Preferential treatment

A second piece, following the Peter Singer conference last week, just published in The Tablet, considering the call from the conference for Christians and utilitarians to work together in ‘intellectual solidarity’. A taster:

There is a hard rationality that runs through Singer’s ethics. He is not afraid to follow the argument where it leads. There is also a kind of literalism in it, by which I don’t mean it is not intellectually sophisticated. Rather, he considers issues by forcing every consideration through the sieve of utilitarian expediency. Hence, there is no room for God in his thought – a hypothesis for which he has never found any need, he remarked borrowing from Laplace. Similarly, there is no place for what Christians might hold as revealed absolutes, such as the sanctity of life.

That said, Singer admitted at the conference that he is, now, prepared to countenance objective moral truths, by which is meant ethical judgments that are not dependent upon our reasoning. It is a rather technical distinction, but can be boiled down to the admission that we often recognise what is right and wrong by a kind of intuition not deduction, rather like the way we recognise that 1+1=2. This is a big shift for someone of Singer’s inclinations and when pressed, he said that he is not yet sure where it will take his thought.

For now, it will remain controversial for Christians – particularly Catholics – to make common cause with him. He is prepared to do so when it would advance his concerns, but only in a piecemeal manner, for he also quite clear that Christian convictions hinder many changes he hopes for. But maybe some of the moral issues we face today, such as factory farming and environmental degradation, have reached a crisis point. Times of emergency have made stranger bedfellows.