Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Peter Singer, right, and Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University, Nigel Biggar (Eliza Beveridge)
DJ: We have just been attending a conference in Oxford entitled "Christian Ethics Engages Peter Singer". Perhaps we should kick off with a question that you, Nigel, asked at the end of the conference. On what grounds, Peter, would you give greater weight to the interests, the preferences, the needs of the Jewish victims in the Holocaust, rather than the Nazi perpetrators? We should recall here that many members of your family actually were murdered by the Nazis. You argued in the conference that of course not all preferences have equal weight, which implies that there must be some higher court of appeal, that there is some meta-ethical foundation on which you can assign greater weight to the victims rather than the perpetrators. How does that work?
PS: I don't think that it's a meta-ethical question, I think that it's a matter of trying to understand the significance of the preferences for the people whose preferences they are. Also, I should add, it's trying to promote preferences that can be in harmony with other preferences, so that you don't have a situation where you can only satisfy the preferences of one person by denying the satisfaction of the preferences of others. So the first thing I would say is that a person's preference to go on living is a far more important preference than someone else's preference that that person should die. That's not important in terms of any outside objective values, but just more important for that person. The second thing I would say is that of course I would want to discourage people from having preferences which are of the sort that can only be satisfied if you thwart the most important preferences of someone else — whether that is by killing them or by making them racially inferior through apartheid.
DJ: Who makes the decision as to whose preferences are more important? Where does that come from? You as a philosopher may take that view, but what if somebody challenges that and denies that the preferences that you want to give way to are more important? How do we resolve that kind of dispute?
PS: That's one of those disputes that we can only talk about. First, we have to understand each other, so that when we say this preference is more important than that we mean the same thing by "more important". Somebody might be appealing to other values, and on that basis say that a preference to unjustly kill someone is just not a preference that you give any weight to, because it is morally wrong. I can sympathise with that view because we want to discourage people from having those preferences, but I don't have this objective standard of it being wrong independently of whether it is going to satisfy or thwart preferences. So I would want to make sure that the person who challenges my views understands what I'm saying. Then we should think about the cases, and think whether one can really deny the importance of somebody's preference to go on living. Can one really disagree that that preference is more important than someone else's preference for the extermination of members of some racial minority that one doesn't like?
NB: I don't think that works. I don't think that you can get by without actually making an affirmation of objective moral values. So to the question, "Why should the Nazis' preference for cleansing the world of Jews not be satisfied?", your answer is, "Because their Jewish victims' desire for continued life is clearly more important and outweighs the Nazis' preference to destroy them." Now that could simply be in terms of numbers, for example, 100 Nazis and 200 victims. You could come back and say it's not that simple, it's actually because the Jewish victims' desire for life is clearly far more important for the Jews than the Nazi desire to cleanse the world of Jewish life is to the Nazis. But how on earth do you establish that? Jewish life is obviously more important to you and me than the Nazi desire to exterminate it, but not to the Nazi.
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