Consequentialism & Animal Rights
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Consequentialism is a theory that evaluates moral actions only by their consequences, not according to duty or by being a virtuous person.
What makes your animal rights action good or bad, right or wrong? Consequentialism (or the more descriptive term consequence ethics) is a moral theory stating that the morality of your action depends only on its results or consequences. Consequentialism is goal-directed because only the outcome of your action is important, not how you achieve it. You need not be dutiful or virtuous - you might even lie, cheat or whatever - so long as the result of your action is morally good. Consequentialism also goes by the name of teleology, from the Greek teleos meaning end or purpose. You can better understand animal rights and the actions of other people by reflecting on this moral theory.
Say you develop a vaccine that could save the lives of thousands of animals. But as part of the vaccine's development you must test it on tens of laboratory animals and they might die as a result. Consequentialism says it is the end result that is important, in this case you may be saving the lives of many more animals than you might kill, so you might decide it is morally right to go ahead with your tests (but see the entry Painism as a counter). Or say a pig escapes from a slaughterhouse. You believe it is immoral to take him back to be killed, so you hide him and lie that you do not know where he is. Saving the pig from slaughter is morally more important to you than telling lies. Your action focuses on its result.
Consequentialism is one of three primary philosophical theories about what constitutes the right action; the other two theories are deontology and virtue ethics. Two varieties of consequentialism are utilitarianism, by which you act to maximise the good for others, and ethical egoism, when you act solely for your own interests.
John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873)
British liberal influentially promoted consequentialism via his exposition of utilitarianism, a version of consequentialism maximising the good for others. Graphic: WikiCommons.
Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832)
An early proponent of animal rights, widely considered to be, with John Stuart Mill, the most influential thinker contributing to utilitarianism. Graphic: WikiCommons.
Consequentialism is a great help to guide how we should act, but like any moral theory it has a number of criticisms, and among them are the following.
Should you base your moral actions on what you vaguely suppose might happen? Given that we have a tendency to make wrong decisions, consequentialism might be especially unreliable when we cannot clearly see what the result of our moral action might be.
Consequentialism sometimes goes against people's sense of justice. Not all ends justify the means; the end result of your action, no matter how well-intentioned, may not justify doing a wrong to achieve it. Protecting cattle is worthy, but killing populations of badgers vaguely suspected of infecting cattle with tuberculosis is surely morally wrong (happy farmers but lots of dead badgers). Developing a vaccine to inoculate badgers instead of killing them could be a better outcome.
Consequentialism is concerned only with good results and disregards the motivation for your actions. Yet what you do might still be said to be moral as long as you do it with good intentions, even if your action turns out badly for some reason.
We cannot always judge actions by their results. Some actions seem intrinsically wrong, like killing off innocent people, children or whole populations of animals, even if at times the results seem appropriate.
Even though consequentialism has its weaknesses it is nevertheless a vital mode of thinking when you are involved in practical animal rights. Compare it with the entries of Deontology and Virtue Ethics in Chapter 2. Also see the entry Comparing Philosophies for comparisons of the three primary ethical theories.
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