18 April 2005

J. J. C. Smart on Progress in Ethics

One way in which there has indeed been progress in ethics recently has been through the realization by some ethicists that animal happiness and suffering has to be considered equally with that of human beings. I should draw attention here to the remarkable book Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. Christian ethics has been deficient in this respect, since animals have been regarded as things made by God for the use of men. Even St Francis has a not too clear record on this question. If we are to believe the tradition (but perhaps we should not take this as good historical evidence), one of his disciples cut a trotter off a living pig to give to another of the brethren who was ill. St Francis told the disciple to apologize to the owner of the pig, not for his cruelty but for having damaged the property. However, utilitarianism has been mindful of animals. Unlike Kantians, who are primarily concerned with the rationality of those with whom we deal, Bentham, for example, was clear that the important question was not whether animals are rational, but was whether they can suffer. At any rate, the increased attention to the sufferings of animals is one of the most notable examples of progress in ethics over the last hundred years or so. We should, of course, be equally mindful of extra-terrestrial consciousnesses, should we come across any such and have to interact with them.

(J. J. C. Smart, Ethics, Persuasion and Truth, International Library of Philosophy, ed. Ted Honderich [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984], 129-30 [endnotes omitted])

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