Taking Life: Animals

from Practical Ethics, Third Edition, by Peter Singer
Copyright © 2011 Peter Singer
Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

Is meat eating justified by the fact that millions of animals would never exist should no one care to eat them?

In Social Rights and Duties, a collection of essays and lectures published in 1896, Leslie Stephen, a British essayist — and the father of the novelist Virginia Woolf — writes:

Of all the arguments for Vegetarianism none is so weak as the argument from humanity. The pig has a stronger interest than anyone in the demand for bacon. If all the world were Jewish, there would be no pigs at all.

Stephen’s point is that although meat eaters are responsible for the death of the animal they eat and for the loss of pleasure experienced by that animal, they are also responsible for the creation of more animals, because if no one ate meat there would be no more animals bred for fattening. The loss meat eaters inflict on one animal is thus compensated for by the benefit they confer on the next. The argument is periodically revived by those who seek to defend meat eating — in the twenty-first century, for example, by Michael Pollan in his best-seller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and also by the British chef and food writer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. We may call it ‘the replaceability argument’, for it assumes that if we kill one animal, we can replace it with another as long as that other will lead a life as pleasant as the one killed would have led, if it had been allowed to go on living.

Hedonistic utilitarians may or may not agree with the replaceability argument; that depends on their view of whose good counts.  On the “total” view, one should maximize total utility even if the best way to do so is to bring into existence sentient beings who would not otherwise have existed. On the “prior existence” view, however, one should maximize the utility of just those beings whose existence is already a given, prior to the decision under consideration being taken.  (This does not necessarily mean that they already exist, only that they will exist, irrespective of what we now decide.) Utilitarians who accept the total view must agree, at least in principle, with Stephen, Pollan, and Fearnley-Whittingstall because they must regard sentient beings as valuable only insofar as they make possible the existence of intrinsically valuable experiences like pleasure. It is as if sentient beings are receptacles of something valuable, and it does not matter if a receptacle gets broken so long as there is another receptacle to which the contents can be transferred without any getting spilt. (This metaphor should not be taken too seriously, however; unlike precious liquids, pleasure and other experiences cannot exist independently from a conscious being, and so even on the total view, sentient beings cannot properly be thought of merely as receptacles.)

The first point to note about the replaceability argument is that even if it is valid when the animals in question have pleasant lives, it would not justify eating the flesh of animals reared in modern factory farms, where the animals are so crowded together and restricted in their movements that their lives seem to be more of a burden than a benefit to them. Pollan and Fearnley-Whittingstall are aware of this. They unequivocally condemn factory farming and recommend that we avoid its products.

A second point is that if it is good to create happy life, then presumably it is good for there to be as many happy beings on our planet as it can possibly hold. Defenders of meat eating had better hope that they can find a reason why it is better for there to be happy people rather than just the maximum possible number of happy beings, because otherwise the argument implies that we should eliminate almost all human beings in order to make way for the much larger numbers of smaller happy animals that could sustainably replace them. If, however, the defenders of meat eating do come up with a reason for preferring the creation of happy people to, say, happy mice, then their argument will not support meat eating at all. For with the exception of some areas suitable only for pasture, the surface of our globe can support more people if we grow plant foods than if we raise animals.

A third point is that if replaceability holds for animals, it must hold for humans at a similar mental level. Suppose that whenever a child is born, the parents are offered the option of creating a clone of their child to serve as an organ donor for the child later in life. The clones are gestated in artificial wombs and then reared separately from other human beings in order to prevent the parents becoming so attached to them that they will be reluctant to remove the clone’s organs. While in embryonic form, the clones are genetically modified so that their mental abilities never develop beyond those of a human infant. Intellectually incapable of understanding their fate, they will lead lives similar to those of happy, well-cared-for infants until the time comes for them to be killed — humanely, of course. Their hearts and other organs are then used to prolong the lives of the children — now usually adults — from whom they were cloned. Those who receive the organs pay for them, and the revenue from these sales makes it possible to rear new clones from the next generation of babies. Suppose that there is one religious group, let’s say Buddhism, that objects to this practice, refuses to use clones, and urges us to accept the idea of living a natural lifespan, which Buddhists see as ethically better than using organs from clones to prolong our lives. To this a modern Leslie Stephen might reply: ‘Of all the arguments for a natural lifespan, none is so weak as the argument from humanity. The clone has a stronger interest than anyone in the demand for organs. If all the world were Buddhist, there would be no clones at all.’ Unless one is a speciesist, favouring human beings simply because of their species membership, it isn’t easy to see how we can use the replaceability argument to defend meat eating without also accepting it as a defence of this form of organ banking.

