An Excellent Public Philosopher


“Philosophy always causes offense—perhaps it should cause offense,” says philosopher Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, in a recent interview, below.

Singer is one of the world’s most well-known living philosophers. Some philosophers are clearly bothered by Singer’s renown, in part because he holds philosophical views that many philosophers disagree with. But, of course, that is something he has in common with every other philosopher.

I think that Singer makes for an excellent famous public philosopher.

His underlying moral view is not particularly complicated, so lay people can relatively easily see how he arrives at his views about practical matters in ethics and politics.

His views are in some ways highly revisionist (of “commonsense morality”) and provocative; he has stimulated people to change their minds about moral matters (e.g., altruism and animal welfare), demonstrating one power of philosophy, and has stimulated other people to develop their positions and formulate them more carefully so as to better disagree with him (e.g., on the matters related to disabled people), demonstrating another power of philosophy.

He has also been criticized for being insufficiently revisionist (e.g, complacency with status quo political and economic institutions), and these complaints have received some additional attention in part because they’ve been directed at someone so well-known, and this helps enrich public debate, too.

Though he has received both harsh criticism from his colleagues in the philosophy profession and has been vilified and threatened by certain segments of the public, he has persisted, sharing his ideas with broad audiences, calmly discussing his views in academic and non-academic settings, continuing to engage in philosophical disputes, following what he takes to be the best arguments to their conclusions, no matter how unpopular.

Singer has done well for himself, professionally, too, which is also a good sign. Even if we grant that he likely benefited from being a member of privileged demographic categories, radicalism (if you’re tempted to scoff at the label it’s because you’re failing to appreciate just how much has changed over the past, say, 40 years) did not hinder his success. It’s impossible to determine how many of the careers of others with unpopular philosophical views, and how many efforts at publicizing those views, were directly or indirectly helped along by the widely known example of Singer’s success, but I would guess the number is not small.

For these and other reasons, I think we should appreciate Singer’s work as a public philosopher even if—perhaps especially if—we disagree with him.

(video courtesy of Katrien Devolder)

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SG
SG
4 years ago

“Some philosophers are clearly bothered by Singer’s renown, in part because he holds philosophical views that many philosophers disagree with”

I think you meant to say that some philosophers are bothered by Singer’s renown because of his abhorrent moral views – it’s not simply that his views are disagreeable.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
Reply to  SG
4 years ago

Shouldn’t people be used to moral philosophers with “abhorrent” moral views? Isn’t that most everyone that disagrees with you? Unless moral philosophy is just the post-hoc justification of whatever morality happens to be the social norm among philosophers and academics, I guess.Report

SG
SG
Reply to  Urstoff
4 years ago

Having a different view of morality does not necessarily entail having abhorrent moral views.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
Reply to  SG
4 years ago

When does a moral belief you disagree with become abhorrent?Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Urstoff
4 years ago

I assume that it must at least have some substantive component rather than being primarily metaethical. I would be surprised if anyone said that consequentialism or deontology were abhorrent apart from individual applications these views are said to have, or even more so if someone said that quasi-realism or non-naturalism or expressivism were abhorrent.Report

Jason Brennan
Reply to  SG
4 years ago
SG
SG
Reply to  Jason Brennan
4 years ago

If this was directed at me, then it is misdirected: I have no problem with him advocating offensive moral positions. It just so happens that many of his moral positions happen to be abhorrent.Report

John Turri
4 years ago

Very well said, Justin. Agreed on all points. Peter Singer deserves our appreciation.Report

Contra Singer
Contra Singer
4 years ago

There is no question he has been an important public philosopher whose work has contributed a lot to public issues.

But many people’s reason for thinking of him less than favourably has less to do with disagreement with his views and more to do with the fact that he fails to take into account relevant evidence and arguments from the disability community which might influence his views, if he would actually engage with that evidence and those arguments. But he doesn’t.

