"The question [about animals] is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" (Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)
When it comes to Animal Rights and Preference Utilitarianism, the person who most readily springs to mind is Australian philosopher, Peter Singer. Peter Singer works in the field of practical ethics. In the 1970s he wrote Animal Liberation, a book which has been very influential in the animal rights movement. In it he argues that we should focus on minimising suffering in the world, but not just human suffering. As non-human species also have the capacity to suffer, we should seek to act in ways that minimise their pain and suffering too.
Utilitarians typically argue that we should be acting in ways (and establishing rules) which maximise pleasant outcomes for people. Whilst maintaining the essential utilitarian methodology, Singer has obviously reversed this to argue that we should work to minimise pain and suffering the world instead (although logically this will increase happiness/pleasure). In moral theory this is known as NEGATIVE UTILITARIANISM.*
Animals Rights and Equality
Singer believes animals have the same rights as humans based on their capacity to suffer and experience pain as we do. Discriminating against a species simply because they cannot talk, have hooves, fur or feathers, is nothing more than Speciesism (‘Prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species’). He also argues that given the choice, non-human species would choose (or prefer) not to suffer. They would choose not to be slaughtered and treated as meat products, nor choose to be killed for their fur. They would choose not to be kept in food production facilities, choose not to be tested on, or kept in a zoo. And the fact that they would choose to not be treated in these ways that cause them suffering, means that as far as Singer is concerned it is wrong to kill and abuse animals for our own purposes.
"Most human beings are speciesists... Ordinary human beings - not a few exceptionally cruel or heartless humans, but the overwhelming majority of humans - take an active part in, acquiesce in, and allow their taxes to pay for practices that require the sacrifice of the most important interests of members of other species in order to promote the most trivial interests of our own species." (Peter Singer, Animal Liberation)
"Membership of the human species is not morally relevant." (Peter Singer, Ethics and the New Animal Liberation Movement)
One of the issues Preference Utilitarianism draws attention to is the question of whether one needs to directly experience something in order for it to be morally significant. For instance, Bentham's hedonic calculus is basically a measure of 'pleasure/pain' units from the point-of-view of one making the decision how to act. Only the seventh criteria seems to consider how things might be viewed from another perspective:
- 7. The number of people who will be affected by any pleasure or pain arising as a result of the act in question.
This might imply that according to Bentham, whatever you do not experience yourself does not count. So what Singer (and other Preference Utilitarians) are trying to do, is to expand the horizon of who (or what) should feature in moral debates.
Recently Singer has expressed a degree of dissatisfaction with the Preference Utilitarianism on certain issues. Although still very much pro-animal rights (and vegetarianism), Singer does admit that when it comes to environmental ethics Preference Utilitarianism is found wanting in two main ways:
- The existence of more and more people realising their preferences is a good thing (which is a problem when it comes to a globally rising population).
- The preferences of those yet to come may not be concerned with environmental issues in the same way we are today.
He also admits that Christian ethics has the upper hand when it comes to ‘moral certainties’. For atheists such as Singer, there are no moral certainties one can easily appeal to. ‘Suffering is intrinsically bad’ and ‘people’s preference should be satisfied’ are good examples, but in reality he admits that his thinking is in a state of flux about this matter (for more on this see Without belief in moral truths, how can we care about climate change?).
*In his 1952 book The Open Society and Its Enemies (Volume 1), British philosopher Sir Karl Popper utilised the principle of negative utilitarianism when he argued that instead of seeking to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, we should instead be looking to avoid harming the greatest number of people.