The Global Atheist's Convention

ABC Religion, an Australian website, has been live-blogging the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne.  Here's Greg Mulherin report on Peter Singer's talk:

Ethics without religion was this morning’s topic for Peter Singer, perhaps Australia’s most prominent philosopher and renowned activist for animal rights, who is now based mostly at Princeton in the US. The talk introduced some light philosophy laced with plenty of intuitively attractive examples to carry the argument.

Oft quoted words from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov are the standard launch pad for arguments about whether we can be good without God. “If there is no God everything is permitted… “ But, says Singer, tongue in cheek, the lie was put to that last night at dinner when someone’s wallet was left unstolen after lying unprotected on a table in a room full of unbelievers.

Singer’s philosophy today started with Plato’s Euthyphro where Socrates asks about the source of the good. Is something good because the gods oblige it, or do the gods oblige it because it is good? Now is not the time to tease out the issues, but it’s no surprise that philosophers and theologians over the centuries have challenged the dilemma in various ways. Nor is it a surprise that Singer hasn’t “seen a satisfactory answer.”

Singer cited examples of Christians selectively cherry-picking morality from the Bible. After various Old Testament examples, Singer said “some will say ‘that’s the Old Testament, we follow Jesus.’ But,” he continued, “Jesus is not really much better.” He cited Jesus’ attitude to divorce and then elided Jesus with his followers by commenting on rich Christians who don’t seem to be following Jesus’ example. (How often the Galilean is judged by those who follow him! A logical fallacy but a powerful wake up call to Christians.)

Singer also challenged the idea that the motivation for being good was to be found in religion, quoting the fact that three of the four biggest philanthropists in history have been atheists (Gates, Buffett, Carnegie. Rockefeller was a protestant.) A poor anecdote to make the point. Singer also emphasised the need to be balanced: atheists don’t have a great history either: Stalin and Pol Pot got mentions.

I resonated with the words of Henry Spiro [that's "Spira"], a significant animal rights activist and civil rights campaigner, when asked about what drove him to work for others: “I guess one wants to say that one’s life has been more than consuming products and generating garbage… to do whatever one possibly can to reduce pain and suffering.” Applause followed.

So where does morality come from? asked Singer. His answer: morality is a naturally evolved phenomenon. That is why moral practices are more universal than you would expect, given the diversity of religions; because morality has evolved as a common feature of humans. So a comparison of religious cultures reveals common judgements: look after your children is universal, reciprocity (tit for tat in both the  good and the bad) fosters cooperation. Things work better if we work together.

Singer doesn’t agree with those who say that Jesus was a great ethical teacher. He said some laudable things but turning the other cheek is simply impractical. It would lead to perpetrators thriving and reproducing with the result that society will be based on using force to get what you want. So retaliation is a better way to go although ideally through the legal or social system.

Singer alluded to some indications that morality is hard wired into the human brain but warned that even if that were the case we should not take it as a moral guide. (Is he having it two ways here?) Nature and the good are not to be equated, he said, because our moral judgements have evolved for situations we are familiar with and might give us the wrong answers in new situations. For example, while there may be some biological component to an instinctive racism, it “is something we need to get over because the world is a very different place to what it was. We shouldn’t fall into a trap of thinking that a natural response is necessarily right.” For example we have no evolved response to the plight of strangers on the other side of the planet, nor to eating non-human animals, nor to the climate change implications of turning on our air conditioners, driving our gas guzzlers, or eating ruminant animals.

In the end Singer’s measure for morality is rooted, not in the divine, nor in nature but is a subtle version of the pleasure principle [odd way to characterize utilitarianism!]: of maximising the well-being of all sentient beings. But this too must be recognised as a moral intuition. It is not grounded in empirical evidence, especially if, as Singer did today, we rule out a naturalistic basis of ethics. I’m not sure whether that will satisfy the ruthless empiricists that dominate this conference.

Finally, an interesting quotation from today’s talk: “A glass has no intrinsic state of good and bad but we do, and non-human animals do too because we have consciousness.” Did he mean to say intrinsic? [why not?]


Wayne said...

I think its consistent for Singer to say intrinsic. Its the value that lets us prefer humans over animals usually. Its only in the particulars do we see the extrinsic values rear their heads.

Faust said...

I guess my response to the notion of intrisicallity of moral worth is similar to Singer's response to the Euthyphro question: "I haven't seen a satisfactory response" yet.

s. wallerstein said...

I read Dostoyevsky's statement, "if God does not exist, everything is permitted," in another way. It's more like Nietzsche's "God is dead": if God is dead, we are on our own in making ethical choices. The fact that everything is permitted (there is no big father in heaven to punish us) means that it is our responsibility whether we are ethical or not. Of course, the fact that some ethical behaviors are the product of evolution means little since some non-ethical behaviors, selfishness, rape, the use of violence to settle quarrels, the exploitation of other human beings and animals, probably also have an evolutionary basis. In fact, in discovering that some ethical behaviors are the product of evolution (and some are not), we are actually just giving a scientific explanation to the age-old insight that human beings are capable of good and of evil.

s. wallerstein said...

My last sentence should read: in fact, in discovering that some ethical behaviors are the product of evolution (and some non-ethical behaviors are too),.........