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What is the basis for the value we ascribe to human life? How should we treat animals, the unborn and the profoundly disabled? Are rights grounded in our cognitive capacities and abilities or based in an inherent value that comes from a transcendent source?
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and a noted moral philosopher. He is the author of books such as Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics and The Life You Can Save. Peter is an atheist and has argued that our view of morality and human value should not be driven by religious views about the sanctity of life, but by the ability of any living thing to have preferences and cognitive faculties.
Andy Bannister is a Christian thinker and speaker with Solas Centre for Public Christianity and author of the book The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist: Or The Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments. He believes that morality and human value are tied to the fact that humans are created in God’s image. He believes that, while Singer’s viewpoint is consistent with his atheism, it has a chilling consequences for our commitment to human rights.
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More from this season:
- Episode 1: The psychology of belief: Do we need God to make sense of life?
- Episode 2: The future of humanity: Have science, reason and humanism replaced faith?
- Episode 3: The search for happiness: Can we have meaning without God?
- Episode 4: Science, faith and the evidence for God
- Episode 5: Mind, consciousness and freewill: Are we more than matter?
Justin Brierley (JB), Andy Bannister (AB) & Peter Singers (PS)
JB: Welcome to The Big Conversation here on Unbelievable with me, Justin Brierley. The Big Conversation is a series of shows exploring faith, science, philosophy, and what it means to be human, in association with the Templeton Religion Trust.
Today, our conversation topic is; Evolution, Morality and Being Human: Do we need God to be Good?
The Big Conversation partners I’m sitting down with today are Peter Singer and Andy Bannister.
Peter Singer is professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and a noted moral philosopher. He’s the author of books such as ‘Animal Liberation’, ‘Practical Ethics’, and ‘The Most Good You Can Do’. Peter is an atheist and has argued our view of morality and human value shouldn’t be driven by religious views about the sanctity of life but by the ability of any living thing to have preferences and cognitive faculties.
Andy Bannister is a Christian thinker and speaker with the Solas Centre for Public Christianity and author of the book, ‘The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist or: The Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments’. He believes that morality and human value are tied to the fact that humans are created in God’s image. He believes that while Peter’s viewpoint is consistent with his atheism, it has chilling consequences for our commitment to human rights.
Well, today we are going to be asking; What is the basis for the value we ascribe to human life? Is right and wrong something we invent in the evolutionary struggle for survival? Or is morality discovered as part of the fabric of the universe and grounded in a source beyond ourselves, namely God?
So, welcome along to the programme both Peter and Andy, great to have you here.
Peter, we’ll start with you. You’re an atheist. Is that a point of view you adopted early on in your life?
PS: I think I was probably never really a religious believer. Maybe in my early teens I had some doubts and might have called myself an agnostic or something like that. But, yes, for most of my life I’ve thought that one can never totally exclude the possibility I suppose that there is a God but it seems to me to be so improbable that I’m prepared to describe myself as an atheist.
JB: Have you ever met any kind of argument that’s given you pause for thought or had any inclination towards wishing that there might be a God?
PS: Oh, one can always wish that there might be a God as long as it was a better God than the one who is supposed to have created this world. I don’t know that I would really want there to be such a God but if there were a God that was going to look after everything and prevent the suffering of innocent beings, which is obviously a major feature of this world, that would be terrific. But, you know, it’s just like wishing there are fairies at the bottom of your garden.
JB: From your point of view, do you tend to live your life and the ethics you espouse on the basis that this life is all we’ve got, this is obviously the one life we have?
PS: Yes, that’s right.
JB: In a sense you’ve made quite a name for yourself in this area and, in some respects, you’ve become quite a controversial figure as well to some groups, for instance, those who advocate for disability rights and so on have protested sometimes some of the statements you’ve made and the events you’ve been at.
What is it about what you say that promotes that kind of a reaction, would you say?
PS: If you’re asking specifically about the reaction of people who are advocates for disability rights it’s probably merely that I state things that a lot of other people believe and indeed act on because after all it’s very common for people to have pre-natal testing to see whether the foetus that they are carrying will have a disability and in most of these cases, for example, if the disability is Down’s Syndrome, typically something like 85 per cent of the pregnant women will opt to terminate the pregnancy.
I think that that’s a defensible decision and I think it’s a defensible decision because I think it’s reasonable to prefer to have a child without Down’s Syndrome than one with Down’s Syndrome. But because I say that explicitly, whereas other people are just doing it in the privacy of their medical clinics, I think I attract opposition from people who try to maintain that life with disabilities is just as good and we should not, as they say, discriminate against people with disabilities. But obviously, as I say, most people do discriminate and I think that’s a justifiable form of discrimination.
JB: And when it comes to those kind of issues how do you arrive at the view that it’s preferable, if you like, to not have a child with disability and so on. What’s the ethic that you’ve been promoting?
PS: They are the cases which are easiest are the ones where the child will suffer significantly if they are born with a disability. And for that purpose I’d to say Down’s Syndrome is probably not a good example I chose it merely because it is a common disability and people do opt to terminate pregnancies for Down’s.
But the underlying ethic that I hold is a utilitarian ethic; that is, we ought to try to reduce the amount of suffering in the world, we ought to try to promote the amount of well-being, happiness, if you want to describe it, in the world. And I think that when you have children born, particularly with conditions that leave them to suffer greatly or ones that are very difficult for their parents to cope with – and again especially in societies that don’t provide good support for that – then I think it’s a reasonable choice to say, I’d rather have a child without that condition.
JB: And this touches as well on the whole question of how you view a child as opposed to say a full grown adult with lots of options in front of them and preferences and so on. You’ve developed the idea of personhood being the important thing when it comes to the kinds of value and rights we should ascribe to a person. Do you want to just explain what that is?
PS: Yes, I’m happy to explain that but it’s slightly misleading to say that I think personhood is somehow important. I simply have used the term ‘person’ to refer to beings who have a sense of their future and have preferences for that future and that’s really what I think is important and what underlies those decisions.
It’s particularly clear where somebody is able to make choices, then I think most people would see the difference between somebody who can make a choice whether they want to go on living or not -and I think under certain conditions we ought to try to respect that choice – and other circumstances where you have someone who’s incapable of making that choice, possibly because they don’t even have the sense of themselves as an independent being living at present but with a possible future.
JB: And in that sense, for you, it’s not so much about every human having a specific, intrinsic value but rather the value is more attached to any living thing’s ability to reason, to have preferences, to have options…
PS: Or merely to be capable of suffering and enjoying their life. Certainly that’s another aspect of my view that I think what species a being is, is not in itself morally crucial. So if by being human you mean being a member of the species homo sapien – and people do run those two things together of course – then I don’t think that that’s, in itself, morally decisive. I think we ought to look at beings for what they are. And, of course, there are some non-human animals who are more capable of understanding their situation in the world, of making choices, and certainly more capable of suffering and enjoying their lives than some very profoundly disabled, particularly profoundly intellectually disabled, members of the species homo sapien.
JB: And obviously a lot of what you’ve done is focus on the ethics around animals and animal welfare and so on that’s an important part of your body of work.
I suppose it has led to those situations where some people are concerned that you care more almost about animals that humans sometimes. I mean, that’s obviously the way they characterise it.
What would you say to those who, you know, when you run that thought experiment about is it better to save a burning barn of pigs or a one-week old baby and so on, is that helpful or is that not really what you’re talking about?
PS: Well, it’s certainly misleading to say that I care more about animals than about humans. I’d like to know exactly what those people are doing for humans. Another aspect of my thought that we haven’t yet talked about is that I think that people like us living in the affluent world ought to be doing a great deal more for people in extreme poverty than we are and that’s one of the easiest things we can do to help humans. The fact that there are people living on two dollars a day whereas we spend two dollars on a cup of coffee without a moment’s thought says to me that there’s something wrong with this. Here we are, we could double somebody’s income for the day by sending them money we spend on a cup of coffee. And of course there are more expensive things than that we spend money on that we don’t need.
So I not only preach that if you like I act on it. I give at the moment something like 30 – 40 per cent of what I earn to effective charities that are helping people in extreme poverty. So if the people who are saying that that’s not enough, we should all be doing more for our fellow humans, fine, I will admire them for doing that. But if they’re not doing something comparable to that I don’t think they are in any position to say that I am not caring about humans.
