In Defense of Singer’s Animal Ethics Approach

In this paper, I will argue that Singer’s utilitarian approach to animal ethics is more defensible than Donaldson and Kymlicka’s rights-based approach to animal ethics. I will argue this approach is superior for the following reasons: the basis for rights/equality is sound, clarity of a subject of a life is given, and differences in certain capacities are acknowledged.

Singer advocates for a modified version of the utilitarian perspective on animal ethics. The original form of utilitarianism, as advocated for by John Stuart Mill, involves the calculus of pleasure and not pain (Mill 1). This form of utilitarianism is very different from the modified form of utilitarianism which Peter Singer advocates for which is based on preference or interests. In this modified form of utilitarianism, preference utilitarianism, pleasure and pain are included in this preference utilitarian calculation of how much happiness an action will result in. Interests and desires of all affected beings need to be weighed to make a proper decision on whether an action is morally permissible. Pain should be included in a utilitarian calculus because beings have an interest to avoid pain. For example, consider this hypothetical situation: Ryan and Kelly each have an apple and like to eat apples. However, Ashley loves apples more than Ryan and Kelly and loves to eat apples. Singer would argue that, by calculating interests, Ryan and Kelly should give their apples to Ashley since she will gain more pleasure from eating the apples than Ryan and Kelly. Singer’s approach also is more favorable to nonhuman animals than a traditional welfarist approach. This is because of the added weight of nonhuman animal interest in Singer’s modified approach.

What grounds one’s claim to moral consideration? Initially, you may think rational or capacity to language. Humans and animals speak different kinds of languages, but this does not make it permissible to assume that that inviolable rights are grounded in the capacity for language. For example, some humans speak different languages, yet they still treat each other with inviolable rights or equal consideration. There are also some disabled humans who are not able to speak; not all humans have the capacity to language. In fact, some believe the basis for moral consideration is rooted in rationality. Yet, there are also some humans, such as babies and mentally disabled individuals who do not have rationality. Singer explains that the inability to separate all humans from all animals by a distinctive characteristic is because of marginal cases such as mentally disabled individuals and babies. The inability to encompass all and only humans by a single characteristic is known as the All and Only problem. This inability to separate all humans from all animals is also known as the Argument for Marginal Cases. In fact, Singer proposes that since the capacity to suffer is the prerequisite to having any interests at all, it is this very capacity that grants moral consideration (Singer 107).  For example, consider the case of a person kicking a rock. This is considered to be morally permissible because the rock has no interest to not be kicked. In fact, the rock has no interests at all. Now, consider the case of a person kicking a mouse. Kicking a mouse is not morally permissible to Singer because the mouse has an interests to not be harmed because otherwise it will suffer (Singer 107). The mouse has interests and a capacity to sentience whereas a rock does not.

But what kind of moral consideration? According to Singer, the capacity to suffer grants a being equal consideration of interests rather than equal treatment (Singer 104). Consider the case of abortion rights. Women in some states were granted abortion rights. It does not follow that men are also granted abortion rights because men cannot carry babies. In fact, men and women deserve equal consideration rather than equal treatment (Singer 104).

Some others, such as Donaldson and Kymlicka say sentient beings deserve a different kind of moral consideration, inviolable rights (Donaldson and Kymlicka 20). Inviolable Rights are a protective shield that keep one’s basic interests from being sacrificed for the overall good of others. (Donaldson and Kymlicka 23). You can’t just violate a human even if the greater good will be benefitted by it because humans are granted inviolable rights. Consider the case of killing a being to use their organs to save 5 other beings. If a baboon is being killed to save five humans, this is acceptable. However, if a human was being killed to save five baboons, this is unacceptable. Kantianism is respecting an individual so that they are never treated as a means to an end. Utilitarianism is applied for the animal situation while kantianism is applied for people (Donaldson and Kymlicka 20).

However, this view runs into several problems. How does one know if someone or something has a subjective existence? Subjective existence is defined as “that is, all animals who are conscious or sentient beings (Donaldson and Kymlicka 19).” Since we are uncertain of exactly what consciousness is, it is hard to contextualize this definition. Donaldson and Kymlicka are unclear on what it means to be a subject of a life for them. It is unintuitive to think a sea urchin and a human both have inviolable rights. On another note, is having a subjective existence specific to only humans and animals in Donaldson and Kymlicka’s views? This specificity is certainly insinuated by the title of the theory itself, Universal Basic Rights for Animals. Because if a subjective existence is specific to humans and animals as insinuated in the definition and theory title, Donaldon and Kymlicka are guilty of speciesism. If a subjective existence is also defined by sentience, some insects could be prospects for basic rights since sentience or feelings of the body.

Animal Rights Theory has a basis for inviolable rights that is unsound. Donaldson and Kymlicka base inviolable rights on whether or not there is “someone home.” However, just interacting with a being is not a very controlled method of determining if “someone is home” and therefore deserving of inviolable rights. Consider this situation: a patient is comatose and it is not evident that “somebody is home” so other people are allowed to use her for their own pleasure. Just by interacting with the patient it seems that nobody is “home,” and, therefore, she does not have inviolable rights and can be treated as a means to an end. However, this is wrong. It is not morally accepted to treat the comatose patient as a means to an end. Therefore, the “somebody’s home” theory is unsound.

