Can utility be measured? One major problem with
utilitarianism is that moral agents (those who carry out moral or
immoral acts) are required to calculate the total amount of utility
produced with each action. When we take into consideration just how
difficult this calculation/ prediction really is, utilitarianism ceases
to be a practical ethical approach. And now that Singer has made us
aware that the sensations of non-human animals are to be included in
this calculation, the job gets several times more complicated. Of
course, Singer could respond by admitting that we can perhaps never
calculate the exact amount of utility produced, but that it is also
fairly obvious that the mass slaughter of animals does cause real
distress of a scale that outweighs any happiness produced from the
eating of the meat.
Could utilitarianism sanction "unjust" actions? A very common
argument levelled against the utilitarian approach is that its
insistence on looking only to the total amount of utility produced
endorses all kinds of actions that seem intuitively to be unethical. For
example, homeless people with no family or friends could be secretly
snatched from the street, killed and their organs donated to save the
lives of ten people who are in desperate need of new organs. On a
strictly utilitarian basis this type of action is morally justified. The
loss of one unit capable of experiencing happiness (the homeless
person) is outweighed by the happiness gained by the ten ill people and
their families as the spare organs become available. Our "common sense"
morality tells us that there is something wrong with this type of
action. Because of these unattractive possibilities, utilitarianism
seems to be inadequate as a guide to morality. If this is the case, then
Singer cannot use utilitarianism as a guide to our interaction with
What about rights and duties? The above criticism can be used to
suggest that there are some other moral principles that are more
acceptable than utilitarianism. Because of the problems with looking to
the consequences and viewing utility as the only important consequence,
other thinkers have argued that humans have duties towards each other
(and perhaps the natural world) or that humans (and some animals) have
rights. Such ideas have the advantage of avoiding the difficulties of
utilitarianism. It would be possible to claim that humans have a duty to
treat animals with respect and so claim that eating meat is morally
wrong. It may also be claimed that animals have a right not to be eaten.
The main problems that face these ideas are in the attempt to
rationally justify them. Why should animals be treated with respect? Why
should animals have rights? Which animals?
Specific criticisms of Singer's ideas
One specific criticism against Singer's ideas comes from what can be
very loosely described as the "Deep Ecology" movement. This
philosophical position is one that attempts to locate intrinsic value in
nature. In other words, deep ecology wants to show that nature
(including non-human animals) is morally valuable in its own right. A
leopard is valuable not because humans find it very beautiful to look
at, not because it is an endangered species, but simply because it is a
leopard. Its value exists independently of any pleasure or benefit it
provides to humans and, perhaps more controversially, its value exists
even in the absence of a human to value it. This perspective sees
Singer's utilitarianism as a philosophy that ignores the intrinsic value
of animals. It only deals with those beings physically capable of
suffering. All non-sentient creatures are disregarded. Non-human animals
have a moral relevance only if they are capable of suffering. It is
also worth noting that Singer's utilitarianism would sanction the
suffering of a small number of non-human animals if the overall total of
utility were increased. For deep ecologists, this is simply not good
enough. They argue that Singer's utilitarianism, because of its failure
to recognise the intrinsic value of non-human animals, perpetuates the
very same human-centred worldview that encourages the exploitation and
degradation of the non-human world.
The deep ecologists do have a point here. Singer's utilitarian
approach, based on the assumption that suffering is to be avoided,
doesn't necessarily have to lead to vegetarianism. Imagine a
slaughterhouse where all the animals were unaware of their imminent
death (and so were not distressed), and where death was completely pain
free (assuming this could be proven). It would be very difficult for
Singer to condemn this.
Some deep ecologists also question Singer's (and others) idea that
animal liberation is a good idea. Most deep ecologists view the
stability, diversity and beauty of the ecosystem as the goal of ethics.
Humans ought to act in ways that promote this goal. Releasing all the
captive farm animals and abolishing the practice of eating meat would
almost certainly upset the fragile balance of an already damaged
ecosystem. For these thinkers, mass animal liberation is unethical.
There is also an extreme position with the very impressive title of biocentric egalitarianism.
This position states that anything that is alive should be treated with
equal moral consideration. In its extreme and perhaps somewhat
caricatured form, this position would argue that a blade of grass should
be given the same moral consideration as a leopard or a human. From
this perspective, Singer's ideas are not radical enough.