JB: Interesting. We’ll obviously be getting into the whole issue of the morality, evolution, the value of humans with Andy Bannister our other guest on the programme today. Andy, thanks for joining us.
AB: You’re welcome, Justin, always good to be here.
JB: You’ve been engaging yourself in this area for some time. Before we get into that, just give us briefly your background. You’ve been a Christian for some time and what led you to wanting to engage in these sorts of areas of moral philosophy and how we ascertain good and wrong and right and wrong?
AB: (Coughs) We’ve just had the flu through the Bannister household. It’s the joy of toddlers…
JB: Andy, thank you also for joining us on the programme today. You’re a Christian, Andy, is that something that you’ve always been and how has this journey brought you to the point where you’re engaging with people like Peter Singer?
AB: Yes, that’s a wonderful couple of questions. So I was born and raised in a Christian home but I think as listeners of this show who’ve encountered me before have heard me tell the story, I sort of drifted away from that, a crisis of faith call it what you like, in my late teens when really I think I came across the thought that I need to ascertain, be able to know whether the things I’d been taught are actually true and so actually began pressing into this area of philosophy and the reasons why we believe the things that we do.
And then I think what really was significant in my journey is my academic background is not in philosophy, though it’s a fascinating conversation with Peter today and my PHD is Qur’anic studies. And I was having conversations with Muslim friends in London who are asking me very, very good questions about what I believed and I realised I don’t know anything about what they believed and following that journey to its logical conclusion actually led to doing a PHD in my doctoral work in Islamic studies not biblical studies. So my academic background is the study of the Quran, I’m still involved in lots of academic projects around that.
But philosophy sort of developed as a side-line because, like a lot postgraduate students, I needed to pay the bills. And so when I was doing my PhD, I’d minored in philosophy earlier, and there was a need for the college where I was teaching to have somebody teach philosophy so I sort of volunteered. And then, not knowing actually that would be useful for these public conversations because part of my job at Solas is taking conversations about faith out of the doors of the church and into the public square. I spend most of my working life on university campuses and actually philosophical questions come up.
JB: And on that basis I’m sure you’re regularly interacting with people who are atheistic in their outlook, like Peter.
Where do you find the conversation often goes; Does it come to these kind of philosophical issues of right and wrong, moral values and so on?
AB: I think what I really value about the chance to interact with Peter and Peter’s work which I read as a young student is that actually so often when atheists and Christians or others discuss we can get into this sort of abstract questions of whether God theoretically exists or whatever. But I like the more practical end of philosophy. In fact, I remember, Peter, refreshing my memory of your biography I think you said somewhere that when you were a young philosophy student you decided that you could just sit around and have meaningless conversation about whether tables exist or you can actually get out there and think about things that really matter.
And I think questions of right and wrong; what does the good life look like? How should we live? That kind of, as you might put it, the pointy end of philosophy kind of interests me because it gets it grounded in the real world. And I find questions around good, evil, right, wrong, justice, meaning, purpose, those kind of things, they draw huge audiences, whether I’m talking in university settings or business settings. So that’s what’s intrigued me, that people are fascinated by the big questions of human life.
JB: And ultimately is it your view that these questions, the big questions, do point back to God at some level? Presumably you do believe that as a Christian?
AB: Yea, I think so. I think as Christians you have to be rather careful in going; how can we be good? Therefore God. Why is there a universe? Therefore God. That’s quite a jump in logic and philosophers and non-philosophers are sometimes guilty of doing great leaps of thinking.
But I do think – I like the imagery of signposts, that’s the one I often like to use with folks – I think there are a number of signposts, that taken together point in a significant direction. And I think it’s interesting around the question of morality and human flourishing which we’re going to talk about in this conversation that throughout the centuries I think there’s been a fair degree of recognition, but I think having God there at the foundation does contribute something. And even if Peter and I end up disagreeing, which we will, I’d be foolish if I said that atheism had nothing to offer to the conversation. I don’t think Peter from what I’ve read would turn around and dismiss the whole of Christian thinking on this. I think there is an area where we can have a discussion and I think God contributes something to that discussion.
JB: Well, maybe opening up this whole area of whether humans have some intrinsic moral value or whether that’s a wrong way of looking at the question; it’s interesting that this is, I think, the seventieth anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Peter, and I’m just looking it up the other day and article one states, ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one and other in a spirit of brotherhood’.
Do you fundamentally agree with that or would you put it a different way or would you say, no, I don’t think that’s quite how it works?
PS: It depends how we’re supposed to take this, right? If we’re supposed to take this as a kind of ringing declaration of things that we want to put out there and hold up in some way as a general principle then I don’t really have an objection to it, it may do quite a lot of good.
But if we were to think of it as philosophers and to take it carefully and go through it word by word and analyse it then I don’t think that it is actually right. And also, of course, it is as you said a declaration of human rights and as such it tends to exclude, well it does exclude non-human animals, and claims that all humans have dignity tend to imply that non-humans don’t have the same kind of dignity that humans do and I think that’s not defensible either.
Perhaps we should look at this term ‘dignity’ first, I think, and say all humans are supposed to have this whatever it means. So all humans includes those who are, let’s say anencephalic. An anencephalic is an infant born with only brain stem, with essentially no cortex, with no capacity for consciousness. An anencephalic will not smile at his or her mother, won’t recognise his or her mother. Presumably is not capable of experiencing or feeling anything at all. But that is a human being, same chromosomes and so on. Now, compare that with a chimpanzee or a horse or choose your favourite non-human animal if you like; why should we think that this human who could have no experiences has more dignity than the chimpanzee or the horse or the dog who can respond in so many complex ways to their environment?
JB: So essentially you would contest the statement quite simply all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.?
PS: That’s right. There are exceptions.
JB: And there are exceptions to that and so in a sense you couldn’t philosophically speaking put your name to that kind of a declaration.
You’ve done quite a bit of work on the idea of human rights?
AB: Yea, let me say a couple of things; one thing by way of response to Peter and then to flesh out my own thinking.
I think what’s interesting is, on the other hand, I think, Peter, while you take examples of human beings who are born profoundly disabled, I still think you’d recognise they had a degree of dignity there. Because I think if you met a parent of a child who was born like that, who was proposing not just committing infanticide but then chopping the corpse into little bits and frying them on the BBQ and then having them with a salad, you’d think that in some way there has been a failure of moral reasoning there to recognise that even in that tragedy there is a degree of dignity.
But I think the confusion around extreme disability is actually something… it’s interesting if you look at some of the great ethicists throughout the centuries, people like Hobbs, Locke, Kant, argued the same thing that the equality that we are talking about is not grounded in an ability that you have or you don’t have because that, of course, leads to a sliding scale that says, well, okay, maybe we say the rationality is what grants people inclusion in moral community. Well, you’re a brilliant philosopher if we put you up next to Justin and we have to make a choice, Justin may not be part…
JB: I’d be mincemeat!
PS: We could just say there is a minimal threshold…
AB: We could go that route or we could go the route of Hobbs and Kant and others and I think even actually even some of the great utilitarian thinkers flirted around with, that it’s actually our capacities that are essential, that are morally relevant.
And I want to say something here about animal rights because it was mentioned earlier on. That’s a passion for me as well and, aside from the areas I disagree on, I think one thing I want to say that I hugely respect Peter for is that your book on animal liberation put animal rights and the way that we treat non-human creatures onto the table in a way that other books haven’t. And so even though we disagree on some things philosophically I think you did a tremendous amount of good.
What I would say though in terms of animal rights and justice for the animal kingdom I want to say that’s actually grounded in human dignity because I have a duty to the animal kingdom to treat it in a particular way. Now, if we are dealing with a higher form of life such as a pig or a chimpanzee I think that duty is there but I would extend that and say that even if I treated something that didn’t have sentience, or if I went out and, for example, set fire to vast tracts of rainforest – plant life isn’t sentient unless you follow one or two extreme philosophers -I have still behaved sub morally. I have behaved in a way that’s inappropriate towards that aspect of the natural world. But that’s grounded in my duty that flows from my human nature not in some sort of hypothetical set of rights that the entity out here has. So I think we might in some ways…
PS: Do you think that your duties to the anencephalic are grounded in some rights?
AB: I think that it’s again grounded in duty.
PS: So you don’t think there is a distinction then between the anacephalic and…
AB: No, I come back to where Justin put the question to you. I think all human beings, whether they have capabilities or they don’t, belong to the human family and with that come rights and dignity. So I would agree with the UDHR but then I would ground animal rights, which is what you’re also famous for, I would ground that in the same basis on the same platform.
Because, ultimately, you and I know that I have a moral duty to the wolf if the wolf breaks in here and eats one of the three of us or Liam Neeson – as in the film ‘The Grey’ – the wolf hasn’t actually acted immorally, it has no duties to us.
PS: Well because the wolf doesn’t have the capacity to make those choices. And that’s why I would say, I would agree that the wrong doing of the various acts you describe, whether its burning a rainforest or torturing a cat or doing something to humans, is granted in the fact that we have the capacity to make choices and to think what those choices are. So, we have moral agency, I would say, rather than our dignity I’d say is what it’s grounded in. And the wolf lacks moral agency the wolf just behaves as a wolf, I guess he sees something he can eat and goes ahead and tries to kill if needed.
So, yes, there is a distinction between those humans capable of moral agency – which of course is not all humans, no babies are capable of moral agency – and non-human animals. But that’s, I think, a different question from the question of whether in terms of how we ought to treat them we ought to put all humans, including the anencephalic, on a kind of higher plane by saying that they have rights that the others don’t and I think that’s what the universal declaration of human right is trying to do.
AB: Yea, I was going to say is what’s interesting is I think, actually, if I was going be iconoclastic -Peter and I may be on more common ground here because I’ve for a long time suspected that rights language bulks us down in a number of ways – if we’re in favour of trying to see that animals are treated more fairly we somehow feel the need to sort of start assigning rights to members of the animal kingdom. And, in fact, actually the rainforest argument was not a random one, I think it was Brazil recently some politicians there are arguing that rainforests should be granted rights in order to protect them from logging and I remember reading this and thinking this is rights language gone mad.
What I do think is that we have duty and responsibility and an oughtness. And it’s interesting actually one of the things that I did to prepare for this discussion was listen to the last time you were on the Unbelievable show, Peter, and you debated, discussed with the Christian philosopher Richard Weikart and one of the things Richard pushed you on was interesting; he pushed you on the sort of famous is-ought dilemma in ethics and you said something to the effect of – I should have written it down, I was driving in the car at the time so I wasn’t able to take notes so I had to remember the gist of what you said – but you said something to the effect of, I’ve spent most of my career trying to avoid the is-ought kind of issue. But then it was interesting, again preparing for today, ought-based language is all over your work.
PS: There is nothing wrong with ought-based language.
AB: I ought to do X
JB: Well, let me put this question to you in that sense then, Peter. So, you believe in moral agency, you believe there is a right and wrong way to act with respect to other people and the whole of the living world.
I think for many people, like Andy would say, but where does that sense of moral duty come from and what’s it grounded in ultimately? Why should someone act in the best way they can towards, you know, why should someone adopt a utilitarian principle when they could simply say, well I don’t want to do that?
In a universe where there is a God, where there is potentially some sort of moral arbiter, some kind of moral law-giver, one may be able to find a way to saying well that’s where this duty, this oughtness about the universe comes from. In a universe where there is no God I think a lot of people ask, what is that grounded in? How can we get to this sense that we should act in certain ways?
PS: Well, let’s go back to the claim of a universe in which there is a God, then it’s grounded. Are we to say it’s grounded simply in the will of God, in the arbitrary will of God? This is an argument of course that goes right back to Plato; are we to say that if God had willed that in fact we cut up babies and eat them on the BBQ then that would have been the right thing to do? Because I certainly wouldn’t want to believe that and I don’t know whether Andrew wants to believe that.
But if you reject that then you have to say, it’s not arbitrary that God tells us that it’s wrong to torture babies and that it’s better to be kind to them because that reflects a more basic underlying truth. And if there is such a more basic underlying truth that it’s better not to, let’s say gratuitously cause pain, then that’s something that we have access to and that can ground our actions.
JB: And is independent of God.
JB: You seem to be stating Euthyphro’s dilemma there. But essentially, yes, does God command the good because it’s good or because is the good what we should do independent of what God commands?
Okay, this is a common response to this, the so-called moral argument.
AB: It is. And it was interesting because Peter is so prolific – I’ll refresh my memory because I think the edition of ‘Practical Ethics’ on my shelf was an early one, perhaps not a first edition, but I bought the more recent one Kindle – and I’d forgotten of course that you reference in there early on the Euthyphro dilemma. Slightly disappointed that you don’t do much engagement with the literature because, of course, as many people have pointed out, the answer to the Euthyphro dilemma is actually found in Plato himself. Because when Plato is positing that dilemma he is using the word ‘god’ and the gods really to describe the Gods of Greek mythology who are very much largely creatures within creation. They’re actually physical beings.
And then, of course, Plato was for the idea of ‘the good’, which for the English we would probably tend to render that with a capital T and capital G, who really is the metaphysical standard of goodness. It is the good. And Christians theists have always generally, since Augustine, connected those two and, aha, that’s what Christian theism is talking about. It’s not that God goes, well what shall I command? Let’s have some fun and command this. Or a God looking to some standard outside of himself. But God is goodness and therefore…
PS: For Plato it’s not a personal goodness. The good is not personal.
AB: No, I agree with you…
PS: Whereas presumably for Christians it is?
AB: I would absolutely agree with you there. But I think that’s the difference.
PS: So, if I don’t think…I could – I won’t exactly accept Plato’s metaphysics – but I could let’s say, say well yes there is something that is objectively the good. And, if you like, it always is there and always would be there, has the potential to be there. So I could say it’s timelessly true that to gratuitously inflict pain is a bad thing but that doesn’t get you anywhere in terms of saying there’s a God because this is not a personal being.
AB: No, and that’s a good question there. I would say a couple of things there, Peter; one is interesting, I forget where I read, but I read a recent interview with you where you made a comment to the effect of that you are just beginning to nudge towards the idea that there may be standards of objective goodness.
PS: I accept that. You are a few years out of date.
AB: I read so much in the last… I think it was in the interview you did in 2016 with a journal there of applied ethics was where you were quoted as saying that. I think that’s interesting as actually I don’t think that you can avoid that. I mean, for example, Jeremy Bentham had the same issue. He ultimately had to admit the utility principle, you can’t really give reasons for, you have to take it as a foundation.
Which is interesting that you raise Plato because I really think you’re forced with two choices; you either have to posit a personal God like the god of Christian theism, or this sort of Platonic realm of things such as moral duties and those kind of things that are external to us and objective to us, they are discovered and that was a question you raised at the start, Justin…
JB: I wanted to ask because I think it’s important to get to this point; so you do believe at some level, Peter, in the idea of objective moral values and duties?
PS: I do.
JB: And those things exist independently of us in a sense and our evolutionary history?
PS: Yes. The word ‘exists’ could be misinterpreted. But perhaps you could say in a similar way to mathematical truths existing. And, again, there is a lot of discussion among philosophers about how you understand mathematics.
JB: And in that sense then rather than us inventing the things that we think are good they actually exist independent of us. We discover them in that sense?
And obviously, that seems to cohere, many would say, with Christian theism; the idea that there is a God who has, as it were, woven this into the fabric of the reality that we live in but it’s harder to reconcile with naturalism which I assume you do adopt?
PS: I’m not a naturalist.
JB: You’re not a naturalist? Then what are you?
PS: I’m not a naturalist in the ethical sense. I can describe myself as a naturalist in terms of understanding the universe, broadly speaking. But not in every respect perhaps.
JB: Where does the realm, then, if it exists, where is it?
PS: When we are talking about ethics, naturalism is the idea that Andrew referred to before that you can derive ought judgements from is judgements. In other words, you can go from facts to values.
I don’t think that’s true. I think that there are independent normative truths which… as I say, I’m a little doubtful about saying they exist as that suggests that in some sense there is a realm where these things could be discovered or seen. But I think that they are something we have access to as we have access to principles of logic or principles of mathematics. That if we’re rational beings we can understand them.