These three points undoubtedly reduce the appeal of the replaceability argument as a defence of meat eating, but they do not go to the heart of the matter. Are some sentient beings really replaceable? The total view and the replaceability argument have been widely criticised, but none of the critics have offered satisfactory solutions to the underlying problems to which these positions offer a consistent, if uncongenial, answer.

Derek Parfit has offered a thought experiment that shows the strength of  the replaceability view. He asks us to imagine that two women are each planning to have a child. The first woman is already three months pregnant when her doctor gives her both bad and good news. The bad news is that the fetus she is carrying has a defect that will significantly diminish the future child’s quality of life — although not so adversely as to make the child’s life utterly miserable, or not worth living at all. The good news is that this defect is easily treatable. All the woman has to do is take a pill that will have no side effects, and the future child will not have the defect. In this situation, Parfit very plausibly suggests, we would all agree that the woman should take the pill and that she does wrong if she refuses to take it.

The second woman sees her doctor before she is pregnant, when she is about to stop using contraception. She also receives bad and good news. The bad news is that she has a medical condition, the effect of which is that if she conceives a child within the next three months, the child will have the same defect that the first woman’s child will have if she does not take the pill. This defect is not treatable, but the good news is that the woman’s condition is a temporary one, and if she waits three months before becoming pregnant, her child will not have the defect. Here too, Parfit suggests, we would all agree that the woman should wait before becoming pregnant and that she does wrong if she does not wait.

Suppose that the first woman does not take the pill, and the second woman does not wait before becoming pregnant, and that as a result each has a child with a significant disability. It would seem that they have each done something wrong. Is their wrongdoing of equal magnitude? If we assume that it would have been no more difficult for the second woman to wait three months before becoming pregnant than it would have been for the first woman to take the pill, it would seem that the answer is yes, what they have done is equally wrong. But now consider what this answer implies. The first woman has harmed her child. That child can say to her mother: ‘You should have taken the pill. If you had done so, I would not now have this disability, and my life would be significantly better.’ If the child of the second woman tries to make the same claim, however, her mother can respond: ‘If I had waited three months before becoming pregnant, you would never have existed. I would have produced another child, from a different egg and different sperm. Your life, even with your disability, is worth living. You never had a chance of existing without the disability. So I have not harmed you at all.’ This reply seems a complete defence to the charge of having harmed the child now in existence. If, despite this, we persist in our belief that it was wrong of the woman not to postpone her pregnancy, in what does the wrongness consist? It cannot lie in bringing into existence the child to whom she gave birth, for that child has an adequate quality of life. Could it lie in not bringing a possible being into existence — to be precise, in not bringing into existence the child she would have had if she had waited three months? If we explain the wrongness of the second woman’s decision in this way, we are rejecting the prior existence view in favour of the total view, or something closer to it. We are also a step closer to accepting replaceability, for our explanation implies that we should give weight to the interests of beings who would come into existence, if we chose to bring them into existence.

Because some people are unsure what to say about the case of the two women — in particular, whether what they do is equally wrong — I will add one more example, adapting a case that Parfit calls ‘Depletion’ so that it becomes very like the choice that developed nations are facing now on what to do about climate change. We could continue to use the cheapest energy available to give ourselves, our children and perhaps our grandchildren a high standard of living. In discussions of climate policy, this is often referred to as ‘Business As Usual’. If we do this, however, the warming of the planet will mean that sometime in the next century, things will get much worse for future generations and will remain much worse for several centuries — although we shall assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that they will not get so bad that people in these future centuries will not have a life that is not worth living. Alternatively, we could follow a policy we will call ‘Sustainability’: this involves a quick end to the use of fossil fuels, with significantly changed lifestyles, different industries, less travel, less meat and many other changes. We and our children and perhaps our grandchildren would be slightly worse off under Sustainability than under Business As Usual, but more distant future generations would, for many centuries, be much better off. Overall, if we consider the welfare of every generation, including ours, as far as we can foresee, Sustainability has much better consequences than Business As Usual.  But imagine that we are selfish, and don’t care much about future generations, beyond our own grandchildren, and so we decide to opt for Business As Usual.

