There is no rest, no peace for the wicked. But a person with a clean conscience can sleep like a baby. Is there any objective basis for moral right and wrong or are pangs of the conscience based on a completely subjective morality? One expert on secular morality, Sam Harris argues there is such an objective basis, while another expert on secular morality, Peter Singer argues that there is no such basis. According to the rules of logic, only one of these secular experts can be correct on this issue.
I believe Sam Harris has the right premise but the wrong conclusion, while Singer offers incorrect premises and the wrong conclusion. I'll demonstrate how Singer's basic logic is flawed and why people who embrace basic concepts regarding human dignity need not be overly concerned that Singer has offered anything substantial as an argument.
The 'logic' of Peter Singer's ethics is outlined in his book Practical Ethics:
"In their denial of a realm of ethical facts that is part of the real world, existing quite independently of us, they are no doubt correct; but does it follow from this that ethical judgments are immune from criticism, that there is no role for reason or argument in ethics, and that, from the standpoint of reason, any ethical judgment is as good as any other? I do not think it does....
The issue of the role that reason can play in ethics is the crucial point raised by the claim that ethics is subjective. The non-existence of a mysterious realm of objective ethical facts does not imply the non-existence of ethical reasoning. It may even help, since if we could arrive at ethical judgments only by intuiting these strange ethical facts, ethical argument would be more difficult still. So what has to be shown to put practical ethics on a sound basis is that ethical reasoning is possible. [Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, p. 7.]
Notice how Singer implies that his ethical reasoning is objectively valid and his reason for making this assumption:
"The issue of the role that reason can play in ethics is the crucial point raised by the claim that ethics is subjective. The non-existence of a mysterious realm of objective ethical facts does not imply the non-existence of [objectively valid] ethical reasoning." (emphasis added)
What Singer is implying is, "the claim that [secular] ethics is subjective" is countered by 'the role of secular reason.' In other words, human reasoning alone, without objective ethical facts, is supposedly enough to create objectively valid ethical conclusions and a valid ethical system. The 'role of secular reason' - void of relevant objective facts - is quite a ball of wax.
A summary of Singer's flawed logic on ethics:
1. There is (supposedly) no basis for objective ethical facts.
2. Nevertheless, void of objective ethical facts, valid secular ethical reasoning is still possible.
3. Singer's ethical ideas are implicitly offered as 'objectively valid' principles for society at large.
4. Singer does not qualify his ethics as though they are suitable only for a certain culture or for a certain era of history.
5. Therefore, Singer implies that 'objectively valid' ethical principles can be derived without initial objective ethical facts.
At face value, Singer's views are highly subjective. The 'role of secular reason' in Singer's view is the great hope, the great mechanism that is supposed to produce valid ethical rule for all of society. The ambiguous 'role of secular reason' is a ball of wax loaded with implications. Does this represent a collective effort wherein truth claims are to be arrived at based upon a secular consensus? I would no more trust a group of secular scholars left alone to create a valid system of ethics than I would trust 'big government' left alone to produce a healthy and smooth-running society. Actually, I would expect the opposite. Also, this idea implies that 'secular reason' is somehow stronger or more logical than reasoning by theists. As a matter of fact, the opposite is shown to be the case. William Lane Craig, a theist, has repeatedly won debates against the leading secular atheist thinkers in society and their excuses for not debating him are ridiculous. Perhaps Singer should challenge WL Craig to a debate in order to try and prop up his argument a bit.
As a theist, I believe both of Singer's premises and the conclusion are
false. However, I don't even need to bring up theistic issues in order
to demonstrate the fallacies of Singer's logic, it is is fairly
First, Singer questions why ethics should be considered "subjective" simply because "ethical facts" may not exist. Then he implies that his "ethical reasoning" can be considered valid, even without objective ethical facts. And by implying that his ethical principles are suitable for society at large, Singer is confirming his belief that his ethical principles are objectively valid. In none of the transcribed interviews and essays I've seen has there ever been any hint that Singer qualifies his ethics as though they are suitable only for a certain culture or for a certain era of history. This implies his belief that they are valid for society in general, simply because he believes his ideas are based on his supposedly "sound" secular reasoning.
However, if, as Singer claims, there is no basis for objective ethical facts, then there is no logical bridge from "is" to "ought" as many philosophers have already pointed out. That is the crucial logical bridge that Singer has failed to cross. If Singer's secular ethical reasoning is not based on objective ethical facts, then it is subjective, not objective. And, logically, it can never and will never arrive at valid and objective ethical conclusions. Premise 2 is false. To pretend otherwise is simply a case of denial.
Sam Harris approached the question of secular ethics based on a presupposition that there needs to be some kind of basic objective ethical facts, ethical anchors to which ethical premises and conclusions may be attached. Harris, however, incorrectly believes that science alone can elucidate this. Singer, on the the other hand, never proposes that there are any objective ethical anchors, nor need be. Singer tacitly admits his opinion that "objective ethical facts" do not exist, but he is still unwilling to admit the bridge from "is" to "ought" cannot be crossed. Instead of crossing one big bridge, he attempts to break issues down into a few smaller bridges that he believes together will make one composite bridge. But this is a logical fallacy, as I'll show.