JB: That’s interesting because there are many atheists who deny that altogether.
PS: Yes, there is another view which I did hold for a good bit of my career which says that essentially when we make moral judgements we are expressing attitudes and these attitudes are not really true or false or as some people say, they are prescriptions. My former Oxford teacher R M Hare said that they are prescriptions, we are prescribing things which again are not true or false, just as if I say to you, ‘shut the window’. That’s not true or false, it’s a command. It’s not a description, it’s not like saying, ‘the window is shut’. So, that is another possible position that many philosophers hold.
JB: And what’s lead you to the belief that actually there really is this objective realm of moral values and duties?
PS: So, for a long time I tried to reconcile the non-objectivist if you like, the prescriptivist view with the idea that reason plays a role in reaching ethical conclusions. And I tried to do that broadly within the framework of R M Hare had set out but eventually I concluded that that couldn’t really be done.
And at the same time I was persuaded by a number of philosophers; Derek Parfit whose one who’s been influential with me, Tim Scanlon, Tom Nagel. That it’s reasonable to think that there are normative truths that are objective but we don’t have to go into any really weird metaphysics in order to accept that.
JB: So we don’t live in a world where we’re all beholden to basically what everyone’s opinion is on their particular morality. It’s not subjective in the sense that… we can say that if you’re behaving wrongly you ought to be behaving this way?
PS: We can certainly say that and I’d go further in saying that we’re not just expressing our own attitude like we’re saying, I really like a lot of garlic in my spaghetti sauce and someone else says, no, I don’t like garlic. We’re talking about something where there is a right or wrong answer.
JB: So why for you should this make Peter at least open to the possibility of theism, Andy, rather than a sort of whatever… maybe Platonic realm?
AB: Well, I will say a couple of things before that, Justin. The first thing I want to say is I want to be very careful because in the context of this being a collegial discussion it’s very tempting for both Christians and atheists to try and find gottcha moments, aha, I’ve just got Peter admitting.., and I want to be careful in doing that.
What I want to then say, as well, I also respect how Peter arrived at that position because I think if you do say that ethical statements have no content that they are meaningless – I mean, that was something sort of right out of the whole annuls of logical positivism, A J Ayers and others – we end up with a very strange counter intuitive conclusion that somebody who decides they prefer helping the poor and giving lots of money away to helping people in different parts of the world, that’s no different from somebody who decides they want to invade Eastern Europe and try and start the Third Reich. There’s no difference between them. And that’s so counterintuitive something’s got to be wrong there.
I also want to say as well that I think the other thing I think is interesting around ethics is ethics requires grounding in a framework. I don’t think you can do ethical statements like you can do mathematics. Ethics belongs in the context of relationships and that’s sometimes why ethicists go wrong, they kind of abstract things from the context of family and community and interpersonal relationships and try to analyse them logically. And I think on this bigger question, the metaphysics behind it, the same applies. I don’t think you can abstract ethics from some kind of bigger framework.
Where I think things do get interesting and where if I were on Peter’s side of the table I would at least be scratching my head slightly, I think is that if one’s not careful you do end up with – I forget which philosopher coined this phrase – you end up with an extravagant Platonism. That you have this realm, wherever you put it, in which we have moral values and duties, mathematical objects, other abstract objects and it sort of grows and grows and grows and is full of these things rather than for Christian theism to go, well, okay, we actually only have one metaphysical object, as it were, which is God and those things are grounded in the mind of God. Not least that’s helpful because moral commandments do follow, moral duties do follow between people. And so rather than ‘thou shalt not murder’ floating around abstractly out in the void, doing nothing until a human being has evolved to such a point that suddenly it applies to them as the same way the law of gravity applies to them, actually we have a divine person and duties and so forth follow between persons. And I think that something around that that intrigues me.
JB: Why does that not follow for you that these duties and moral values should be grounded in something, I suppose, beyond ourselves in the form of God ultimately?
PS: Well, to answer that we would have to get back to questions about whether there are reasons for us to believe that God exists. And especially as we are talking about morality in the claim that morality is grounded in the existence of God or the will of God.
I do think you have to look at the world around you and you have to say there is an immense amount of suffering that goes on which I don’t believe an all-powerful, omniscient, and good, morally good, being would permit. Because this is not simply suffering that occurs to those who do bad things. It’s not even if you were to believe what I think is a repellent doctrine of original sin; that all humans have sinned because Adam and Eve sinned and therefore it’s okay for us to be punished. Because even if you accept that, non-human animals, not being descended from Adam, would not have original sin and yet it’s clear that they suffer and not only at the hands of humans, they suffer because – I come from Australia, there’s seasonal droughts out there in the arid centre of Australia there are droughts and many kangaroos and other animals will slowly die of thirst, a miserable death – I cannot for the life of me see why a good God would permit that.
JB: So really the fact that you can’t place these moral duties and values in the framework of God is because there are other aspects of God that you just find can’t bring yourself…
PS: That’s certainly a major reason for me. Andrew objected to extravagant Platonism and seemed to imply that a belief in a God is somehow less extravagant. We could have a debate about what creates a more metaphysical extravagance, that would be another issue that we could raise. And also I still haven’t really heard Andrew’s answer to the question of whether God is simply… whether things that God says are good could have been different or not. I know he said that something, part of the idea of goodness but then…
JB: Well, let’s send this back to you, Andy, because I think there are a couple of questions there; this challenge over whether you can resolve Euthyphro’s dilemma and whether God actually does command the good and so on.
But also the problem of suffering. Peter says, God’s not even on the table as long as the world we’re in is the world that God has created because I can’t reconcile that with a God of love as you seem to be able to?
AB: There’s a lot of good things there but let’s take that latter one because I think that’s a hugely significant question and, of course, as a philosopher who is no slouch you’ll be aware that there is a whole branch of philosophy that deals with that from a range of perspective, the whole branch of philosophy in theology known as theodicy. So I think it would be interesting to do some digging into that if one is going to use that as an argument.
What I find interesting is that right from the word go, that actually that brings a whole moral dimension to bear on the world that we live in. Because, of course, our instinctive reaction, or hopefully our instinctive reaction, whether it’s kangaroos dying of thirst in the centre of Australia or whether it’s a hurricane or whatever causing some kind of natural disasters, we don’t just view it coldly and dispassionately, we actually bring the ought to bear; it ought not to be like that. The world ought to be different and that oughtness, as somebody once described as a bit like the bubble on the wallpaper; you wallpaper a room and there’s a bubble over here and you push it down and it pops up over there – we can’t seem to avoid making those kind of value judgments.
Now, if that was all there was to say, if the Christian story is simply God is good and created this world and, hey, isn’t it wonderful? Then I think we’d have every duty to come along and go, hang on just a moment. But of course that’s neither the beginning of the story nor the end of the story. The beginning of the story is that something has gone wrong with creation, with all due respect, Peter, you slightly mischaracterised the Christian doctrine of original sin which is not the reason the world is the state it is in, that God goes, ha, because of Adam and Eve I’m just going to kill those kangaroos, that’s the AV, the Australian version. Rather that actually that’s fundamentally twisted and broken creation, both our relationship with God and creation itself.
PS: But if God is all powerful why can’t he fix it?
AB: I’m so glad you asked that question. Before I get to that I would also point out that interestingly, I don’ know if you are aware of, one of our most iconoclastic atheist philosophers here in the UK is John Grey, formerly London School of Economics. And John – either in his book, ‘Heresies’ or ‘Straw Dogs’, I always forget which one this is found it – talks about the doctrine of original sin and the fall and says, much as I disagree with much that Christians have said, he said, that’s actually the one thing I think Christianity has got right. Just look around you; human beings are a badly broken animal.
Now, your question of why does God allow… if God had simply sat there in heaven and done nothing about it then I think we’d be able to raise that very charge of going, well, it’s alright for you, you’re sitting up there in heaven, life is pretty miserable down here. But, of course, the whole of the Christian story is what God has and is doing about it in and through the cross and through Jesus.
