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Singer on Matthew Flannagan in “Peter Singer Under Fire: The Moral Iconoclast Faces His Critics”

June 24th, 2012 by Madeleine

Yesterday Matt went the library and did a little reading for his upcoming Evangelical Philosophical Society paper “Peter Singer, Human Dignity, and Infanticide and he discovered that email exchange he’d had with Peter Singer in 2006 had resulted in a few paragraphs in Singer’s book Peter Singer Under Fire: The Moral Iconoclast Faces His Critics.

Here is a screen shot of what one sees when one uses the “search inside this book” function:

Peter Singer Under Fire: The Moral Iconoclast Faces His Critics

Matt does not feel that Singer accurately portrayed his counter example but the substance Singer presents of it is correct. Singer’s response to Matt seems to be that Matt is right in principle but in practice it would never be an issue.

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  • So in other words – “Yes I am committed to that claim based on what I’ve said, but it has scary consequences, so I will plead specially that we don’t apply my position to such scenarios.”

  • Glenn, I am inclined to agree with you , Singer deals with Marquis counter example of the person who desires to be sacrificed to the Gods because they believe they will be rewarded in the after- life by saying it’s not the persons actual desires which counts but there rational desires, that is the desires we would have if we had no false beliefs.

    When he responds to my counter example however of the person who refrains from suicide only because they believe God prohibits it, and who otherwise would desire to die he claims its dangerous to wether people would want to go on living if their beliefs are accurate and he should rely on what there actual desires and decisions are.

    This seems inconsistent, if we should follow what people actually want then he falls prey to Marquis counter example. If we should focus on rational desires he falls prey to mine, he can’t just switch back and forth between them.

  • Most moral theories are susceptible to creative thought experiments that lead counter-intuitive results. It’s easy to make a moral absolutist violate his moral principles… it’s easy to make a consequentialist behave like an absolutist when you can tune the parameters any which way.

    While Singer does appear dismissive of that particular counter-thought experiment, while using other thought experiments to support his theory, this is simply something every moral theorist is guilty of at one time or another.

    If we DID have the sort of limited range omniscience that actors in such thought experiments were given, we would certainly make many moral decisions that look counter-intuitive from our *actual* perspective (in fact, many Christians depend on this idea to defend God and some features of the OT).

    I mean really, if I knew every moment of my life from this point on was going to be devoid of any happiness, fulfillment, or growth and filled with only intense suffering, why wouldn’t suicide be the best, most moral option? But in the real world, we can’t *actually* know that at all, so it doesn’t much matter for practical morality.

  • drj

    but Matt’s example doesn’t depend on having any such omniscience. That person needn’t *know* his future would be miserable for this thought experiment to work, he only needs to be convinced that it will be, to the point of considering suicide, where the only thing preventing him from doing so is this false belief of eternal punishment in the after life.

    I’d say there are many religious people who have come to this point in their life. So this isn’t some abstract or overly creative ad-hoc thought experiment which serves just to invalidate Singer’s moral theory, it really happens, so I don’t believe Singer’s special pleading is excused for here.

  • Hugh,

    Yes it does – you are right that it only requires a reasonable and plausible delusion on the part of the sufferer… but it requires a bizarre omniscience from the other actors that predict the sufferer’s life will be devoid of any redeeming quality from that point forward.

  • but it requires a bizarre omniscience from the other actors that predict the sufferer’s life will be devoid of any redeeming quality from that point forward.

    Why would the other actors need to have such knowledge, though? The gist of the thought experiment is that if we actually operate under the notion that the sufferer’s rational desires are what should determine his/her best interests, it will be problematic in the sense that we’d commit ourselves to letting him kill himself, regardless of whether the future for him could be redemptive or not.

  • “Yes it does – you are right that it only requires a reasonable and plausible delusion on the part of the sufferer… but it requires a bizarre omniscience from the other actors that predict the sufferer’s life will be devoid of any redeeming quality from that point forward.”

    But the actors don’t have to know about “redeeming qualities” in the future they only need to know the person does not desire to continue living. Or that the person does desire to continue living and their only reason is the belief God prohibits it.

    Singer’s position does not make the value of a life dependent on the future qualities of that life, that’s Marquis position.

    Singer makes the value of a furture life depend on the present desires of the person in question. So one does not need to know the future they only need to know what a person desires now.