Utilitarian views on suffering reduction were pushed to prominence in nonhuman animal rights discussion by Peter Singer—using 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham as guide. Although Singer has been characterized by some as the “father of animal rights” and Bentham called the “first patron saint of animal rights” in some quarters, their stance includes support of meat eating and vivisection, and is less progressive than historical vegetarians like Leonardo Da Vinci.
The emphasis on suffering with no mention of justice reinforces the idea that nonhuman beings do not deserve rights comparable to the victimizer but they ought to be treated better when they are being (unnecessarily) exploited.
While Utilitarian thinking is regularly employed in “animal rights” discussion, it is rarely used in making a case for human rights concerns where justice, equal rights, and fairness are more likely to be emphasized. I.e. if discussing whether same sex marriage should be legal no one argues it from whether it will cause more happiness or suffering, instead the focus is on personal rights, equality, and fairness.
Utilitarianism as defined by Singer may not seem, at first glance, to represent a human supremacist bias due to the fact that he argues that some humans deserve less moral standing than some nonhumans (I.e. dolphins would be more deserving of rights than comatose people).
However, it is using a criteria (sentience) and a moral standard (“the needs of the many outweigh the few/ doing the greatest good and causing the least unhappiness”) which are biased personal opinions, just like “reason,” or a “soul” or Divine favor or “might makes right” etc.
According to Singer’s formula, most humans are already in a position of moral importance while most nonhumans are not, therefore it does make a human supremacist argument while at the same time extending some moral consideration (if not equal consideration) to some nonhumans.
Such doctrine has been used to turn the tables and attack the concept of veganism and nonhuman rights. One noted example is the claim that growing plants for vegetarians caused more death than raising cattle for meat eating. Intention plays no part in making the moral calculation, only the claim that the former is less harm than the latter.
And yet, intention would be factored in when dealing with human concerns. If one was driving towards a forked road and one side was dense fog and the other side had people standing in the center of the road, this least harm anti-vegetarian argument would demand that one drive over the people they could see than either a) take the chance of the foggy road where the driver may kill more people that cannot be seen or b) to get out and walk to make sure the path is clear (the equivalent of less destructive crop cultivation methods).
Another area where Utilitarian logic (or whatever you want to call it) gets highlighted is in the issue of wild predators. A few question whether their actions are morally permissible or should be interfered with.
The reality of wild predators routinely preying upon other animals and the suffering that results has been cited in arguments against animal rights beliefs for ages. Usually the focus is on defending meat eating humanity by using the example of lions and other natural born predators. If they can cause harm why can’t humans?
There are many responses to this, but within the framework of the Supremacy Myth argument the answer is that humans are the species that sets up moral codes and seeks to follow them—while it cannot be shown that lions and other animals use (or need) moral codes. A human can think: humans as a group have rights, which includes the right to systemically exploit inferior beings like gazelles.
A lion on the other hand, cannot be shown to think: lions as a group have rights, which includes the right to systemically exploit inferior beings like gazelles.
A human can be accused of a moral double standard, a lion cannot be. Thus a lion is not violating any moral concept or using unfair discrimination.
This is in addition to the obvious that lions are clearly designed for meat eating. While we can pity the victim of a lion’s hunger, we cannot deny that a lion has a more legitimate claim to predation than a human, who is entirely dependent on tools for the trapping, killing, and consumption of an animal (excluding insects).
At the same time, nonhumans (including lions and gazelles) must be recipients of moral concern by humans because to exclude them for not understanding or following human moral codes shows a double standard and bias: children, criminals, and the violently mentally handicapped persons can neither understand or follow moral codes and yet are not treated the same systemic exploitation that nonhumans are. To exclude nonhumans when you know they cannot follow moral codes is the same in concept as knowing an armless person cannot grab a drowning swimmer but making a demand of them to do so, and when they fail, punishing them for being true to their natures.
This is in addition to the fact that lions and other animals do not exploit humans in zoos, labs, for recreational hunting etc. One can say they already follow human moral codes without even trying.
The issue of wild predation filtered through a quasi-Utilitarian moral view attempts to bypass the issues of moral obligation and rights by focusing on what is considered a duty to reduce suffering in the world as much as possible—regardless of who is doing it and why.
The argument that wild predators need to be stopped makes the case that:
Wild predators cause routine suffering (some will claim they cause even more suffering than humans who choose to exploit nonhuman animals based on some fuzzy Utilitarian suffering calculation)
All suffering is wrong and should be diminished as much as possible
Jut as a deranged mentally retarded person would be stopped from harming others, the same principle should apply when the subject is a lion or tiger,
Technology may be able to engineer a future where no predators exist—either by genetic engineering of the species themselves,
This position suggests that lions and other predators should be prevented, either by scientific intervention (feeding them meat grown in Petri dishes, or through genetic manipulation) or if all else fails, by wiping them out.
An effort to defend wild predation by either pointing out the unfairness of judging lions by human morality codes or the extreme impracticality of interfering with their survival patterns falls on deaf ears.
Utilitarian belief can get in the way of common sense.
First—the belief that reducing suffering as much as possible is the rule in moral decisions is entirely subjective. That is the aim but it is idealistic-not practical. In practical terms we also seek to be fair and intentions do play into our day to day decision making.
But for the sake of argument, if suffering reduction as much as possible is all that matters, then why stop at predation? What about the suffering caused to wild animals by weather or disease or age? If intention doesn’t matter-then why stop at the actions of wild predators?
And if fairness doesn’t matter either—i.e. it doesn’t matter whether lions are born for predation and don’t follow human moral codes—then by such reasoning, one has the moral authority to kill humans who cause suffering—even without asking them to stop. Why would one ask them to stop when fairness doesn’t matter—only the goal of reducing suffering as much as possible? Fairness is irrelevant in this Utilitarian worldview. Only results matter.
The comparison to mentally deranged persons is problematic as most humans are not put into the same category as the deranged person, while just about every lions would be put into the category of the deranged. It is hardly an equal comparison since the deranged persons represent an exception or aberrant behavior, while lions represent the norm.
Technological intervention of course, has its own problems—since humans cannot control the consequences of their experiments and the experiments themselves cause immense suffering (i.e. vivisection).
Although this attack on natural predators is very uncommon, we felt it worthwhile commenting on after encountering it expressed both by those who deny and who claim to support nonhuman rights issues.