Classical Utilitarianism Defined

According to utilitarianism, the main goal of any action is to maximize utility. Utility can generally be understood as, benefit to humans. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mills, in what Fellenz terms “hedonic” utilitarianism, define utility as pleasure and satisfaction (58). Accordingly, anything that increases the pleasure of humans - eating a delicious steak, for example - is a moral course of action.

However, this is not to say that utilitarianism ignores the welfare of animals. According to Fellenz, Bentham and Mills ideas can be translated today as “we are more important than animals, but over cruelty toward them is wrong” (60).

Peter Singer's Preference Utilitarianism

Fellenz also distinguishes "preference" utilitarianism. This type of utilitarianism was constructed by Peter Singer and holds that "the good to be maximized by our actions is not a net gain in pleasure or happiness, but instead a net gain in preferences fulfilled” (60).

Sentience is the basis of moral obligation. Singer claims that humans as well as non-human animals have the ability to experience pain and therefore humans and non-human animals "have at least one clear interest, namely, avoiding painful experience." Following these ideas, "moral consistency requires the equal consideration of interests, irrespective of the nature of the beings that hold them." Singer supports this by paralleling the human view of animals as secondary to previously held views of racism and sexism. He also claims that though non-humans "…are not our equals… they lack, either in degree or in kind, the intellectual, linguistic, and moral attributes that characterize our humanness" this should not negate our responsibility toward them. There are many humans who are not capable of speech or rational thought and "that by itself if not sufficient justification for flouting their interests" (61).

Singer attempts to include animals in the realm of moral obligation. He concludes that actions which ignore animal suffering are immoral and that "…for humans to ignore the effects of their actions on the interests of animals simply because they are nonhuman interests is morally arbitrary" (61).

Fellenz's Critique of Utilitarianism

In the second part of chapter 3, Fellenz details critiques made against Utilitarianism. Below is a list (in no particular order) of the critiques:

1.) If we were to follow Singer's argument, it would require an almost "…total ban on agriculture, scientific, and commercial uses of animals" (63). This, it is argued, is not practical on many grounds. First, who is to say that the human good derived from exploiting animals is not greater than the harm caused to them. Additionally, "the domestication of animals for food is such a central institution in the history of human civilization that the practice is readily declared 'natural' and 'necessary,' with the implication that it is thereby exempt from moral evaluation" (64).

2.) Singer claims that if we are willing to test products on animals we must also be willing to run the same tests on "human beings of comparable sentience…say, severely retarded children" and our unwillingness to do so reflects speciesism "and not a concern for maximizing utility" (63). Fellenz counters that "the utilitarian requirement that the net effect of our actions be calculated in order to determine their moral worth poses an unavoidable obstacle to Singer's goal of liberating the animal from human 'tyranny'"(64). It can be argued that the human lives saved by running animal tests or that the human pleasure, preference, easiness of mind does more good for a greater number than if animal testing was not allowed.

3.) Fellenz also points out that utilitarianism is not an effective means of governing our actions because "it is too vulnerable to the factual disagreements about future consequences to provide sufficient certainty for our moral evaluation of such large-scale practices as institutionalized animal exploitation" (67). He cites the disagreement between Singer and Cohen as an example and declares the fundamental issue to Utilitarianism is , "that Singer and Cohen can reach such divergent conclusions about research…while aware of the same basic facts relevant tot he issues, and attempting to analyze them within the same ethical framework…"(67).

4.) We do not presently understand animals' mental capabilities (or ability of experience and internalize pain) enough for Singer's argument to be valid (68). This lack of understanding is commonly referred to as "species solipsism."

5.) Singer's only claim for placing animals on the same moral ground as humans is their ability to suffer; "animal advocates have an incentive to make pain the most important feature of sentience - and, in turn, moral status - because any more sophisticated candidate threatens to exclude the animal…" (70).

6.) Singer is not precise enough when discussing human versus animal intelligence or ability to experience pain; and his conclusions give animals too much credit/importance as "[Singer] underestimates the severity of the gap between human and animal minds…even when acknowledging the problem, he discounts the importance by repeatedly arguing that there is nonetheless a sufficient number of clear cases to require the radical revaluation of our treatment of animals" (69).

7.) On the other hand, some say that Singer's argument grants animals too little importance. Fellenz quotes John Rodman who states that "…Singer's focus on sentient animals condemns the vast majority of the planet's inhabitants to 'a state of thinghood, having no intrinsic worth, acquiring instrumental value only as resources for the well-being of an elite sentient beings" (71).

Fellenz, Marc R. "Utilitarian Arguments: The Value of Animal Experience." The Moral Menagerie: Philosophy and Animal Rights. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007.
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