Singer Looks into the Abyss and Finally Blinks

Here is an interesting essay by notorious bioethics professor Peter Singer. What is interesting is even Singer has realized over time that either morality has an objective basis or one is logically led to skepticism regarding any ethical assertion, even one’s own. This becomes somewhat ridiculous. We are stuck with philosophers who have destroyed any rational basis for ethical assertions, but who are constantly asserting what they believe to be ethical!

“If I deny that normative claims can be true or false, then I cannot assert that this claim is true. It too could be treated as just one preference among others – except that now there is no basis for saying that we ought to maximize the satisfaction of preferences.”

“The denial of objective truth in ethics thus leads not, as I had tried to argue, to preference utilitarianism as a kind of metaphysically unproblematic default position, but to skepticism about the possibility of reaching any meaningful conclusions at all about what we ought to do.”

Of course what he does with this change of mind is to still seek a purely materialistic ground and cause for an objective morality and I think he fails, but he certainly gets points for facing up to the intrinsic problems with believing morality can simply be reduced to subjective preferences.

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24 Responses to Singer Looks into the Abyss and Finally Blinks

  1. Burk Braun says:

    I think he fails as well, but earlier on. Thanks for pointing this out, but I have to say that the essay does not gel at all for me. I can not figure out what he is trying to say, other than he is seeking for some new idea that has not yet cohered for him.

    Anyhow, I think it would all be clearer under straightforward materialist assumptions- that we operate under subjective preferences, thus there are no objective moral truths or “meaningful conclusions about what we ought to do” … in the sense of objectively meaningful.

    Our morals and rules express / point us towards behaviors that fulfill our preferences, which include living in happy, harmonious societies. That is for most people, at least, and if we found collective action on mass legitimacy rather than divine right of kings, popes, mafia dons, etc., then that common preference will translate into relatively moral and positive societies.

    An interesting example is a society that is democratic, but only for men. Women, as excluded from the expression of preferences, are likely to be excluded from much else as well, in a second class moral & practical existence.

    Frankly, I don't see where the big mystery is, and thought more highly of Singer than this kind of meandering around represents (I hope he edited this himself!). His example of current vs future happiness is very nice, however, and makes my point eloquently. The criterion throughout is personal happiness, and whether one conceives of that moment-to-moment or in a longer term sense (or a collective larger community sense) is a tribute to our cognitive development and rational wisdom, not to any alteration in our fundamental moral criteria.

    Likewise for his “objective reasons for you to give to Oxfam”, surely a hobby-horse for Singer. There are no possible objective reasons, by my theory, and that is OK. Only sentimental ones or self-interested ones in the form of.. I would like to live in a world where all are fed and taken care of, despite their own lack of foresight and moral / cultural resources to address their own situations. Even some quasi-objective reason like.. it is better to feed them there than to see them wash up on my own shore as a refugee of some kind .. is clearly based on personal preferences.

    I am not sure what Singer's objective solution to this really is. The various moral formulas of the last few centuries (Rawls, Mill, etc) are all finally justified by the proposition of.. I would like to live in a society that … And other views, like those of Islamists or Conservative wingnuts, are predicated exactly the same way. The hard part is figuring out whether we really want to live the way we ideologically think we do. Few systems can stand up to that test!


  2. Burk Braun says:

    Indeed, imagine for a moment that you were an extraterrestrial, a Zorkon on the planet Uxpemif. What objective reason would you have to give to Oxfam? If a reason were objective, it would apply to all beings equally. But you would have none- none at all, even if you traveled to Earth or knew about it via other sources. Only if you became engaged with Earth's humans for some reason might a reason come into existence.


  3. Darrell says:


    I would make two points: First, you fail to address why he changed his mind and the two quotes I posted. Second, your response is populated with various “meaningful conclusions” and goals by using words such as “harmonious” “happy” “positive” “moral” “second class,” but all these demand some sort of gage as to what you are measuring against and if the gage is yourself, then why berate “kings, popes, mafia dons…” as if what makes them “happy” should be disregarded, since these are all just subjective preferences. And actually, it is not accurate to include kings and popes in your list since they actually believe in something objective (whether throne or scripture) but you could include your own view with that of the mafia don, because such agrees with your view that might-makes-right. But, in fact, why assert anything at all or find fault with other assertions? They are all equally nothing in your view. There is no “ought” there is only agitated matter. In other words, you act and write as if those words noted above actually mean something different than the way others might use those words. If the Republicans asserted they were simply working toward a “harmonious” “happy” “positive” and “moral” society you would be the first to cry foul, but why? You like red, they like blue. You have given us no reason to give a damn either way, which is Singer’s point I think.
    And finally, simply asserting there can be no objective basis for morality is just begging the question. You need to give more thought to why someone like Singer would change his mind.


