Utilitarianism

Suppose we could add together in a heap all the bad things that could happen to everyone. Suppose we could then create another heap with all the good things that could happen to everyone. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that indicates that we should make the first heap as small as possible and the second one as large as possible.

Utilitarianism has important implications for how we should behave toward nonhuman animals, which to a large extent can coincide with those of other theories. According to utilitarianism, we should take into account all sentient beings, not just humans. It also implies that we should reject speciesism, which is discrimination against those who don’t belong to a certain species.

As we will see, this means that we should reject animal exploitation, which causes harms to nonhuman animals that are much larger than the benefits it provides to humans. It also means we should be concerned about reducing wild animal suffering, that is, the harms undergone by wild animals as sentient individuals (not to their species or ecosystems).

Finally, utilitarianism also implies that we should be concerned not only with what happens to those who are living now, but also to those beings who will exist in the future, including the far future. This means that among other things we should try to reduce the risk of animals living in the future suffering very great amounts of harm.

We will examine this below, but first we will see what utilitarianism is, the main types of utilitarianism, and the main ways it is criticized.

What is utilitarianism?

There are different types of utilitarianism. What they all have in common is that according to them we should minimize the total sum of bad things in the world and maximize the total sum of good things. This is regardless of how such bad and good things are distributed. It doesn’t matter if very good things are distributed to a very small number of people and everyone else is much worse off. What matters in utilitarianism is only the total sum of all the good things minus the total sum of all the bad things. (This is something with which other views, like prioritarianism, disagree, as we will see below.)

Different utilitarian views have different positions about what things are bad or good. But they all agree that the only bad and good things are related to the actual experiences someone has. This means that for utilitarianism there is nothing that is bad or good independently of how it affects someone. It also means that if something can’t have experiences, then according to utilitarianism it can’t be harmed or benefited in a morally relevant way. Conversely, anything negative or positive that happens to a sentient being matters regardless of who that being is.

Utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism. Consequentialism is a family of ethical theories which all claim that we should act in such a way that what is negative does not happen and what is positive does happen. According to consequentialism, what we do is right if it has good consequences and it is wrong if it has bad consequences. There are many forms of consequentialism and they differ in their views about what is bad and good.1This has been a very general description of what utilitarianism is, but a more detailed definition is provided in the endnotes.2

Types of utilitarianism

According to a particular type of utilitarianism called classical hedonistic utilitarianism, the only truly good thing is pleasure, and the only truly bad thing is suffering. What is meant by “pleasure” is any mental state that feels good in itself – physical pleasure, contentment, and joy for example are all forms of happiness. Other things that aren’t mental states such as health or knowledge are good only instrumentally, that is, in so far as they make us happy or keep us from suffering. Health is good because being healthy allows us to do things that make us happy, while being unhealthy causes us pain and prevents us from doing things we enjoy. Classical hedonistic utilitarianism accepts the view that suffering is the only thing that is negative in itself, and pleasure the only thing that is positive in itself, and all these other goods like health and knowledge are merely a means to that end. These goods are a bit like money – money is only valuable because it allows us to buy things we want. If we couldn’t buy anything with it, money would be worthless. The same is true of goods like health or achievement – if they don’t make us happy, then they aren’t really good at all.

There are several other versions of utilitarianism with different views on exactly what is bad and good. According to a view called negative hedonistic utilitarianism, what is really important isn’t maximizing happiness, but minimizing suffering. This is a type of suffering-focused ethics.

According to some negative utilitarian views, one can never “compensate” for suffering by bringing about more happiness. According to these views, happiness isn’t really good, but suffering really is bad, so the best outcome is one in which suffering is minimized, even if this means that there is no happiness. This kind of view is sometimes called strong negative utilitarianism. One could also be what is sometimes called a negative-leaning or weak negative utilitarian. Weak negative utilitarianism is somewhere in between classical utilitarianism and strong negative utilitarianism. Weak negative utilitarians agree with classical utilitarians that happiness is good, and that it is right for us to try to maximize it. However, they agree with strong negative utilitarians that it is more important to minimize suffering than it is to maximize happiness. This is because, though happiness is good, suffering is very, very bad, so we should focus on minimizing suffering.

So, for example, if we were in a situation in which we could either provide pleasure to two people (by sending them on a nice vacation) or reduce the suffering of one person (by curing her from a painful disease), a weak negative utilitarian will say that we should reduce the suffering of the one person, while a classical utilitarian will say it is more important to make the two people happy. Negative utilitarians also consider it more important to move from the worst possible suffering to the mildest possible suffering than to move from the mildest possible pleasure to the greatest possible enjoyment. For classical utilitarianism, both moves would be equivalent.

