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Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization

Monday, 6 May 2013  | Denise Cooper-Clarke

Who would have thought that on a Friday evening in Melbourne one could fill a large auditorium at Melbourne University for a lecture on Peter Singer and Christian ethics? And most of the audience appeared to be undergraduates, with only a smattering of grey heads and beards. Philosopher and bioethicist Professor Peter Singer is, of course, always a drawcard, but probably not many had previously heard of his partner in dialogue, Charles Camosy, Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University, the Jesuit University of New York. Perhaps, despite the inclusion in the advertised title of the dialogue (and of Camosy’s book) of the words ‘Beyond Polarization’ , those attending expected some ‘robust’ debate or even the exchange of insults which seems to have characterised much of the so-called debate between atheists and Christians since the emergence of the ‘New Atheists’. Speakers at the Global Atheist Conventions in Melbourne have not held back in their harsh criticisms, even expressions of ridicule for Christians. And Peter Singer has been a speaker at these conventions. Similarly, many Christians regard Peter Singer’s ethics as dangerous and he has become something of a bête noire, spearheading as he does an attack on the Judeo-Christian sanctity-of-life ethic and  advocating for both euthanasia and infanticide.  

But if the audience were hoping for a mutual exchange of insults, they would have been disappointed. Instead, the meeting could be described as an outbreak of peace and harmony. Both participants worked hard at being gracious, respectful and conciliatory. The emphasis was on areas of agreement, while noting in passing that, yes, significant disagreement  did exist. Tony Coady, the ‘moderator’  (in fact moderation was hardly needed as both speakers were very moderate in expressing their views, as were those who asked questions from the floor) set the tone by noting that genuine dialogue between the previously hostile groups of believers and non-believers was beginning to emerge, similar to the way ecumenical dialogue emerged from the sectarianism within Christianity which prevailed until the 1960’s.  

Camosy spoke of three areas of agreement between ‘Singerites’ and Christians (by which he meant Catholic). First, he said, in the area of bioethics, they agreed on the logical connection between abortion and infanticide, and that there is no difference between aiming at death by omission or commission. In my opinion, in practice such agreement means little since Catholic teaching is that both abortion and infanticide, and both killing and negligent or malicious ‘letting die’ are wrong, whereas Singer argues that any of these may be permissible under certain circumstances. 

There is also agreement, according to Camosy, that animals have value independent of humans and should not suffer. More controversially, he claimed, using the personhood language adopted by Singer, that Catholic doctrine allows that there can be non-human persons (dolphins, for example). He attributed the exploitation of animals to the industrial revolution and free market capitalism rather than Christian doctrine. In response, Singer pointed out that the Catholic church has not adopted vegetarianism despite the well-documented suffering involved in factory farming and the fact that humans do not need to eat animals. Although acknowledging Camosy’s personal commitment to animal welfare, Singer was more sceptical about a Christian commitment to this.

The third area was  the one where there did seem to be genuine and meaningful agreement, and that was the importance of concern for the poor. Camosy said that this is at the foundation of both Christianity and Singerism, and that surplus resources are owed to the poor as a matter of justice, such that failing to provide these resources is indirect homicide. Singer agreed (it was he who pointed to the dominance of the theme of concern for the poor in the gospels) though he said that the church hierarchy has not always taken this as seriously as they ought. But he agreed that there should be no polarisation  at all in this area, and that Christians and ‘Singerites’ ought to be able to work together to tackle poverty.

It was in response to a question about the motivation for leading an unselfish life that Camosy and Singer made the most surprising statements. Camosy said that emerging research shows that living unselfishly leads “paradoxically” to greater happiness, and that Christians are consequentialists in that they pursue happiness. And Singer, who is a consequentialist (actually a particular type of consequentialist, a subjective preference utilitarian) said that humans ought not to pursue happiness, at least not individually, in order to avoid the ‘hedonic treadmill’. Just the opposite of what they might have been expected to say!  And then they both agreed that a change in the kind of person you are is necessary- a reference to virtue ethics, which is definitely not consequentialist!

Generally, Christian ethics is not held to be consequentialist, though at least in Catholic and more recent Protestant forms, it is understood as teleological (based on a shared understanding of the goal of human existence as human flourishing). Whether consequentialism itself is genuinely teleological is contentious. Clearly some expansion and clarification of Camosy’s views was needed, which time did not allow for in a one hour meeting. Interested readers will find it in Camosy’s book Peter Singer and Christian Ethics. Beyond Polarization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Denise Cooper-Clarke is Researcher with Ethos

You may also be interested in our book (available here at our resources store for $10)


Rethinking Peter Singer: A Christian Critique

Who is Peter Singer? What does he say about issues like abortion, infanticide, euthanasia and animal rights? What does he say about Christianity? What exactly is his philosophy? "Peter Singer is probably the world's most famous or infamous contemporary philosopher," says Gordon Preece. Professor of bioethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values, Singer is best known for his book on animal rights, Animal Liberation, and for his philosophical text Practical Ethics. But underneath his seemingly benign agenda lies perhaps the most radical challenge to Christian ethics proposed in recent times. In Rethinking Peter Singer four of Singer's contemporaries, Australian scholars Gordon Preece, Graham Cole, Lindsay Wilson and Andrew Sloane grapple with Singer's views respectfully but incisively. From a straightforwardly Christian perspective, they critique Singer's thought in four major areas: abortion and infanticide, euthanasia, animal rights, and Christianity. Rethinking Peter Singer is not only for those who want to understand Singer's views but also for all who want to challenge the thinking that more and more informs our society's stance on moral issues.



Charles Sherlock
May 7, 2013, 9:11AM
Thanks Denise - and having just finished a solid week in the Anglican-RC International Commission dialogue where our mandate is to explore agreements and differences in ethical decision-making, I wish I had been able to be there!

In terms of making mature Christian disciples today, serious attention to accessible teaching on moral / ethical formation is really important, and I am glad to see EA take seriously the contributions of the Catholic tradition.
Nigel Kendall
May 7, 2013, 9:54AM
There are atheists who take every opportunity to insult Christians. I find this insufferable so why do we even bother with atheists ? I prefer to ignore atheists - let them stew in their own ignorance.
Alasdair Livingston
May 7, 2013, 3:54PM
So, it is good to learn that some atheists and some (Roman Catholic) Christians do not hold each other in contempt. When I read that Singer and Camosy agreed that "there is no difference between aiming at death by omission or (by) commission", I felt obliged to point out that that is indeed true at the beginning of life, but not necessarily at its end. There is a moral gulf between keeping a patient alive by all possible means (which may be painful and burdensome), and the recognition that his or her life has come to its natural end, and that the medical task is to make that end as painless and dignified as possible. That may involve "omission" of some possible measures, but is "euthanasia" only in its true sense: good death. It is not "mercy killing".

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