Does the Utilitarian Argument for Vegetarianism Add Up?

by Thomas Rodham Wells

Animal_Liberation,_1977_Paladin_Books_editionThe contemporary animal rights movement owes a great intellectual debt to Peter Singer's pathbreaking book ‘Animal Liberation' (1975). In that book Singer made a break with the dominant moral argument for treating animals well, the Kantian line that mistreating animals is a bad – inhumane – thing for humans to do. In its place, Singer advanced a utilitarian case against harming animals, such as by using them for food or experiments, in terms of respecting their right to have their suffering counted equally with that of humans.

Singer's book has had an enormous influence, directly and indirectly, on how many people see the moral status of animals. I include myself among them. But nevertheless I am not sure it is a good book. Despite its rhetorical effectiveness and despite going through multiple revised editions, Singer's official argument is far from compelling. And this is a problem for the animal rights movement. For if Singer's utilitarian account is only a kind of sentimentalism in academic drag then the intellectual respectability it has granted the animal rights movement is a sham. Singer's utilitarianism can't do the job it is supposed to do – it can neither justify the normative conclusions of the book nor meet the minimalist standard of internal coherence. Furthermore, the domination of Singer's flawed argument in the intellectual self-understanding of the animal rights movement may be crowding out other more relevant ethical accounts, most obviously those that directly engage with sentimentalism rather than being embarrassed by it.

In this essay I will focus on the utilitarian case for vegetarianism. Singer argues for the moral recognition of the suffering of animals in the livestock industry and exhorts his readers to end it by not eating meat. But both the form and content of his argument are open to strong challenges.

What is my part in the struggle between good and evil?

Singer explains that the suffering of livestock animals is a real and great evil and directs people to become vegetarian (or vegan if they can) on the grounds that this will undermine the economics of industrial farming and thereby reduce the amount of animal suffering in the world. But this does not follow.

If you become a vegetarian you will not influence anything much by your consumer choices, because you are too insignificant to be counted by the animal products industry. Which restaurant do you think will notice that you changed your diet and update its menu? Which supermarket will order one less kilo of chicken per week? (This problem is well understood, at least by economists. In cases where the mechanism for counting is not sensitive enough to measure an individual's choices, such as democratic elections of any size, individuals cannot justify their actions as a means to an end.) Utilitarianism is concerned with good achievements, not good intentions. The fact is that becoming a vegetarian may make you feel better, but it won't save any animals. It is not the utilitarian thing to do.

Let me explain this counter-intuitive point further. Singer quotes Jeremy Bentham's famous slogan, “Each to count for one and none for more than one”. But the second part of that slogan indicates the practical problem with utilitarianism as a motivator of individual behaviour. Utilitarianism is concerned with aggregate consequences – bringing about the best possible world. Achieving that requires a panoptical view of the world and how it works, and the power to make major changes to it. This is not something within the power of the ordinary individual. That is why utilitarianism is rather better suited to thinking about government than to guiding individual morality. (Not surprisingly, Bentham himself wrote mostly on legal reform.)

The point is that there is a practical incoherence – a basic failure of logistical analysis – to Singer's utilitarian argument for vegetarianism that reflects a general problem for utilitarian ethics. Even if most people were persuaded that such and such was the best possible state of affairs, that is often insufficient to determine what they should do about it.

Of course, individuals can still try to ‘do their part', and it is true that if lots of people act in the appropriate way the right aggregate consequences may be realised (just as if lots of voters choose for Scottish independence it will come true). But it would be irrational to be motivated in doing so by the belief that your own actions will make any perceptible contribution to bringing about the outcome you desire. One would have to reach for some other moral justification that does not rely on such a tight link between means and ends. Such as an account of duties in which one does the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not because it will make the world better. Or virtue ethics, in which one tries to be a good person rather than to optimise the state of the world.

So it seems to me that a properly utilitarian argument should recommend effective rather than merely well-intentioned action. It would focus on politics rather than consumer choices, and direct its readers to campaign for laws banning the consumption of sentient animals, or at least the improvement of their living conditions. That is, if you agree that meat eating is a great evil then you should join the animal rights political movement and persuade individuals and institutions to come over to this perspective. Yet this strategy also comes with problems because of Singer's vagueness about utility.

