Peter Singer, utilitarianism, Christianity, and climate change

Here’s an interesting post from Mark Vernon, an English journalist and author (and former priest in the Church of England), reporting on a recent conference at Oxford University on the engagement of Christian ethics with the thought of Peter Singer. According to Vernon, Singer discussed problems that his brand of utilitarianism (“preference utilitarianism”–the view that the right action is the one which satisfies the most preferences) has in coming to grips with the problem of climate change.

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.

Christian ethics, Vernon suggest, may be more of a help here because, at least in most forms, it believes that the right and the good go beyond the satisfaction of preferences. For a Christian, the protection of creation can be seen as good in itself, without trying to calculate the balance of preference-satisfaction that would be involved. Or, to borrow the terminology of Andrew Linzey, we might say that God has rights in God’s creation–rights to the respectful treatment of that creation. Christian ethics generally doesn’t take preferences or desires that we happen to have as necessarily deserving fulfillment–those desires are all-too-often warped by self-seeking and self-preoccupation. The Christian moral life is as much about reshaping our desires as satisfying them.


7 thoughts on “Peter Singer, utilitarianism, Christianity, and climate change

  1. Our inveterate ignorance of the not even very distant in time and space has always been a powerful objection to the possibility of humans “getting it right,” ever, even once, if not wholly by accident, given only those actions most utile in the forever future, over all the universe, are truly morally right.

    Some utilitrians try to argue we can and should ignore the too far away and the too distant, but no one can have the least idea how that would actually play out.

    Still, the fundamental problem of utilitarianism is the one common to any fundamentally consequentialist ethics that it totally ignores what Christians and post-Christians know as “the Pauline Principle,” common to deontological and rights based ethics, that we cannot do evil that good may come.

    As for Singer, given his professed moral anti-realism it has always struck me as odd that he somehow talked himself into endorsing so riddled with objectionable results as the utlitarian principle that only those acts are right that are most utile.

    And that is how he must see it, after all.

    He agrees there is no objective moral truth to be known.

    He thinks that our ethical commitments shold reflect out preferences – as among possible ethical commitments or among possible rules of action or as among possible action-kinds I don’t recall.

    But still.

    How could so unplausible a thing have really been what he preferred?

  2. Pingback: Peter Singer in a State of Flux? | Catholic Moral Theology Peter Singer in a State of Flux? |

  3. Pingback: Peter Singer and Christian ethics conference–audio available | A Thinking Reed

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