And whatever you make of Jesus of Nazareth, certainly the heart of the Christian story, you have the ability to go the one thing you cannot pin on the God of the bible, is he is not a God who knows nothing about suffering and injustice. And interestingly, Justin, that brings us full circle. Because one of the things I would like to bring to the table as a Christian about human value and dignity is that value is also conferred by what somebody is prepared to pay and the God of the bible and the cross and in Jesus you have God making a tremendous statement about the value of human beings such that he would be willing to go through that in the person of Jesus.
PS: This is all very strange, right? Because if we believe that Jesus was God’s son and God sent him to earth…
AB: I most certainly do.
PS: Right, so that happened about 2, 000 years ago, right? And yet the world this has all of this suffering. So here is this supposedly all powerful being who created the universe and everything and who doesn’t like the suffering that goes on and who tried to do something about it 2, 000 years ago and yet the suffering is still going on… doesn’t seem to be really better. So, it seems like he’s a bungler, he made a bad mistake in thinking that sending his son to be crucified would somehow fix all the suffering in the world and it plainly hasn’t.
AB: Well, actually, if I was going to be wonderfully cheeky, Peter Singer who sat in that chair not long ago said the world has got increasingly better in the last couple of…
PS: Not as much better as it ought to have got if we had an all-powerful being.
AB: But here’s the interesting thing; that answer I think, that question of course is raised from the very beginning because the first Christians who went out across the Roman world and began preaching the Christian message and saw Christians go from being 0.0008 per cent of the Roman empire to 51.2 per cent in 312 years, they knew full well that Christians were thrown to the lions, that earthquakes happened, that disease happens, yet they still believed that God had come in the person of Jesus, risen from the dead. That was the dead blow struck to evil and that was the beginning of God’s new creation and putting it all back together again.
PS: That is a very strange, false belief I think.
AB: Well, interesting that you say false belief. One of the things that intrigues me about the suffering question as well, and this is a rabbit trail of its own, but I think it’s a fascinating one. One of the things that began to intrigue me as I taught university level courses on the problem of evil, was that it’s a peculiarly Western question. That doesn’t make it an irrelevant question but when I will travel to the East, and I have many, many friends who are living in situations where they have experienced horrific suffering, persecution, I’ve met people who have lost their homes, their families, who have been tortured in prison for their Christian faith or experience other things. These questions don’t arise. It was pointed out after the tsunami, the Asian Tsunami, it was western newspapers that were running editorials with, ‘Where is God’? That question wasn’t being asked…
PS: That’s because they don’t really believe in that personal God.
AB: Well, Christians caught up in it would have, Muslims would have done. Those questions were not being asked.
And that just tells me something; I think it tells me that, whilst this is not an unimportant question, we forget that we all ask our question from a position, we approach our philosophy from a position, and we are approaching this as westerners. And I think there is something when you draw that lens back.
Similarly, historically, to go if the problem of evil was such a spectacular argument against belief in a good God then I think, as the Oxford professor C S Lewis famously asked, how did that belief ever arise in the first place? Men are crazy but not as crazy as that. So I think we need to wrestle with the question, but I think it’s actually a question for both atheists and for Christians to wrestle with because it gets us to the issue…
PS: I don’t see why it’s a question for atheists? I mean, we understand the world as having evolved from very simple beings who are not conscious, there is no plan to the world for an atheist evolutionary viewpoint it just happened through random mutations. And unfortunately, if you like, it’s indifferent as to whether it causes suffering or not in terms of how things evolve. So, I don’t see why it’s at all a problem for atheists.
AB: Well, let me explain why; I think if atheists were simply content to leave it there that would be one thing. But the fact that when natural disasters happen we find atheists quick to use moral language.
PS: Of course, and I’ve never denied that we should use moral language.
AB: So where does the oughtness come from? It’s just evolution doing her thing or his thing or their thing.
PS: No, not at all. That would be the naturalistic fallacy and that’s why I said to Justin before, I’m not a naturalist.
No, it’s that we can understand as rational beings that gratuitous suffering is a bad thing and that for beings to experience joy and pleasure and happiness is a good thing. And moral language follows from that. So, I don’t think there is any problem for an atheist in using moral language.
And I think that the problem of suffering is therefore uniquely a problem for those who believe in a God who has these three attributes of omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence or goodness.
AB: Well, let me bring back the issue of not being a problem, Peter, you wrote – sorry, I’m just digging into my iPad because I wanted to read you something – you said, ‘far from justifying principles that are shown to be natural, a biological explanation can be a way of debunking what seemed to be eternal moral axioms. When a widely accepted moral principle is given a convincing biological explanation, we need to think again about whether we should accept the principle’.
PS: Yes, that’s right. Debunking explanation, that means that we don’t support the value that we might hold because it helped us to survive and reproduce. The fact that a value helped us to survive and reproduce doesn’t prove that it’s false but should lead us to a certain scepticism.
AB: Exactly. And in the same way that our distinctive reaction to when we see suffering in nature as a terrible thing, we could debunk the same thing. In fact, A J Ayers I think it was famously said, ‘the debunker should be forced to wave his own debunking sword over his own cherished beliefs in public’. And so I think actually evolution, when you apply it that way, becomes a universal acid.
PS: I don’t think it does. And I’ve argued, in fact, in a book called ‘The Point of View of the Universe’ that the idea of universal benevolence, the idea that – as the late nineteenth century utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick said, from the point of view of the universe, the interests of each being count the same if they are similar sorts of interests.
That’s something that you cannot explain in evolutionary terms, why we should hold that belief because it actually would be more advantageous to our survival reproduction if we said, no, beings who are not any kin of mine or not in a reciprocal relationship with me their interests don’t count. And, of course, a lot of people do actually act on that and it’s not surprising given that we are evolved beings who descended from ancestors who succeeded in reproducing. It’s not surprising that we should have tendencies to act on that.
When you refer to the idea of human nature as being broken I think it’s simply something that we can understand in evolutionary terms, why we do not act with universal benevolence to all. But as rational beings I think we can see that that would be the right way to act. So I think that that’s an ethical principle that is not debunked by evolutionary explanations.
AB: See, I’m less sure. It was interesting you mentioned there in your last commentary of evolution there, you mentioned Tom Nagel early on and my other favourite iconoclastic philosophers is an Australian, well, was an Australian, the late David Stove who wrote a wonderful book called, ‘Darwinian Fairy Tales’, really doing a fantastic job of debunking attempts to use evolution to get us any form of ethics. Although he has nice little language he uses there that we continually, people who want to wed their belief system purely in evolution, continually keep applying patches to the theory to try to come up with why human beings are altruistic. Because of course human beings seem to use altruism everywhere. On the other hand you are criticising human beings for not displaying care equally to all. But actually we have invented all kinds of ways of helping people who are not biologically connected to us and if you are an evolutionary socio-biologist like E. O Wilson that causes you a tremendous headache.
But one thing I think is interesting I would like to pick you up on is a comment I made earlier about ethics and morality existing within relationships. And I think, of course, particularly where they exist is within familial relationships. So I think you’ve argued in several places that in theory there’s no necessarily good moral reason for if there is a house on fire and you could rescue your biological offspring or rescue someone else’s offspring why you should pick your own child. But you admitted elsewhere that in the case of your daughters, if there was a house fire you would probably grab those who were your kith and kin and not the others.
PS: I’m sure I would because I’m also a human who is descended from others who have evolved to have these strong feelings…
AB: My question is, I’m not necessarily convinced that’s a bad thing because one of the things I think we’ve been dancing around a little bit in this whole discussion is if you look at classical ethical theory, if you take this back to Aristotle and the such like, we get into the issues that ethics is about character. In fact, ethics comes from the Greek word ‘ethos’ that means ‘character’. And for Aristotle and many others the key question will be, ‘how do we build citizens and human beings who have a certain kind of character’?
And it was interesting, I was commenting to Justin over lunch actually that both your earlier preference based utilitarianism and now the hedonistic utilitarianism that you would say is your framework and the idea of promoting good and avoiding pain – I was sitting there thinking about this last night while feeding my son banana and peanut butter, we believe in good nutritious stuff… he rejected the salad, this was the only thing we could get Christopher to eat at half past six last night – but it suddenly occurred to me that in the context of my parenting relationship with my three year old, sure, yea, avoiding pain is certainly part of it. I shouldn’t clobber him around the head with a frying pan when he puts his Lego bricks on the floor.
