Reading Series

“Animals Matter” Chapter 6: Utilitarianism

“People who consider animals’ usefulness to humans are called utilitarians and they practice utilitarianism. […] Utilitarians typically believe that neither animals nor humans have rights. The only criterion by which they decide whether an action is right or wrong is the principle of utility, or use-value. […] It is important to note that the interests of animals must be given equal consideration with those of humans, and that animals and humans have an interest in avoiding suffering. […] In other words, people should aim to maximize pleasure (the benefit) and minimize pain (the cost).”

As stated in this chapter, utilitarianism was first offered by Jeremy Bentham, who my readers may recognize as the person who wrote, “[T]he question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” Again, according to Bekoff, “it is the costs associated with suffering that need to be considered when deciding how costs and benefits are balanced.”

Bekoff lists some variables that play a role in using utilitarianism:

  1. Who is the person who makes the decision?
  2. Who are the people who might benefit?
  3. Which animals species are to be used?
  4. How are the animals to be used?
  5. Will any animals benefit from the use?

This chapter’s discussion offers an exciting but difficult thought experiment. For example, if you have to choose between using 1,000 mice or 1,000 chimps for a research project on lung cancer that might save human lives, which would you choose? Of course, I wouldn’t want to choose either to test on — I am against animal testing. And in this situation, I don’t see how the animal would benefit.

So as you think about these questions, you may see that figuring out the costs and benefits is difficult. This is why Bekoff says that while utilitarianism is flexible, it is difficult to apply.

Consider a real-life problem, like an animal I’ve previously discussed, Arturo the polar bear. Arturo is currently imprisoned in a zoo in Argentina.

ArturpDoes the benefit (human entertainment) outweigh the cost (Arturo’s well-being)?

To me, it is clear — no, the benefit does not outweigh the cost.  In my opinion, zoos do not benefit animals and the cost to the animals is far too great.


Peter Singer is a utilitarian philosopher and author of “Animal Liberation.” Singer discusses how we should treat animals (and other issues) in this podcast, “Being a Utilitarian in the Real World.” I definitely urge my readers to take a listen!

Previous chapters in this reading series:
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