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Utilitarianism about animals and the moral significance of use

Abstract

The Hybrid View endorses utilitarianism about animals and rejects utilitarianism about humans. This view has received relatively little sustained attention in the philosophical literature. Yet, as we show, the Hybrid View underlies many widely held beliefs about zoos, pet ownership, scientific research on animal and human subjects, and agriculture. We develop the Hybrid View in rigorous detail and extract several of its main commitments. Then we examine the Hybrid View in relation to the view that human use of animals constitutes a special relationship. We show that it is intuitively plausible that our use of animals alters our moral obligations to animals. That idea is widely believed to be incompatible with the sort of utilitarian approach in animal ethics that is prescribed by the Hybrid View. To overturn that conventional wisdom, we develop two different principles concerning the moral significance of human use of animals, which we call the Partiality Principle and the Strengthening Principle. We show that the Partiality Principle is consistent with several key commitments of the Hybrid View. And, strikingly, we show that the Strengthening Principle is fully consistent with all of the main commitments of the Hybrid View. Thus we establish the surprising result that utilitarians about animals can coherently offer a robust and intuitively appealing account of the moral significance of animal use.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For other theories within this family, see (Cohen 1986; Cohen and Regan 2001; Singer 2011: 71–93; Varner 2012; Regan 1983: 246).

  2. 2.

    Lucius Caviola et al. (in preparation) have obtained survey evidence that people are more willing to harm a few animals to save many animals than to harm a few humans to save many humans, which suggests that people hold a utilitarian view about animals but a deontological view about humans.

  3. 3.

    Consider a scene from the early-90s movie Fierce Creatures: Willa Weston objects to Vince McCain’s attempts to raise zoo revenue by securing sponsorships for the animals because it is “degrading to the animals.” Pointing to a sign on a tiger which has a picture of a bottle of Absolut vodka next to the slogan “Absolut Fierce,” she says “That is unacceptable!” Willa’s concern about degradation seems not to derive from concern about welfare and thus seems to be at odds with utilitarianism about animals. Insofar as Willa’s concern would be shared by many ordinary people, it illustrates that not all judgments about animals are in line with the Hybrid View. Thanks to an anonymous referee for pushing us on this point.

  4. 4.

    There is, of course, a further question as to why people who hold the Hybrid View do so. It may be an expression of speciesism—an irrational bias toward members of one’s own species—or it may be a consequence of views about the different kinds of values that can be realized in the lives of animals versus the lives of humans, values that call for different kinds of moral responses. We needn’t take a stand on this question here.

  5. 5.

    For consequentialists, the goodness of an act’s consequences can include any intrinsic value the act itself might have (Thomson 1994: 14).

  6. 6.

    Recently, some scalar consequentialists (Sinhababu 2018) have argued that actions have deontic properties but that those properties are matters of degree. These theorists too will typically sign on for Optimific Is Always Okay.

  7. 7.

    Classical utilitarians are hedonists: see, e.g., Bentham (1789), Mill (1861), Sidgwick (1907) and De Lazari-Radek and Singer (2014). Post-classical utilitarians who aren’t hedonists are generally preferentists: see, e.g., Smart and Williams (1973: 79–80), Hare (1981), Singer (2011: 71–93) and c.f. Railton (1984). Historically, some philosophers who identified as utilitarians held that states other than welfare are intrinsically valuable. G.E. Moore’s “ideal utilitarianism” implies, for example, that beauty can be intrinsically good even if it is not enjoyed by anyone (Moore 1903: 135–136). But this reflects a usage of ‘utilitarianism’ that predates the modern distinction between consequentialism and utilitarianism.

    Roger Crisp’s distinction between enumerative and explanatory theories of welfare opens up the possibility that an individual’s welfare consists, not in pleasure or desire-satisfaction, but rather in the things which the individual takes pleasure in for their own sake or in the things they desire non-instrumentally (Crisp 2006: 102–103). According to the traditional definitions, such views aren’t versions of hedonism or preferentism, but they still count as versions of subjectivism according to our definition.

  8. 8.

    The Hybrid View can allow that the beauty of a painting hanging in the Louvre is intrinsically good. It would seem, then, that the Hybrid View should also allow that the beauty of a gazelle bounding in the Serengeti can be intrinsically good. But if the beauty of the gazelle is an animal state, then this is incompatible with welfarism about animals, which we are including as part of the Hybrid View. Thus, any plausible version of the Hybrid View will imply that not all states of animals are what we are calling animal states. Any fleshed-out version of the Hybrid View will require a criterion by which to distinguish animal states from other states. But different versions of the Hybrid View will require different criteria. So we cannot build a single definition of ‘animal state’ into our general characterization of the Hybrid View here.

  9. 9.

    A split-level or two-level utilitarian could argue that cultivating relationships with the animals we use promotes welfare in general and so we should, from a utilitarian perspective, generally approve of people who are unwilling to abandon animals they have used. Such a view fails to capture what, intuitively, would be morally problematic if Mitchell abandoned Rex. The issue is about Rex and Mitchell’s relationship to him; it is not about whether Mitchell has internalized an optimific set of motivations.

  10. 10.

    Keller (2013) provides a valuable taxonomy of partiality views: the projects view (defended by Bernard Williams among others), the relationships view (a default position in much recent partiality literature), and the individuals view (Keller’s view). The Partiality Principle above is neutral between these three approaches. According to the Partiality Principle, given Mitchell’s use relationship with Rex, Mitchell is obligated to show partiality toward Rex. This could be because of the role Rex plays in Mitchell’s personal projects (as the projects view would have it), or because Mitchell’s use relationship with Rex provides Mitchell with reasons to treat Rex in a special way (as the relationships view would have it), or because Mitchell’s relationship with Rex enables Rex’s intrinsic value to provide Mitchell with reasons to treat Rex in a special way (as the individuals view would have it). This illustrates that the Partiality Principle can be incorporated into a wide swathe of extant partiality views.

  11. 11.

    The Strengthening Principle only says that use strengthens obligations; it does not say that use is the only factor relevant to the strength of an obligation. Thus it is compatible with the Strengthening Principle that an obligation to a stranger can be stronger than an obligation to a usee. We thank an anonymous referee for pushing us to make this point.

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Acknowledgements

We’re indebted to Stephanie Collins, Roger Crisp, Bob Fischer, Tyler John, Wojtek Kaftanski, Josh Kissel, Ole Koksvik, the Koronczyks, Emilian Mihailov, Paul Mikhail-Podosky, Josh Mund, Tyler Paytas, Richard Rowland, Russ Shafer-Landau, and an anonymous reviewer fo this journal.

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Correspondence to David Killoren.

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Killoren, D., Streiffer, R. Utilitarianism about animals and the moral significance of use. Philos Stud 177, 1043–1063 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-018-01229-1

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Keywords

  • Utilitarianism
  • Consequentialism
  • Animal ethics
  • Special relationships
  • Use