In these examples, weak negative utilitarianism agreed with strong negative utilitarianism, but this isn’t always the case. Whether the weak negative utilitarian agrees with the classical utilitarian or the strong negative utilitarian depends on exactly how much more important she believes suffering to be than happiness. Weak negative utilitarianism may accept causing some amount of minor suffering in exchange for a huge amount of pleasure, while strong negative utilitarianism may reject doing this completely.

Preference utilitarianism differs from hedonistic utilitarianism in that according to it what is bad is not negative experiences, but frustrated preferences, and what is good isn’t pleasure, but satisfied preferences. A preference is something that an individual wants, like a desire. Usually the things that one has preferences for will give one pleasure or make one suffer less, but this needn’t always be the case. A preference utilitarian will try to act in such a way that maximizes the amount of preferences that are satisfied, whether or not that will also make people happy. For example, a very religious person might prefer to suffer, e.g. by fasting or through some other form of self-deprivation, perhaps because he thinks he deserves it. A hedonistic utilitarian will think that this person has made a mistake, that he prefers things which he really shouldn’t, and might try to convince him that he ought to prefer his own happiness. In any case, the hedonistic utilitarian won’t help the religious person to make himself unhappy. The preference utilitarian will take the religious person’s preferences at face value however, and will help him to suffer if that is what he really prefers.

Preference utilitarianism also has negative versions. According to negative preference utilitarianism, it is negative for us if our desires are frustrated, while having a desire that is satisfied is just like never having had such a desire. Otherwise, they argue, it would be good to take a pill that made us have silly desires we did not previously have that we could very easily satisfy, something most people disagree with.

Finally, average utilitarianism focuses not on the total sum of happiness minus suffering but on the average happiness enjoyed by all sentient individuals. So, for instance, a world with just a few individuals enjoying great lives would be preferable to a world with a very large population with merely acceptable lives, even if the overall sum of pleasure minus suffering were larger in the second case.

How utilitarianism is criticized

The main critique of utilitarianism relates to the fact that it does not consider separately how bad or good a situation is for different individuals, but only aggregates all the positive and negative things in the situation. Compare these two different scenarios. In both there are the same total amounts of suffering and pleasure. But in one of them a few individuals have all the pleasure and no suffering and the rest have all the suffering and no pleasure. In the other scenario, all the suffering and pleasure is shared by everyone in similar portions. Many people prefer the second scenario, and therefore support views like egalitarianism and prioritarianism. Those who support utilitarianism are indifferent, saying that distribution doesn’t really matter.

Why utilitarianism implies the moral consideration of all sentient beings

Utilitarianism is concerned with the happiness and suffering (or preferences) of every individual who can experience them, that is, every sentient being. Nonhuman animals, just like human beings, can experience suffering and happiness, so their experiences matter. According to utilitarianism we need to consider every bit of suffering and every bit of happiness, no matter who experiences them. Any view that does not cannot be a form of utilitarianism, since if we fail to take the interests of animals into account in our decisions then we are failing to act so as to maximize the balance of happiness over suffering in the world (or to maximize satisfied preferences). This is why utilitarianism needs to include the experiences of nonhuman animals. According to utilitarianism, we act wrongly if we don’t. In fact, if in the future there exist new forms of sentient beings that don’t exist yet, they would be equally considerable in utilitarianism for the same reasons.3

Moreover, it is not only that utilitarians must take into account what is good or bad for nonhuman animals. They have to take it into account exactly as they would if they were human beings. That is, all suffering and pleasure counts the same for utilitarians, regardless of whether it is humans or nonhumans who suffer it.

Human interests are typically considered more important than those of other animals even when they are in fact less significant. For instance, human suffering is considered to be more important than animal suffering even when it is less intense and shorter. This is a type of discrimination against nonhuman animals. It is a form of speciesism, and as we can see it is morally indefensible from a utilitarian point of view, similarly to other major ethical theories.

Utilitarianism entails rejecting animal exploitation and reducing wild animal suffering

The first utilitarian theorists in the 18th and 19th centuries argued that the interests of nonhuman animals should be respected equally to those of humans.4 However, they failed to see the practical consequences that follow from this principle, such as the rejection of animal exploitation or concern about wild animal suffering. In recent times, however, contemporary utilitarians have realized that utilitarianism entails rejecting speciesism.5

For classical utilitarians, social practices can be morally acceptable only when they bring about more happiness than suffering. This can include practices that do great harm to others if the result is an even greater benefit to some other group. Gladiatorial combat is wrong for example because the suffering and misery as well as the harm of the death caused to the gladiators exceeds the happiness of those who enjoy watching the fights.

The very same principle applies to the practice of harming nonhuman animals for human purposes. It could be argued that if harming and killing someone (whether a nonhuman animal or a human being) significantly increased the total sum of happiness minus suffering of everyone else, then according to utilitarianism it would be correct to do so to either humans or nonhumans. In this case the suffering of a gladiator (in addition to the harm of being killed) would be disproportionally higher than the pleasure that people watching a gladiator show. The same happens in the case of nonhuman animals.