It's the Greatest Happiness Principle not the smallest suffering principle

The utilitarian calculus developed by Bentham – his famous ‘Greatest Happiness Principle' – counts both the pain and the pleasure of each individual and then ranks different possible states of the world in terms of the sum total of pleasure minus pain they contain. Singer maintains the hedonic focus of Bentham but makes a major and I think misguided change by asserting that the only thing we should count is suffering.

If one only looks at pain, one gets a very distorted view of quality of life and a poor guide to action, rather as one would expect of a cost-benefit mode of analysis that disdains the consideration of benefits. Consider for example, as a reductio ad absurdum, how awful and hopeless the condition of humanity would look if the only thing you considered was pain, and also how silly it would be to make the minimisation of human pain your only objective, a goal that could be perfectly satisfied only by our extinction.

A Benthamite utilitarian argument would be concerned less with the elimination of suffering than with the maximization of net pleasure in the world. And this opens alternatives to Singer's proposal of ending the consumption of meat and thereby bringing an end to factory farming practices. For the Benthamite account sees sentient beings as capable of contributing to the world's sum of pleasure as well as of pain. If no one ate meat anymore, livestock animals would be eliminated and so would all that potential pleasure. From a Benthamite perspective the legislator's concern should be to increase the pleasure and decrease the unnecessary discomfort of livestock animals, not to eliminate their existence. For example, if drugs or genetic manipulations could be developed that kept chickens feeling happy while crowded on top of each other, utility would be maximised. In that case one might even reverse Singer's argument for a consumer boycott of meat and say that we would actually be doing our duty in the struggle between good and evil by continuing to eat animals.

Why limit ourselves to the suffering humanity inflicts?

The phenomenological experience of pain is an evolved feature of most vertebrate species, and perhaps at least some others, presumably because it informs individuals of physical injury in time for them to do something about it and this makes survival more likely. It follows that members of these species all feel pain on a regular basis, that pain is a natural feature of the natural world (and part of the modern problem of evil that theists have to deal with).

Yet, if suffering is bad in itself, why does it matter whether it is brought about by disease, accident, predators, or overcrowding and beak cutting in industrial farms? At least it is not clear to me why a professed utilitarian like Singer should focus only on human induced suffering. Utilitariansm as a doctrine is supposed to be focused on realising the state of the world one considers best, without consideration of how that state is brought about. Indeed the narrowness of moral reasoning imposed by this informational restriction is a standard objection to utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is required to ignore agent relativity, the idea that it often feels like it matters who is the one to do something (and also issues like fairness and categorical principles like ‘Don't torture').

Nor is it sufficient to say that human induced animal suffering is the easiest to remedy and therefore the most efficient locus of action. Let us play the reductio ad absurdum game again. Even if we were to succeed in eliminating the livestock industry as Singer hopes, this would be only the start. For the moral principle to minimise animal suffering that Singer unleashed would keep grinding on. After all, the world would still be drenched in the suffering of wild animals. By Singer's logic we should presumably try to eliminate those too, something that seems well within humanity's collective capacities. In this way we have already saved numerous species from suffering, such as the Dodo.

On interests, feelings, and spines

Singer's single most significant and enduring contribution to the animal rights debate is relatively simple. Directly channeling Bentham, Singer has argued that the question that matters in considering the moral status of a lifeform is not ‘Are they human?' But ‘Can they suffer?' Singer characterises those who give moral priority to humans as ‘speciesist', a term deliberately intended to evoke connotations with the irrational prejudice of racism and sexism.

Yet I wonder if Singer himself has not inadvertently promoted another -ism of his own by fetishing the particular mode of the experience of suffering that humans find most familiar. Perhaps I should call this ‘spinism', since most of the species to whom Singer extends his moral concern – those that seem to feel pain like we do – are vertebrates.

Singer declares that his concern is to take the interests of non human species into moral account. Yet he claims without argument that the possession of interests requires a human-like phenomenology: “The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in a meaningful way” (p. 7).

This is clearly false. It doesn't seem at all difficult to speak meaningfully of the interests of living organisms that lack the capacity for suffering and enjoyment. Take the case of plants, which Singer rejects with little more than a sneer (p. 235-6). Individual plants have obvious interests in surviving, thriving, and reproducing – one can even rank these in order of priority – and obvious intermediate interests in getting enough light, water and micro-nutrients, defending themselves from predators, and so on. (In addition, a case can now be made for plant sentience, based on more recent empirical research than was available when Singer last updated his book in 2002.)

