Animal Rights 101, part five: Utilitarianism


In a nutshell, utilitarianism holds that the consequences of a given action is what determines its moral worth. According to the principle of utility the right action is that which maximizes “utility.” Under hedonistic or classical utilitarianism, utility is defined in terms of pain and pleasure. The morally correct action to take in any given situation, then, is the one that leads to the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of individuals affected by that action.

In counting the pleasures and pains of all those affected, each individual must “count for one and none for more than one.” Because nonhuman animals can also be affected by an action (i.e., an action can cause them pleasure or pain), their pleasures and pains must also be taken into consideration when deciding whether an action is wrong or right.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer, probably the most well-known modern proponent of utilitarianism, defines utility in terms of preferences rather than pleasure and pain. Preference utilitarianism holds that what is intrinsically valuable in any given scenario is not pleasure, per se, but the satisfaction of preferences (i.e., desires or interests).[1] Of course, these preferences might include avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, but preference utilitarianism might be seen as a more nuanced or graded approach.

In addition to the principle of utility, Singer advocates even more forcefully for a principle of equal consideration for other beings’ interests. In determining the consequences of our actions, he argues that we must accord equal consideration to equal interests, even going so far as to say that nonhuman animals have a right to this consideration. He describes at length how excluding nonhuman animals from equal consideration (or otherwise disregarding their interests) is speciesist, an arbitary bias in favor of one’s own species membership that is analogous to excluding humans from equal consideration on the basis of their race or sex.[2]

Singer later expressed regret at allowing “the concept of a right to intrude into [his] work so unnecessarily.” Though he is often called “the father of the animal rights movement,” this stance is not all that surprising when you consider that his views do not and cannot lead to a respect-based animal rights view given his adherence to the principle of utility.[3]

Issue: Tension between equal consideration and utility

The principle of utility is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is–under Singer’s view–the tension between considering like interests equally and maximizing utility.

Despite his belief that we ought to determine what will maximize utility on a case-by-case basis, Singer holds that animals’ interests must always be given equal consideration. Though this insistence also informs the egalitarianism of rights theory put forth previously, it creates problems here because taking all interests equally into consideration may well fail to maximize utility, at which point we would no longer operating in the realm of utilitarianism.

The corollary here is that the principle of utility conflicts with the principle of equal consideration when maximizing utility would require us to ignore the interests of some individuals or otherwise allow them to be harmed if doing so serves the “greater good.” In other words, utilitarianism’s emphasis on the consequential benefit of a potential act favors the majority and allows for exploitation of the minority.

As Tom Regan writes, “The modest point being urged here is that, for all its emphasis on equality, utilitarianism would sanction recognizable forms of sexism and racism, if the facts happened to turn out a certain way.”[4]

Issue: Treats interests as tradable

The rights view protects interests even when it would benefit others (or the greater good) to violate or ignore them. “[T]he defining characteristic of a respect-based right is that the interest that it protects cannot be compromised for consequential considerations alone.”[5] Utilitarianism, on the other hand, treats interests as tradable. If ignoring the interests of certain individuals maximizes utility overall, then utilitarianism would say that the right thing to do in that situation is to ignore those interests in favor of the interests of the many, effectively treating interests as tradable, not inviolable. Such a view “is consistent with animal exploitation if the consequences justify that exploitation and if the decision to exploit is not based on species discrimination.”[6]

Indeed, though Singer advocates vegetarianism, it is not certain how he can prescribe this measure on a utilitarian basis. An appeal on consequentialist grounds would suggest that vegetarianism maximizes utility, but the principle of utility could well come down against vegetarianism if the consequences of everyone becoming vegetarian actually turned out to have less utility than if everyone continued to eat at animal products.

Singer thinks that the negative consequences for the animals involved in factory farming outweigh the benefits, but as Regan points out, “[t]he animal industry is big business,” and although “[i]t is uncertain exactly how many people are involved in it, directly or indirectly, . . . the number must easily run into the many tens of thousands.” Those involved in animal agriculture “have a stake in the animal industry as rudimentary and important as having a job, feeding a family, or laying aside money for their children’s education or their own retirement.” . . . The problem is that once the preference satisfaction of everyone involved in factory farming (humans and nonhuman) is deemed relevant and counted equitably, Singer’s assumed result appears to be much more controversial than he recognizes.[7] 

In light of these complications, the utilitarian impact of becoming vegetarian is not at all clear, particularly on the individual level. Because utilitarians must make the moral calculations on a case-by-case basis, they cannot demonstrate that becoming vegetarian will always maximize utility, which means that utilitarianism can make no standing argument for vegetarianism at all, much less veganism.

More consistent with the utilitarian view is his assertion that it may be morally justifiable to eat animals who “have a pleasant existence in a social group suited to their behavioral needs, and are then killed quickly and without pain.”[8]

Issues: Fails to offer normative guidance

The vegetarian question points to a lack of normative guidance (i.e., guidelines for standard, everyday behavior) offered by Singer’s views. In Animal Rights Theory and Utilitarianism: Relative Normative Guidance, Gary L. Francione reveals utilitarianism’s lack of normative guidance by focusing on three components of moral theory that he identifies as the ideal level, the micro-level, and the macro-level.

