Animal Rights Activists - Philosophical and Legal Approaches - Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism

Further information: Equal consideration of interests and Utilitarianism
They talk about this thing in the head; what do they call it? That's it. What's that got to do with women's rights or Negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full? — Sojourner Truth

Nussbaum (2004) writes that utilitarianism, starting with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, has contributed more to the recognition of the moral status of animals than any other ethical theory. The utilitarian philosopher most associated with animal rights is Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University. Singer is not a rights theorist, but uses the language of rights to discuss how we ought to treat individuals. He is a preference utilitarian, meaning that he judges the rightness of an act by the extent to which it satisfies the preferences (interests) of those affected.

His position is that there is no reason not to give equal consideration to the interests of human and nonhumans, though his principle of equality does not require identical treatment. A mouse and a man both have an interest in not being kicked, and there are no moral or logical grounds for failing to accord those interests equal weight. Interests are predicated on the ability to suffer, nothing more, and once it is established that a being has interests, those interests must be given equal consideration. Singer quotes the English philosopher Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900): "The good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view ... of the Universe, than the good of any other."

Singer argues that equality of consideration is a prescription, not an assertion of fact: if the equality of the sexes were based only on the idea that men and women were equally intelligent, we would have to abandon the practice of equal consideration if this were later found to be false. But the moral idea of equality does not depend on matters of fact such as intelligence, physical strength, or moral capacity. Equality therefore cannot be grounded on the outcome of scientific investigations into the intelligence of nonhumans. All that matters is whether they can suffer.

Commentators on all sides of the debate now accept that animals suffer and feel pain, although it was not always so. Bernard Rollin, professor of philosophy, animal sciences, and biomedical sciences at Colorado State University, writes that Descartes' influence continued to be felt until the 1980s. Veterinarians trained in the US before 1989 were taught to ignore pain, he writes, and at least one major veterinary hospital in the 1960s did not stock narcotic analgesics for animal pain control. In his interactions with scientists, he was often asked to "prove" that animals are conscious, and to provide "scientifically acceptable" evidence that they could feel pain. Scientific publications have made it clear since the 1980s that the majority of researchers do believe animals suffer and feel pain, though it continues to be argued that their suffering may be reduced by an inability to experience the same dread of anticipation as humans, or to remember the suffering as vividly. The problem of animal suffering, and animal consciousness in general, arose primarily because it was argued that animals have no language. Singer writes that, if language were needed to communicate pain, it would often be impossible to know when humans are in pain, though we can observe pain behavior and make a calculated guess based on it. He argues that there is no reason to suppose that the pain behavior of nonhumans would have a different meaning from the pain behavior of humans.

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