AB: But on the other hand that is a remarkably thin ethic because most of my parenting relationship with my son and my daughter is around how do I form them to be persons of character. How do I shape them and mould them more so at first and as they get older to hold the reins less tightly because success looks like, for me, not a child who is happy- though that is a good plan B or C – but a child who is good, a child who is noble, a child who is brave, a child who is self-sacrificial, all that long list which would come under what the ancients called ‘character’.
And I think one of my slight concerns with this whole kind of discussion is that we abstract ethics into this zero sum game of adding up happiness points versus negative points and the idea we should all be treating everybody absolutely equally irrespective of our relationship to them ignores those kind of familial settings, ignores the duty that we have to siblings, to spouses who we’ve made commitments and so on and so forth. Ethics can’t be abstracted from close relationships and from character.
JB: Would you agree with that, Peter?
PS: I agree with a great deal of that, yes. I certainly think we ought to bring up our children to have a good character, a good moral character in various ways and not just to be happy in themselves, if you like, selfishly happy. And I think it’s also possible that in fact bringing them up to have a good moral character is a good way for them to be happy and fulfilled and there is psychological research which shows that.
But I think the broader utilitarian framework that I hold can accommodate that because we don’t simply want to try to bring up everyone to be completely impartial between their own children and those of the children of strangers because, in fact, we know that in order to have children who have good lives and are psychologically well adjusted, bringing them up in a close and loving family relationship is the best way to do it. Of course there have been various experiments over the centuries to try to bring them up in a more abstract or communal way and it seems they don’t work particularly well so they don’t suit our nature.
So, as utilitarians, we can actually encourage people to be the kind of loving father you obviously are and to try to bring up your child to have a good moral character. And I think that’s compatible with the broader utilitarian ideal of wanting people to be well adjusted and live in a good society.
JB: I often come across people though who are worried, philosophically, of where a strict utilitarian ethic leads you. And so, for instance, I know some of the things that people have objected to in terms of the points you made on this I think you once wrote regarding a utilitarian argument for euthanising disabled children: ‘When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life. The total amount of happiness would be greater if the disabled infant was killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second’.
And I think a lot of people look at that and think, well that makes sense in a utilitarian framework but it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel like we should be killing off a child A because child B that would replace it would be happier potentially.
PS: Right. The statement that you read doesn’t say that we should kill off a child it says the total amount of happiness would be greater which is not in itself a value judgement and it’s in the context of a discussion about two different views, both utilitarian, one of which is a view that says, to maximise the total amount, including the happiness that would be experienced by beings who we would bring into the world who would not otherwise exist, as against what I call – and you’re quoting from ‘Practical Ethics’, one of my books – what I call the prior existence view which says we ought to focus on maximising the happiness of those beings who either already do exist or will exist independently of anything we do.
So in saying the total happiness would be greater I’m not necessarily saying that’s the right thing to do. I’m saying that’s what’s implied by this total view of happiness. And I’m leaving it open at least to that point as to whether that’s the view we ought to follow or the one that is concerned with…
JB: Are you in a sense though open to that idea that people might…
PS: I’m open to the idea that, yes, in considering whether it’s better on the whole that a being without good prospect of a happy or worthwhile life, whether that being should live or die, in considering that question it’s relevant to ask, if this child dies will there be another child who is brought into existence who would have a good and rich and fulfilling life and who would not have if that other child had not died.
JB: I think this is where often the disability advocates have a problem though, isn’t it, Peter, inasmuch as they say, well who are you to judge the value of the life that the disabled child over against an able-bodied child because that’s perhaps too simplistic a way of understanding…
PS: Well, of course, there are many factors and it would depend… i mean, it’s not simply of any disability that’s true. But there might be some of whom I think you clearly could say a child who has a condition, for example, called epidermolysis bullosa which is one where the skin keeps breaking and it’s impossible really to stop the skin breaking and wounds developing and infections developing and if you try and bandage it and then you change the bandages you just pull off more skin. And in very severe cases that’s a life of misery and suffering and a child will die predictably within months or a couple of years. So I think it is possible to say objectively really that that is not a good life that it’s better if that child when they were born or if they are born they die swiftly and humanely rather than we try to prolong their life.
JB: Where do you stand on this then because I take it that for you the principle of human value is broader than simply whether that child will or won’t experience a certain degree of pain in their life?
AB: There’s a whole number of things going on here; I think firstly I think we need to very careful. I don’t like wielding slippery slope arguments but there is a slight one here of going how far before we have an issue? To use an analogy, Justin, if you and I were tasked with demolishing a building near here in London and you were my supervisor and you said to me, ‘before we press the button, Andy, your job is to go through this building, all fourteen stories of it, and just check there’s no human beings in there’. And I come back and I report to you, ‘well, I don’t think there are any human beings you can press the button’. Would you press the button and demolish the building based on my, I think there might not be anybody in there? And I think I get a bit worried when we say, well, we think the quality of life is such that here’s a clear-cut case. That’s problem number one.
Secondly, I think another problem with utilitarianism. I mean, it’s been subject – there’s a reason it’s not believed particularly widely – and I think it’s subject to two pretty critical critiques. First is it does tend to absorb the individual into the whole and you start trying to add up the happiness and subtract the suffering. That becomes a huge problem. For example, we might enslave you and put you to work for Peter and Peter’s happiness goes up by a vast amount and your happiness goes down by a little bit less. But I think most people would say we’d wronged you by using you to benefit Peter even if we could somehow zero sum it.
And I think that the other issue that often gets missed in utilitarian discussion is how we measure net happiness anyway. Do we add it up? Do we average it? If we have ten people with ten units of happiness each, well obviously the average amount of happiness per person is ten. Or if we have one person over here, perhaps a utility monster, as the great American philosopher Robert Nozick might put it, one person over here with ninety-one units and everyone else has one, well the average is still the same.
And I think all of those sorts of experiments show that once you start trying to weigh happiness or subtract suffering or all these other kinds of things you hit a problem. And so I think that’s why the founders, those who formed the UDHR did it absolutely brilliant job. It’s not perfect, there are discussions to be had, but grounding it in nature, grounding it in dignity, grounding it in, as philosophers, what we’d call ontology, is a much more secure founding than subjective statements of, well I think that person’s life is…
JB: So, I mean, you obviously ground in a sense the value of a life in the ability of that life to have preferences, to be able to reason, the happiness and so on that is potential within that life.
Andy appears is saying, well those are measures but they may mislead us and in fact there’s something intrinsically about a human life, even if it might be one which on your scale doesn’t necessarily seem to have prospects of happiness and so on.
What’s the problem you have with Andy’s view?
PS: There are a number of problems. One is; why would you think that this intrinsic value, again, exists only in members of the species homo sapien? When it comes to dogs, for example, if you have a dog who is getting old and ill or has some condition that the vet says the dog will not recover from, we all think that at some point we ought to make the decision to take the dog to the vet and say, ‘look, I think enough is enough would you please humanely end the life of my dog’? And that’s a tough decision to make and people will agonise over whether they’ve made it at the right time or not, but we recognise that it’s better to make that decision than to allow the dog to continue to suffer, at least at some point.
Now, if that’s true of dogs, why is it not true of infants with conditions where they are also going to suffer considerably and where we have to make a decision one way or the other? I mean, it’s not as if you can say – as you could in the case of the fourteen story building – you could say, ‘look, let’s not demolish this building now, I’m not sure, let’s get someone more careful than Andrew is to go through the building and really make sure there is nobody in that building’. Whereas in the case of a suffering child or a suffering dog to just say, well, let’s not take the dog to the vet is effectively to make a decision that at least today the dog will suffer for another day even if we change our mind tomorrow. And the same would be true or course of a child in that situation.
JB: I think that is a good question, Andy, why do we treat our animals differently to the way we tend to treat humans? Are we simply talking about the same kind of thing it’s just about minimising suffering at the end of the day?
AB: I think no, in a nutshell. I think we have a duty of care to animals very much so and I think for me that flows out of who we are as human beings. So, you know, Peter’s story of the dog, I mean, I identify very much. I remember we had to have our first cat put down because he was very, very ill and that was an emotional moment, that cat was very dear to us. But it was also a cat and my relationship with the cat was different to my relationship to my wife. But I think that flows out of who we are as human beings.
