19 August 2009

J. J. C. Smart on the Moral Status of Animals

In the past I have been concerned to advocate a normative utilitarian theory from the point of view of a non-cognitivist meta-ethics. I assumed that Hume was right in thinking that ultimately morality depends on how we feel about things. In advocating utilitarianism to a group of people I therefore had to express my feelings and appeal to their feelings. I described the feelings to which I wished to appeal as "generalized benevolence." I described generalized benevolence as a desire for the happiness, or at any rate in some sense the good, of all mankind, or perhaps of all sentient beings. I now think that the "perhaps of all sentient beings" should be much more uncompromising. It is a merit of utilitarianism, with its stress on happiness and unhappiness, that lower animals must be considered along with human beings, so that they are not debarred from full or direct consideration because they are not "rational." Utilitarians will of course be equally mindful of the higher animals, some of which, such as whales and dolphins, for all we know may be about as rational as we are, and also of course of any creatures which are higher and more rational than we are and which we may conjecture exist in outer space, and, we may hope, in future times here on earth.

(J. J. C. Smart, "Utilitarianism and Generalized Benevolence," Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 61 [January-April 1980]: 115-21, at 115 [italics in original; endnote omitted])

Note from KBJ: Smart is mistaken if he thinks that only utilitarianism accords moral status to animals. Many prominent animal-rights advocates (such as Tom Regan) are deontologists rather than consequentialists. Perhaps Smart was still thinking (in 1980) of Kant versus Bentham, rationality versus sentience. If so, then he is to be excused; but nobody today can think that any particular moral theory has an advantage over the others based on the status it accords animals. Peter Singer, like Smart, is a utilitarian, but he told me personally several years ago that his argument for animal liberation is independent of utilitarianism. This is good, because if animal liberation depended on or presupposed utilitarianism, there would be far fewer people who believe that animals have moral status.