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Blog: What is Utilitarianism and How Does it Apply to Animal Welfare?

This week guest writer Hayley Lynes will look at what utilitarianism means for animal welfare.

What is utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a philosophical theory which puts the emphasis of moral decisions on the consequences of our actions, rather than the intent. Following this theory, a decision is only considered truly moral if it results in overall net good for the highest number of individuals. Utilitarianism is often used in politics, where decisions are made for the betterment of society rather than in the interest of individuals. Historically, only human interests were of importance; however, this changed with philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who introduced the idea of the equal consideration of human and animal interests. This was then expanded upon by notable modern philosopher Peter Singer, particularly with his 1975 book Animal Liberation which has sold over half a million copies worldwide.

Peter Singer – influential or controversial?

Singer staunchly defends the interests of animals, arguing that his utilitarian view treats all humans and animals equally while denouncing the idea that humans are always more important simply for being human, which he refers to as Speciesism. As a promoter of vegetarianism, Singer believes the main harm to animals in society is in the suffering caused during intensive farming and the abhorrent methods used in animal experimentation, which he describes in detail in Animal Liberation. When taking into consideration the animals’ interests to live and not suffer, we can see that these practices cannot be considered morally justifiable under utilitarian theory, mostly due to the sheer numbers of animals involved worldwide.

However, where Singers application of the theory becomes controversial is in the rationalization of sacrificing individual interests (human or animal) if outweighed by more desirable consequences. Singer criticises a narrow view of personhood, reasoning that some sentient animals would be more entitled to personhood than some humans, measured by their individual capability to suffer and to what degree, and defends controversial ethical topics such as abortion, euthanasia, and infanticide.

So, what does this mean for animals?

The application of utilitarianism can be useful when considering animal welfare practices, laws, and policies; for example in the banning of cosmetic testing within the UK and EU, which was considered immoral due to the large scale cruelty that could not be outweighed by any perceived benefits. This theory however often results in situations where interests are sacrificed, which is not ideal when considering individual welfare.

Conclusion

On an individual level there are clearly pros and cons of the theory, and application can prove complicated. Arguably, we should perhaps instead consider applying aspects from various philosophical theories, rather than siding with a single belief, to both further the interests of, and protect animals from human use in future.

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This post is not legal advice and should not be relied on as such. If you require legal advice on animal protection laws please contact info@advocates-for-animals.com

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