Friday, March 13, 2009

Singer vs. Hare

Moral Mammals - Why do we Matter? - Does theism or atheism provide the best foundation for human worth and morality? from The Veritas Forum on Vimeo.

An excellent debate between two sophisticated moral philosophers over the ultimate nature of reality and morality. Singer makes the case that we should act to maximize happiness (broadly construed) because we like happiness and we empathize with other mammals. Hare argues that this is not enough, we need to be moral out of love and fear of the divine. They both do this persuasively and politely, and although I disagree with both of them I found the conversation most enjoyable.

Dr. Peter Singer leads with a series of questions on the nature of morality. Is it merely a matter of obeying rules from above? Is it a set of heuristics which help us to achieve some of our mutual goals? Do we not recoil at atrocity even if no one tells us it is wrong? He then fairly quickly launches into a brief exposition of the Euthyphro dilemma, concluding that we must make sense of moral ideas in terms other than theistic commands. He goes on to point out a few noteworthy difficulties with attempting to derive morality from either the Hebrew or Christian scriptures. He then provides a few thoughts on the evolutionary origins of morality and its analogues in the animal kingdom. He closes with an appeal to a modified form of the golden rule, one which roughly approaches a sort of universal prescriptivism.

Dr. John Hare (son of famed ethicist R.M. Hare) makes it clear up front that he and Singer have a similar sense of what entails the good, but he wants to argue about the question of moral motivation. “Why be moral?” one might ask, if one is concerned only with furthering one’s own happiness, and the commitment to morality becomes shaky at best. He quotes from the great utilitarian Henry Sidgwick to make the point that we are naturally motivated primarily to help ourselves and those close to us, as opposed to everyone equally, as demanded by the moral principle of universalizability. He then argues that we can overcome this bias for ourselves, our families, our tribes, etc. by trusting in God and following His universal laws grounded in His universal love for everyone. This brings us, quite naturally, to the problem of evil, to which Hare gives us the most bizarre retort I’ve ever heard with my own ears. He says that we need to take seriously the experience of those people (e.g. Holocaust survivors) who say that their faith sustained them in the face of great human evil, while implicitly discounting those who (equally sincerely) affirm that such terrible experiences forced them to reconsider and reject their faith. He makes a few more attempts to hang ethics on theism, few of which are more well grouded than this one.

During the rebuttal period, each speaker has another go at the foundations of ethics, and Singer basically concedes that if you are asking for a universal moral arbiter, the universe isn''t going to help you out with that. All that it will do is provide you with a multitude of preachers and gurus and mullahs who disagree on major issues.

The Q&A period features both distinguished philosophers sitting back and relaxing at the coffee table and chatting about written questions. Would that they'd haave gone back and forth questioning each other instead!

No comments: