fairly clear which sub-group I am aiming at. For example, if I express contempt for those who deny evolution then I'm obviously not including those who accept it.

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Comment 5 (943) by sbfl on 2007-10-17 at 06:24:46:

I prefer Zoolander.

"but its usually fairly clear which sub-group I am aiming at." No it's not. Say specifically who you are targeting then it will be clear. Fair request?

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Comment 6 (956) by OJB on 2007-10-17 at 09:30:15:

I find it hard to identify sub-groups because they don't really exist. There seems to be a continuum of belief which is impossible to untangle. Of course I would say that is typical of a belief system which is based on vague mythology.

For example, I could say this is aimed at those who don't accept evolution. But that is pointless because there are believers who totally reject it, others who accept micro but not macro, others who accept evolution but think god guides it, others who think god started life then evolution took over, and others who totally accept it. I'm sure there are other beliefs as well.

BTW which group would you put yourself in on this subject?

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