So the problem is not that some of his views are *offensive*–that is rarely, if ever, a salient fact that might speak against a view–but that his philosophical position argues for conclusions which speak to the moral standing of *actual people*, people whom he apparently doesn’t wish to learn much about, despite many years of folks pointing out to him that this is something he should think about.

But one can’t help but think that it seems that his moral theory is more important to him than some people’s lives. If only he cared about them as much as he does about animals.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Contra Singer
4 years ago

Can you say something more about specific evidence and arguments that Singer should be responding do but hasn’t been?Report

Suzy Killmister
Suzy Killmister
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

A good source is Eva Feder Kittay’s paper ‘The Personal is Philosophical is Political’, in Metaphilosophy (2009). She outlines a number of arguments Singer has made that depend upon mischaracterising the lives of people with cognitive disabilities. (I don’t know whether he’s since responded.)Report

Nick Smyth
Nick Smyth
4 years ago

“His underlying moral view is not particularly complicated, so lay people can relatively easily see how he arrives at his views about practical matters in ethics and politics.”

I’m not sure about this. We have to remember that his view is actually esoteric, or *opposed* to ideals of publicity. He believes that “There are at least two different sets of instruction, or moral codes, suitable for different categories of people”, that “It is at least possible that in order to achieve better results we have to keep the consequentialist aim itself secret,” and that “it may be the case that philosophers who support esoteric morality should not do so openly, and so should not even discuss—as we are about to do— possible justifications for esoteric morality.” (2014) Thus, many of his publicly offered proposals (“to keep to a publicly known set of rules, to be truthful, to improve their character”) are justified by theoretical mechanisms which are actually meant to remain private.

Esoteric utilitarianism seems to be opposed, at a very fundamental level, to the ideal of a the publicly engaged philosopher.Report

Bharath Vallabha
4 years ago

What marks the difference between an offence that philosophy “should” cause from an offence that is morally repugnant? If I feel offended by a view someone puts forward, how can I tell whether that view is philosophical (and so I should be open to it) or if that view is racist/sexist/ableist/etc. (and so I shouldn’t be open to it)?

The interviewer in the video asks this of Singer half way through, and his answer seems hand wavy at best, smug at worst (as if to suggest of course his offending views are philosophical). But without some sense for how to distinguish mind-expanding offensivenss (the good kind) from repugnant offensiveness (the bad kind), Singer’s remarks sound, to me at least, mainly defensive rather than illuminating.

This is unfortunate, especially in the context of what is good public philosophy. Nowadays public discourse seems threatened by two extremes: those who treat any offence as good (and so use that as cover for repugnant views) and those who treat any offence as bad (and so want to police how people talk). One hard public philosophy question is: how to navigate between these extremes?

I might not be aware of it, but has Singer said anything interesting about this?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
4 years ago

It seems to me that someone can be both making a philosophical contribution and be arriving at a morally repugnant conclusion. In most philosophical fields, philosophers arrive at wildly different conclusions all the time. It would be strange if moral and political philosophy were any different. So, while one might criticize a public philosopher for shoddy arguments or for failing to take objections into account, I don’t see that having repugnant moral beliefs as a flaw in them as a public philosopher. The job of a public philospher is not, in my view, to teach good moral values, but to help the public think issues through for themselves, carefully considering the various sides of the issue.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

We are probably using “morally repugnant” in different ways. I meant it as a view that is horrible in the sense of not open for discussion, and where it is justified for someone to say, “We can talk about it, but I am not changing my mind.” For example, the view that people of the formerly untouchable class in HInduism are inferior as people to Brahmins. I think this is false. If I have nothing better to do or if it might have some benefit, I am open to having a discussion about why this view is false. But it wouldn’t be a philosophical discussion in the sense of where I am entering it with the idea that I might change my mind and accept that Brahmins are superior to others. I wouldn’t have a public discussion about this “carefully considering the various sides of this issue.” There is nothing to carefully consider about why Brahmins might in fact be superior to others.

