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Moral theory

Utilitarianism (Part 2): Singer, developments and critiques

Information: A look at Peter Singer's Preference Utilitarianism, as well as some of the developments and critiques of the principle of utility. A version of this article was originally published on the website

Peter Singer (b. 1946)

Peter Singer

Peter Singer works in the field of practical ethics. He also writes from the perspective of Preference Utilitarianism, and has published two popular book exploring moral issues from this point-of-view. In Animal Liberation (1975), Singer argued that animals have the same rights as humans, based on their capacity to experience pain, and that any species which has the capacity to suffer should be given equal rights because of this. Discriminating against a species simply because they have fur or feathers, is nothing more than Species-ism. In Practical Ethics (1979), Singer continued to explore the suffering/rights issue, in particular by considering how this relates to matters such as abortion and euthanasia.

Singer's book Animal Liberation was said to have been a major influence in the formation of the modern animal liberation movement.

One of the issues Preference Utilitarians such as Singer are trying to draw attention to, is the question of whether one needs to directly experience something, in order for it to be morally significant. For instance, Bentham's hedonic calculus is said to be a measure of 'pleasure/pain' units, but this is largely done from the point-of-view of one making the decision how to act. Only the seventh criteria seems to consider how the matter might be viewed from another perspective:

7. The number of people who will be affected by any pleasure or pain arising as a result of the act in question. (Bentham J., Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)

This might imply that according to Bentham, whatever you do not experience yourself, does not matter.

A bigger picture!

Picture taken of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945

What Singer (and other Preference Utilitarians) are trying to do, is expand the horizon of who (or what) should feature in moral debates. For instance, if we say that testing a nuclear weapon is morally acceptable because it discourages wars, and that no humans are harmed in the process of doing so; have we also taken into account the impact this will have on the environment, and on non-human species living in the region of the test area? Singer's point about the capacity for animals to suffer, invites us to think about the consequences of nuclear tests from the non-human perspective. For instance, what will happen to animals living near the test site, or even the environment? If we were literally 'in their shoes' (i.e. we were these animals, or the Earth), would we want someone to detonate a nuclear weapon on, or near to us? If our answer is no, and we would prefer this not to happen, then detonating a nuclear weapon is morally wrong, according to Preference Utilitarians.

As we realise that more and more things have global impact, I think we're going to get people increasingly wanting to get away from a purely national interest. (Peter Singer,

I think there are ways in which we have become a single global community that were not true a hundred years ago; the ability to know what's happening everywhere instantly by having CNN beaming it into our living rooms; that connection with remote parts of the world that we never had. (Peter Singer,

Something to think about: What do you think about Preference Utilitarianism? Do you think it is possible for people to consider such a diverse range of interests? Does it matter if we act in ways people will never know about, even though it could potentially hurt them (but never actually did)?



In his book Principia Ethica (1903), British philosopher G. E. Moore argued that 'Good' was indefinable, and instead proposed that we intuitively know what it is:

If I am asked "What is good?", my answer is that good is good and that is the end of the matter. Or if I am asked "How is good to be defined?" my answer is that it cannot be defined and that is all I have to say about it. (Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica)

Moore's discussion follows on naturally from the principle of utility. If the basis of what is good is defined as what is pleasurable (or what makes people happy), then we are essentially dealing with an indefinable notion. Although the things people believe will make them happy are many and varied, underlying all of them is an intuition (or feeling) that they are good, because they make people happy. Although people may dispute the specifics, Moore says they cannot dispute the fact that they know what will make them happy.

The idea that pleasure/happiness is the 'end' of everything, is also found in the moral theory of Aristotle. In The Nicomachean Ethics, he argued that that all 'good' acts performed by someone, would lead to their greater well-being (eudaimonia).

2 + 2 =5Moore was highly critical of Utilitarianism, accusing the theory of (wrongly) using non-moral propositions to justify moral ones; something he referred to as the Naturalistic Fallacy). For example, although Utilitarians argue that what is good is what maximises pleasureable outcomes, Moore believed this led to the worrying suggestion that what is pleasurable is always to be considered good. Of course most people would object to this idea, but Moore's point is that we cannot do this if we ground moral judgments on the notion that pleasurable outcomes are good. For if we object to the idea that what is pleasurable is always to be considered good, then this is being inconsistent and is an arbitrary judgment. For on the one hand we are saying that the 'Good' is what maximises 'pleasure', but on the other that not everything which maximises pleasure is 'Good'!

In light of this, Moore considered it far better to say that we simply do not know what 'good' is, rather than trying to justify it using 'pleasure' or 'happiness' (or any other related notion).

Some issues

Although Mill addressed some of the problems with the principle of utility in chapter 2 of Utilitarianism, this did not make it a bullet-proof moral theory. In fact, Mill's version in particular comes in for special criticism, in that he wants to distinguish between different sorts of pleasures (higher/lower). Although he was surely right to expand on Bentham's simplistic treatment of 'pleasure', how exactly are we to distinguish between these higher and lower pleasures, and why should 'intellectual pleasures' be deemed better than sensual ones? Furthermore, is making this distinction grounded in an objective 'truth', or simply Mill's personal opinion on the matter? Also, as Utilitarian theories are concerned more with the consequences of actions rather than motives, it is reasonable (especially in the case of Act Utilitarianism) that laws should be broken if this leads to the greatest happiness for the greatest number? Yet if so, who decides if a law should be broken for the interests of the majority, or not?

Adolf Hitler salutes the crowdOn the other hand, we cannot always say that what is in the best interests of the majority (or what the majority desires), is morally right either. For instance, in the 1930s Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party were elected into power by the majority of German people, but few would say this was a good decision in light of the consequences. Yet as far as Bentham and Mill are concerned, anyone opposing Hitler in the early stages of his eventual dictatorship would have been acting contrary to the theory of utility, especially as Hitler offered the German people great hope to end their suffering from years of economic depression.

In her introduction to selected writings on Utilitarianism, Mary Warnock argued that Mill was not about creating a moral theory as such, but simply concerned with describing the behaviour of most people; this being that they appear to be driven by a desire to maximise pleasurable outcomes, and thus decrease painful ones, because they believe this is a good thing to do. Warnock does not believe Mill intended to say that pleasure was (or equal to) good (which is the assumption of Moore's critique)! In fact, Mill appears reluctant to offer any fixed definition of what counts as 'good', in much the same way Moore did:

No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness. (Mill J. S., Utilitarianism)

Warnock also believed that Mill intended to say that it is not specific actions, but types of behaviour which produce 'measurable' outcomes. If we look for the specific pleasure/pain value in each particular case, then of course our pursuit of a final 'value' will never be found, due to infinite 'exceptions to the rule'. On the other hand, if we say that in general x behaviour leads to y outcome, then we appear to have some basis for evaluating whether what we are doing is right, or not.

Rosa Parks on a busSomething to discuss: On the 1st December 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama for white passengers. Her actions led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and was the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement in the US. Now imagine this is the 2nd December 1955. Using the principle of utility, explain whether you believe Rosa Park was right to do what she did, or not.

Finally, feminists argue that the desire to organise, order, and control things in order to gain moral superiority (or power) over them, is a male trait and one that ignores the diverse nature of moral interests. They would say that by establishing a generic moral framework within which to explore moral questions, Utilitarianisms are essentially missing an opportunity to discover a more inclusive solution to moral issues, and may even be (consciously or unconsciously) oppressing women at the same time.

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