And look; one thing I think we’ve been dancing around a bit for me in some of this discussion, we’ve mentioned his name a couple of times, Aristotle, the Greek philosopher famously said, in terms of explaining anything, what the cause of anything is, there are four causes, whether we are talking about a table or a human being; there is the formal cause, that is metaphysical, let’s put that to one side. The material cause; what you are made out of. The efficient cause; how you came to be. Birds and bees and those kind of things, if you need to know, Justin, Peter and I will talk to you afterwards. But then the most interesting one which really I think comes to bear on this conversation is what he called the final cause; what something is made for.
And I think this is interesting because, as Michael Sandel, the famous Harvard ethicist put it, we can’t really have these conversations without actually ascertaining what a good life looks like and actually what the good society looks like. And it was interesting, the book that Peter is famous for – Peter is famous for many books, he puts people like me who have published three into the shade – but I mean, ‘Practical Ethics’, I read that again yesterday because it had been some years since I read it, and it occurred to me reading it, it was a wonderful book, but there was also for me a gaping hole. And the gaping hole, perhaps again I’ll illustrate with a thought experiment: I got back to Dundee this evening and on the way back I visited the airport bookstore and I burst into my house in Dundee and said to my wife, honey, we are going to the beach at the weekend because I just bought practical canoeing and it’s a book that tells you how to make canoes and sail canoes and I drag the family off there even though it’s raining in Scotland (it never rains in Scotland.) And I load the kids and the wife into the canoe and off we go paddling out to the North Sea and I explain all the wonderful features of my canoe, how practical it is. And at some point my wife will probably look at me and say, Andy, honey, where are we going? What’s the destination? And I’ll go, don’t ask foolish questions, can you not see how wonderfully constructed the canoe is? I confess that was slightly in my take away from Practical Ethics and some of this discussion I think unless we know where we are going, what it is…
PS: But you do assume, and Aristotle certainly assumed that there is a final purpose, right? That the universe has a purpose. And that. I think, is an unscientific view. I think if we understand a scientific view of the universe; it exists, life has evolved on this planet, it is evolved to the point at which there are sentient beings, beings with consciousness, beings also capable of making choices.
But there is no ultimate end of the universe and it’s a mistake to ask that question about life in general. We can ask what are your purposes and what are my purposes because we are purposive beings. And we can decide, as we’ve been saying, what are good things to do and what are bad things to do. But I think there isn’t a final end in terms of humans somehow all having some end which gives them some special moral purpose…
JB: How do we decide then? How do we decide on what we are here for?
PS: Well, we are not here for anything as much except the ends that we ourselves choose to have.
JB: I suppose though then how do we decide between the person who decides their best end is to live selfishly, get the most amount of money and play golf until they die and the person who gives their life away for the poor and the needy and so on. Is there a way of deciding which of those is the way we should live or is it simply ultimately down to…
PS: The way we should live as an ethical question is not only to think of ourselves but also to think of others and helping the poor is obviously an important part of…
JB: But that sounds like there is a purpose then?
PS: No, it’s not a purpose. It’s that some things…. Put it this way, I would say that some states of the universe would be better than other states of the universe. So a state of the universe in which everybody suffers agony, every sentient being is in agony for its entire existence and then dies is a worse state of the universe than a state of the universe where every sentient being is enjoying its life for its entire existence and dies. But that doesn’t mean that the universe has purpose or that it’s somehow the purpose of the universe that beings should not suffer and should enjoy their lives.
AB: I think back to the bubble on the wallpaper again. I think what’s interesting – Justin, I think you asked Peter a good question here – I think it depends what you decide the goal is. The moment you say that something is better, for example, that becomes the question better as to what?
For example, if you could see a pile of wood in my back yard and I say, ‘oh I spent all day making that pile, it was better than my last three attempts’. Well, it’s probably important to know was I trying to build. A bonfire for Guy Fawkes day, I want something that I can put a Guy on top of my kids’ bonfire party or if I’m trying to build my kids a Wendy House. It’s probably important to know what better is with regard to.
PS: You’re purposive is being and you have purposes and judgement of what wood pile would be affected by that.
AB: Exactly, but the problem is though, Peter, in this discussion we’re not just weighing purposes within someone’s purposes. If you decide the purpose of your life is to help as many of the poor as possible then we can weigh your decisions in the light of that and decide, okay, is Peter living his life in such a way as to bring about the nearest to that possible goal? Or if someone decides they are going to spend their life playing soccer we could do the same thing; how are they achieving that goal?
But in terms of weighing two people’s choices – and, actually, I thought you came close to this in ‘Practical Ethics’ where you sort of used the stamp collecting example of saying, well, ultimately someone who chooses stamp collecting or playing football versus somebody who chooses something that a person, in your mind, would be more noble, we can’t really weigh between them. You really do have to come back to preferences.
PS: No, I don’t say that. I do think if we are making an ethical question we can weigh between them. The choice that leads to more beings enjoying their lives and suffering less is the better choice. And that’s probably not going to be stamp collecting.
AB: But then I would put the question back to you; better according to what?
PS: Well, we’ve been to this through this.
AB: I don’t think we have.
PS: Better according to those values which, as rational beings, we can understand the correct values. As we said before, I do think that there are values that exist that are objective in the world and we can see what those values are, there’s room for dispute, there’s room for disagreement about them but as we said before I think there are correct decisions and incorrect decisions in terms of what really is a good value and what isn’t. And that’s how we ought to judge the… as I said, if we are thinking ethically that’s how we ought to judge the various life choices that we make.
AB: Would you say – and I confess this is slightly a leading question – would you say that perhaps the test of a practical ethic is how it plays out in the real world and we take that out of the classroom and we actually try and live it out?
AB: And then, conversely, how we live our lives here reflects our ethic? The reason I ask that is Justin raised, obviously some of the things that you have said have caused controversy and we’ve talked about that, but one of the things that intrigued me the most as I read a bit more around you, I confess, two of your books in particular but not a lot of your background was – and forgive me for raising this example, I don’t mean to cause any offence – but the story of what happened with your mother a few years ago. When your mother contracted Alzheimer’s and eventually lost her sense of who she was. And as I understand it had made some requests about the way she wanted to be treated towards the end of her life. But you and your sister I understand…
PS: No, that’s not true that we didn’t follow her requests. I accept in far as I wouldn’t have been legal for us or any doctor to carry out euthanasia.
AB: Okay. But my point being is, towards the end of her life, she is, by the definitions that you’ve used for disability, is effectively moving into non-personhood. But you spent a lot of money on her personal care. And I remember there was an interview with a journalist that really struck me when you said, I quote, “I guess things are different when it comes to your mum.”
PS: I think that is somewhat of a misleading statement. I felt the… certainly, obviously, you feel strongly as you felt the decision to put down your cat very differently from, I don’t know whether you eat animals at all, but whether you might have felt the decision to kill a pig or a cow. So, yes, you feel them differently, but I…
AB: I’m just struck by that. I just wonder when you take that sort of cold, almost sort of Spock-like utilitarian ethic and it becomes a very close, very personal, very difficult, I appreciate it is a very difficult family situation. But actually that’s where the tension is felt and that actually there’s almost that realisation of maybe this ethic doesn’t quite work in the real world and therefore that real world, very personal, very difficult, very complex situation as one of your reviewers pointed out, did it take that for after thirty years of taking ethics for you to perhaps just realise that maybe some of these ethical decisions are slightly more complicated?
PS: No, I think I knew that they were complicated. Of course, we don’t control all the factors in the world and as I said, one of the factors was that euthanasia in Australia was not legal for somebody in my mother’s situation. There is no doubt that my mother had said that she would not want to live in the state that she got to and that if euthanasia had been legal she would have no doubt previously signed a request. She was a paid out member of the voluntary euthanasia society of Victoria and we would have, my sister and I, would have asked the doctor to carry out her request. But given that it was not legal and we did not want to put ourselves in a situation of breaking the law we did want to make her comfortable. We wanted to not to allow her to suffer.
AB: Even though maybe the greater good you could have taken a certain action.
PS: The money that we spent on her could have done more good elsewhere, I accept that.
