Ed Feser describes Peter Singer’s struggle with objective morality

From Ed Feser’s blog, a report on one of the most famous atheist utilitarians.


The Guardian reportsthat Peter Singer is having second thoughts about some aspects of his moral philosophy.  In particular, he now has doubts about whether preference utilitarianism provides satisfactory moral advice about climate change.  (As the reporter puts it, “preference utilitarianism can provide good arguments not to worry about climate change, as well as arguments to do so.”)  Singer is also now open to the idea that moral value must be grounded in something objective; and though he is still not inclined to believe in God, he acknowledges that a theologically-oriented ethics has the advantage that it provides the only complete answer to the question why we should act morally.

This is progress, though it seems to me that Singer’s conception of moral objectivity is dubious.  Apparently he would ground our knowledge of objective moral truths in “intuition.”  As I have said before, this is bad methodology, at least from an Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law point of view as I understand it.  Moral intuitions track objective moral truth in only a very rough, general, and mutable way.  Practically they are useful – that is why nature put them into us – and they might provide a useful heuristic when philosophically investigating this or that specific moral question.  But intuition does not ground moral truth, it is not an infallible guide to moral truth, and it should never form the basis of a philosophical argument for a controversial moral position.

So Singer has finally become aware of the the difference between relative morality and objective morality, but he’s still not clear about moral epistemology and moral ontology, which comes up so often in William Lane Craig’s debates. Even if we know right and wrong through our moral intuitions, we still have to need a designer of the universe to say how it ought to be, if our intuitions are referring to a real design for the universe, and for us.

Well, still – at least Singer is making progress. But he’ll never be able to arrive at a rational conception of morality on atheism.

Can atheists make sense of morality?

Consider this excerpt from a recent article by Paul Copan.


Jürgen Habermas is one of Europe’s most prominent philosophers today.  Another fact about Habermas: he’s a dyed-in-the-wool atheist.  Yet he highlights the inescapable historical fact that the biblical faith has had a profound influence in shaping civilization.  Consider carefully his assessment:

“Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and a social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.  This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation.  To this day, there is no alternative to it.  And in light of current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage.  Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”

[…]This isn’t surprising.  Intrinsic human dignity and worth make sense if we have been made in God’s image rather than being mere molecules in motion.  Biblical theism has the metaphysical capital to sustain the concept of human rights.  Our law courts and legal system assume that humans don’t simply dance to the music of their DNA.  The criminal’s excuse (“Your honor, my genes made me do it”) flies in the face of what we all know of human nature and our presumption of moral responsibility.  Human value and moral agency make better sense if we have come from a supremely valuable being beyond nature.  We certainly have no rational justification to anticipate the emergence of intrinsic human dignity and worth if we are simply the products of mindless, deterministic, valueless material forces in a purposeless cosmos.

Another point that undercuts objective morality and human dignity given naturalism is that many naturalists themselves see the logical outcome of their own metaphysic.  Naturalism, they argue, simply lacks the metaphysical equipment to account for objective moral values.  Many naturalists admit that natural material processes without God cannot bring us to moral responsibility and human dignity and worth.  These features of reality—which we routinely assume—don’t square well with naturalism.  Here’s a sampling of key naturalists on this topic:

  • Friedrich Nietzsche: “Moral judgments agree with religious ones in believing in realities which are no realities….There are altogether no moral facts.”  Indeed, morality “has truth only if God is the truth—it stands or falls with faith in God.”[5]
  • Jean-Paul Sartre: “It [is] very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him.”[6]
  • Bertrand Russell believed that “the whole subject of ethics arises from the pressure of the community on the individual.”[7]
  • E. O. Wilson locates moral feeling in “the hypothalamus and the limbic system”; it is a “device of survival in social organisms.”[8]
  • Jonathan Glover considers morality a “human creation” and calls on humans to “re-create ethics.”[9]

We could add lots more leading naturalists—J.L. Mackie, James Rachels, Peter Singer, and the like; these acknowledge that nature can’t get us to objective moral values and human dignity.

