Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Utilitarianism and animal ethics

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First up, I should say that this post is going to mostly consist of other peoples’ words. It will be so because those words are very powerful words, more powerful than any I can manage. Before I share them with you, I should explain that I’ve spent my morning reading a chapter on utilitarianism from James Rachels’ The Elements of Moral Philosophy. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialist moral theory; consequentialism holds that the rightness of an action is to be judged by its consequences. In those terms, utilitarianism claims that we should aim to maximise the good (usually expressed as happiness) and minimise the bad (usually expressed as harm or suffering). The theory is influential in animal ethics debates, which is how I came to it, because some utilitarians, most famously Peter Singer, argue that species membership is not a morally relevant characteristic. What matters, say utilitarians, is not what species a being is, or whether it is rational, but whether it can suffer. Singer argues that if a being can suffer then we ought to count its interests equally with those of other beings when we calculate overall utility. So now that I’ve got the context out of the way, here are the two passages I mentioned at the outset. The first is used by Rachels to illustrate the utilitarian argument I’ve outlined above, and comes from Singer’s famous 1973 book Animal Liberation. The passage describes a set of experiments carried out in the 1950’s to understand ‘learned helplessness’. Be prepared from some pretty disturbing stuff.

‘Harvard University R. Solomon, L. Kamin, and L. Wynne tested the effects of electric shock on the behavior of dogs. They placed forty dogs in a device called a “shuttlebox” which consists of a box divided into two compartments, separated by a barrier. Initially the barrier was set at the height of the dog’s back. Hundreds of intense electric shocks were delivered to the dogs’ feet through a grid floor. At first the dog could escape the shock if they learned to jump the barrier into the other compartment. In an attempt “discourage” one dog from jumping, the experimenters forced the dog to jump into shock 100 times. They said that as the dog jumped he gave a “sharp anticipatory yip which turned into a yelp when he landed on the electrified grid.” They then blocked the passage between the compartments with a piece of plate glass and tested the same dog again, The dog “jumped forward and smashed his head against the glass.” Initially dogs showed symptoms such as “defecation, urination, yelping and shrieking, trembling, attacking the apparatus” and so on, but after ten or twelve days of trials dogs that were prevented from escaping shock ceased to resist. The experimenters reported themselves “impressed” by this and concluded that a combination of the plate glass barrier and foot shock were “very effective” in eliminating jumping by dogs.’ (I couldn’t find an online copy of their paper, but there are plenty that make use of it; here’s one that’s not behind an publisher’s paywall – read the abstract)

I was pretty shocked by that example, and it was followed up by a matter of fact description of the awful conditions that veal calves are kept in – I’ll spare you the details. Although Solomon, Kamin, and Wynne’s monstrous experiments were carried out in the 1950s, the horrors that we visit upon non-human animals today remain unbelievably cruel, and in almost incalculable numbers (approximately 75,000,000 tonnes of bovine, sheep, and goat meat per year are ‘produced’ in farms across the world1, add in poultry, fish, and other animals killed for food, along with the millions of animals experimented upon and you begin to see the scale of our actions). Reading about Solomon, Kamin, and Wynne’s experiments immediately brought to mind a passage from J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello, which is one of the most powerful things I’ve read. The passage follows a scene where Elizabeth’s daughter-in-law, Norma, expresses her resentment at Elizabeth’s vegetarianism to Elizabeth’s son, which she sees it as nothing more than a way of undermining her with her children. I suspect most vegetarians and vegans will be familiar with the air of resentment that springs up when people learn of their refusal to eat meat. Here Elizabeth speaks to her son of her feelings:

‘…I no longer longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money. It is as if I were to visit friends, and to make some polite remark about the lamp in their living room, and they were to say, “Yes, it’s nice, isn’t it? Polish-Jewish skin it’s made of, we find that’s the best, the skins of young Polish-Jewish virgins.” And then I go to the bathroom and the soap wrapper says, “Treblinka – 100% human stearate.” Am I dreaming, I say to myself? What kind of house is this? Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?

There are days when I feel like Elizabeth Costello, and on those days it makes the resentment that people feel towards vegetarians and vegans all the more difficult to understand. On those days I am reminded of Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase about the ‘banality of evil‘. And it strikes me, thinking about Elizabeth Costello, that although moral theory can go a long way go a long way towards helping us know how we should act, sometimes we need the force of great literature to bring the importance of right action home to us. I may not be convinced by utilitarianism (for one thing, it permits the actions described in the first passage if the overall happiness created is higher than the level of suffering caused), but I’m convinced that non-human animals are worthy of moral consideration, and that their moral standing should place constraints upon our treatment of them. Constraints that, at the very least, forbid us from using them as Solomon, Kamin and Wynne did, and forbid us from doing as the veal farmer does. I’ll explain why I think those constraints should go much further some other day. But for now, I’m going look to the nicer facets of human existence by soaking up some spring sunshine and enjoying the company of my children.

1. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, FAO Statistical Yearbook, 2010.


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

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