AB: I was thinking more actually you could have helped her out the door and face the legal consequences?
PS: When it came to a point at which she developed pneumonia and then we talked to the doctor and the doctor was prepared to not treat that so that she didn’t live as long as she might have lived if she had been treated with all possible medical technologies to keep her alive as long as possible. So it’s not that we didn’t take any steps to say, yes, this is not a life that’s really worth living anymore.
JB: All of this simply brings me back to you are, like all of us, trying to do the best that you can in the world that we live in.
PS: I hope so.
JB: That in a sense you are guided by the principles, as far as you can be, that you’ve espoused in your books and in the philosophy you’ve developed, Peter.
What’s been fascinating to me in this conversation is that, as an atheist, you’ve said there is a way we should be living, there is an objective realm of moral values and duties that we are all beholden to. So we aren’t simply choosing whether to spend our life in idleness or whether to help the poor. One of those options is a better option, is the option we should be pursuing in life, even though that’s developed purely in a random, purposeless universe, there is nonetheless this purposeful aspect to the universe that’s baked in at some level to it.
PS: Well, it’s not a purpose but if you like you could say there are values that exist independently of our choosing them, I’d be prepared to say that. Just as you might say that the mathematical theorems might be true or false in the universe.
JB: I know that you have a problem with saying that God grounds those types of values and duties. Obviously Andy believes that is a good explanation for where those come from and why we should abide by them.
But do they strike you as mysterious that this realm exists and that we happen, as an evolved species, to have grasped on to that and we’ve evolved in tandem with this other moral realm that exists? For me, is it not something about that that might suggest there’s something going on? Evolution has taken us to the point where we can adopt this moral framework and this is the reason that we’re here, if you like, almost?
PS: Well, evolution has brought us to the point where we are capable of reasoning and thinking and reflecting on the nature of the universe. But when you said that’s why we’re here, no, I don’t see any reason for thinking that this is why we’re here or that we’re here for some purpose.
Again, I would go back to the point I made; it seems to me very hard to believe that a God, particularly a God like the Christian God, would have gone through this incredibly long, evolutionary path and the immense amount of suffering that process has brought in its’ wake, in order to achieve this state where we can grasp what values are good and what are bad.
JB: As we start to wrap this up I wonder if you have got any comments on the fact that Peter does obviously believe there is a realm of objective moral values and duties that we are beholden to but obviously feels that that is just something that we happen to have come to a point in our un-purposed evolution that we’re able to access.
AB: Yea, I think in a sense, the question you put to Peter was a good one, as I think the conundrum that poses is exactly as you described; first is where is it located? And what is it about suddenly the point that we’ve arrived on an evolutionary scale, if that’s the way we got here evolution, and evolution is the only game in town. As Professor Dawkins once memorably put it, suddenly one of our ancestors woke up to find not just merely the law of gravitation but the law of loving thy neighbour suddenly applied and was their reaction, ‘wonderful, I’m now a moral agent’ or ‘bummer, I now can’t bump the primate next door over the head with a club’. So I think that is an interesting one.
And I think, one of the things I’m always very interested to explore – and we don’t have time to go into this now really, but I think all of these discussions raise this, right – is to go, I always want to believe, hold to the virtue of epistemic humility, of realising Christians do not have all of the answers tied up with a neat bow on the top. Anyone who tells you they do isn’t thinking. Nor do atheists have all of the neat answers tied up with a bow on top. All we do is place the evidence on the table and ask which best explains the range of evidence that we have even if there are things that we wrestle with and pick up and find where that piece goes. And I actually think, ultimately, the reason I am a Christian is I think the fact that there is this objective morality outside of ours isn’t the only piece of evidence on the table, but it’s one that if I were an atheist I would find very hard to fit into there.
And I bring that into play with other things. For example, it’s interesting that you quoted Thomas Nagel to this end. Tom wrote – Tom is an atheist philosopher for listeners who haven’t come across him – wrote a very heavily commented on book recently called, ‘Mind and Cosmos: Why the Naturalistic View of Reality is Almost Certainly Wrong’, and he puts forward moral values that Peter’s pointed to.
He also puts forward consciousness which is interesting. And also in interviews as well I believe I’ve seen, he talks about freedom. And you see this is an interesting one and this one of the conversations I wish we had time to pursue actually. Because underpinning all of this is this assumption that we can be free to choose morally. But, of course, if we are just governed, not just by the forces of evolution, but by the blind forces of physics and chemistry and biology and so forth, are we actually free? And again I wish I had time to explore this, Peter, when I read your account in that latest edition of ‘Practical Ethics’ about what happened to you in Germany, one of the little marginal notes I wrote is actually is Peter’s ultimate value freedom that you believe in? Because you made this impassioned plea for academic freedom but maybe academic freedom actually doesn’t serve the common good? And, of course, unless we are free we can’t choose what we do with this realm of objective morality and so forth. So freedom and consciousness and all these other things all go to discuss on the table.
JB: We won’t have time to dig into it but freedom, consciousness, I mean, there are a range of things which seem incredibly important to us and which some people, including Andy, feel don’t fit well with a naturalistic understanding of the universe. I mean, do you just find that the problem is God isn’t a satisfactory explanation for any of those either so you’ll stick with your atheism even if there are some…
PS: That would be the short answer, yes. I think God is a less satisfactory explanation than the kinds of accounts that I’ve given. But I do agree with your view that neither of us, or anyone in the world for that matter, has everything neatly wrapped up with a pink bow and there are interesting philosophical questions to pursue and that’s good thing as a professional philosopher I’m glad that we haven’t just said, finished, okay, we’ll all go and do something else.
So, certainly there are good questions to continue to discuss and I think Tom Nagel’s interesting book, ‘Minor Cosmos’ does discuss those questions and there are things that perhaps don’t fit with, when Tom says a naturalistic view of the universe he is not saying that the alternative there is necessarily a theistic view of the universe he’s rather saying, perhaps as I’ve been saying, that there may be a realm of reality that is not open to scientific exploration and this realm of reality might be things like ethics, ethical values and might be things like the nature of consciousness and Tom thinks freedom I’m not sure I agree with him in terms of freedom as opposed to determinism but it’s possible and there are things that we don’t understand fully in that respect and so those remain open questions as to how we can best understand them.
AB: I’m intrigued that one of my – as a Christian you wouldn’t be surprised – one of my philosophical heroes is C S Lewis and just to be cheeky of course it’s interesting that Lewis was an atheist for thirty years of his life before beginning the journey that led him back to Christianity. Well, of course, the first step on that journey was from atheism to idealism; which is the idea that basically material and physical things are not the only things that exist there is also the realm of abstract whatevers. And then he slid from idealism to deism, deism to theism, and theism to Christianity. But he said the biggest jump was that one from atheism to idealism. So I’m going to cheekily say that you are halfway there, Peter, come on over!
PS: I noticed you used the verb ‘slid’ which is not necessarily a desirable form of progress so I’ll stop sliding I think at that point.
AB: Well played, sir. Well played.
JB: It’s been fabulous having you both on the programme today. Perhaps just as we end we can just have your short answer to the final question that I’m going to put to you both which simply is; tell us, from your point of view, Peter, where do we find the value of human beings? Where is that, what is it exactly? What’s it grounded in, for you?
PS: To me, the value of human beings as with the value of many non-human animals, consists in our capacity to have conscious experiences, to have minds, to suffer, to enjoy things, and to find things favourable to us and find things unfavourable.
JB: And finally, Andy, where do you believe the value of human beings comes from?
AB: I come back to the idea that it’s in human nature. That as the bible says, God created human beings in his image which means it doesn’t matter what your capacities are, it doesn’t matter what your race is, it doesn’t matter what your gender is, any of those things, that you bear that value and that dignity and everything else flows from there including, as I’ve said time and time again which is hugely important to me as it is to Peter, how we treat the other non-human creation. I have a duty that comes from to the rest of the non-human world that God has made which I can also of course see as a gift from the same God who made me.
JB: Andy, Peter, thank you both for being on the programme today.
PS: Thank you Justin and thank you, Andy, it’s been a pleasure to talking.
AB: Likewise, thank you for coming all this way and Justin, thanks for having us both.