  4. Burk Braun says:

    First, I would say that his essay isn't coherent enough to tell why he has changed his mind, or whether he has come up with any better idea that justifies such a change. Honestly, it was mostly a tease for his book.

    All he says is.. “The only conclusions we could reach would be subjective ones, based on our own desires or preferences, and therefore not ones that others with different desires or preferences would have any reason to accept.

    I was reluctant to embrace such sceptical or subjectivist views in 1981, and that reluctance has not abated over the intervening years.”

    Well great- he is reluctant. So are many theists. But what is the correct position?

    Second, you persistently and willfully misread my postion. “.. you could include your own view with that of the mafia don, because such agrees with your view that might-makes-right.”

    What I was saying was that we live in a world of preferences, where subjective is the only moral, social, political etc. criterion. This makes democracy and similar consultative systems ideal, where everyone's preferences are expressed and accounted for. It makes systems where one person's power overwhelms the preferences of (all) others distinctly less preferable (for me), thus motivating me to block such a system from happening.

    If it happens that I am personally in a position to impose my preferences on everyone else, I would logically expect high amounts of opposition, to the point of getting killed myself, attracting NATO bombing, etc. It is all about what kind of society I really want to live in, after thinking about it in a thorough way.

    Singer's dental question is very similar to that of the nascent dictator- it may be archetypally and briefly enjoyable to have total power, but a longer-range perspective, perhaps at the feet of the great western enlightenment philosophical tradition, may open my eyes to a set of preferences that I may actually prefer!.


  5. Darrell says:


    “What I was saying was that we live in a world of preferences, where subjective is the only moral, social, political etc. criterion.”

    That we live in a world of preferences and that we each need to subjectively make choices regarding morality has nothing to do if whether or not there is an objective basis for morality, so you are not addressing the main point or the issue Singer is concerned about.

    “Second, you persistently and willfully misread my potion…”

    Perhaps I have misread you. Here is an exchange in your own words (From Eric’s blog) when speaking of the Civil War and slavery in America. It is worth noting that you never responded to my response or questions—perhaps you can do so now and square it with what you are arguing now:

    “Because we won the war, to put it most crudely. If the South had won, slavery might yet be celebrated and honored as best for everyone concerned.” (Burk)

    So “might makes right”? Is this an ethical principle you would advocate with your children, or have taught in public schools? (My Response)

    After all, the mafia don or gang leader doesn’t care about anything except “winning” in the sense of killing those who disagree with him or get in his way. Who is right? Whoever is left standing. How is that different than your view of the Civil War or any other conflict?

    But more to the point of this post, you have not addressed Singer’s concerns except to beg the question. Put aside his failed solution—what do you make of his specific concern in the quotes I noted in my post?


  6. Burk Braun says:

    An acute point! What I meant was not that winning per se makes a moral system better or right, but that winning allows the winning party to cast it in the best terms and propagandize for its view of what is best, to the audience from which it draws its legitimacy and support. Slavery has long been viewed as a viable, if not ideal social system, in societies where it exists. All the propaganda & tradition in the world might not save a view from its own contradictions and lack of accord with human nature/empathy, however, as we saw more recently with women's and now gay, rights.

    As for the quotes you cite, Singer is mixing categories. When one observes the basis of moral choices, one is not making a moral choice, any more than by observing teen age pregnancy, one is endorsing it. The existence of moral objectivity should be objectively apparent and demonstrable. Yet all over the world, we see a failure to agree upon it. It is like positing subjective mass and inertia, while seeing it disproven every day. This is not a mysterious phenomenon, shrouded in esotericism. It is the most basic stuff of our social lives.


  7. Burk Braun says:

    Suppose, for a moment, that brainwashing is 100% effective. You encounter a fundamentalist Mormon group that believes, down to the last male, female, and child, that polygamy is great. For that society, that is how it is going to be, until it experiences internal contradiction and countervailing influences (like the need to eject or suppress excess males, the ongoing subjugation of women in various ways, etc.) which might break through the propaganda.

    But until that happens, they are doing what is morally right in their own eyes, which is the only relevant standard. My distaste for it, or my contention that it does not serve their own society well in various psychological or long-term respects, are not objective issues, but bids to persuade them to alter their preferences.

    None of this is objective, other than the utilitarian consequences, which again have to be judged in subjective terms. If they engage in less ambiguously bad practices, like molestation and slavery, then their propaganda is going to be commensurately weaker, and it will be easier to break through the programming to turn more of their adherents to views more in line with natural human empathy and emotion, which is the only basis we have, ultimately.