Have we done something wrong? Surely we have; but who have we wronged? It may seem that we have wronged the people who will live in later centuries, because they will have less good lives than they would have had if we had opted for Sustainability. But this response overlooks the fact that our choice of policies will have such widespread effects that it will also change who meets whom, and who has children with whom. For example, people will travel less and so will meet different people. New industries will develop in different parts of the country, and people will move there to find employment. Who we are depends on who our parents are — if my parents had never met, I would not exist. Probably my mother and my father would have had other children, with other partners, and none of those children would have been me. So if we choose Business as Usual, we can pre-empt any complaints from twenty-third-century people by leaving them a document explaining that if we had chosen Sustainability, they would not have been better off, but rather they would not have been at all. Moreover, if their lives are not so bad as not to be worth living, they are better off existing than not existing.

What is wrong with this justification of Business as Usual? On the prior existence view, it is difficult to see what could be wrong with it. The prior existence view tells us to do what is best for those who exist, or will exist anyway, and following Business As Usual does that. The people who are made worse off by our continuation of Business As Usual are people who would not have existed if we had chosen Sustainability. The example shows that to focus only on those who exist or will exist anyway leaves out something vital to the ethics of this decision. We can, and should, compare the lives of those who will exist with the lives of those who might have existed, if we had acted differently. Henry Salt, the pioneering English defender of animal rights, urged us never to ‘argue as if from the abyss of the nonexistent’. But why not? We can condemn the decision to continue with Business As Usual only by taking into account the fact that, if we switch to Sustainability, the lives of those who will exist would be much better than the lives of those who will exist under Business As Usual. Granted, the people for whose sake we should switch to Sustainability will never exist if we do not make that switch. Yet the quality of the lives they would have led is inescapably relevant to our decision.

If then we should, in making ethical decisions, at least sometimes take account of the impact we could have on the lives of people the existence of whom is, at the time we are making the decision, uncertain, we need to ask: at what stage in the development from people we might bring into existence to people actually in existence does replaceability cease to apply? What characteristic makes the difference?

Here, there is a difference between preference utilitarianism and hedonistic utilitarianism. Preference utilitarians can draw a distinction between self-aware individuals, leading their own lives and wanting to go on living, and those with no future-directed preferences. Because the latter have no future-directed preferences, we are not acting contrary to any of their preferences if we kill them instantly and painlessly. So perhaps the capacity to see oneself as existing over time, and thus to aspire to longer life (as well as to have other non-momentary, future-directed interests), is the characteristic that marks out those beings who cannot be considered replaceable.

For a preference utilitarian, concerned with the satisfaction of preferences rather than experiences of suffering or happiness, rational and self-conscious beings are individuals, leading lives of their own, and cannot in any sense be regarded merely as receptacles for containing a certain quantity of happiness. Beings that are conscious, but not self-conscious, on the other hand, more nearly approximate the image of receptacles for experiences of pleasure and pain, because their preferences will be of a more immediate sort. It is not easy to say with confidence which animals might be conscious but not self-conscious, but it is reasonable to suppose that there are some in this category. They will not have desires that project their images of their own existence into the future. Their conscious states are not internally linked over time. If they become unconscious, for example by falling asleep, then before the loss of consciousness they would have no expectations or desires for anything that might happen subsequently; and if they regain consciousness, they have no awareness of having previously existed. Therefore, if they were killed while unconscious and replaced by a similar number of other members of their species who will be created only if the first group are killed, there would, from the perspective of their awareness, be no difference between that and the same animals losing and regaining consciousness.