Most animals exploited for human purposes suffer tremendously during their lives before being painfully killed, and it is difficult to think of instances in which the happiness created in human beings by such practices could exceed the suffering endured by the animals. To see that this is true, let’s look at a standard example of animal exploitation, the raising and killing of animals for food. The pleasure of eating an egg for example lasts a few minutes at most. For each egg you eat though, a laying hen had to suffer terribly for more than a day,6 not to mention the fact that male chicks are killed at birth and that the hen herself will be killed once her egg production starts to wane.

The asymmetry between the harms suffered by animals and the benefits this provides to humans becomes even more extreme when we consider the enormous number of animals harmed by humans. In the example of the gladiator, a few individuals are harmed terribly to provide a trivial benefit for a large number of other individuals. But the reality of the use of animals by humans is even worse. The number of nonhuman animals harmed and killed is much larger than the number of humans who benefit from it. Every year more than 80 billion mammals and birds, a trillion fish(es) and a thousand trillion invertebrates are killed by humans only for food products.7 So, because it causes so much suffering, as well as death, to produce such momentary pleasures such as tasting animal products, exploiting animals for food does not increase the sum of happiness in the world but decreases it, and a lot. Therefore, such practices cannot be considered morally legitimate according to utilitarianism. Fortunately, however, there are alternatives to harming animals. All around the world, a growing number of people choose to live without harming animals, something that utilitarianism, as we can see, prescribes.

Furthermore, according to utilitarianism, all suffering is bad, regardless of whether it is caused by human beings. If there is something causing suffering to sentient animals, then we should try to work against it, whatever it may be and whatever its cause. Animals suffer tremendously in the wild, as well as in other places such as urban or agricultural environments. They are threatened by malnutrition and hunger, severe weather conditions, disease, parasitism, conflicts, psychological stress, and several other sources of harm. In fact, most of them die due to these causes shortly after coming into existence because of the prevailing reproductive strategies among animals. Many of them have painful deaths without having the opportunity to enjoy pleasurable experiences in their lives.

It is clear that their suffering doesn’t give rise to a greater amount of happiness for others. Given the many terrible ways wild animals suffer in nature, as well as their huge numbers (of up to 1018 or more)8 wild animal suffering should be very important to utilitarians, as well as to those who follow certain other ethical approaches. Fortunately there are many ways these animals are being helped today, including rescues, centers for orphaned animals, and wild animal vaccination programs. We have seen the reasons why utilitarianism entails supporting these efforts to help animals in the wild even when their suffering is not caused by humans.Finally, since utilitarianism is concerned with all suffering and happiness, it is in principle also concerned with beings who will exist in the future.

We can expect that there will be many more sentient beings in the long term than in the short term, so the highest priorities of utilitarians should be making sure that the future has as much happiness as possible and contains as little suffering as we can prevent.


Further readings

Animal Ethics (2020) Introduction to wild animal suffering: A guide to the issues, Oakland: Animal Ethics [accessed on 26 July 2021].

Baumann, T. (2020) “Longtermism and animal advocacy”, Center for Reducing Suffering, [accessed on 30 June 2021].

Brandt, R. (1992) Morality, utilitarianism, and rights, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brink, D. (1986) “Utilitarian morality and the personal point of view”, Journal of Philosophy, 83, pp. 417-438.

Feldman, F. (1986) Doing the best we can, Boston: D. Reidel.

Feldman, F. (1997) Utilitarianism, hedonism, and desert, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Frey, R. G. (ed.) (1984) Utility and rights, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Goodin, R. E. (1995) Utilitarianism as a public philosophy, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hare, R. M. (1982) Moral thinking: Its levels, methods and point, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Harris, J. & Baumann. T. (2021a) “Tobias Baumann of the Center for Reducing Suffering on moral circle expansion, cause prioritization, and reducing risks of astronomical suffering in the long-term future”, The Sentience Institute podcast, Sentience Institute [accessed on 14 July 2021].

Horta, O. (2010) “What Is Speciesism?”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 23, 243-266.

Häyry, M. (2021) “Just better utilitarianism”, Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 30, pp- 343-367.

Killoren, D. & Streiffer, R. (2020) “Utilitarianism about animals and the moral significance of use”, Philosophical Studies, 177, pp. 1043-1063.

Lazari-Radek, K. de & Singer, P. (1965) The point of view of the universe: Sidgwick and contemporary ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lazari-Radek, K. de & Singer, P. (2017) Utilitarianism: A very short introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lyons, D. (1965) Forms and limits of utilitarianism, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

MacAskill, W.; Chappell, R. Y. & Meissner, D. (2021) Introduction to utilitarianism: An online textbook, Oxford: Utilitarianism.net [accessed on 30 August 2021].