But even if only a minimal interpretation of the interests of non-animal life were possible, such as continuing to live, that can still be taken into moral account. Jains for example, a well-known religious group with several million members, interpret their moral-religious duty of non-violence as requiring them not to kill any life-form, and try to live up to that by only consuming food from plants in a way that does not kill the plant.

There is something arbitrary, and thus contradictory, about Singer's extension of moral status so far and no further. Given that Singer accuses those who refuse to admit the moral status of animal suffering of a prejudice akin to racism, his failure of imagination on this point seems morally culpable.

If not utilitarianism, then what?

When we put all these critiques together there seems little left of Singer's claim to have established animal welfare “as a cause founded on basic principles of justice and morality” (p. 219). His utilitarian argument is either unconvincing or not really very utilitarian after all. Yet perhaps it doesn't need to be for the book to do the job Singer wants. Indeed, little of the book consists of explicit moral argument (just a few pages in the introduction, and a later chapter responding to his critics) while the bulk of it consists in systematic description of the horrors of factory farming and vivisection. Perhaps this is the time to confess that I was convinced to become a vegetarian by reading Singer's book, despite my misgivings about his official arguments, simply because the horror piled on horror that is factory farming doesn't need very rigorous argument to convince you once you are pointed in the right direction and persuaded to open your eyes.

What won me over was not the rigour or deftness of Singer's intellectual moves, but a much more basic reshaping of my moral sentiments. I don't feel a triumph of rationality over desire. I didn't conclude that I should stop eating meat because that would make the world a better place. Rather, I found my tastes themselves changed by the recognition of the obvious sentience of non-human animals, their possession of personalities, emotional states, and perhaps even firm opinions on some issues (favourite kinds of grass, for example). The repugnance I have come to feel about eating them is an extension of what I would feel about eating my pet cat rather than the product of some calculation of quanta of suffering. My vegetarianism is built up from my moral sentiments, a reluctance to be implicated in the unnecessary suffering of sentient creatures that might be characterised as a kind of moral disgust for cruelty. Unlike the official highly theoretical justification for vegetarianism offered by Singer, mine is visceral, muddled and inconsistent, as I think much of real moral life must be.

Although he was no friend of sentimentalism, Kant provided an influential argument for people having duties to treat animals well, on which the original animal welfare movements of the 19th century drew. Although he believed that

So far as animals are concerned, we have no direct duties. Animals are not self-conscious, and are there merely as a means to an end. That end is man.

He also argued that,

If a man shoots his dog because the animal is no longer capable of service, he does not fail in his duty to the dog, for the dog cannot judge, but his act is inhuman and damages in himself that humanity which it is his duty to show towards mankind. If he is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. (Lectures on Ethics)

It seems to me that despite its own intellectual rigour, Kant's view on this point is rightly seen these days as rather more dogmatic rather than convincing. Yet I do think that he got something right, and that something remains implicit in Singer's strangely unUtilitarian arguments: the morality of our interactions with animals is principally about us, not them. That's why it matters that the suffering is inflicted by humans for trivial reasons, that we should stop even if that won't actually save any animals, and so on. But this is something neither Kant nor Singer are quite able to get at because both are committed to theoretical approaches to moral philosophy that are deeply suspicious of an independent role for sentiments.

Is it wrong to act from sentiment rather than reason? Yes, if you are a utilitarian or a Kantian. No, if you are something else, like a virtue ethicist. Virtue ethics is concerned with moral character – with what kind of person you should be rather than what kind of actions you ought to do. Among other things it incorporates moral sentiments into moral reasoning rather than setting them in opposition. Most people are natural virtue ethicists, even if they don't know it, because it more or less reflects the commonsense understanding of moral psychology. It was central to scholarly work on moral philosophy for a very long time, up until the rationalism of the Enlightenment – the influence of thinkers like Kant and Bentham – made its lack of rigour unfashionable.

This is the account I find most adequate to the justification of my own vegetarianism. We should not be complicit in practises that inflict suffering upon animals, not because the total amount of suffering in the world is too high, but because cruelty is something we should recoil from.

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