For a merely conscious being, death is the cessation of experiences, in much the same way that birth is the beginning of experiences. Death cannot be contrary to an interest in continued life any more than birth could be in accordance with an interest in commencing life. To this extent, with merely conscious beings, birth and death cancel each other out; whereas with self-aware beings, the fact that one may desire to continue living means that death inflicts a loss for which the birth of another is insufficient compensation.

The test of universalizability supports this view. If I imagine myself in turn as a self-conscious being and a merely conscious being, it is only in the former case that I could have forward-looking desires that extend beyond periods of sleep or temporary unconsciousness, for example a desire to complete my studies, a desire to have children, or simply a desire to go on living, in addition to desires for immediate satisfaction or pleasure, or to get out of painful or distressing situations. Hence, it is only in the former case that my death involves a greater loss than just a temporary loss of consciousness, and my death is not adequately compensated for by the creation of a being with similar prospects of pleasurable experiences.

In reviewing the first edition of this book, the late H. L. A. Hart, a major figure in twentieth-century philosophy of law, suggested that for a utilitarian, self-conscious beings must be replaceable in just the same way as non-self-conscious beings are. The type of utilitarianism one holds will, in Hart’s view, make no difference here, because:

Preference Utilitarianism is after all a form of maximizing utilitarianism: it requires that the overall satisfaction of different persons’ preferences be maximized just as Classical Utilitarianism requires overall experienced happiness to be maximized…. If preferences, even the desire to live, may be outweighed by the preferences of others, why cannot they be outweighed by new preferences created to take their place?

It is of course true that preference utilitarianism is a form of maximizing utilitarianism in the sense that it directs us to maximize the satisfaction of preferences, but that does not mean that we should regard the thwarting of existing preferences as something that can be outweighed by creating new preferences — whether in existing beings or in beings we bring into existence — that we will then satisfy. For whereas the satisfaction of an existing preference is a good thing, how we should evaluate the package deal that involves creating and then satisfying a preference is a very different question. If I put myself in the place of another with an unsatisfied preference and ask myself if I would, other things being equal, want that preference satisfied, the answer is self-evidently yes, because that is just what it is to have an unsatisfied preference. If, on the other hand, I ask myself whether I wish to have a new preference created that can then be satisfied, I may say that it all depends on what the preference is. If I think of a case in which the satisfaction of the preference will be highly pleasurable, I may say yes. If we know that we are going to eat well in the evening, we may take a walk beforehand to be sure that we have a good appetite; and people take all kinds of supposed aphrodisiacs in order to stimulate sexual desire when they know that the circumstances for satisfying that desire are propitious. In these cases, the creation of the new desire leads to more pleasure, and most people prefer more pleasure; so the creation of the new desire is a means of achieving something that I desire anyway. If, on the other hand, I think of the creation of a preference that is more like a privation, I will say no, I don’t want it, even if I will be able to satisfy it. We don’t deliberately make ourselves thirsty because we know that there will be plenty of water on hand to quench our thirst. This suggests that the creation and satisfaction of a preference is in itself neither good nor bad: our response to the idea of the creation and satisfaction of a preference varies according to whether the experience as a whole will be desirable in terms of other longstanding preferences we may have. If not, there is no value in creating a new desire just so that we can then satisfy it.

Consistently with this conclusion, we might think of the creation of an unsatisfied preference as putting a debit in a kind of moral ledger of debits and credits. The satisfaction of the preference merely cancels out the debit. This ‘debit model’ of the ethical significance of preferences has the advantage of explaining the puzzling asymmetry in our obligations regarding bringing children into existence, which is mentioned in the previous chapter. We consider it wrong to bring into existence a child who, because of a genetic defect, will lead a thoroughly miserable existence for a year or two and then die; yet we do not consider it good or obligatory to bring into existence a child who, in all probability, will lead a happy life. The debit view of preferences explains why this should be so: to bring into existence a child, most of whose preferences we will be unable to satisfy, is to create a debit that we cannot cancel and is therefore wrong. To create a child whose preferences will be satisfied is to create a debit that will be erased when the desires are satisfied. On the debit view, this is ethically neutral. The model can also explain why, in Parfit’s example, what the two women do is equally wrong — for although neither thwarts any existing preferences, both quite unnecessarily bring into existence a child who is likely to have a larger negative balance in the moral ledger than a child they could have brought into existence. Similarly, it explains why continuing with Business As Usual is wrong — it too leaves larger negative balances in the moral ledger than would be the case if we switched to Sustainability.

