Does Utilitarianism require too much from us in relation to our obligations towards animals, future generations, and those suffering from famine?

In this essay I will define what utilitarianism is using P.Singer’s [p120, 1993] terminology while relating this to the essay title by outlining what our obligations towards animals, future generations, and those suffering from famine would be using utilitarian ideas. There will be some consideration given to problems of the utilitarian view, and after this I will discuss the areas involved giving my conclusion. In this essay some reference will be made to the following terms, ‘sentient beings’, ‘consciousness’, and ‘self-consciousness’; these shall be defined briefly here. Firstly, a sentient being is one that is able to feel pleasure and pain, and has wants or desires that could be fulfilled or hampered. Secondly, consciousness here means an awareness of oneself and following on from this, thirdly, self-consciousness in this context means an awareness of oneself as a being that exists over time, including having an awareness of one’s past and one’s future.

According to Singer [p14, 1993] the classical utilitarian regards an action as right if it produces as much or more of an increase in the happiness of all affected by it than any alternative action, and wrong if it does not. The consequences of an action will vary depending on the circumstances it is performed under — this means that a utilitarian will judge lying bad in some cases and good in others, depending on its consequences. In uilitarianism there are two main categories, the first is Act-utilitarianism, where the value of the consequences of the particular action we perform counts when deciding if the act is right , and which act will bring about the best consequences; the second is Rule-utilitarianism, where we follow the rule which, if everyone followed it, would bring about the greatest happiness. This is done by finding the value of of the consequences of following a particular rule, leading to the best rule of action being discovered. The rule that has the best consequences is the best one, the right action is the one which conforms with the best rule. Singer [p120, 19y3] distinguishes between two versions of utilitarianism, the first is called ‘the prior existence version’ — this is where in making the moral decision, we take into consideration the beings that are already in existence (whether or not the action we take to the person or animal will lead to a growth or a reduction in pleasure for those beings now in existence). The second version of utilitarianism is ‘the total version’ — where it is good to increase the total amount of pleasure in the world (and reduce the total amount of pain). It does not matter whether this is done by increasing the pleasure of existing beings or increasing the number of beings who exist.

With regard to our obligations towards animals, as they are not autonomous beings it follows that they do not qualify for a right to life, this indicates that in making the decision on whether or not it is right or wrong to kill them lies with utilitarian considerations. There are many factors that would underpin a utilitarians decision on the rightness of the killing of animals — firstly, many of the methods that are used to kill animals do not lead to an instant death which tells us that there is pain involved in their death. Secondly, a utilitarian would have to consider the effect that the death of one animal would have on his or her mate or other members of the animals social group, this can be illustrated by the fact that there are a large number of species of birds where the partnership between male and female lasts a lifetime. There is little doubt that the death of one part of this pair would cause torment, a sense of grief and remorse for the surviving one, this is also the case for the mother and child bond in mammals and it would inflict anguish if either is taken away. These factors (and many others like these) would lead a utilitarian to stand in opposition to a lot of killing of animals, regardless of the fact that the animals are not classed as persons, but these are not reasons alone for not killing animals at the same time (apart from the pain and suffering it may cause) [p120, 1993].

The reason why the considerations outlined above for not killing animals could not be taken on board on their own is a complicated one. It would depend on how we would choose between the two versions of utilitarianism I mentioned earlier in this essay. Taking Singer’s [p120, 1993] ‘prior existence’view would indicate that it is wrong to kill any being whose life is likely to contain (or according to Singer, can be brought to contain) more pleasure than pain. This view makes the implication that it is normally wrong to kill animals for food because usually we could bring it about that these animals had a few pleasant months (or even, as Singer points out, years) before they died. Therefore, the pleasure we could derive from the eating of them would not surpass this. The ‘total view’ takes us elsewhere in the sense that it sees sentient beings as only having value in so far as they make viable the reality of intrinsically valuable experiences like pleasure, this is the foundation for the replaceability argument — according to L.Stephen [p121, 1993], although meat-eaters are accountable for the death of the animal they eat and for the loss of pleasure experienced by that animal, they are also accountable for the creation of more animals, because if no one ate meat there would be no more animals bred for fattening. Such a loss is given balance by its benefits, there are some problems with this argument.

