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Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization

By Volck, Brian | The Christian Century, December 26, 2012 | Go to article overview

Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization


Volck, Brian, The Christian Century


Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization

By Charles C. Camosy

Cambridge University Press, 286 pp., $29.99 paperback

Stanley Hauerwas argues that the deepest enemy of Christianity in North America is not atheism, but an undemanding sentimentality that many Christians apparently prefer to serious theological reflection. Sentimentality has made Christianity so superficial and boring, Hauerwas insists, that we can't even produce interesting atheists.

As Oscar Wilde observed, "A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it." Sentimental stories and images--Richard Paul Evans's heartwarming Christmas fiction or Warner Sallman's Jesus with those big, lovable eyes--tell us to feel deeply without providing adequate cause. And such made-to-order emotion can suddenly pivot from oceanic approval to its shadowy twin, demonizing condemnation, in the same way that an alcoholic on a drinking binge may turn from weeping to rage in a heartbeat. Part of the appeal of sentimentality is its glib simplicity. In demanding a specific emotional response, it bypasses complexity for vague generalizations, rigid certainties and hasty assumptions about others' intentions, as does much of what passes for political rhetoric these days.

It is this polarized backdrop that makes author Charles Camosy's task so audacious: as a Catholic moral theologian, Camosy thoughtfully engages the work of the controversial and often condemned ethicist Peter Singer, the Australian-born professor of bioethics at Princeton University whose consistent application of secular preference utilitarianism (the idea that right action is that which fulfills the choosing individual's interests) leads him to advocate for selective infanticide, active euthanasia and nonhuman animal rights. A wide range of critics, from advocates for disabled persons to the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, have loudly demanded that Singer be deprived of a public forum for his ideas.

Because Singer sees himself as leading a "Copernican revolution" against a religiously informed sanctity-of-life ethic, any conversation between him and Catholic moral teaching, popularly viewed as the most rigid expression of Christian ethics, would seem a nonstarter at best. But Camosy goes a long way toward demonstrating that such conversations are not only possible but potentially fruitful to both parties.

Camosy's approach is key. Most important, in the best traditions of Christian ethical discourse, he treats Singer as a person worthy of respect. He quotes Singer's words in the context of his thought, noting not only Singer's conclusions but how he arrived at them. Camosy also frequently refers to Catholic moral and social teaching, revealing a rich and nuanced tradition of reflection. His goal is not to show that he and Singer are somehow saying the same thing, but rather to learn where they agree, how they disagree, why such disagreements--while real and significant-are surprisingly "narrow and interesting," and how an ongoing conversation might enhance each one's arguments and lead to limited but significant patches of common ground. Throughout, Camosy never shies away from approaching hard cases head-on or pointing out interpretive errors and holes in Singer's arguments.

It helps that Camosy and Singer both write within the Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy. They speak the same language, emphasizing clarity of argument and analysis of terminology, even though they arrive at different conclusions. Part of what makes Singer so challenging, even to those who support some of his positions, is the relentless consistency in his movement from initial assumptions and provisional judgments to logical ends. Camosy doesn't disagree with Singer's method, but he passionately rejects many of his judgments. This might sound too technical for the average reader, but both Singer and Camosy write lucidly, making complex arguments available to nonacademics who are uncomfortable with dense philosophical language.

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