The ideal level asks what ideal state a theory aims to achieve. The clarity of a theory’s ideal state is important because it helps guide micro- and macro-level components of moral decision-making. The micro-level component of a theory guides our personal behavior. The macro-level component examines whether a theory prescribes how to effect incremental change in order to achieve a theories ideal state of affairs.

Under the rights view, it may be said that the ideal state is the complete abolition of institutionalized animal exploitation, a fairly clear, measurable objective. Knowing that this is our ideal state, it becomes rather plain that our personal obligation on the micro level is to avoid participating in activities that, at the very least, contribute directly to animal exploitation (i.e., we ought to be vegan). On the macro level, a coherent prescription for incremental change guides us to a strategy of spreading rights-based ideology and veganism.

Singer’s ideal is much more vague, requiring as it does that offer nonhuman animals equal consideration for their interests while maximizing utility. How do we describe or measure this objective, much less know when we have reached it (assuming it is a place one could even “reach”)? This view offers no practical guidance for making decisions, ultimately leading us to make best guesses about what is likely to “reduce” suffering to some indeterminable extent.

The calculations required to follow this rule for micro-level decision-making are stunningly complicated. Among our variables are every individual who might be affected by what we choose to do, the preferences those individuals have, and the varying weights of these preferences. Assuming it was possible to gather all this data, we would then have to make comparisons of these preferences between individuals and across species, and we would have to determine which satisfied preferences maximize utility, which don’t, and so on. As if this wasn’t burden enough, we must perform this complex calculus for every considered action, and there’s still a chance our estimates could be wrong due to our lack of perfect knowledge, our inability to predict how other involved parties might behave, much less our general inability to predict the future.

On the macro-level of decision-making, the admonition to do whatever we think might best reduce suffering is equally unhelpful. Already our ideal state is vague, so this sort of guidance makes it hard to know where we’re headed incrementally as a group. Nor do we always know whether and how much our actions will reduce suffering, which is perhaps what leads certain animal advocates to focus on what some new welfare advocates call the “low-hanging fruit.”

This approach to advocacy involves welfare campaigns that are problematic for a number of reasons that I will analyze in my next AR101 installment. Suffice it to say for now that the macro-level component here fails to meaningfully distinguish our incremental actions as a movement from those who exploit animals (none of whom believe we ought to, say, increase suffering). It is hard to see how animals will be liberated if we are merely reinforcing the existing paradigm that it is acceptable to use animals, so long as we minimize their suffering.


Compared to a rights-based approach, which simply tells us that equal consideration means equal protection for those interests that are equal (leading to veganism), utilitarianism is unclear and could possibly even lead to immoral results. In my next installment of AR101, I will examine the new welfare approach of the modern “animal rights movement,” which is informed by utilitarian thought. As we shall see, utilitarianism’s vague, conflicting, and difficult-to-fulfill prescriptions offer little, or worse, confusing guidance for our advocacy.

Next: New Welfarism

Previous: Property

1. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 14.


2. ______, Animal Liberation, Ecco paperback, first edition (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), 6.

3. Much is made of the influence wrought by Animal Liberation on the “animal rights movement,” though its author distances himself from rights theory, calling his use of the term a concession to popular moral rhetoric (Peter Singer, “The Parable of the Fox and the Unliberated Animals,” Ethics 88, no. 2 {January 1978}, p. 122). Despite this, the utilitarian’s groundbreaking 33 year-old book continues to be recommended by a number of prominent advocates, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as the “animal rights ‘bible’.” PETA’s merchandise catalog states, “If you read only one animal rights book, it has to be this one.”

I want to be clear on a few things. Animal Liberation does raise some important philosophical questions regarding our treatment of animals. It is not a trivial work, and it obviously influenced a new movement on behalf of animals that, in some form, is still around today. However, its own author has disavowed rights, and Animal Liberation does not promote any sort of rights theory whatsoever. It is not an animal rights book. As such, it does not provide any clear guidance for rights advocacy.

If you want to read an animal rights book, and you can read only one for some reason, then allow me to recommend Gary L. Francione’s Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? Within that book, you’ll find a concise and easy-to-understand discussion of animal rights theory, along with a coherent prescription for a rights-based approach to abolishing animal exploitation.

4. Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, 1st ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 227-28.

5. Gary L. Francione, “Equal Consideration,” in Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 168.

6. ______, Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), 49.

7. ______, “Animal Rights Theory and Utilitarianism: Relative Normative Guidance.”

8. Singer, Animal Liberation, 229-30

I hope you’re finding this series useful. I enjoy the reading comments I’ve been receiving so far, so please continue to share your thoughts by commenting below.


Enjoy AAFL? Use the permalink icon to share this entry with your friends or to link it from your blog, submit to a service using the share button below. To support my writing, please consider making a small donation using the button in the navbar above. Thanks!