Indeed, thoughtful atheists understand that there is no concept of “ought-to-do” in an accidental universe.

In order to have a robust notion of morality, you need five things:

  • beings with objective moral value
  • objective moral duties
  • free will, in order to make moral choices and be responsible for them
  • ultimate significance for your actions
  • proportional rewards/punishments for your actions

Atheism grounds none of these. Christian theism grounds all of them. So, moral behavior is not rational on atheism. What atheists do is look around at the customs and conventions in the time and place where they exist and they mimic their neighbors. If they can escape the consequences of being caught, or avoid being caught, then they rebel against the conventions of their neighbors. The motive for conforming and not conforming to these arbitrary conventions is the same – pleasure. Nothing is really right or wrong in an accidental universe. There is no way we ought to be, we just try to feel good, and complying (or not) with the arbitrary expectations of society in the time and place where we are is just another way we try to feel good.

Atheists think that moral prohibitions are like changing fashions or culinary preferences. In some societies, slavery was wrong. In others, it’s right. There is no REAL objective truth about whether slavery is right or wrong, on atheism. And that’s why you can see a lot of people who reject God killing unborn children today – which is actually WORSE than slavery. Everyone who is pro-abortion today would have been pro-slavery when slavery was still being practiced. That’s atheist morality. Do what makes you feel good, and use force to avoid being judged and punished by your peers. Survival of the fittest. There is no such thing as objective human rights on atheism, or the right to life.

More about utilitarianism

You can read more about the flaws of utilitarianism in this excellent article by J.P. Moreland.


Several objections show the inadequacy of utilitarianism as a normative moral theory.

First, utilitarianism can be used to justify actions that are clearly immoral. Consider the case of a severely deformed fetus. The child is certain to live a brief, albeit painless life. He or she will make no contribution to society. Society, however, will bear great expense. Doctors and other caregivers will invest time, emotion, and effort in adding mere hours to the baby’s life. The parents will know and love the child only long enough to be heartbroken at the inevitable loss. An abortion negates all those “utility” losses. There is no positive utility lost. Many of the same costs are involved in the care of the terminally ill elderly. They too may suffer no pain, but they may offer no benefit to society. In balancing positives and negatives, and excluding from the equation the objective sacredness of all human life, we arrive at morally repugnant decisions. Here deontological and virtue ethics steer us clear of what is easier to what is right.

Second, in a similar way, utilitarianism denies the existence of supererogatory acts. These are acts of moral heroism that are not morally obligatory but are still praiseworthy. Examples would be giving 75 percent of your income to the poor or throwing yourself on a bomb to save a stranger. Consider the bomb example. You have two choices — throwing yourself on the bomb or not doing so. Each choice would have consequences and, according to utilitarianism, you are morally obligated to do one or the other depending on which option maximized utility. Thus, there is no room for acts that go beyond the call of morality.

Third, utilitarianism has an inadequate view of human rights and human dignity. If enslaving a minority of people, say by a lottery, would produce the greatest good for the greatest number, or if conceiving children only to harvest their parts would do the same, then these could he justified in a utilitarian scheme. But enslavement and abortion violate individual rights and treat people as a means to an end, not as creatures with intrinsic dignity as human beings. If acts of abortion, active euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and so forth maximize utility, then they are morally obligatory for the utilitarian. But any moral system that makes abortion and suicide morally obligatory is surely flawed.

Finally, utilitarianism has an inadequate view of motives and character. We should praise good motives and seek good character because such motives and character are intrinsically valuable. But utilitarianism implies that the only reason we should praise good motives instead of bad ones, or seek good character instead of bad character, is because such acts would maximize utility. But this has the cart before the horse. We should praise good motives and blame bad ones because they are good or bad, not because such acts of praising and blaming produce good consequences.

It would be nice to see Peter Singer in a debate with J.P. Moreland. Moreland could move him along in his thinking, I’m sure.

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