Utilitarianism

According to the utilitarian, the interests of every individual affected by an action count morally and deserve equal consideration. In utilitarian writings, the notion of an interest is usually defined in terms of "the capacity for suffering or enjoyment or happiness".21 Thus, individuals have an interest in acts that will enhance their enjoyment or reduce their suffering. From this it follows that all sentient beings, human and nonhuman, have interests. And, since for the utilitarian, all interests count morally and deserve equal consideration, this implies that the impact of one's actions on all sentient creatures, including animals, is a matter of moral concern.

Many philosophers have proposed the principle of equal consideration of interests, in some form or other, as a basic moral principle; but...not many of them have recognized that this principle applies to members of other species as well as to our own.. If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering — in so far as rough comparisons can be made — of any other being.

Peter Singer (1989) All Animals are Equal, in Animal Rights and Human Obligations

For the utilitarian, then, ethical decisions require us to strike the most favorable balance of benefits and costs for all the sentient individuals affected by what we do. However, doing the right thing, according to the utilitarian, is not only a matter of doing what is optimal. It is also essential to do something rather than nothing: if something can be done to increase well-being, we have a duty to do it. This utilitarian duty to act always to bring about improvements has important consequences for society. In contemporary Western society, we have a general tendency to give ourselves priority over animals. A thoroughgoing utilitarian will regard this tendency as essentially wrong. However, the anthropocentric outlook is obviously well established, and in view of this, it may well be that, for the time being at least, any attempt to ensure that sentient animals are accorded the same status as human beings is bound to fail. It may be that the best thing a utilitarian can do is to secure higher levels of animal welfare within the current system. To give a specific illustration, in the case of laboratory animals, a utilitarian realist might be willing to apply the so-called "principle of the three Rs" — that is, endorse actions and policies leading to the replacement of existing live-animal experiments with alternatives, or reductions in the number of animals used, or refined methods that cause animals less suffering.22 It can be seen, then, that less-invasive sampling techniques, improved housing systems, and more precise models requiring fewer animals to be used are likely to be viewed as morally attractive developments within the realist utilitarian perspective.

In the ethical conflicts prompted by animal research, human interest in obtaining some benefit stands against the animal's interest in avoiding suffering. Sometimes, however, the utilitarian will want to weigh not just animal interests against human interests, but also the interests of different animals against each other. Animal experiments can benefit animals as well as humans: many of the insights underlying veterinary medicine have been derived from experiments on animals. When a pet cat receives a vaccination against FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus), it benefits from immunology research done on other cats, even though the primary purpose of this research was to develop treatments for HIV. It can be seen, then, that in deciding whether an animal experiment is ethically justifiable, it is sometimes necessary to take into account both the animals whose interests are sacrificed in the experiment and the animals that may benefit from the results.

Animal-based research is just one of the many ways in which we make use of animals. The overwhelming majority of domestic animals are kept for food production. Most are kept under restrictive conditions in which basic behavioral or physiological needs are thwarted. Laying hens, for example, are commonly kept in battery cages where they cannot perform strongly motivated nesting behaviors before egg laying and where the restriction of their movement results in bone brittleness and a high incidence of broken bones. Similarly, breeding sows are often confined to crates in a way that limits most movements other than simply lying down and standing up. It seems beyond doubt that food production under the conditions currently prevalent in commercial farming causes considerable animal distress. Naturally, this cost must be weighed against the benefit, to human beings, of access to cheap meat and eggs. However, given that the average citizen in the developed world consumes far more protein than is physiologically necessary, and often more animal fat than is healthy, low-cost meat cannot be considered a vital human interest.

We have gone into this matter in some detail because the welfare implications of present-day commercial farming have a significant bearing on the utilitarian response to animal experimentation. This bearing is easily seen: the abandonment of intensive animal husbandry practices will probably promote animal well-being (without jeopardizing vital human interests) much more effectively than the abolition of animal-based research.

In this section, we have described a pragmatic utilitarian approach. We have suggested that realistically the utilitarian should perhaps accept that animal interests are best sacrificed where that leads to the satisfaction of vital human interests — as happens in much biomedical research. But for all that has been said, a more radical utilitarianism might be worth exploring. Animal experimentation sometimes means sacrificing vital animal interests in continued life and in the avoidance of abject suffering. Insisting that human and animal interests deserve equal consideration, Singer concludes that the sacrifice of such vital animal interests is acceptable only where the benefits are extraordinarily important:

...If a single experiment could cure a major disease, that experiment would be justifiable. But in actual life the benefits are always much, much more remote, and more often than not they are nonexistent.. .an experiment cannot be justifiable unless the experiment is so important that the use of a retarded human being would also be justifiable.

Singer (1975) Animal Liberation

It is evident, then, that within the utilitarian approach to animal experimentation a wide range of views are represented. Some utilitarian observers accept most animal experiments as long as we do our utmost to prevent and alleviate animal suffering. Others, like Singer, setting the demand for human benefit higher, would prefer to see nearly all such experiments abolished. What all utilitarians agree on, however, is the methodological precept that ethical decisions in animal research require us to balance the harm we do to laboratory animals against the benefits we derive for humans and other animals. Interestingly, some moral philosophers have attacked this very precept — the notion that we can work out what is ethical by trading off one set of interests against another. The allegation is that such tradeoffs violate the rights of the individuals whose interests are in the moral balance. To get clearer about this, we need to turn to rights theory.

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