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?

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    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! – Keelan Sep 4 '16 at 7:17
  • What does this question have to do with utilitarianism? – Luís Henrique Sep 4 '16 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). – Adam Uraynar Sep 17 '16 at 22:53
  • Here is one way to get started: bit.do/utilitarianism – Adam Uraynar Sep 17 '16 at 23:22

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.


Your happiness and your "care", as you put it are mediated by neurotransmitters which evolved to respond to stimuli in order to promote the propagation of your genes or genes similar to them (for citation choose from absolutely every paper ever published on the subject). If we take Happiness for example, one of the principle chemical is serotonin. Serotonin is even present in lower organisms like flatworms. In such creatures, their serotonin rises when they are in a favourable environment, furthermore, if one removes their serotonin, they act as if they are in an unfavourable environment even if the evidence from the senses directly contradicts that conclusion.

In philosophical terms, this supports a type of utilitarianism called preference utilitarianism, which talks about judging the good of an outcome by the "state of affairs" it brings about, not the pleasure it directly causes.

The reason it is rational to care about famine in Africa or animal experiments is that by not doing so you are perpetuating the moral values of those who do directly cause the suffering by inaction or tacit consent. This creates a world which your subconscious knows is less favourable to you because, being a social species, you rely on mutual exchange with others for your survival. The sort of people you want to be surrounded by, therefore, are people who are trustworthy and generous (see Flood and Dresher's Prisoner's Dilemma).

Allowing the untrustworthy and greedy to prosper is simply not in the best interests of a social species, your subconscious has evolved to avoid this behaviour by rewarding you with happiness when you condemn it.

The proof of this can be seen in research by, for example, Dunn, Carson, Pace who have shown that compassion yields increases in serotonin, improvements in physical health and lowering of stress responses.

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    This answer contains many interesting things, but I don't see how it addresses the OP's question which seemed to be about why utilitarianism values all life across distance and species. This seems to be more "why do people feel ethical" and then mostly sourced purely in neurobiology. – virmaior Oct 4 '16 at 16:21
  • @virmaior The question ended with "How can one argue in that framework that life that I don't have a relationship with has a value?" the answer is "by using preference utilitarianism". The neurobiology is necessary to explain why the preferred state of affairs should be one in which people are encouraged to be generous etc. I realise Logical Positivism is unfashionable, but it is a legitimate branch of philosophy which attempts to base philosophical conjecture on scientific understanding. I'm simply linking a preference utilitarian approach to modern information about states of happiness. – Isaacson Oct 4 '16 at 16:33

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