Strange Bedfellows: Peter Singer and the Church

Christopher M. Hays on Charles Camosy’s Peter Singer and Christian Ethics

Charles C. Camosy, Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization, Cambridge University Press, 2012. 186 pp. $29.99

To describe the ethics of Peter Singer and those of the Catholic Church as oil and water may appear far too serene a metaphor; something akin to hydrogen and an open flame might be more apt. After all, many Roman Catholic activists vehemently oppose Peter Singer’s defense of active euthanasia and his claim that a new-born infant has no more ‘right to life’ than a fetus. But who among his critics would have imagined that the world’s most famous utilitarian ethicist would have ideas that actually support Christian morality?

This is precisely the impression that Dr. Charles Camosy, Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University, seeks to belie in his new monograph, Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization. Camosy contends that the overlap between Singerite and Christian ethics is far greater than anyone (even Singer) might have anticipated, and that the continuity between the two ethical systems might in fact provide the foundation for a new generation of public moral discourse.

Camosy approaches this seemingly quixotic task in the opposite order than one might expect: he begins with specific moral topics and only then moves in his final chapters to discussion of metaethics. He first addresses abortion. While Singer’s defense of abortion and infanticide is squarely at odds with Catholic teaching, Camosy points out that both Singer and the Church agree on quite a lot.  For example, both parties would say that if a fetus is a person, it merits the protection of law. Both disagree with the privacy-centered approach that dominates the public debate of abortion policy, and both refuse to adjudicate the issue on the basis of whether or not the fetus is physically viable (this point is essential to Roe v. Wade). The crux of the disagreement between Singer and the Church is over whether the potential personhood of a fetus or an infant makes them morally significant enough to be regarded as a human child or adult. While nobody would deny the disparity between Roman Catholic and Singerite views of abortion, even on this highly contentious topic, Singer and the Church possess substantial agreements necessary for public discourse.

Camosy also addresses euthanasia and end-of-life questions. He explains that, notwithstanding Singer’s case for the legalization and practice of active euthanasia, Singer and the Church share skepticism about the usefulness of ‘brain-death’ as a criterion for addressing these end-of-life questions. At the level of ethical theory, both deny that one can make facile distinctions between acts and omissions (thus resisting the common tendency to censure ‘active euthansia’ via narcotics while allowing doctors to withhold or remove of life-saving medical care with the intention of bringing about the patient’s death). They also agree that in certain cases proportionate moral reasoning can justify the removal of life-sustaining treatment. They are even of one accord that it would be legitimate for some terminal patients to receive such significant amounts of pain-medication that it might hasten a patients’ death. Camosy even suggests that Singerites and Christians could join their forces in support of certain public policies. It’s a formidable chapter, but at this point, Camosy is just getting warmed up.

Camosy’s third chapter tackles the treatment of non-human animals. Singer champions the moral status of non-human animals, and critiques the Church for failing to appreciate the ethical gravity of contemporary exploitation of non-human sentient life. In response to Singer’s criticism of the Church’s stances on non-human animals, Camosy unearths a massive amount of biblical and ecclesial support (ranging across Catholic tradition and modern Protestant notables such as C.S. Lewis and Stanley Hauerwas) for a Christian ethic which honors animal dignity. Camosy joins Singer’s argument that the presence of traits such as rationality, self-awareness, empathy, and morality among certain non-human animals renders inexcusable the violent conditions of factory farms. He suggests that these considerations should actually incline Christians towards vegetarianism.

Peter Singer is rightly famous for his writings on poverty. Of particular note is his book The Life You Can Save, where he devastatingly indicts Western consumerist culture for selfishly expending our significant surplus wealth when it could be directed (with dramatic results) towards the globe’s impoverished billions. Camosy points out, perhaps surprisingly to Singer’s staunchest opponents, that the ethicist’s views on this topic are strikingly similar to the historic teaching of Jesus and the Church (even if contemporary Christianity has tended to disregard the obvious demands of Scripture and Christian traditions which construe neglect of the poor as tantamount to theft or even murder). Surely on this issue, where the disagreement between Singer and the Church is minimal, Christians and Singerites could join forces for social action.

Having built a case for the substantial agreement between Singerite and Catholic social ethics, Camosy argues that their metaethical systems also overlap. Singer is a two-level utilitarian who acknowledges the necessity of rules (however occasionally violable) for his ethical theory. Camosy explains that despite appearances of also being essentially deontological in its ethics, the Church’s moral system is more aptly described as ‘Christian teleology’, ordering moral actions towards the divinely established ends of the created order. Singerite two-level utilitarianism and Christian teleology are both consequentialist. Both incorporate rules in their schemata. And both argue that, through proportionate reasoning, such rules can justifiably be broken. In this chapter Camosy also includes an insightful discussion and defense of double-intentionality, proportionate reasoning, and exceptionless moral norms. He argues that, for all the important differences about moral anthropology and the irreducibility of human dignity, this enormous compatibility of Catholic and Singerite ethical frameworks holds out real promise for collaborative reflection.

Finally, Camosy addresses a recent shift in Peter Singer’s ethical theory. Singer is now entertaining the possibility of objective moral truths that are–contrary to preference-maximizing utilitarianism–independent of anyone’s desires. In an effort to coax Singer towards such a conclusion, Camosy articulates a variety of moral questions for which preference utilitarianism cannot provide answers; he also shows how some of Christianity’s objective moral standards might prove enticing to (perhaps even logically necessary for?) Singer, given his ethical and metaethical views on record.

The book’s concluding chapter summarizes a variety of the ways in which Singer could push the Church’s ethics and how the Church could do the same for Singer. Camosy closes by suggesting that Christian and Singerite ethics, two of the world’s most influential moral systems, might potentially cooperate in contemporary and pluralistic public discourse. Surely such cooperation, however unthinkable it might appear to the casual observer of the two ethical systems, would be deeply valuable to a contemporary moral discourse which is increasingly at risk of running aground on moral privatization and relativism.

In light of his training as a bio-ethicist – Camosy’s first book was Too Expensive to Treat? Finitude, Tragedy and the Neonatal ICU (Eerdmans, 2010) – it is perhaps not surprising that Camosy’s treatments of abortion and euthanasia are incisive and deeply engaged with medical particularities. It should not be taken for granted, however, that his chapters on other ethical concerns are equally robust. Camosy’s arguments relating to the treatment of non-human animals are stirring as much as they are cogent. I will admit to some exegetical quibbles with his treatments of Genesis 9 and Acts 12 (pp. 104-108), but Camosy’s breadth is impressive; one might consider, for example, his combination of zoological research with a powerful appeal to Christian eschatology, á la Isaiah 11:6-9. Similarly, as a specialist in wealth ethics, I did not expect to be particularly impressed by the fourth chapter of Camosy’s book on poverty; what I found instead was one of the most insightful and bravely Christian discussions I have read.

Early in this review I described Camosy’s thesis as apparently ‘quixotic’. But Camosy is only to be likened in limited ways to the senile and rickety protagonist of Cervantes from whom the adjective derives. In this wide-ranging work Camosy shows himself to be vigorous, lucid, and deeply compelling, compared to Don Quixote only because his ethical sallies are bold, laudable, and inspiring. Trying to draw Catholics and Singerites into productive cooperation might strike some as tilting at windmills, but with the lance in Charles Camosy’s hand, I’d stand clear of the mill.