Peter Singer & Christian Ethics

by Michael Sean Winters

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Peter Singer is not someone one would call a natural conversation partner for a Catholic moral theologian. He supports abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, to cite only a few glaring differences of opinion. But, Fordham’s Charles Camosy is not your typical Catholic moral theologian. He is one of a new breed of Catholic scholars, one of the founders of the Catholic Conversation Project about which I wrote Wednesday, who responds to the Second Vatican Council’s call to discern the signs of the times without making two obvious fatal mistakes: first, conflating discernment with adoption of the norms of the ambient culture and, second, discerning the signs of the times and concluding that engagement is a fool’s errand. Camosy’s engagement is critical and learned, there is not a whiff of defensiveness nor of triumphalism, and the results are surprising. That engagement has issued in a new book, "Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization."

Camosy’s method is to seek out areas of practical or theoretical agreement between Singer and classic Catholic moral theology, take note of persistent differences, and then press the question – how can Singer push Catholic ethics to greater depth and how can Catholic ethics push Peter Singer to greater depth. For example, on the issue of abortion, the differences appear insurmountable. Singer not only holds that abortion can be morally licit but also infanticide. What could Catholics and Singer share? Camosy points out several areas of commonality, but the one that most struck me is this not least because I had always overlooked it: Both Singer and the Catholic Church believe that life is a continuum and the fact of birth is a relatively arbitrary dividing line for assigning the moral worth of the human person. Yet, that is precisely the key dividing line in current law. In the end, Camosy concludes, “Their narrow disagreement is about the moral status of the fetus.” The disagreement may be narrow, but it is decisive. Nonetheless, who can deny that an effort to make people re-think where the lines are drawn would make Americans think more deeply about the implications of current U.S. law?

Camosy does not sugar coat the differences. Euthanasia is an issue of great importance: in Massachusetts this autumn, there will be a referendum on the issue. And Camosy presents Singer’s views at their most arch:

In Rethinking Life and Death, he [Singer] suggests that his opponents are merely patching holes in an ethic that is on its way out. And he does so sometimes in quite disparaging and aggressive terms: “The matching could go on, but it is hard to see a long and beneficial future for an ethic as paradoxical, incoherent and dependent on pretense as our conventional ethic of life and death has become…..”

The area for agreement appears as unpromising as on abortion.

Camosy considers the situations of three patients, one who is brain dead but kept alive vua artificial means, one in a persistent vegetative state, and a third with terminal pancreatic cancer. Singer grants personhood to the third, but not the first, and allows that the second case is difficult. The Catholic Church, of course, insists on the personhood of all three. Singer accuses the Church of “speciesism.”

Undeterred, Camosy presses on to show the ways the divergent views cohere. Singer disagreed vehemently with the Harvard Medical School’s ad hoc committee’s statement on brain death, actually staking out a position more vehement than the Church. Camosy details the complicated ways the Church reached its current, still somewhat unsettled, views on brain death. In 1957, Pope Pius XII stated that “It remains for the doctor, and especially the anesthesiologist, to give a clear and precise definition of ‘death’ and the ‘moment of death’ of a patient who passes away in a state of unconsciousness.” Camosy observes: “Pius apparently did not foresee what would happen in leaving the definition up to physicians, and had he known, he surely would have been far less likely to make such a claim.” Indeed, the Catholic Church has generally accepted brain death as an adequate definition of death, but is now re-thinking the matter and there is no definitive magisterial teaching on the subject.

Why bother looking at such a technical issue and where Singer and the Church might agree? Because some secular ethicists have moved far past Singer and the Church may need allies where She can find them to combat the culture of death. Camosy calls attention to a 2009 editorial in the journal “Nature” that argued that the decision to declare someone dead or not must take cognizance of the need to harvest organs. “[D]eclaring death in someone who will never again be the person he or she was should be weighed against the value of giving a full and healthy life to someone who will die without a transplant,” the editorial concluded. Camosy puts his finger on the frightening possibilities such thinking suggests. He writes, “Both Singer and the Church resist this approach and instead insist that the definition of the death of a human person must be about who or what she is (or was) and why she is no longer there. This is determined by evidence that is independent of the interests of scientists, physicians or of those waiting for organ transplants.” Here is where the euthanasia advocates must be honest with themselves and admit that any attempt to go down that road will permit conflicting interests to shape the decisions made in ways that are truly frightening and reduce persons to the status of commodities.

Camosy looks at the Church’s differentiation between ordinary and extraordinary means, the importance of intentionality in deciding how to apply the law of double effect, and calls out some of Singer’s more outrageous analogies which so far from illustrating the heart of the matter, tend to ignore the importance of proportionate reasons in making moral evaluations. Singer contends that “the distinction between directly intended effect and side effect is a contrived one…We cannot avoid responsibility simply by directing our intention to one effect rather than another.” Singer uses the comparison of an industrialist who dumps toxic chemicals into a nearby stream, and wonders if the industrialist can claim he was merely intending to make the factory more efficient. Camosy correctly notes that the analogy fails because efficiency is not proportionate with the foreseeable but unintended effect of polluting a stream with toxins. Ethicists, alas, live and die by the strength of their analogies. Camosy concludes the section with an analysis of how euthanasia laws have been applied in the Netherlands and in Oregon. Both cases show precisely the kind of dangers inherent in such legalization. “It is something close to diabolical that, after creating a culture of which older persons do not feel a part and in which they do not feel welcome, a society would respond to the problem by creating a method by which older persons could kill themselves more easily,” he writes. I would go further: It is not close to diabolical, it is diabolical.
The last chapters of the book are more theoretical. I feared reading these chapters because I worried they would remind me why I don’t like moral theology. But, Camosy shows how utilitarian thinking and Catholic moral theology often cohere not only in practical conclusions, but in methodology. Camosy wades into the complicated – and for some treacherous – waters where those Catholic ethicists who deploy proportionate reasoning collide with those who insist on exceptionless moral norms. There, too, Camosy sees more overlap than is usually posited by the fierce defenders of either position.

Camosy concludes by noting that after several conversations between Singer and Catholic ethicists, even Singer is admitting that his aversion to metaphysics may be misplaced, that some of his ethical views in fact presuppose the kind of anthropological stances he has made it his aim to avoid. I wonder if Singer would be raising such an issue if Catholic scholars had ignored him rather than engaging him? My frequently repeated distaste for reducing religion to ethics found no confirmation in this book on ethics, thanks to Camosy’s patient and skilled engagement with Singer and his willingness to push Singer to examine his presuppositions, even while permitting Singer to do the same. This book is a model for Catholic ethics in the modern world.

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