The term ‘animal’ covers too broad an area of lives for one principle to apply to all of them. A strong case can be made in particular against the killing of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans because of discoveries about these and them being near-relatives of ours. It can be argued that because of this they should be offered the same complete guard against being killed that we grant all human beings [p132, 1993]. A similar case can also be made for whales, dolphins, monkeys, dogs, cats, pigs, seals, bears, cattle, sheep and so on — it could perhaps be expanded so that it covers all mammals. There is doubt over the killing of animals done by humans, even when it is done with the least amount of pain and does not inflict anguish on other habitants of the animal group. As animals are not reasonable or self-conscious individuals the case against killing lacks strength, it is possible to view non-self-conscious animals as adaptable with each other in a way that self-conscious beings are not. This indicates that when animals lead enjoyable lives, are killed painlessly, their deaths do not cause anguish to other animals, and the killing of one animal makes possible its substitution for another who would not have lived otherwise — the killing of non-self-conscious animals may not be wrong [p132, 1993].

An objection to Act-utilitarianism is that it seems to be too lenient, and can be capable of explaining away any misdeed, and its possible to make it morally obligatory, as long as the value of the consequences of the particular act are of a high enough extent. Another objection is that Act-utilitarianism seems better in theory than in practice, because we very rarely have access to the time and the knowledge to foresee the consequences of an act, or to assess their value, while making a comparison with any conceivable alternative acts. Rule-utilitarianism has the difficulty of being not really utilitarian due to its concession that consequences might not be the most significant consideration, difficulties also occur because it can be problematic to agree on the rules, and finally, problems occur because of the idea that it is important to treat people fairly seems to rest on the wrong kind of explanation.

According to J.Glover [p93, 1977 ], it can be argued that to fulfill our requirements with regard to our obligations towards those who are suffering from famine we would have to give enough financial aid to fight famine until we reached the level where we would need it more than the people we were giving aid to. To do otherwise would be allowing more people to die, meaning this would be equal to murder. J.Glover [p96, 1977] highlights negative utilitarianism on this issue, a negative utilitarian would tell us not to promote happiness, but instead to eliminate misery — giving financial aid to the starving could be said to reduce misery. Negative utilitarianism has problems in that the only way of eliminating all suffering would be the painless destruction of all conscious life. Also, the distinction that it rests upon is not very clear.

In Garrett Hardin’s essay ‘Lifeboat Ethics’ [p11, 1977], he makes the argument that we should not give help to those who suffer from famine, a comparison is made between affluent nations and well stocked lifeboats — Hardin recommends that we should maintain our own survival through keeping a reserve of surplus. By doing this we would be preserving our own environment for future generations and, at the same time protecting them against the impoverished who want hand-outs from us, this is where the analogy of the lifeboat comes in because by stopping others coming to us for help we are ensuring that they do not “swamp the boat”. Future generations have a claim against us, and the consequences of feeding the starving would result in disaster and, eventually would threaten the human species as a whole. Hardin also makes the point that “pure justice” is incompatible with survival and, that not even developmental assistance should be given, one line of reasoning for Hardin (and for Fletcher) is that many countries’ population has exceeded productivity in the sense that by supplying them with food we will increase their population more and this would cause more starvation in the long-term, which food assistance from us would not be able to control. From this argument, giving aid to famine-stricken countries would mean an increase in human misery which takes us to the conclusion that it should not be done.

For P.Singer [p6,1972], the way to address the problem of famine is through individual donations to food distribution agencies. The first assumption that singer makes is that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad. The second assumption is that if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything of ‘comparable moral importance’, then morally we ought to do it. By ‘comparable moral importance’ Singer means “without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad thing we can prevent” [p24, 1977]. This principle requires us only to prevent what is bad, and not to promote what is good, and it requires this of us only when we can do it without sacrificing anything that is (from the moral point of view) comparably important. Singer wants us to reduce ourselves to the level of ‘marginal utility’ which is “the point at which by giving more, we would cause as much suffering to ourselves or our dependents as we would relieve by our aid” — reducing ourselves to very near the material position of a Bengali refugee (the example Singer uses due to the crisis that was happening at the time of his writing).

In conclusion, problems arise because utilitarianism requires too much from us in relation to our obligations towards animals, future generations, and those suffering from famine. Utilitarianism demands too much because it requires concern for everyone but without full commitment to anyone and also, concern for the best result. Arguments for utilitarianism and what it demands of us are that it reminds us that well-being is an important factor and that we have to think of more than just human beings. Another positive aspect of utilitarianism is that it reminds us that the consequences of our actions are morally significant, in the sense that having good intentions does not necessarily mean we are excused if our actions result in some negative consequences. Another consideration worth bearing in mind when considering the demands that utilitarianism makes on us is that there are utilitarian reasons for believing that we ought not to attempt to predict these consequences for every ethical decision we make in everyday life, but instead only in very unusual circumstances, or on the other hand maybe when we are considering our choice of general beliefs to pave the way for us in the future. This indicates that although the demands are very high, they need not be made in every ethical decision.

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