Singer and his Critics

This is not about a singer of songs and his critics, but the bioethicist Peter Singer at Princeton, and his many critics, of which I regard myself as one. A friend sent me this article from Christianity Today on some of his views. It is, as my friend wrote to me, "Worth a read."

In case you haven't come across Peter Singer before, he is a quietly spoken, polite yet unabashed utilitarian and as I said in a reply to my friend, his views are broadly reflective of the development of Darwinian thought that ultimately produced Nietzsche, and would be held by many of my old biology lecturers… quietly content with the idea of nature red in tooth and claw applying to modern human biology. I do think that the article takes a bit of a cheap shot in closing by saying that he is the rare example of an honest atheist. An atheistic evolutionary approach does not necessarily lead to the twin poles of advocating both animal rights and infanticide. Dawkins, for example would argue that the evolution of the brain has put us in a position where we are now broadly freed from the motive force of evolution ie natural selection or survival of the fittest, because of our ability to reason and apply technological fixes to problems (although even our ability to bring technology to bear on problems may not help us to avoid the eradication of our species and many others because that same technology has messed up the environment!) But essentially, dawkins does not argue that we are anything more than animals, just that we no longer HAVE to play by the same rules if we don't want to, and that as highly social animals we have a lot of selective pressures to behave altruistically (eg kin selection, reciprocal altruism etc).

Guys like Singer are so plausible. Their logic is impeccable and they often come across as nicer or at least more humane than many of those who argue for any form of theism, even when spouting on about something as emotive as infanticide. Then when you add into the mix those from the Christian right who deny the scientific evidence or invent their own pseudo-science, then is it any wonder that those of us advocating a theistic, or specifically Christian position are losing the public debate?

However, on one area, untouched by the article, we as Christians should have common cause with Singer, and not to mention it almost speaks of dishonesty on the part of this and other of his Christian critics. Singer is one of the most vocal, and intellectually rigorous advocates of the immorality of the distribution of wealth and resources across the globe. He argues that the situation where some people live in abundance while many others starve is morally indefensible, and that if anyone is already living comfortably, a further purchase to increase their comfort rather than donating money or time to help the poor is immoral. Some have tried to deflect his critique by saying that he never specifies what he means by 'living comfortably.' But such reasoning is pharisaical and offers nothing to the debate.

On a very practical level Singer reports that he donates 25 percent of his salary to Oxfam and UNICEF. I wonder how many of his Christian critics could say the same?


Anonymous said…
At uni I read an article by Singer where he advocated that those of us in the developed world should donate 10% of our wealth to those in the developing world (or whatever the current PC adjectives are right now). Ironically (given the strength of many of his other views with which I would vehemently disagree) this had a big influence on my entering the world of faith & politics/policy.

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