Student: Singer seems to say that the Marxist motto, "from each according
to his ability, to each according to his need" is valiant, and right in principle,
but it would involve changing human nature, which isn't possible on a large
scale. Is that a correct reading of Singer's view?
DrC: That seems to be right. Also it raises questions about whether a similar
appeal to human nature provides an “excuse” for those who don’t follow a
Student: You mentioned Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins in
Wednesday's class and I enjoy both these authors. I hope to spend
more time discussing the origins of morality in class. Many people
believe that without moral commandments people would live in a state
of moral decrepitude. People's moral base, rather, is innate, and the
rest can be deduced from there. Religion reflects more than it affects
moral social evolution. To ignore the origins of morality is to deny a
large part of what it is to be human.
DrC: You would replace God by evolution in your preferred
explanation of the large fact that people do accept what they take to
be moral constraints on their behaviour. This is your response to the
thought that without belief in God we will become immoral.
Student: Kierkegaard identifies the difference between the ethical life
and the religious life (one appeals to people, the other appeals to
God). How does one know to listen to ethics as opposed to god? For
example, take Abraham in the old testament. Ol' Abe was told, by
God, to kill his only son, and then he was praised for his willingness to
do so. Does this not imply that God's will overrides ethics, or that God
is not subject to ethical code (or both)? Or should this just be
disregarded as the contradictory nature of religious belief?
DrC: The case of Abraham in the Old Testament shows one way to
resolve Socrates’s dilemma about God’s will. Socrates was counting
on his readers not agreeing with this approach, which would seem to
justify in principle any putatively immoral act.
Student: I have been enjoying the readings this week, especially
Singer, but one thing that is really making me think is the whole issue
of cultural relativism, versus a universal set of rights, which is
prescribed by Western nations. I don't know exactly what I think,
whether there should be a definitive set of rules, regardless of cultural
norms and attitudes, or whether this is a kind of ethnocentric cultural
imperialism, forcing people to conform to one view of "ethical"
behaviours. On the other hand, without this, does the entire field of
ethics become too subjective?
Singer’s principle of utility is an objective standard, of course, as is the
U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. See the “week of
January 25th” post for one or two links that might interest you.
Student: HI!-->Im hung up on the term "organic unity", if i was to say
that the golden rule is to be taken for what it says, at face value
(axiomatic?), then it would have organic unity, as what it is and the
message it conveys does not depend on anything else?
DrC: I was drawing on an account of organic unity developed by
Robert Nozick in his book Philosophical Explanations. See the
Wikipedia article on this book and do a search for "organic". He
understands organic unity as complex elements that are integrated in
a whole. Think of the diversity of musical notes brought into unity by a
symphony. He defends organic unity as a criterion of value. An old-
growth forest would be valuable, even if no human desires were
satisfied by it. So his account of value differs pretty greatly from
Singer's account, which bases value on satisfied preferences.
B. Singer, Ch 3
Singer: Assume an important scientiﬁc
experiment (cancer research, etc.) that
entails the painless death of a non-human
animal. Why not do it on human infants or
severely disabled human adults? “If we make
a distinction between animals and these
humans, how can we do it, other than on the
basis of morally indefensible preference for
members of our own species?” (60t11)
DrC: A demi-vegetarian is a non-vegetarian
who makes efforts to reduce meat and dairy
consumption without becoming vegetarian or
vegan. Demi-vegetarianism is morally justiﬁed
in principle only if there is not a moral
equivalence between (some) human lives and
the lives of non-human animals. Singer
asserts this equivalence. To deny it is
speciesist, he states.
A decision-value utilitarian is one who thinks
that the difference in the *meaning* or
*symbolic utility* of killing a human infant
and killing a rabbit justiﬁes making the
distinction that Singer rejects on page 60.
Other things being equal, one systematically
prefers saving a human life to saving an
animal life. This meaning is separate from the
consequences of the action.
DrC: Tie-breaking situations like the one
discussed on page 60 are the foundation for
demi-vegetarian and decision-value thinking.
They help to justify one’s preference for
painlessly killing non-human animals for food
(rather than human ones of the sorts alluded
to on page 60.) It should be emphasized
though that Singer’s arguments against
painful killing of animals aren’t questioned.
65 - 66
DrC: Singer’s principle that one should not
cause unnecessary suffering is powerful. A
DV demi-vegetarian is consequentialist
enough to avoid “atrocious experiments” like
the one described on page 66, and to agitate
for more humane practices of killing animals
for food, medical experimentation, etc. One
should be responsive to animal suffering,
even if one rejects the moral equivalence
I need a separate argument to justify (or at
least explain) my participating in practices
that cause suffering to animals, but at least
I’m not tantamount to a murderer of a
human being, if it’s correct to reject the
moral equivalence argument. Remember, DV
utilitarianism is being recommended because
of the way it deals with tie-breaking in
cases of justiﬁed painless killing.
C. Cahn, Ch 5 (Rachels)
DrC: Rachels’s discussion of cultural
relativism makes the point that the meaning
of infanticide may be different from culture
to culture (`Eskimo’ practices), and that
these differences may reﬂect different
consequences of the practice in question
from culture to culture. These points are
welcomed by demi-speciesism. Symbolic
utilities (meanings of acts) aren’t liable to
critique simply because they’re different.
D. Cahn, Ch 6 (Nagel)
DrC: This is a nice evocation of the Golden
Rule, more articulate than Singer’s pretty
bald appeal to it. Suppose the question,
“What if someone did that to you?” is “What
if someone insisted you wear a burka?”
Cultural context seems to intrude here.
Wearing a burka has a different meaning for
a Parisian model and a wife in an Afghan
village. The Golden Rule must be responsive
to symbolic utilities.
David Banatar writes in the Preface to his book Better Never To Have
Been (OUP, 2006) “Each one of us was harmed by being brought into
existence” (vi), and this central idea grounds a moral obligation to
prevent the existence of future possible people as well as other
sentient creatures. He derives this central idea from the propositions
(1) that one would not have been deprived of the good things in life if
one had never existed, and (2) that one would have been spared the
quite serious harms in life if one had never existed. Furthermore, (3)
the absence of good things, like pleasure, is not bad unless someone
exists who is deprived of them, and (4) the absence of bad things, like
pain, is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone. So oneʼs
utilitarianism should take the form of minimizing bad things, and that
is most effectively done when no sentient creature exists.
Prep for 1st mid-term
Be prepared to contextualize Singer’s project
in moral theory. For instance, situate his view
historically, distinguish it from other forms of
utilitarianism, and contrast it with non-
Prep for 1st mid-term
How does Singer’s analysis of equality ﬁgure
in his utilitarianism? If we are not the same
in many respects, how does he arrive at his
principle of equal consideration of interests?
Prep for mid-term
How does the principle of equal consideration
of interests work? Does everyone have the
same interests? Is having an interest a
value-free matter, like having a nose, or a
value-laden matter, like having a good nose?