For me, there are living beings which have a value for me. For example, the tree in my garden, my mother or my best friend. I want them to be happy etc.

But take animal experiments: I feel like good and evil is always relative to me. And when something is so distant like a famine somewhere in Africa, I just cant care. We will die all in the end, anyway.

As I understand, utilitarianism cares about all happiness equally. How can one argue in that framework that life that I don't have a relationship with has a value?

  • 2
    Welcome to Philosophy.SE! I tried to reword your question a bit to specifically ask about utilitarianism. If it were just asking 'why has life value', that would be rather broad and unanswerable. As a new user, please make sure to read the tour and How to Ask. Thanks!
    – user2953
    Sep 4, 2016 at 7:17
  • What does this question have to do with utilitarianism? Sep 4, 2016 at 12:18
  • First you need to ask, does all life have equal value in classical utilitarianism? Although, even this question involves a weak understanding of utilitarianism. Classical utilitarianims is about suffering and happiness, not life in general. The tree in your garden is not sentient--it does not feel cognize pain and pleasure. With that, please rephrase your question (or else it will surely be closed).
    – adamaero
    Sep 17, 2016 at 22:53
  • Here is one way to get started: bit.do/utilitarianism
    – adamaero
    Sep 17, 2016 at 23:22

2 Answers 2


This is a potentially interesting question. There's two things that need to be cleared up before we can get to it thought.

First, there's a good deal of fuzziness about what "utilitarian" means. Its classical referent is the views of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but clearly you can't be meaning that here. On their views, it's only human pleasure and suffering that matters. But even within their views, there is variation. Bentham took the view that all types of pleasure are equal in kind (just differing in degree). Mill took the position that there we baser / nobler pleasures and that somehow discerning people who prefer the latter and that they have a superior character.

This confusion can be unwrapped though in that sometimes "utilitarianism" is used in contemporary philosophy as a synonym for the entire family of values that think the good can be calculated and then maximized. So I'll assume that's what you mean by the term.

This leads to the second issue. Given the broader meaning, it is not by any means clear that utilitarians must be committed to the belief that all life (of any sort had value). This seems to be an implication in the views of several contemporary utilitarians -- for instance Peter Singer. Singer, in fact, specifically argues that we should treat problems in Burma as on par with problems that are local in "Famine Affluence and Morality."

But pushing that aside, it's completely plausible to come up with a consequentialist theory that accepts that proximity matters (i.e. that makes it okay to care about things that are near me more than things that are further away). What seems like it might be lost here is that now your ethical theory has a type of "egoistic" component in that proximity to you becomes a condition for considering what's going on. This need not be a robust egoism, however, because you could (though this would not be required) maintain that each person should incorporate proximity into their valuations of happiness.

A non-utilitarian variation of this serves as an objection to both "utilitarian" and deontological accounts. Here, I'm thinking specifically Bernard Williams who in the volume Moral Luck has an essay on the problem with any moral theory that can't present a moral difference between saving someone you know versus a random person. (He also has a reductio against utilitarianism in that it doesn't seem like we get our moral values from it so much as we try to produce a utilitarian calculus that produces our moral values).

Also you can find semi-calculative moral theories that value other things that can incorporate distance.


I'm not sure if I got your question but i assume that you are asking for the reason why utilitarianism confers equal value to all species in the world. First we have to define what is a value, and then what it takes for something else (other than yourself, or your immediate contacts i.e family, friends, or all others with whom you have a relationship with) to have that same defined value.

This value, which connects you to your dog, to the elephant in Africa, and to perhaps Bill Gates, can take on the meaning of sentience. As long as you are a sentient, breathing being, you are obliged to have the same rights as everyone else. Therefore, just by being a living-thing, they all have the same absolute value in the world.

However, a relative value embodies your experiences, perceptions, opinions and emotions. Your kin is definitely more valuable to you relative to a stranger you haven't met before. Utilitarianism ensures a positive overall balance of happiness in the world, which means that regardless of who or what something is, since it stands on equal ground as all other things, it deserves the same happiness as everyone else.

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