I read an article yesterday about how Peter Singer is beginning to change or alter his belief in absolute moral truths. For those of you who don’t know who Peter Singer is, check out his wikipedia here. If you don’t want to read his whole blog, essentially what you need to know is that Peter Singer is probably the most influential contemporary utilitarian advocate. He advocates a branch of utilitarianism called Preference Utilitarianism.
What is Utilitarianism?
Utilitarianism is the belief that man can discern the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, but looking at a series of choices one has, and choosing the choice that causes the most pleasure and the least amount of pain. Its a pretty simple philosophy but it has some major flaws. Peter Singer’s branch of Utilitarianism, Preference Utilitarianism, is the same thing, but it looks at the question of satisfaction. Right vs. Wrong is determined by what causes the most amount of satisfaction. Obviously this definition is incomplete, it should work for the remainder of this post.
Five Things Wrong with Utilitarianism:
1. Predicting Consequences:
The primary problem with Utilitarianism is that one cannot predict all possible consequences from a given choice. How do we know how a given policy or choice might workout 10, 20, or even 100 years from now? There is no way to objectively know right/wrong choices while the choice is actually being made.
2. Generational Preferences/Needs:
Another issue with Utilitarianism is generational preferences/needs. It is difficult for us to know or understand what the needs of the next generation are going to be. This problem is magnified in Singer’s branch of Utilitarianism because while it may prove difficult to predict the needs of future generations, it is impossible to predict the preferences.
3. Who’s Needs?
Utilitarianism doesn’t answer the question with finality of who’s needs/desires should be taken into account while making choices. Is it just humans? Is it humans and animals capable of suffering? Is it only the strongest and “fittest” of people? Utilitarianism fails to answer this question with any finality.
4. Conflicting Needs:
It will inevitably come about when you have two people groups with conflicting needs, desires, and preferences. When that is the case, how will one decide what the correct course of action is? The correct choice for one people group might be one thing, while the correct choice for another people group might be something different. Utilitarianism fails to solve this problem.
5. Why Act Morally?
While utilitarianism may attempt to answer the question of right and wrong, it never seeks to answer the question: “Why act rightly?”. There is no reason for man to act morally with Utilitarianism. This is probably the biggest problem with Utilitarianism. Why even attempt o answer the question of right and wrong when we have no need, desire, or mandate to act rightly.
Summing it All Up:
Peter singer seems to be realizing the final problem of Utilitarianism. Man intrinsically knows that there are right actions and wrong actions, but only Biblical Christianity can actually answer the question, “Why act morally?” In Christianity man’s sole purpose is to give Glory to God because God is the only one who warrants Glory. (1) Being created for this purpose, man can begin to discern right from wrong. We have been given scripture to guide us in this pursuit. Biblical Christianity has a firm foundation (Giving Glory to God) that answers solves the problems that Utilitarianism can’t solve, and even Peter Singer is beginning to realize it.
What are your thoughts on Utilitarianism.
(1) For more information on this topic read A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World by Jonathan Edwards.