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Utilitarianism and Animal Rights

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Animal Rights

Throughout history morality has been a topic of intense debate. Innumerable thinkers have devoted immense amounts of time and energy to the formulation of various ethical theories intended to assist humans in their daily lives. These theories set out guidelines which help to determine the rightness or wrongness of any given action and can therefore illuminate which choice would be morally beneficial. And while many of these theories differ substantially, most have at least one common underlying principle, namely that humans deserve to be treated with a certain level of respect. This idea comes from the belief that all humans have interests which are significant enough to be considered, hence no one should impede another from fulfilling their own individual interests. Yet recently a new controversy has emerged at the forefront of ethical debate, the status of animals within our distinctly human-oriented world. For thousands of years man has used animals as nothing more than a mere means, raising and slaughtering them for food, hunting them for food as well as sport, and more recently using them as test subjects to ensure an assortment of products are safe for use by humans. However, as time has passed and the overall level of enlightenment within our societies has increased, many have begun to question these aforementioned practices, maintaining that animals, like humans have interests and therefore should have the ability to seek the satisfaction inherent in attaining those interests. The answer reached in regards to this question varies immensely depending on the specific ethical theory utilized. Some theories dictate that only humans should receive moral consideration, while other wish to extend this consideration towards not only animals but inanimate objects as well. For the purpose of this essay I will examine the issue of animal rights from both a utilitarian and a Kantian perspective. I intend to show that ultimately a utilitarian outlook is superior to Kant's Categorical Imperative, and ultimately will also prove that animals do deserve our consideration and consequently many of our practices regarding animals should be ceased or severely altered.

Before delving into the issue at hand it is first necessary to deliver a brief exposition which will elucidate the general principles of the two theories which will be incorporated hereafter. I have already written extensively on utilitarianism so to quickly reiterate, this theory basically judges actions as right or wrong depending on the consequences. Utilitarians must take into account the overall pleasure and pain which would result and then choose the action which brings amount the greatest possible amount of happiness coupled with the least amount of suffering. The Categorical Imperative, on the other hand, places moral value on the act itself, not the consequence. This ethical framework rests on two primary ideas. First, one must "act according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will it should become a universal law."# As James Rachels explains,

When you are contemplating doing a particular action, you are to ask what rule you would be following if you were to do that action. ( This will be the Ð''maxim' of the act) Then you are to ask whether you would be willing for the rule to be followed by everyone all the time. (That would make it a "universal law" in the relevant sense) If so, the rule may be followed, and the act is permissible. However, if you would not be willing for everyone to follow the rule, then you may not follow it, and the act is morally impermissible.#

Yet the other concept on which this theory in founded is more relevant to my current focus. Kant placed a great amount of importance on the idea of human dignity. He felt that all humans have an "intrinsic worth"# and should be treated accordingly. Kant believed that one should "act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only."# To treat someone as a mere means would, from this perspective, be undermining their inherent value and disregarding their status as rational agents.

It is strikingly obvious that both of these theories exhibit substantial differences in the way in which they determine morality. Utilitarians focus on pleasure and pain whereas Kant concentrates on absolute moral rules and human dignity. Yet how do these variations manifest themselves within the context of animal rights? I will first put forth the traditional Kantian argument regarding the status of animals. The Categorical Imperative makes a distinction between two types of individuals. Rational beings are referred to as "persons" while non-rational being are deemed "things"#. So while a rational being can never be used as a means, "things" exist almost solely for that purpose. From this point the implications concerning animals become clear. "So far as animals are concerned, we have no direct duties. AnimalsÐ'...are there merely as a means to an end. That end is man."#

This viewpoint advanced by Kant is further expounded upon in his essay "Our Duties to Animals". Here he explains that we have no direct duties to animals because they are not self-conscious, rational moral agents. Instead we have indirect duties to human beings in regards to animals. We should therefore not be cruel to animals because "he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men."# According to Kant, " we can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals."#

Yet there are many difficulties which appear once this perspective is analyzed closely. First is the problem with the Categorical Imperative's method of classification. Kant labels self-conscious rational beings as persons and considers all others to be mere things. He speaks of inherent human worth, yet there are many beings which are biologically human yet could nonetheless still not be considered as "persons" according to Kant's method. Take for instance the very young, the very old, or the mentally retarded. All of these individuals are biologically human yet nonetheless they are arguable less self-conscious and rational than an average chimpanzee or a dolphin. Should it thereby follow that we can use these humans as means simply because they do not fit into Kant's classification of personhood?

There are two ways in which this response has been traditionally refuted. For one it has been claimed that even though these aforementioned individuals are no more rational than various animals they nevertheless possess the quality of being human and because of that are entitled to enhanced consideration. Yet this response is blatantly speciesist.



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