    You have to ask .. even when an objective moral is appealed to- where did it come from and how can we recognize it? The answer, 100% of the time, is that another human came up with it out of their own heads, and we can't recognize it in any reliable way, making the entire claim fruitless. This is frequently dressed up as mythical gods descending and telling us what to do, but I will believe that when I see it.

    It is also dressed up as “everyone” believes X or Y, which only goes to support my point, not yours.


  8. Darrell says:


    “An acute point! What I meant was not that winning per se makes a moral system better or right, but that winning allows the winning party to cast it in the best terms and propagandize…”

    Oh, that is different…wait! What a dodge! Please. This is no different than saying Might-Makes-Right. Give me a break. Or worse, it is saying nothing at all about what is right but only that the winners get to write the history. In other words, for you, even your own assertions are nothing more than propaganda.

    “As for the quotes you cite, Singer is mixing categories.”

    No, you are mixing categories. You are thinking an abstract universal moral reality has to be like gravity or wind and of course no one posits such. And the fact that two people disagree about something has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not it could be an objective truth or not.

    Here is the difference between you and Singer. You both are materialists and must rule out an objective morality because it simply doesn’t fit your world-view, but Singer realizes that taken logically it means no one can make any ethical assertions, so he is trying his best to find a way to ground morality objectively.

    Let’s boil this down a little further: How do you overcome the dilemma he notes here:

    “If I deny that normative claims can be true or false, then I cannot assert that this claim is true. It too could be treated as just one preference among others – except that now there is no basis for saying that we ought to maximize the satisfaction of preferences.”


  9. Burk Braun says:

    You can see how this all coheres…

    “'In other words, for you, even your own assertions are nothing more than propaganda.”

    This is true for moral issues- I express my preferences, and express them in a way that may attract the support of others, by perhaps drawing out consequences that are not readily apparent in either my own or competing views/sets of preferences. I also listen to what others have to say- whether they likewise have generated new connections to my feelings, or explained unforeseen consequences. Since there are no objective morals, no one can appeal to anything other than human preferences in designing a better world.

    It is important to comment on Singer's issue.. “… no basis for saying that we ought to maximize the satisfaction of preferences.” We haven't and don't, in any objective sense. Ethicists like Rawls and so forth who posited this kind of ethics were basically just stating their preferred society, which is excruciatingly fair and equal. I appreciate their sentiment and mostly share it, but it remains a sentiment, and the question is whether people in general can be motivated through their own sentiments to want the same thing, or whether they prefer a Republican, Darwinian war of all against all, where individuals can gain extraordinary power over others within the social rules.

    “Singer realizes that taken logically it means no one can make any ethical assertions…”

    One can make as many ethical assertions as one likes, from a subjective perspective. One is only barred from making objective, absolute, and universal assertions. This is no more than recognizing the truth, since there aren't any such things, and anyone posing as a giver of objective moral truths is lying. It is really up to the moral objectivists to back up all their talk with proofs.

    Singer seems uncomfortable with this, perhaps because he has been preaching his somewhat Ghandi-an brand of ethics as though they were somehow incumbant on everyone and self-evident. But they are not- they are just as subjective as anyone else's ethics. He was just wrong. The question is not whether we can find the holy grail of objective ethics, but whether we can cultivate humanity and empathy in each other that predisposes us to practice and propagate the kind of ethics Singer, I and you prefer.

    Call it propaganda if you like! I say the same of the scriptures- exhibit A of yesteryear's propaganda.


  10. Darrell says:


    How do you square this: “One is only barred from making objective, absolute, and universal assertions.”

    With this:

    “If I deny that normative claims can be true or false, then I cannot assert that this claim is true. It too could be treated as just one preference among others – except that now there is no basis for saying that we ought to maximize the satisfaction of preferences.”

    You are making an assertion—do you not feel it is normative—a true or false statement? If so, according to your own logic it cannot be true. If it is not a true assertion, why should we believe it and why would you care to assert it?

    Additionally, it must be quite satisfying to know that one’s deepest held beliefs are merely propaganda.


  11. Burk Braun says:

    Normative means- relating to an ideal. I have subjective ideals, so I can make normative statements, in that sense. Normative also means how things ought to be. But according to whom? That is the question. I can say that we ought to maximize the satisfaction of preferences- that is my preferred world. It might be most others's as well. I think the problem is when this usage slips into an objective sense, that everyone ought to adhere to some ideal that I am enunciating. Perhaps it is for their own good. Perhaps it is just because I have the guns and they don't. It is hard to tell, really. In any case, it is invalid as a mode of argument, because what is “good” is obviously a subjective matter, however you slice it.

