Without belief in moral truths, how can we care about climate change?

A first fuller piece, following the Peter Singer conference last week, just published at the Guardian’s Cif Belief.

Peter Singer was in Oxford last week. The bestselling advocate of utilitarianism was the star contributor to a conference in which he talked with a group of Christian ethicists. Given Singer’s inflammatory views on matters such as euthanasia and infanticide, the dialogue was striking for its agreements, particularly the common cause that can be made between Christians and utilitarians when tackling global poverty, animal exploitation and climate change.

However, it was on the last issue that the conference demonstrated real philosophical interest too. Singer admitted that his brand of utilitarianism – preference utilitarianism – struggles to get to grips with the vastness of the problem of climate change. Further, there is an element that comes naturally to Christian ethics which his ethics might need in order to do so. It has to do with whether there are moral imperatives that can be held as objectively true.

Climate change is a challenge to utilitarianism on at least two accounts. First, the problem of reducing the carbon output of humanity is tied to the problem of rising human populations. The more people there are, the greater becomes the difficulty of tackling climate change. This fact sits uneasily for a preference utilitarian, who would be inclined to argue that the existence of more and more sentient beings enjoying their lives – realising their preferences – is a good thing. As Singer puts it in the new edition of his book, Practical Ethics: “I have found myself unable to maintain with any confidence that the position I took in the previous edition – based solely on preference utilitarianism – offers a satisfactory answer to these quandaries.”

Second, preference utilitarianism also runs into problems because climate change requires that we consider the preferences not only of existing human beings, but of those yet to come. And we can have no confidence about that, when it comes to generations far into the future. Perhaps they won’t much care about Earth because the consumptive delights of life on other planets will be even greater. Perhaps they won’t much care because a virtual life, with its brilliant fantasies, will seem far more preferable than a real one. What this adds up to is that preference utilitarianism can provide good arguments not to worry about climate change, as well as arguments to do so.

This brings us to the issue that Christians find comes naturally, namely the claim that there exists objective moral truths. In recent moral philosophy, such an assertion has been unfashionable. The Enlightenment thinker David Hume can be blamed. He argued that the reasons anyone has for action will always actually be based upon their desires. “‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger,” he asserted. Further, as wants and desires cannot be said to be true or false, so it makes no sense fundamentally to assert that moral judgments are true or false too. This subjectivism has been held in different ways by individuals from AJ Ayer to Simon Blackburn.

Christian ethicists have never been tempted to believe that moral values are unhinged from an objective horizon. As Nigel Biggar, regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at Christ Church, Oxford, put it at the conference, that there are moral givens is part of what it means to affirm one deity as the creator. Creation is made in order to realise what is good and true.

Clearly, what Christians have claimed as divine moral givens can prove oppressive. The Bible and Christian history alike provide copious examples. But, serious as that setback is, it is not of itself a reason to deny moral givens. Singer himself now seems more inclined to accept as much.

He described his current position as being in a state of flux. But he is leaning towards accepting moral objectivity because he now rejects Hume’s view that practical reasoning is always subject to desire. Instead, he inclines towards the view of Henry Sidgwick, the Victorian theist whom he has called the greatest utilitarian, which is that there are moral assertions that we recognise intuitively as true. At the conference, he offered two possible examples, that suffering is intrinsically bad, and that people’s preferences should be satisfied. He has not yet given up on preference utilitarianism. Neither is he any more inclined to belief in God, though he did admit that there is a sense in which he “regrets” not doing so, as that is the only way to provide a complete answer to the question, why act morally? Only faith in a good God finally secures the conviction that living morally coincides with living well.

What difference does this make to climate change? Tim Mulgan, professor of moral and political philosophy at the University of St Andrews, explained why ethical objectivism may be vital to making a robust ethical case against environmental degradation. Only a doctrine of creation can affirm that we are fundamentally linked to the natural order manifest on Earth. The fantasy of fleeing this planet, or disappearing into virtual reality, won’t actually do. Our island home matters because the lives of human beings go well only when her natural systems go well too. Or, as the psalmist intuited many centuries ago: “Truth shall spring out of the earth.”