Is there place for animal utility in utilitarianism?

We know that animals can suffer, so they can have different states of well-being, and thus utility applies to them. However, I don't think that animal well-being should weigh as much as human well-being. If you ask someone whether he'd rather kill two flies or one human, probably everyone will choose two flies.

I'd like to know whether there are philosophers who said something about this.

  • Perhaps you are already familiar with Peter Singer, he is utilitarian and animal rights advocate, I'm not sure how he deals with your specific question. Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 20:58

3 Answers 3


First off, I want to note that this is a good way to extend the concepts you're encountering elsewhere. Second, in contemporary philosophy, the word "Utilitarianism" is often used interchangeably with the word "Consequentialism."

This is important because the classical definition of utilitarianism comes from Jeremy Bentham who defined it as the maximization of pleasure. Moreover, in his view, there's an equation between all forms of pleasure. This view was modified by J.S. Mill who distinguished between qualities of pleasure in the volume we now call Utilitarianism in the first section. To my knowledge, Mill does not include animals in his calculation.

Consequentialism more broadly refers to the set of views where ethics is about maximization or minimization of some property in the world. Probably the most prominent person to take this view and intentionally include animals is Peter Singer. Peter Singer's basic ethical outlook is about the minimization of pain. On Peter Singer's view, animals sufficiently similar to us have pain that we should consider of equal value in this calculation as our own. (See also).

Other consequentialists may or may not make similar moves. For instance, those committed to maximization rationality might want to extend it to some primates and dolphins.

  • Mill does include animals in his calculations, and supports animal rights, but also admits that animals aren't capable of feeling "higher pleasures" that humans are. Also, I wouldn't say consequentialism = utilitarianism: ethical egoism is also a consequential theory, but very different from utilitarianism. A utilitarian invariably accepts consequential ethics, but so does an egoist. Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 11:22
  • @dimension10 I did not claim consequentialism = utilitarianism. I said they are "often used interchangeably." Also, Mill's inclusion is muted precisely because for him animals are not capable of higher pleasures (See Utilitarianism 2) -- now for Bentham all pleasures are the same but I'm less familiar with his version.
    – virmaior
    Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 12:42
  • Mill claimed higher pleasures are to be valued over lower pleasures, and his argument for animal rights has mostly do with the pain caused (which isn't really a "lower pain"). Bentham and Mill's definitions of utility look different superficially, but they're effectively the same - Mill says intellectual pleasures are superior to sensual ones because most people would choose the former over the latter, but in Bentham's argument, intellectual pleasures are superior only because they last longer (so Bemntham also views animal pleasures as inferior to human ones). It's worth noting tha Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 13:58
  • t neurology wasn't as advanced in Bentham and Mills' times as it is today, and much of their differences can be settled on a simple neurological basis. Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 13:59
  • Scholars in general seem to disagree on your claim that Bentham and Mill about the qualitative distinction Mill draws. In fact, it's central to his argument. Otherwise, the rest of what he's saying doesn't work. / Separately, contemporary neuroscience cannot resolve this because neither hinges their argument on neuroscience. Mill's claim of qualitative distinction is in a sense a violation of the utilitarian calculus Bentham originally suggested...
    – virmaior
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 19:40

If you ask someone whether he'd rather kill two flies or one human, probably everyone will choose two flies.

I should start by noting that flies don't have pain receptors, so let's change the question to "two pigs or one human".

The utilitarian answer is still to kill two pigs, because the utility from a human (to all "moral agents", as philosophers like to call them) is greater than the utility from two pigs.

It's just like a question: would you kill a (or say, your favourite) political leader or a common fellow on the street? Obviously, the work of the political leader affects a lot more people than that of the common fellow's.

In addition to that, pigs are generally considered to be less intelligent than humans, thus are capable of feeling less "intellectual pleasures" (according to Mill an intellectual pleasure is intrinsically superior to a sensual one, while according to Bentham the superiority comes from the longer duration of pleasure - both arguments are effectively the same).

However, when it's "pig's life vs. human's tastebuds", the utilitarian response, I think, is to save the pig's life because we're directly comparing sensual pleasures here - i.e. animal slaughter and meat consumption are generally not good things in utilitarianism.

  • 1
    That is, although common sense, not necessarily true. See the discussion in R.H. Bradshaw: Consciousness in non human Animals. Adopting the Precautionary Principle. In: Journal of Consciousness Studies 5 (1998), 108-14.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 14:15
  • @PhilipKlöcking Are you referring to the argument on humans being more useful than pigs or about pigs being unable to feel intellectual pleasures? Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 14:49
  • No I am referring to the argument that it is possible that while hard to conceive for us, there are clues that our conception of intelligence and conciousness may be too narrow and therefore exclude animals from the sphere of morals erronously. An argument against speciesism. Like in above mentioned paper.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 15:01

You might start from Albert Schweitzer's:

Standing, as all living beings are, before this dilemma of the will to live, a person is constantly forced to preserve his own life and life in general only at the cost of other life. If he has been touched by the ethic of reverence for life, he injures and destroys life only under a necessity he cannot avoid, and never from thoughtlessness

This seems to roll all life up into a single 'energy'. And if the ending of lives is all the same ethical 'currency' or 'cost', no doubt threats to do so should be, and thus so should the suffering and fear which is the biological marker of the threat that your life might end.

I do not know in detail how Schweitzer attempted to weigh lives against one another. But it seems that criteria could be evolved from the single general principle of responsibility to balance death against suffering, resulting in a Utilitarian computation.

Taken 'neet', this principle seems to defy some ordinary aspects of Utility, since it accords a positive value to a life without pleasure, and some Utilitarianisms would accord that a negative value.

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