05 December 2003

Animal Liberation and Utilitarianism

One important task of the philosopher is to clarify and disambiguate. This is the task in which we have a comparative advantage, given our training. Other people get confused; philosophers clear things up for them.

In 1996, Gary L. Francione, whose heart is in the right place, butchered Peter Singer's argument for animal liberation. See Gary L. Francione, Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), chap. 3, esp. 54-62. Francione thinks that Singer's argument presupposes utilitarianism, which he finds unacceptable. But while Singer is both a utilitarian and a proponent of animal liberation, it's not the case that his argument for the latter presupposes the former.

Animal Liberation is an expansion of Singer's 1974 essay "All Animals Are Equal." In neither work is there any mention of utilitarianism. That alone should have given Francione pause. Singer's argument is rooted in the principle of equal consideration of interests (PECI). His argument, in a nutshell, is that no act can be morally right if it either disregards or discounts the interests of those affected by the act. Since animals have interests (in not suffering, for example), those interests must be counted. To discount them simply because they're the interests of animals is to violate PECI. There is nothing here about maximization. Nor does utilitarianism have a monopoly on equal consideration of interests. Francione is confused.

I recently reconstructed Singer's argument for my Ethics students. Singer commented on the resultant handout. He said what I expected him to say, namely, that while his argument for animal liberation is compatible with utilitarianism, it is not entailed by it. If you're interested, here is the handout, which I reproduced on my personal blog, AnalPhilosopher.