This doesn’t mean public philosophy is about teaching moral values. If someone thinks Brahmins are superior, I wouldn’t try to teach them they are wrong. If I can talk to them, I would start someplace else, where we can have a philosophical conversation – one where I and the other person are open to changing our minds. Finding such places is also a skill, one worth cultivating.Report

Alan White
Alan White
4 years ago

I take Singer seriously for the same reason I take Kant seriously–they both realize that unless one posits a commitment to the concept of intrinsic good(s) of some set of individuals enclosed in a moral sphere, morality is bound to wander in directions of relativism/subjectivism or authoritarianism (whether religious or even contractarian). They just part ways on what counts as intrinsic good–Singer emphasizing empirically self-evidential hedonistic features of diverse kinds of beings (many non-humans as lacking rationality), or Kant the rational nature of some beings like himself as more abstractly non-self-evidently (unless anthropocentricism is self-evident) the pinnacle of value. Given those values, they both just work things out pretty logically.

I’d also point out that Kant’s account of intrinsic good–people–hardly needs vigorous public philosophical defense, due to its “intuitive” nature. But Singer’s seeing us as participating in the same kind of serious moral good as the creatures we exploit and consume on the other hand is heavy lifting indeed. May Singer be wrong? Of course–but he stands in the best tradition of an excellent public philosopher by any logical measure.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

Justin, Robert George checks off all the marks you’ve just listed as praiseworthy traits of Peter Singer. He is radical and provocative; he has changed people’s minds; he behaves respectfully toward others; and there are thoughtful arguments that his views are prejudiced in a morally objectionable way. But somehow I don’t expect to see you write an extended panegyric on the virtues of Dr. George. I wonder why.

Oh, yeah, I remember. It’s permissible in philosophical circles to say things that might be offensive to disabled people, but not things that might be offensive to gay people. Got it.Report

E
E
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

Who?Report

An Ethicist
An Ethicist
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

Those qualities are not sufficient to make someone a good public philosopher. One also has to make arguments that have intellectual merit.

Robert George’s arguments against same sex marriage do not have intellectual merit. They are transparently unsound. Slate might have been correct to say that George had “the best argument against gay marriage,” but that’s only because the other arguments against gay marriage are even worse.

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2010/12/the_best_argument_against_gay_marriage.htmlReport

Andrew Gleeson
Andrew Gleeson
Reply to  An Ethicist
4 years ago

It is not enough to meet Arthur Greeves’ point to contend that George’s arguments are poor. Even if this is so, the same is (arguably of course) true of Singer’s arguments. We can hardly debate his arguments here. But anyone interested might begin by looking at Cora Diamond’s ‘Eating Meat and Eating People’ (in her book The Realistic Spirit) , her ‘The Importance of Being Human’ (in David Cockburn (ed) Human Beings), as well as Anne Maclean’s book The Elimination of Morality: Utilitarianism and Bioethics. Oh, and Christopher Cordner ‘Life and Death Matters: Losing a Sense of the Value of Human Beings’ in Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 26 (2005), pp. 207-226.
Some acquaintance with these and other critiques of Singer is essential for anyone wanting to claim that the difference in philosophical quality between Singer and George is so vast (in Singer’s favour) that it can explain why George is persona non grata in much of the profession and Singer is lauded as a paragon of everything a public philosopher should be.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  Andrew Gleeson
4 years ago

I think that both Andrew and Arthur have helped to put into relief a distortion that the video and this post are reproducing: namely, that Singer’s views on disability and disabled people are “controversial” and hence, reviled in the profession. This distortion covers over exactly whose views on disability (and disabled people) and which views on disability (and disabled people) are marginalized, discredited, and ignored in philosophy and in bioethics in particular, and why. Singer’s remarks have currency and not primarily because they are “controversial”. Quite the contrary: they are widely accepted as worthy of consideration and even endorsement.

