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Death and Utility

Practical Ethics

by Peter Singer
Cambridge University Press, 237 pp., $6.95 (paper)


In Practical Ethics Peter Singer describes his moral position as “broadly Utilitarian.” Though he mentions, with some skepticism, a theory of rights and Kantian principles of autonomy as providing support for some of his practical conclusions, the main theoretical interest of this book, and also some of its difficulties, lie in the striking combination of two different forms of utilitarianism on which he principally relies. In addition to the merits of many of its arguments his book has the virtues of the best utilitarian manner in moral philosophy. For Singer, as for Bentham and Mill, moral philosophy is primarily a confrontation of problems of current concern and controversy, and a critique of current assumptions and conventional prejudices.

Though the book is short, its range is wide and it includes discussions of the moral basis and the scope of principles of equality, of the human use and misuse of other animals, of euthanasia and abortion, of the obligations of the world’s rich to the world’s poor, and of violence and obedience to law. These topics are not brought in merely as examples to illustrate abstract principles, but are discussed in vivid and disturbing detail as the main business of moral philosophy, and of this book. Throughout the tone is temperate and fair to opposed views, but Singer is plainly inspired by a passionate wish to extend the range of our moral concern for the sufferings of all sentient beings beyond the limits which much conventional morality assigns to it.

There is some repetition in this book of some points made in Singer’s earlier well-known Animal Liberation,* but the two books differ not only in scope but in the form of the underlying utilitarian principles. The earlier book, mainly concerned to argue the case for vegetarianism, assembled in convincing and horrifying detail the evidence of the hideous suffering annually inflicted on millions of animals, both in factory farming for the production of food for human consumption and also in laboratory experiments, some of which are pointless or carried out for no more important end than the testing of cosmetics, shampoos, food coloring, or floor polish.

Singer showed how “speciesism” is a self-interested human prejudice which treats mere membership of the species Homo sapiens as the cut-off point for moral concern for suffering. This ancient prejudice, buttressed by religious and philosophical myths such as that animals were appointed by God or Nature for the unrestrained dominion of Man, or that they were incapable of feeling pain, has had a profound effect on modern society. Hence modern liberals, though devoted to the causes of racial and sexual equality, could feel no inconsistency in remaining indifferent to the infliction on animals of suffering which they would think monstrous to inflict on the most retarded or defective human beings, human only in the sense that they are members of the species Homo sapiens.

It was enough for the purposes of the earlier book to oppose to the speciesism that permitted these cruelties a principle of minimizing suffering, which gives equal consideration to the equal suffering of all sentient beings. Singer did not discuss the precise relationship of this principle of equal consideration to general utilitarian doctrine in Animal Liberation, and with the exception of one short comment he avoided any discussion of the ethics of killing animals as distinct from their maltreatment. But the single comment was important since here Singer has had tentative second thoughts; it was made to dismiss the idea, first ventilated by Leslie Stephen, that if the humane rearing and painless killing of animals for human food could be secured, and the animals killed were replaced by others whose lives were made equally pleasant, there could be no objection to such food production and the moral case for vegetarianism would collapse.

Of all the arguments for Vegetarianism,” wrote Stephen, “none is so weak as the argument from humanity. The pig has a stronger interest than anyone in the demand for bacon. If all the world were Jewish, there would be no pigs at all.”

In the present book in which the taking of life, human and nonhuman, is a central topic, Singer now treats Stephen’s idea with respect but draws a distinction between those sentient beings who are not persons and those who are. The former category includes, besides most nonhuman animals, human fetuses and newborn babies; while among “persons” Singer includes not only normal adults but some higher nonhuman animals as well. Merely sentient beings are replaceable for Singer, but persons are not. To sustain this result Singer now draws upon two forms of utilitarianism—“Classical” and “Preference Utilitarianism”—each of which may take one of two forms (“Total View” and “Prior Existence”). Unfortunately the argument concerning the taking of life that Singer develops with this more elaborate apparatus (which I explain below) falls at certain points below the high standards of clarity and cogency of the rest of the book. But if there are mistakes here they are of an illuminating kind, prompting new questions, and it is rewarding to inquire how the different strands of utilitarianism fit together in Singer’s thought.