Because Singer offers no objective moral anchor, he is essentially using what William Lane Craig describes as a "shopping list" approach to ethics. Singer has come up with a subjective list of criteria that he believes work together to form some type of valid approach towards ethical conclusions. One criterion focuses on the question of whether there is any interest in the person's life. A second criterion regards any evidence of a strong desire to live. A third issue focuses on whether or not a being is able to project desires into the distant future. And then there is the issue of illness. So, these are Singer's little ethical bridges:
1. A being that no one is interested in is not, or may not be, a person.
2. A being that does not demonstrate a strong desire to live is not, or may not be, a person.
3. A being that cannot project into the distant future is not, or may not be, a person.
4. A being that is very ill is not, or may not be, a person.
Now, according to our understanding of Singer's views, a being that demonstrates all of the above characteristics is most definitely not a person. However, though the opinion is based on many observable facts, the types of facts observed have not been ethical facts, and the primary logical problem still remains for Singer. He is pretending that there is an objective ethical conclusion based on subjective ethical facts. That phrase, "subjective fact" is an oxymoron. One, two, or even four "subjective facts" together do not constitute an objective fact. Singer's ethical framework is merely a house of cards with no foundation in objective reality, at least as far as ethics is concerned.
Singer has claimed that the concept of sacred life is invalid and is pretending to offer a valid ethical solution in place of this ethical concept, and he has failed to do so. Singer is hailed as a distinguished Ira W. DeCamp professor who embraces reason. However, as is the case with Richard Dawkins and other notable atheist scholars, Singer seems to rely more on ethos-based rhetoric than logos-based rhetoric.
1. Sound reasoning must be based on sound, objective facts.
2. Peter Singer has offered no objective ethical facts.
3. Therefore, Peter Singer has not offered any basis for sound ethical reasoning.
Singer offers, “The notion that human life is sacred just because it is human life is medieval.” The existence of God, as logically outlined by theologians and philosophers, has served as a reference point of moral and ethical truth for Western civilization and for human exceptionalism. Singer offers no logical argument to support his view but merely derides the ethics of Western civilization as a "notion" not grounded in any ethical facts. Apparently, Singer has never debated William Lane Craig on this subject, and I seriously doubt that Singer would be in a rush to do so, as has been the case with Richard Dawkins and others, 'top' atheist apologists take flight and run in the opposite direction. In any event, now Singer must set out to define what a viable person is, as noted in a Singer FAQ
"I use the term "person" to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future."
Singer does not explain why we should accept his personal definition of a person as an objective universal definition. But, for the sake of argument, let's consider it.
According to Singer's definition, a newborn baby is not a person because it has not yet developed conscious "wants and desires" for the future. This is one of the characteristics Singer uses to try and justify infanticide, the killing of newly born children. Singer goes on to say, "So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living." And then Singer, perhaps understanding the implications of what he is writing, states, "That doesn’t mean that it is not almost always a terrible thing to do." (emphasis added) But notice that Singer's word "terrible" does not equal "immoral" or "unethical" - it's just terrible. I suppose the use of the word terrible here might be akin to "emotionally very difficult."
Take note that Singer is basing his ethical code on whether or not a person can intellectually want to go on living to Singer's satisfaction. How should we objectively define just how much "want" is enough in order for a being to be viably human? How strong a desire or how many quantifiable "desires for the future" are enough to qualify as a viable living being worth saving? A young child that is ill, or a little slow to develop, or does not have much of a passion for life, may not be able to demonstrate its worth and value quickly enough for Singer. Both the criteria and the evaluation of the criteria are found to be subjective, not objective, in Singer's ethical framework.
This is, of course, is a classic example of utilitarian values in action. And, as usual, the main problem with utilitarianism is, "Who gets to decide what the greater good entails?"As I've pointed out in other articles, secularist academicians tend to shun logical principles when they address philosophical questions, while at the same time boasting of their "reason" and ability to arrive at "sound" decisions. In defense of Singer, a commenter at an Amazon book review wrote the following:
"Persons who become non-persons (through disease, accident, etc.), i.e. lose their self-awareness, autonomy, self-consciousness, use of their cerebral coretex, etc., lose their capacity for having interests (as Singer argues that interests are a factor of self-awareness, autonomy, etc.). However, and this is what many deliberately overlook, persons may have in interest in the welfare and survival of non-persons. Singer obviously had a desire to keep his mother, whom he loved, alive."
As it turns out, Singer's mother was overcome by Alzheimer's disease and apparently Singer decided not to end her life mainly because of the ethical value attributed by Singer's interest in his mother. The obvious question is, "What if someone is very ill and has no friends? Does that then mean such a person has no value?" That is precisely what it implies. Attempting to base "sound" ethics on subjective "wants" and "desires" and "interests" is about as weak a foundation as one could possibly hope for.
With regard to ethics, Singer's premises and basic conclusions are logically flawed and the results lead to a "terrible thing" according to Singer's own words. It was truly a sad day when Princeton University hired Peter Singer as a professor. Princeton (first called the College of New Jersey) was founded by Presbyterians in 1746 in order to train Christian ministers. Now it trains students in the art of poorly justifying murder and bestiality. While Singer has a difficult time offering logical arguments for his views, William Lane Craig has outlined sound evidence and arguments that demonstrate objective moral values do exist and how this logically points to God's existence. Because society is embracing dehumanizing views on ethics and morality today, we see very little hope for a just and humane society in our time without a spiritual revival or spiritual intervention of some sort.
Tags: summary of Peter Singer's logical flaws, Peter Singer moral relativist, singer on objective ethical facts, objective versus subjective morality, shopping list secular ethics, Peter Singer quotes on ethics, Singer's criteria for a valid person