Consider The Stone. The Stone is taken by many to be the venue par excellence for “public philosophy”. Yet, as I’ve written in a number of posts on the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog, critical philosophical work (and work by disabled philosophers) is systematically excluded from The Stone. Only two articles on disability have appeared in The Stone: one by Singer and McMahan (about the Stubblefield verdict and appeal) and the other by Gary Comstock (which appeared this week and makes the case for infanticide of disabled infants). Whose “public” philosophy and which “public” philosophers are actually regarded as “controversial,” not rigorous, fallacious, naive, interested, uninformed, unsound, etc. ?

Disabled philosophers make up about 1-2% of full-time faculty employed in philosophy. Singer, Savulescu, McMahan, Kuhse, Bostrom, Kahane, and Schuklenk all of whom advance (what here passes as) “controversial” views on disability have high-profile, high-paying, and pivotal positions in the profession. By “pivotal,” I mean positions that allow them remarkable access to public and private research funding, policy-makers, media outlets, students and faculty in academia, publishing, etc. etc. Neither Singer nor his colleagues is disadvantaged in any way by the views they advance about disabled people; rather, they have been generously rewarded for them.

Ronald Dworkin, in _Taking Rights Seriously_, asserted that (paraphrasing) equality requires that no one be compelled to accept an argument that would undermine their self-respect. Perhaps those advancing arguments about which philosophers should be appreciated as public philosophers should give Dworkin’s remark additional consideration.Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
4 years ago

Hi Shelley, the New York Times has a whole subsection devoted to disability, with many high quality articles that are often given front page status (on the website). I suppose that some of these pieces could be considered more overtly philosophical than others. https://www.nytimes.com/column/disability?action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=ExtendedByline&region=Header&pgtype=articleReport

An Ethicist
An Ethicist
Reply to  Andrew Gleeson
4 years ago

Singer’s argument in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” unquestionably has intellectual merit. It may not be sound, but it isn’t transparently unsound. If the “weak” form of the argument is unsound, it takes serious intellectual work to see why it is unsound.

I’m not sufficiently familiar with Singer’s arguments about the disabled to assess those arguments. If they lack intellectual merit, there is an interesting question how we should rate a public intellectual who sometimes makes very interesting arguments and sometimes makes very bad arguments.

The only piece of Robert George’s work I know is “What is Marriage?” If this is his best work of public philosophy, he doesn’t deserve a reputation anything like Singer’s. I don’t know his work on topics other than marriage and human sexuality.Report

Andrew Gleeson
Andrew Gleeson
Reply to  An Ethicist
4 years ago

[T]there is an interesting question how we should rate a public intellectual who sometimes makes very interesting arguments and sometimes makes very bad arguments.” Indeed. Let us suppose that Robert George has done some very good work on topics other than same-sex marriage. If that were so it might be conceded that he is smart, but I cannot see him thereby being treated with less disdain and contempt than he is on account of his views on same sex marriage. Richard Swinburne certainly puts forward arguments about the existence of God that have intellectual merit (though I profoundly disagree with him at a very deep level) but this did not do him any good when he stepped out of line about homosexuality. By contrast, Singer’s views on infanticide do him no harm in the profession at all — they even burnish his reputation.
For the record I am not against same-sex marriage. The point is the contrast with Singer. Bear this in mind: if Singer is wrong about the morality of infanticide then he is opening the door to the murder of babies. By any measure this is surely a more grave issue than same-sex marriage (which of course is not to say the latter is unimportant). Yet the insouciance with which his discussion of the issue (not to mention the issue itself) is generally regarded stands in stark contrast to the vehemence directed at philosophical opponents of same-sex marriage.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  An Ethicist
4 years ago

Transparently unsound? So which premise is transparently false, or which logical step is transparently invalid, or which terminology is transparently ambiguous?Report

An Ethicist
An Ethicist
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

1) The paper cites a study by Child Trends for the proposition that children in families headed by two biological parents tend to do better, on various measures, than children of same-sex couples. But the Child Trends study did not look at children of same sex couples or adopted children of opposite sex couples. The comparisons were with single parents, divorced couples, and cohabiting opposite sex couples.

This is like citing a study that compares the effects of aspirin and Tylenol for the proposition that aspirin is better than Advil. It is at best very confused reasoning and at worst dishonest. A well-run peer reviewed journal would have rejected the article on this grounds. (The journal in which the article appeared is a law journal. Law journals are not peer reviewed.)

2) The argument rests on a bizarre metaphysical view, that coitus literally unites two people but other forms of sex do not. No reason is given why the literal union of two people is either possible or desirable. No explanation is given for drawing the line where the authors do. (If coitus that cannot produce children due to infertility nonetheless leads to metaphysical union, why don’t other forms of sex? The authors’ only argument is proof by repeated assertion.)

The article’s comparison between infertile heterosexual couples and baseball teams that always lose is not merely offensive. It shows that the authors do not understand the significance of sex and romantic love in human life.

Only someone already committed to the argument’ s (false) conclusion and desperately searching for a rationalization of it could find this metaphysical nonsense persuasive.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  An Ethicist
4 years ago

Gosh, I’ve never heard of a highly reputed philosopher who cited a questionable scientific study or advanced an unusual metaphysical assumption! All such philosophers are surely run out of the profession or ostracized.

And the four of us remaining repeat tautologies and smugly sip tea.Report

An Ethicist
An Ethicist
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

I wrote my response on my phone and it appeared in the wrong place. See below.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
4 years ago

I’ve mixed feelings about Singer. It seems to me that that being willing to follow one’s reasoning where it may lead even if that leads one to have unpopular views is a virtue, and it’s one that Singer has to a very high degree. But it’s a virtue that has to be balanced with intellectual humility, which is, among other things, an awareness of the fact that one might be wrong and willingness to seriously engage with those who object to one’s views and even modify those views in light of good objections. I don’t think see Singer displaying much of that virtue. As far as I can tell he’s just plowed ahead with the same basic set of ideas he’s had since the 70s and he doesn’t even seem to seriously engage with his critics. Contrast him with say Rawls on this score. Whether you like them or hate them “Political Liberalism” and “The Law of Peoples” were the work of someone who, while remaining committed to the same basic ideas, was willing to take his critics seriously and rework important points of his philosophy in light of what they’d said. I wouldn’t dismiss Singer, but he’s hardly the model of what I think a moral and political philosopher should be. Rawls represents a much better model on that score, and I say this as someone who has some pretty big disagreements with Rawls.
I also want to second Vallabha’s point about offense, and to put it more pointedly. One should be willing to give offense if doing so is necessary to defend what one takes to be important truths. But offending others is hardly a good thing, in fact, it should be obvious that it’s bad, though the badness of giving offense can easily be outweighed by other important considerations like furthering the search for truth or defending important values. Moreover, being offensive is no sign at all that what one is saying is true. When academic philosophers pat themselves on the back for being so willing to give offense in and of itself it sounds like nothing so much as Donald Trump glorying in being so “politically incorrect.” I guess this goes back to my first point. Even if you think someone’s wrong you ought to treat that person with as much respect as you can without compromising your own moral values. Being a jerk sadly seems to be a great strategy for getting attention in both the wider public sphere and in academic philosophy, but that doesn’t make it something to strive for unless one values publicity over just about everything else.Report

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
Reply to  Sam Duncan
4 years ago

I agree that on human level not being a jerk is good advice. But in terms of philosophers, applying ‘intellectual humility’ as an evaluative criterion would kick out a large proportion of the conventional canon – following your arguments even if they bring you into disagreement with your community etc is usually associated with intellectual arrogance if anything…Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Rollo Burgess
4 years ago