Classical Utilitarianism proposes as the sole standard of both personal and public morality a maximizing and collective principle: all that matters morally is that human conduct should maximize the aggregate happiness and diminish the aggregate misery of all those affected by it. This doctrine has an egalitarian aspect; it is, in the benign sense of the expression, “no respecter of persons.” This is so because if the only elements of value and disvalue are pleasures and pains (or as some utilitarians prefer to say, the experiences of desire-satisfaction and desire-frustration) then in the determination of what would most advance aggregate happiness, the equal pleasures and pains, satisfactions and frustrations of different persons must be given equal weight. Differences of status, race, sex, religion, age, and intelligence are morally irrelevant except when they affect, as they may sometimes do, the amount or intensity of pain or pleasure caused by human conduct.

Suffering is suffering no matter whose it is; and if suffering is equal, it is equally bad to inflict it on blacks or whites, women or men, Jews or Christians, the stupid and intelligent. “Everybody is to count for one and nobody for more than one.” This Benthamite maxim is the source and gives the essence of the principle which Singer calls “The Principle of Equal Consideration of Interests” and which he uses with telling effect in many chapters of this book. Bentham himself urged the extension of this principle to all beings capable of suffering including nonhuman animals. His words, in effect identifying speciesism as a vice as objectionable as racism, are memorable.

The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

This egalitarian aspect of utilitarianism is the first of two main features of the doctrine extending the range of our practical moral concern beyond conventional limits. The second is the utilitarian’s refusal to endorse the common attribution of moral significance to the distinction between acts and omissions. If all that matters morally is the outcome of conduct then it cannot matter whether a bad outcome is brought about by our deliberate active intervention, or by passively failing to intervene and allowing things to take the course which we could have prevented. If I desire a blind man’s death, allowing him to walk over a cliff when I could have prevented this by crying “Stop” seems no better morally than pushing him over, even if the law does not recognize this as murder or any sort of crime. In this simple case the motivation of a positive act and the passive omission are the same, and the moral hollowness of the distinction seems evident. In other cases, as Singer illuminatingly shows, this may be disguised by differences in motivation, among other things. Failure to prevent harm owing to indifference, laziness, or meanness may be less alarming and less blameworthy than active intervention for the purpose of inflicting harm. But the difference is attributable to the difference in motivation, not to that between act and omission.

Singer interestingly exploits the utilitarian insistence on the moral equivalence of acts and omissions in two diametrically opposed ways. He uses it first to awaken the conscience of Western society to the moral gravity of allowing millions of the world’s poor to suffer or die through poverty, when many of them could be saved by aid which would still leave wealthy countries with a much higher standard of living. Here we allow to die or suffer where we could save, and at a cost trivial in comparison with the evil that that cost would avert. Conversely, much medical practice, which accepts passive euthanasia as if this was morally distinguishable from direct killing, allows incurable human beings to die slowly and painfully though they could be killed quickly and painlessly, and would want to be. In such cases we withhold from suffering human beings the mercy killing we would extend to a suffering nonhuman animal.

These two features of Classical Utilitarianism extending the boundaries of moral concern—its egalitarianism and its refusal to distinguish morally between acts and omissions—may in part account for the fact that utilitarianism was so long regarded as the main source of progressive social thought, and under the aegis of Bentham and his followers the inspiration of great legal reforms. But things have changed, and Singer’s emphasis on the humane aspects of utilitarianism now contrasts strongly with the insistence by many contemporary moral philosophers that utilitarianism has a sinister side, since it licenses the imposition of sacrifices on individuals whenever this can be shown to advance aggregate welfare. Such sacrifices may be licensed and even required by utilitarianism because the egalitarianism embodied in the maxim “everybody to count for one, and nobody for more than one” is only a weighting principle, to be used in calculating what will maximize aggregate happiness. It is not a principle requiring the equal treatment of different persons, and it may yield grossly inegalitarian results, though in certain circumstances it will tend to favor the equal distribution of economic resources. (This is because when resources are distributed unequally, any transfer from richer to poorer is likely to benefit the poorer person more than it harms the richer, and therefore the effect is to increase aggregate welfare.) Individual persons and the level of an individual’s happiness are only of instrumental not intrinsic importance for the utilitarian. Persons are merely the “receptacles” for the experiences which will increase or diminish aggregate welfare. So utilitarianism is “no respecter of persons” in a sinister as well as a benign sense of that expression.

  1. *

    A New York Review Book, 1975; Avon Books, 1977.

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