In The Guardian (25 May 2011), Mark Vernon reports on Princeton's Peter Singer's gradual coming round to the view that, if there is no objective truth, morality – and specifically the immorality of ignoring climate change – cannot be grounded in anything.
Speaking to a group of Christian ethicists at Oxford, Singer said that his current focus is climate change, but he sees that the "preference utilitarianism" he was previously comfortable with,
… runs into problems because climate change requires that we consider the preferences not only of existing human beings, but of those yet to come. And we can have no confidence about that, when it comes to generations far into the future. Perhaps they won't much care about Earth because the consumptive delights of life on other planets will be even greater. Perhaps they won't much care because a virtual life, with its brilliant fantasies, will seem far more preferable than a real one. What this adds up to is that preference utilitarianism can provide good arguments not to worry about climate change, as well as arguments to do so.
Worse, some would add,
it untethers climate change concerns from objectivity – either moral or evidentiary.
That, alas, suits folk who enjoy running others' lives while remaining free of objective moral and intellectual demands themselves.
Urban dwellers may recognize that Peter Singer scenario all too well: "Concern" becomes – in itself – evidence of virtue and intelligence.
It justifies bafflingly stupid assertions like "Raccoons are people too." One daren't respond, "Raccoons are not people, and if they were, they'd be guilty of trespassing, vandalizing property, and behaving cruelly toward cats and dogs." That shows "lack of concern." Which is the worst sin in the fact- and value-free philosophy that birthed Singer's animal rights. Vernon tells us that, at the conference, Singer
described his current position as being in a state of flux. But he is leaning towards accepting moral objectivity because he now rejects Hume's view that practical reasoning is always subject to desire. Instead, he inclines towards the view of Henry Sidgwick, the Victorian theist whom he has called the greatest utilitarian, which is that there are moral assertions that we recognise intuitively as true. At the conference, he offered two possible examples, that suffering is intrinsically bad, and that people's preferences should be satisfied.
Both assertions are false. All learning involves suffering and satisfying one's preferences often points to jail, hospital, or hell on earth. In philosophy, there is no ducking the hard questions, it seems.
It's good that Singer recognizes these problems now. But climate change seems quite the wrong place to begin because so little depends on one's individual actions. And that is where all serious schools of moral thinking begin. Hence the temptation so many fall into, of (mentally at least) jetting the globe to tell others not to join the jet set.
Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.