    So to get back to the crux, what I assert is unrelated to the contents of any particular ethical theory or norm. It is that ethical criteria are fundamentally subjective. This is almost a tautology, really, since morals and ethics deal with what is “good” and what is good is nothing if not subjective, by any theory that makes sense to me to date.

    How do you define it? Whatever god wants? And how would you know what god wants? Who tells you? You just end up going down a rabbit hole of supposition and propaganda anyhow.


  12. Darrell says:


    Let’s try this again. You assert: “One is only barred from making objective, absolute, and universal assertions.”

    But you agree that if someone were to posit the reverse, “One in never barred from making objective, absolute, and universal assertions,” they are also correct and making a “true” statement?

    Which is it?

    I take you back to Singer: “If I deny that normative claims can be true or false, then I cannot assert that this claim is true.”


  13. Burk Braun says:

    Let's try this again..

    One is barred from making objective assertions.. about moral/ethical content, within my theory of reality/morality.

    Outside that theory, and in the argument as to whether that theory is correct, one is not barred from making truth claims about the criteria of moral decision making in general. Whether it is to prove their foundation on objective absolutes, or to deny such a foundation.. so far, my claim that such foundations are lacking has all the evidence, but I am certainly receptive to countervailing claims, if backed by evidence that isn't self-defeating, mythical, etc.


  14. Darrell says:

    But your theory is an assertion–a normative claim about what is true or false!

    So you agree that both contradictory statements are true?


  15. Burk Braun says:

    No, the statements are not contradictory, because they cover different topics. They are categorically different. One is about the truth of whether morals are objectively based or not, while the other is about the nature of statements made within a subjectivist moral system.

    Just because a statement is an assertion doesn't mean it is normative, or contradictory to a superficially similar assertion made about another topic. In deciding whether morals are objective or not, we are not dealing with ideals, but with reality.


  16. Darrell says:


    Further, your whole claim to waiting for (wanting) “evidence” is a complete dodge. You know, as well as I do, that all evidence is interpreted evidence. Further, you know that you are making a gigantic category mistake as if God were like a Martian or an Old Man in a Rocking Chair above the clouds. Anyone, at any time, has all the evidence they need for either believing of refusing to believe in God. But they do so by a choice of how and why they chose to interpret the evidence (existence) the way they did, which is a matter of the heart, head, and faith all wound up in this beautiful and mysterious thing called life. But please, save the “evidence” argument for those more inclined…like freshman philosophy students.


  17. Darrell says:


    No, both statements are entirely about the same topic—what one can or cannot assert regarding ethics.

    If two people are talking about this same topic, and one (first person) says: “One is only barred from making objective, absolute, and universal assertions.”

    And the other (second person) says, no, “One is never barred from making objective, absolute, and universal assertions,”

    How are these two statements not contradictory? Singer is noting, (because logic constrains us here) that for one to deny the truth of the second person’s statement based upon his own subjectivist moral system means that he must also deny his own assertion that “one is only barred…”

    Where is Singer wrong?


  18. Burk Braun says:

    Boy, talk about dodges. You would like nothing more than to cite scripture as evidence for the objective truth of god, morals, and the rest of it. But unfortunately, it doesn't hold up to critical scrutiny- not for several hundred years. You would like nothing more than signs and wonders happening again in our fallen world to validate (provide evidence for) the same views. But all we get is natural phenomena.

    Now you have retreated to a immanent “everything” is god position, and refuse even the practice of reason, in favor of interpretation so that you can twist any phenomenon as evidence for god, even though the same evidence is all consistent with naturalism. More so, indeed. What is lacking is a systematic way to engage with reality without putting your presupposition first and foremost.

    Imagine giving up the presupposition… Imagine no god- what would be needed for reality to happen in its entirety? Only the physical basics- energy and its condensed forms in matter and various fields. Even if they are god, it would be rather difficult to contort such a theology into the father-totems, morals, duty to worship, etc. that our oh-so-human religions make of it. The point and origin of religion lies entirely elsewhere.


  19. Darrell says:


    I neither need nor rely upon either scripture or miracles to believe; existence is enough. I have not said that God is “everything” I said that existence is enough.

    You practice the same method, interpretation, and simply use “reason” as a cover and your faith (presupposition) that the material is all there is—is all you have as well. You have no “evidence” you only have a faith based interpretation of the “evidence.”

