Utilitarianism and Animals

Utilitarianism is a branch of consequentialism, which is a type of ethical theory that judges an act to be right or wrong on the basis of the act’s consequences. Classical utilitarians hold that pleasure is the only intrinsic, thus the point of morality is to maximize net happiness for all sentient beings. According to classical utilitarianism, morality demands us to perform actions that maximize net happiness for all those affected (sentient beings).

There are different variations of utilitarianism: some utilitarians are focused on individual actions while others are known as rule utilitarians, i.e. individuals who believes that the point of morality is to follow rules that, if everyone followed, would maximize good consequences. Most utilitarians, like Peter Singer, embrace act utilitarianism, since rule utilitarianism is considerably problematic (according to JJC Smart, rule utilitarianism reduces into either act utilitarianism or rule worship, in which case it is no longer even utilitarianism). Keeping this in mind, I will limit my discussion to act utilitarianism.

Another distinction within utilitarianism is the distinction between classical utilitarianism (also known as hedonism) and preference utilitarianism. While both classical and preference utilitarians believe that the goal of morality is to maximize good consequences, they differ in regard to their beliefs about what consequences should be maximized. Classical utilitarians (hedonists) believe that happiness/pleasure should be maximized, while preference utilitarians believe that preferences, i.e interests, should be maximized.

If utilitarianism is true, then we will need to radically reconsider they ways in which we harm nonhuman animals, since the harm that we cause them greatly increases the amount of suffering in the world. For instance, 10 billion animals are brutalized and tortured on factory farms every year in the United States. Since the only pleasure humans get from eating factory farm products is gustatory pleasure, the pain and suffering that these animals experience can ever be justified according to utilitarian principles.

While act utilitarianism will condemn practices like Factory Farming and Zoos (click here for Dale Jamieson’s seminal paper which explains why zoos fail the test of utilitarianism), which arguably increase unhappiness and pain in the world, utilitarianism is not a theory of abolitionism. That is, act utilitarianism will never grant individuals (human or animals) “rights” that can never be overridden in order to promote overall utility. If the goal of morality is to maximize happiness (or preferences), then sometimes we will need to cause an individual harm in order to obtain this utilitarian goal. One example where the interests of individuals might be justifiably overriden, according to utilitarianism, is biomedical research: IF performing biomedical research on sentient beings is necessary for maximizing net happiness (or interests), then we ought to perform such research, even if doing so harms some sentient beings. Utilitarianism thus does not argue for the abolition of animal exploitation. For utilitarianism, the problem is not that we use animals; rather, the problem is how we use them.

Alastair Norcross:, who identifies as a scalar consequentialist/utilitarian (the theory that there are no right or wrong actions, only better or worse actions), presents a provoking case against eating meat in norcross
“Puppies Pigs and People: Eating Meat and Marginal Cases” (read it here; it’s perhaps the best introductory piece on animal ethics/vegetarianism) by encouraging readers to reflect upon whether or not it would be acceptable to torture a puppy in order to satisfy a chocolate craving. Eating meat from a factory farm, he argues, is analogous to this sort of torture because it is wholly unnecessary.

varnerGary Varner: endorses and defends R.M. Hare’s two-level utilitarianism and applies this theory to the moral treatment of nonhuman animals. Varner surveys the empirical literature on animal minds, defending a distinction between “persons,” “near-persons,” and “the merely sentient.” Varner argues that the strongly “abolitionist” views of Singer aren’t warranted by utilitarian commitments. Books include: Personhood, Ethics, and Animal Cognition: Situating Animals in the Two-Level Utilitarianism of R.M. Hare, Sustaining Animals: Envisioning Humane, Sustainable Communities, and In Nature’s Interests? Interests, Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics.

singerPeter Singer: wrote the book Animal Liberation in 1975, which is often credited as being responsible for directing the public’s concern to the oppression of nonhuman animals, thereby inspiring the animal liberation movement. In this book, Singer argues that the Basic Principle of Equality should be extended to nonhuman animals. While he denies that this would require that we grant identical rights or treatment to nonhuman animals, he argues that it would demand us to equally consider the interests of animals. Singer is also known for supporting controversial views, such as the view that infanticide and bestiality can be justified. You can read a thorough summary of his view here.

This page is maintained by by Cheryl E Abbate