Sunday, April 21, 2013

Philosophy and Animal Rights-- Part I: Utilitarianism

I've decided to do a series of posts on the different philosophies surrounding animal rights. The first one is on utilitarianism, which is most commonly used to describe the reasons why we need animal rights.
Utilitarianism is the school of thought that states that the most ethical action is the one that creates the greatest good for the greatest number. It is a results-focused philosophy: proponents care more about the actual results of an action as opposed to the intention. If your intention is to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, but the results of your actions do not support your intentions, utilitarian philosophers would say that your behaviour was immoral.
I'm not particularly a proponent of utilitarianism, but it undoubtedly is interesting, and I can see why many people are drawn to it. Instead of being highly indivualistic, like our society is, it focuses on the majority. John Hart Ely, a constitutional scholar, has said that "democracy is a sort of applied utilitarianism", which I think is true.
Peter Singer is one of the most famous animal liberation philosophers, and he believed in utilitarianism. It was Singer who wrote Animal Liberation, the groundbreaking animal rights philosophy book, and he believed that all animals are equal in suffering, which is why we must fight for animal rights.
Peter Singer's most famous book.

Exerpt from "All Animals Are Equal", an article by Peter Singer:
Peter Singer, moral philosopher and professor at Princeton U.
"The capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way. It would be nonsense to say that it was not in the interests of a stone to be kicked along the road by a schoolboy. A stone does not have interests because it cannot suffer. Nothing that we can do to it could possibly make any difference to its welfare. A mouse, on the other hand, does have an interest in not being tormented, because it will suffer if it is.
If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering—in so far as rough comparisons can be made—of any other being. If a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, there is nothing to be taken into account. This is why the limit of sentience (using the term as a convenient, if not strictly accurate, shorthand for the capacity to suffer or experience enjoyment or happiness) is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others. To mark this boundary by some characteristic like intelligence or rationality would be to mark it in an arbitrary way. Why not choose some other characteristic, like skin color?
The racist violates the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of his own race, when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Similarly the speciesist allows the interests of his own species to override the greater interests of members of other species." (The rest of this article can be found at

Next up, we'll be looking at a different animal rights philosophy. See you then!

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