I sadly don’t have anything too substantive to say, but I think there’s a balance to be struck here. There are some thinkers who are bad philosophers (if they even merit the term) precisely because they are incredibly confident in their own conclusions and completely lack any intellectual humility. Karl Marx strikes me as the poster boy for philosophers who make that kind of mistake (though again I should probably put “philosopher” in quotes here since I don’t think Marx merits the term). I’ve a bit of a soft spot for Hegel, but I have to admit he’s guilty of it as well. On the other hand if you err on the side of too much intellectual humility you no aren’t going to say anything interesting so I doubt there are many philosophers of any renown who do that. But I do think that there are a good many philosophers who manage to strike a balance between intellectual humility and whatever you want to call following your arguments where they lead. Rawls strikes me as a good example of someone who does that as does Locke. I’m no expert on Aristotle, but he does seem to display that at points, especially in his engagement with Plato’s doctrines.Report

An Ethicist
An Ethicist
4 years ago

There was nothing wrong with the study. George and his co-authors cited the study for a claim it did not make and did not support. Since the claim is about people’s ability to be good parents, it was more than usually important for the authors to make sure that their cited evidence supported their claim.

I don’t think people should be run out of the profession for making unusual metaphysical assumptions. I do think that a paper relying on a really eccentric, undefended assumption can’t be a good example of public philosophy.Report

An Ethicist
An Ethicist
Reply to  An Ethicist
4 years ago

This was re. Robert George. Posted to the wrong part of the thread.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  An Ethicist
4 years ago

You cannot consistently claim that “there was nothing wrong with the study.” Here is a quotation from the study: “Research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps the most is a family headed by two-biological parents in a low-conflict marriage.” Since it is impossible (as of yet, at least) for a same-sex couple to both be biological parents to the same child, the conclusion of the study DOES support George’s view. That is not to say that the methodology of the study supports its conclusion. I’m no expert, but I think your complaints on that count may be sensible.Report

Richard Yetter Chappell
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

Arthur — you need to read an implicit “[amongst those studied]” into the claim that the 2-biological-parent family structure “helps the most”. As they clarify: “Children in single‐parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in step‐families or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes.”

This says nothing about other stable, unbroken families (such as for children adopted at birth by either straight or gay stably married couples).

See also: http://www.philosophyetc.net/2011/05/whats-wrong-with-what-is-marriage.htmlReport

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Richard Yetter Chappell
4 years ago

Richard, “An Ethicist” above has been claiming that George et. al. were massively irresponsible in distorting the results of that study to support their view. Am I to believe that anyone who does not read words that are not in the study is being massively irresponsible? You say we should read them as implied, but the scientists were quite capable of being explicit on this point. And it wouldn’t exactly be a shocking claim if biological parents WERE better than any other combination (nor would it tend to argue against gay marriage).

I think that George et. al. made a mistake on this point, as I’ve said above. I don’t think it was a mistake that proves any of them to be generally poor philosophers.Report

An ethicist
An ethicist
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

(a) Yes, you most certainly should believe that. Any reasonably intelligent person could read the study and see that it provides no support whatever for the proposition George and his co-authors assert. Sometimes quoting one sentence of a study without reading the whole study, to understand the context, is merely lazy. Here it was irresponsible.

There is no reason whatsoever to think that gay couples are inferior parents. To suggest otherwise without hard evidence is disgusting bigotry.

(b) I am not saying anything about George’s overall merits as a philosopher. I am saying that his most famous piece of public philosophy is not good work.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  An ethicist
4 years ago

Are you saying that a person who believed that (likely) outcomes were slightly better with two biological parents, and yet ALSO believed that gay people have a right to marry each other and have kids, would be a bigot?Report

An ethicist
An ethicist
Reply to  An ethicist
4 years ago

If someone believed without evidence that children do slightly better if raised by opposite sex couples, that belief would be a culpably prejudiced belief.