In fact, a better approach to animal ethics does acknowledge that differences in certain capacities do matter for moral evaluation. A greater capacity for happiness means that your happiness counts more in a utilitarian calculus. Although Singer goal is to extend the basic principle of equality to members of other species, Singer’s welfarist approach does acknowledge these differences in capacities in a more practical way. Singer recognizes that animals have a lower capacity to pleasure and rationality than we do. For example, according to Singer, humans should give up meat eating because the amount of pleasure that humans gain from eating meat is arbitrary compared to the amount of suffering than animals go through. This differs from Donaldson and Kymlicka’s reasoning to give up meat consumption which is because animals and humans are equal. In fact, Singer’s explanation is that even the statement that all humans are equal is false because some are smarter, more athletic, and more beautiful than others (Singer 105). Humans and animals must have differences that are acknowledged since humans themselves have differences between each other. This is why equal consideration should be granted rather than equal treatment. For example, in some states, women are granted abortion rights. It does not follow that men are also granted abortion rights because men can not carry babies. In fact, women and men are treated with equal consideration, not necessarily equal treatment (Singer 104).

An objector could argue Singer’s approach on animal ethics is not going to limit animal suffering. Ultimately, according to Singer’s view, humans have more moral worth than animals. In fact, as a welfare view, Singer’s view is concerned with stricter limits on the use of animals. This differs from a more extreme philosopher such as Francione, Donaldson, and Kymlicka who advocate for the total abolishment of animal use and are seriously concerned with limiting animals suffering. Singer’s welfarist view is, in fact, a very passive way of advocating for better conditions for animals instead of abolition of animal captivity. Singer’s approach is too passive to limit animal suffering.

However, this objection is not valid. Although, Singer does have a welfarist view, this welfarist view will reduce animal suffering. In fact, a welfarist view will be more effective and practical in the long run. In contrast to Singer’s utilitarian view, a more extreme stance on animal ethics, like Francione’s view and Donaldson’s/Kymlicka’s view, is more likely to alienate people from the movement. If these extreme abolitionist views alienate people from the movement, then the result will just be more suffering. Singer’s utilitarian view involves more flexibility. A welfarist view will improve animal conditions now while an abolitionist view would take longer for people to accept and therefore result in more suffering. Improving conditions for animals now will be more beneficial for reducing animal suffering than pushing an abolitionist kind of view which will take longer for people to accept, leading to the animals being in their present living conditions for longer.

An objector could also argue that Singer himself is guilty of speciesism since he believes that, ultimately, humans have more moral worth than a nonhuman animal. Francione, a more extreme animal ethicist than welfarists like Peter Singer, has actually raised this very objection claiming that the most dominant position in Western Countries on animal ethics is that animals have less moral value than humans (Francione 169). Consider this version of a lifeboat hypothetical scenario: a human is trapped on an island and must either eat a human or an animal for survival. Singer would say the human should choose to eat the animal. This is speciesism because Singer is placing the life of a human above a life of a nonhuman animal.

However, this objection is also not valid. In fact, Singer does think humans, ultimately, have more moral worth than nonhuman animals. This is because humans have a greater capacity to pleasure, which is what Singer is truly concerned with. Although, in the previously proposed hypothetical of a human choosing to eat an animal or another human for survival, Singer would choose to eat the animal and save the human, it does not follow that this is speciesism. Rather, Singer chooses to allow the human to live in the lifeboat scenario because the human has a greater capacity to pleasure. Consider this version of the previously mentioned situation: a human is trapped on an island and must either eat a depressed human or an animal to survive. In this situation, Peter Singer would choose to eat the depressed human and save the animal because the animal now has a greater capacity to happiness. As a utilitarian, Singer is concerned with what results in more happiness and pleasure in the world, which is what his responses to these hypothetical situations would be based upon. Singer is not guilty of speciesism. Singer’s choice to eat the animal and save the human is far from speciesism, and, in fact, Singer does not let the needs of his species override the needs of others due to prejudice. In the first lifeboat scenario, Singer would have saved the human because that would have resulted in the most happiness since the human has more interests than the animal. In the second version of the lifeboat scenario Singer eats the human and saves the animal because the animal has a greater capacity to pleasure than the human, allowing the needs of another species to override the needs of Singer’s own species.

Singer’s utilitarian approach to animal ethics is more defensible than Donaldson and Kymlicka’s rights-based approach to animal ethics. These two competing approaches to animal ethics include a utilitarian approach and a rights-based approach which both have a central aim to reduce animal suffering. Although both views want to extend the basic principle of equality to members of other species, they just differ in terms of whether or not they think animals or humans even deserve a claim to fundamental rights that are inviolable.  Singer’s approach will be more effective in reducing animal suffering and is the more defensible theory; this approach promotes welfare in increments to reduce suffering and eventual abolition. However, the basic premise of these views are the same. Both agree that animals deserve better consideration, just like how African Americans deserved better treatment in times of slavery, just like how women deserved more rights, and just like how the LGBTQ+ community deserved better treatment.







Works Cited


Donaldson, Sue and Will Kymlicka. 2011. Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. New  York: Oxford University Press.


Mill, John Stuart. 2001. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Singer, Peter. “All Animals Are Equal.” Animal Rights, 2017, pp. 103–116., doi:10.4324/9781315262529-2.




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