A philosophical theory that states an action is morally right if it benefits the largest number of beings with the greatest good. You can apply it to animal rights, but it can cut both ways, for and against.
Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that says an action is morally right if it benefits the greatest number of beings with the greatest good. You determine what is right by calculating the amount of pleasure or suffering you think your actions may cause,
People may use utilitarianism equally to justify or condemn actions for animal rights.
then the right action will be the one that gives most pleasure or least suffering to the majority concerned. Say some of your dinner guests are vegetarians and you wonder whether to serve roast pig. As a strict utilitarian you poll your guests beforehand. Five guests say no to pig and twenty-five guests say yes. Therefore you serve pig and bring pleasure to the majority of guests, hard luck for the pig and the six veggies.
Utilitarianism is not concerned with what you may think is your duty (deontology) or with how a virtuous person might act (virtue theory). Utilitarianism is concerned only with the consequences of actions and therefore is a consequentialist theory. (See the table 'Comparison of Consequentialism, Deontology & Virtue Ethics' in Chapter 2: Animal Ethics.)
Utilitarianism evolved in the 18th century and is most closely associated with British philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832) and John Stuart Mill (1808 - 1873). It is still a powerful theory widely applied in daily life. A utilitarian would argue that sacrificing the lives of a few is right if it can save the lives of many. Dropping the atomic bombs on Japan killed many people but the justification at the time was that it would save many more lives by ending the war quickly.
One of the strengths of Utilitarianism is its seeming objectivity. Utilitarianism ostensibly depends on objective criteria, not on metaphysical entities like God or possession of a soul telling you what to do. You tote up the costs, benefits and numbers involved in your moral action to predict your action's outcomes and then you act accordingly. In addition utilitarianism laudably considers other beings in the firing line of a moral issue; it does not consider just your own interests.
Criticisms of Utilitarianism
You can use utilitarianism to argue either way on a moral issue, such as either to abolish animal suffering or to inflict it. You might say that the suffering and death of billions of food animals outweighs the enjoyment of the millions of people who eat animals. On the other hand you might claim that the treatment of millions of experimental laboratory animals is right if billions of people thereby gain a better health and enjoyment of life.
In reality it is impossible to measure the suffering and pleasure of individuals (whether animals or people) and compare them meaningfully. You might only be able to make gross estimates, like numbers of those living and dying before and after your action.
It can be difficult to know what is right and wrong for others. You could guess what is right, but should guessing be the basis of morality? If you rely on intuition to help you over this problem, someone else might entertain a conflicting intuition, then how can you decide who is right?
Your action may seem beneficial at first but a long time later reveals harmful results. Before dropping the atomic bombs on Japan no one foresaw the effect radiation would have. Sickness and death from radiation greatly added to the misery and number of dead.
You could use utilitarianism to justify cruelty and brutality, an excuse to harm individuals and minorities as long as the majority benefits. Gang rape and foxhunting appear to bring pleasure to a majority, yet are surely morally unacceptable to the few at the receiving end.
Doing some things just seems wrong, no matter what the consequences are for doing them. Most people would be highly motivated to save their own nearest and dearest (pet or child) even at the cost of letting dozens of others perish. But utilitarianism would have you save strangers and let your own dear one die.
Utilitarianism absolves you from personal responsibility for your action in that you can rationalise away doing wrong to a few for the sake of the many. If you do not know what the consequences of your action will be, and cannot even make a good guess, then utilitarianism is of no use for helping you decide the right course of action. It often fails as a moral theory.
As an alternative to utilitarianism, see Painism
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