    “Imagine no god- what would be needed for reality to happen in its entirety? Only the physical basics- energy and its condensed forms in matter and various fields.”

    Yes, “only” this, that, or the other. But where did the physical basics come from? You sound like the guy who says he can make everyone a billionaire. When asked how, he says, “well, first, you take a million dollars and…”

    Existence is enough.


  20. Burk Braun says:

    Let me edit for clarity…
    “One is only barred from making objective, absolute, and universal moral assertions, insofar as the basis of morality is subjective.”

    “One is not barred from making objective, absolute, and universal scientific assertions, such as about the origin and nature of human moral reasoning, whose truth then depends on the evidence and logic one can publically bring to bear.”


  21. Burk Braun says:

    Ah, very interesting.. so you are an existentialist!

    Just kidding.. it has been a pleasure, as usual.


  22. Darrell says:

    Oh, I see, so now you are going to wield the “scientific” wand just like the other guy is going to hold up his Bible to make his point. It is you who are now making the category mistake. Basically, you are saying, that no one else can make “objective, absolute, and universal moral assertions” unless they preface such statements with “science tells us that…” How convenient.

    Unfortunately, you only remove the problem one step. The assertion that one cannot make “objective, absolute, and universal assertions” is not a “scientific” finding or matter, it is a philosophical assertion. Besides, both sides would claim their view was supported by “science” or the evidence after the fact. Nice bit of back-pedaling though. Singer had already pointed out the mistake you make here:

    “It is a mistake to believe that scientific findings could be a substitute for the kinds of thinking that philosophers do about, and in, ethics. I hope that the new edition of The Expanding Circle will help to make it clear (again!) why such attempts are bound to fail, and philosophers are right to continue to reject such attempts to annex ethics or moral philosophy…”

    You are left with making assertions that you yourself have asserted one cannot make. This, after all, “insofar as the basis of morality is subjective…” is an assertion you believe to be objective, absolute, and universal.

    Or perhaps this wasn’t clear enough: Any assertion about ethics, what one can or cannot do, is intrinsically, in and of itself, a moral matter.


  23. Burk Braun says:

    I didn't mean scientific in any specific sense, but only as broadly.. justified by empirical engagement.. a truth that is not a priori or logical/axiomatic, but which is contingent on how the world operates, or if one holds idealism as true, what can be proven as an actual ideal, however self-contradictory that is! What is objective, one might even say! I mean, what does the word objective even mean to you in this discussion?

    I will agree that the question of the nature of moral reasoning has two aspects to it.. how do we actually come up with morals, which is obviously an emprical question, and how should we come up with our moral systems, after which we adhere to them and reason within them. As you say, the whole idea can be meta and yet still normative to some degree.

    So which of these forms is the question: “Do morals originate from objective sources?” Cearly not the second (normative) form. The question is empirical, either asking directly whether there are objective morals out there, or asking indirectly by way of figuring out how humans actually make such choices. Or one asks whether one's ideal is real, which is, to me, a fool's errand.

    There are no morals without moral beings, such as ourselves, so that narrows the empirical search a bit. So we ask.. how do we come up with moral rules, large and small. It seems to be an intuitive process, by which we see things not work well and devise ways to make society work better. That could be more fairness, less fairness, holding people to economic rigors, giving them all free goods.. politeness, rudeness, all sorts of possibilities. Then if things turn out well, it turns out to be good rule, and is adopted more widely.

    It all comes down to our view of what is good and bad, which every human has innately. No philosophy or ideal or great study is needed. Feeling pain, hurt, poverty, deprivation, etc. is bad, and makes one evaluate the situation and its antecedents as not so good.

    Do we tend to systematize our thoughts on these lines into ideals, like freedom, fairness, compassion? Sure.. but what is “real” about them? Nothing- they are abstract ideas in our heads. I am fundamentally opposed to philosophical idealism, since it leads us to mistake abstractions as real, which is incorrect. And in extremis makes them into more real than real, which is more than mistaken, it is pernicious.

    Abstractions are useful, but they aren't real.


  24. frthomas says:

    thank goodness that the great philosophers mathematicians, and scientists of ancient Egypt and Greece didn't think like you. Otherwise, you wouldn't have a job. They danced joyfully on the razor's edge of idealism, abstract thought, wonder, devotion, sacrifice, etc. Without such a crucible they would have settled for your conclusions which would have led mankind nowhere.

    Let's hear it for wonder and idealism and reason and science and creativity and devotion in a beautiful relationship of trust and joy. These are not enemies… They were designed to live in a mysterious harmony. Perhaps some of the ancient civilizations were, in a couple of aspects, more civilized than we are … Hmmm…


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