Should the word “bigot” be reserved for stronger prejudices or for prejudice that leads to action (e.g. denying people marriage and adoption rigjts)? Maybe.Report

Joe Zepeda
Joe Zepeda
4 years ago

The whole post, and especially its final line, seems to me to make a very strong and (I think) implausible assumption about philosophy as a profession: i.e., that it has standards of public influence, presence, and prestige that are neutral on the content of one’s substantive views. I understand the desire to articulate such standards – it would be nice for our profession in some ways if there were such things. But I think it’s quite wrong: there are no such standards, at least not across the whole scope of philosophical positions. I can agree that it is good to have someone articulating with clarity and insight what follows from what premises – but why should I be encouraged by or admiring of Singer when he is publicly feted *because* he holds positions like the permissibility of infanticide, etc.? Why should I admire a model of public philosophy that (to my mind) vastly outstrips its capacity to deliver “revisionary” wisdom on the basis of cherry-picked propositions elevated to principles of all morality? Suppose, as is very plausible, that “reflective equilibrium” just isn’t that powerful in giving us a standpoint from which to simplify the ethical landscape and re-cast it into a few controlling categories; suppose that doing so just erases features of real ethical import under cover of theoretical rigor. In that case lauding Singer for his clarity and precision and willingness to “go where the argument leads” is to excuse dehumanization in favor of pseudo-precision. Somehow I don’t find that laudable!

Another criticism: Singer’s public influence largely originated not from his doctrinal positions as a metaethicist, but to the vividness of his portraits of animal mistreatment, etc. Perversely, however, his status as an “expert in ethics” is often inflected with respect for his theoretical acumen, as if he occupies a position of expertise in the ethical realm simply because he chooses certain premises and pumps out conclusions from them – even when that over-theorized approach to the ethical has dehumanizing consequences. Perhaps I should say “especially when” – titillation is the dominant currency of publicity.

So what I see is someone who has an inflated sense of philosophy’s possibilities for overturning our understanding of the ethical based on theoretical chutzpah alone, whose work prioritizes that theoretical chutzpah over the humanity of real people, and who incarnates a toxic public phenomenon: the elevation of such a character to the position of “moral expert.”Report

Andrew Gleeson
Andrew Gleeson
Reply to  Joe Zepeda
4 years ago

Well said Joe.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  Joe Zepeda
4 years ago

Very well said Joe (if I may), but I vigorously disagree. In the era of Trump and alternative facts and post-truth, we need as a profession to stand up for logical standards of argument, maybe above everything else, if rationality is held to be of such a value that it guides our pursuit of all other values, and even the criticism of values. It’s part of the reason–I guess that’s the right word–we have valued Plato’s Euthyphro: the dilemma itself drives our sophia’s-choice embrace of blind authority as against some account of what makes moral sense. Our valuing of the concept of dilemma gives it force. Of course there are paraconsistent and intuitionist logical alternatives, but good luck opposing “fake news” and Trump’s contradictions with those.

But your post mostly betrays a clear commitment to what I earlier posted on this thread as Kant’s concept of rational beings as the only intrinsic good standing behind sound moral theory. Since that is strongly supported by long western theological tradition and social reinforcement, it easily leads to claims that Singer is “dehumanizing”. But in the sense that he thinks speciesism is unwarranted because there are prima facie reasons, observationally, cross-culturally, and trans-historically, to believe that pleasures and pains are the only intrinsic goods and evils that can fulfill the work of the concepts (as Vargas puts it in Building Better Beings), then his view stands as a serious challenge to the more traditional one you advocate. But it is not silly or worthy of being dismissed outright for that. What I suspect is really going on between most Singer-philes and Singer-phobes is generated at the level of world-views, which in turn either marries us to the natural world or to some supernatural order. That’s in part why in my earlier post I contrasted Singer to Kant.Report

Docfe
Docfe
4 years ago

Singer is a model for public philosophers. His courage to state controversial positions and raise questions of utmost importance are laudable.. Would we all had his courage. Agree or disagree with positions, his willingness to state them is admirable. A modern day Socrates.Report