The subject of animal ethics has spawned great interest and debate in the modern society. The issue stretches back to the revolution period in the medical community that saw advancement in biotechnology. The medical field began to use animals for clinical experiments in order to develop improved treatment for various diseases. This practice ignited debates concerning animal ethics. Those who opposed the practice claimed animals have rights that should be respected while those who favored the practice held that animals are less valuable. Utilitarianism is one of the theories applied in animal ethics.
Utilitarianism is a philosophical theory that holds that moral judgment should base on an action’s consequence. Therefore, an act is considered morally right if its consequences are of the greatest good (Francione). The acceptability of an action is determined according to the amount of happiness or suffering caused. For instance, if a parent has five children and all love beef but one, the right action is to serve beef and bring pleasure to the greater number. Utilitarianism establishes that we should act in ways that promote the highest amount of happiness possible. The theory emphasizes that actions should cause high amount of happiness while it minimizes suffering (Francione). It recognizes that sentient nonhuman animals desire pleasure and avoid pain. Any action that causes harm to any sentient nonhuman animal is inconsistent with the utilitarian theory. Therefore, we should reconsider how we treat nonhuman rights since they also have a right to happiness.
Peter Singer’s contributions have greatly influenced the utilitarian theory. The theorist believes that it is the consequence of an action that matters and not the requirement to follow a generalized rule (Francione). Singer’s argument places central importance on “preference” and “interest” by stating that an action is intrinsically valuable if it promotes the interests of those affected, including nonhuman animals. In his book, “Animal Liberation”, Singer states that while analyzing the consequences of our actions, it is important to consider animals interests to determine any adverse effect on these interests (Francione). However, Singer argues that humans have failed to observe the interests of nonhuman animals. This is manifested in practices like speciesism and species bias, whose consequences devalue animal interests. He equates speciesism to discriminative practices like sexism and racism, which no longer have a moral standing. People who justify animal experimentation on the basis of the animals’ inability to speak or reason are cruel. Singer explains that with this kind of reasoning, severely retarded human beings would be used as experiments, or for clothing and food (Francione). Singer maintains that humans exploit animals on the basis of species difference, a reasoning that would justify practices such as sexism and racism. However, while Singer emphasizes animal interests, it is important to note that his theory does not recognize animal rights. His reasoning indicates that the rightness and wrongness of an action is determined by the consequences, and not the following of rights or laws (Francione). This theory condemns practices such as Zoos and Factory Farming but it is not an abolition theory. Therefore, utilitarianism does not grant anyone the right to promote overall utility.
Utilitarianism holds that it is an action’s consequence that matter and not the rules. Peter Singer states that actions are considered right only if they further interests of the affected individuals or animals. Therefore, animal interests should be considered when assessing the moral standing of actions. Singer argues that human beings violate animal interests through speciesism, which denies animals pleasure. He emphasizes that actions should seek to increase the pleasure of animals and minimize suffering.
Francione, Gary, L. Animal Rights Theory and Utilitarianism: Relative Normative Guidance. Animal Legal and Historical Center, Lewis & Clark Law School. 1997. https://www.animallaw.info/article/animal-rights-theory-and-utilitarianism-relative-normative-guidance