Ng, Y. K. (2016) “Utilitarianism generalized to include animals”, Animal Sentience, 1, a19 [accessed on 30 August 2021].

Nobis, N. (2016) Animals and ethics 101: Thinking critically about animal rights, Atlanta: Open Philosophy Press [accessed on 30 August 2021].

Ryder, R. D. (2009) “Painism versus utilitarianism”, Think, 8, pp. 85-89.

Scarre, G. (1996) Utilitarianism, London: Routledge.

Scheffler, S. (1982) The rejection of consequentialism, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Scheffler, S. (ed.) (1988) Consequentialism and its critics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sen, A. (1979) “Utilitarianism and welfarism”, Journal of Philosophy, 76, pp. 463-489.

Sen, A. & Williams, B. (eds.) (1982) Utilitarianism and beyond, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Singer, P. (1980) “Utilitarianism and vegetarianism”, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 9, pp. 325-337.

Skorupski, J. (1995) “Agent-neutrality, consequentialism, utilitarianism… A terminological note”, Utilitas, 7, pp. 49-54.

Skorupski, J. (1999) Ethical explorations, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smart, J. J. C. (1956) “Extreme and restricted utilitarianism”, The Philosophical Quarterly, 6, pp. 344-354.

Smart, J. J. C. (1973) “An outline of a system of utilitarian ethics” in Smart, J. J. C. & Williams, B. Utilitarianism: For and against, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 3-74.

Smart, R. N. (1958) “Negative utilitarianism”, Mind, 67, 542-543.

Tomasik, B. (2019 [2013]) “Three types of negative utilitarianism”, Essays on Reducing Suffering[accessed on 5 February 2021].

Tännsjö, T. (1998) Hedonistic utilitarianism, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


Notes

1 There are also versions of consequentialism called negative consequentialism, which focus more on the importance of avoiding bad outcomes than on promoting good ones. Negative utilitarianism is one of them. See Vinding, M. (2020) Suffering-focused ethics: Defense and implications, Copenhagen: Ratio Ethica [accessed on 23 May 2021].

2 More technically, utilitarianism is the view that accept the following four ideas, the first two of which relate to what is positive or negative for individuals:

(1) What is negative is either suffering or negative experiences (hedonistic utilitarianism), or frustrated preferences (preference utilitarianism). What is positive is either happiness positive experiences (hedonistic utilitarianism) or satisfied preferences (preference utilitarianism).

(2) What is good for individuals is an increase in the amount of happiness minus suffering, or satisfied preferences minus frustrated preferences. What is bad for individuals is the opposite.

The third idea relates to what is negative or positive in general — not for each individual in particular, but the overall situation:

(3) What is best overall is maximizing the aggregate sum of happiness minus suffering. What is worst overall is maximizing the aggregate sum of suffering minus happiness.

The fourth idea relates to what makes actions correct. It is:

(4) We should act in ways that maximize what is better overall and minimize what is worse overall.

The last point is what is known in ethics as “consequentialism,” the view that what is right and wrong is determined by what is good and bad.

3 Bentham, J. (1996 [1781]) Introduction to the principles of moral and legislation, Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 282n; Mill, J. S. (1969) Whewell on moral philosophy, in Collected works, vol. X, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 165-201; Sidgwick, H. (1907 [1874]) The methods of ethics, 7th ed., London: Macmillan, p. 414.

4 Singer, P. (2011 [1979]) Practical ethics, 3rd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Matheny, G. (2006) “Utilitarianism and animals”, in Singer, P. (ed.) In defense of animals: The second wave, Malden: Blackwell, pp. 13-25; (2002) “Expected utility, contributory causation, and vegetarianism”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 19, pp. 293-297.

5 The USDA estimates that the average laying hen lays about 0.8 eggs per day. A laying chicken’s life is almost only suffering, so for each egg she produces in her lifetime she will have to suffer for about 1.14 days.

6 Mood, A. & Brooke, P. (2019) “Numbers of fish caught from the wild each year”, Fishcount.org.uk [accessed on 4 June 2021]. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2021) “Livestock primary”, FAOSTAT, February 19 [accessed on 4 June 2021].

7 Tomasik, B. (2019 [2009]) “How many wild animals are there?”, Essays on Reducing Suffering, Aug 07 [accessed on 4 June 2021]. On wild animal suffering see for instance Faria, C. & Paez, E. (2015) “Animals in need: The problem of wild animal suffering and intervention in nature”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 7-13 [accessed on 30 September 2019]; Tomasik, B. (2015 [2009]) “The importance of wild animal suffering”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 133-152 [accessed on 3 December 2019]; Horta, O. (2017) “Animal suffering in nature: The case for intervention”, Environmental Ethics, 39, pp. 261-279 [accessed on 10 May 2021].