There is, however, one serious objection to this account of preferences: if the creation of each preference is a debit that is cancelled only when the desire is satisfied, it would follow that it is wrong, other things being equal, to bring into existence a child who will on the whole be very happy and will be able to satisfy nearly all, but not quite all, of her preferences. Because everyone has some unsatisfied desires, even the best life anyone can realistically hope to lead is going to leave a small debit in the ledger. The conclusion to be drawn is that it would have been better if none of us had been born!

Consider two different universes. In the Nonsentient Universe, there is never any sentient life at all. In the Peopled Universe, there are several billion self-aware beings. They lead rich and full lives, experiencing the joys of love and friendship, of fulfilling and meaningful work, and of bringing up children. They seek knowledge, successfully adding to their understanding of themselves and the universe they inhabit. They respond to the beauties of nature, cherish the forests and animals that pre-date their own existence, and create literature and music that is on a par with the works of Shakespeare and Mozart. They manage to prevent or relieve many forms of suffering, but they are mortal and are not able to satisfy all their desires. Is it better that the Peopled Universe exist rather than the Nonsentient Universe?

Can we answer this question by universalizing our own preferences? We might say that we would prefer to live the kind of life that is lived in the Peopled Universe than not to live at all. R. M. Hare once suggested that we could take this approach to abortion. Because I enjoy my life, I am pleased that my parents did not abort the fetus from which I developed. Therefore, other things being equal, he argued, we should not abort fetuses if we have reason to believe that the fetus will develop into a person who will enjoy being alive; and if the fetus is aborted, there will be fewer such persons (that is, the aborted fetus will not subsequently be replaced by another that would not otherwise have existed). But there is a significant difference between putting yourself in the place of other existing beings who will be affected by your act and putting yourself in the place of beings who might not exist at all. In one case, we are satisfying existing preferences, and in the other, bringing preferences into existence. To draw on the example to which I have already referred, if someone is thirsty, that is a reason for giving them water, but it doesn’t follow that we have a reason for making people thirsty and then offering them water. Similarly, no obligation to bring more beings into existence follows from the fact that, if we do,  they will be able to satisfy most of their preferences. Hence, to take into account the interests of merely possible future beings — as we can scarcely avoid doing in some scenarios — goes beyond the original minimalist idea of preference utilitarianism based on universalizing our own preferences. It may be based on a judgment that there is value in certain kinds of lives. We could try to distinguish two kinds of value: preference-dependent value, which depends on the existence of beings with preferences and is tied to the preferences of those specific beings, and value that is independent of preferences. When we say that the Peopled Universe is better than the Nonsentient Universe, we are referring to value that is independent of preferences. Henry Sidgwick, the nineteenth-century utilitarian, said that if we reflect carefully, we will see that the only thing that is intrinsically or ultimately good — good for its own sake — is a form of consciousness, or state of mind, that we regard as desirable. He thought that this desirable consciousness is pleasure, and, like other hedonistic utilitarians, would have thought that the Peopled Universe is better because it contains a surplus of pleasure over pain and the Nonsentient Universe does not. To say that pleasure is good and pain is bad is to assert not only that there are preference-independent values, but to say that pleasure and pain are such values.  If there are preference-independent values, there are many other possible views about what is of value, in this sense. My account of the Peopled Universe was designed to capture a variety of possible views about what kinds of consciousness are desirable. We could hold a pluralist view of value and consider that love, friendship, knowledge and the appreciation of beauty, as well as pleasure or happiness, are all of value. My point here is not to determine the nature of preference-independent value but to show that some notion of it provides a basis for objecting to the Party & Go option, as well as the Business as Usual option, in our climate change example.

Hedonistic utilitarians must face a different objection. Because they would prefer any universe that contains a surplus of pleasure over pain to a universe with neither pleasure nor pain, they must prefer, not only the Peopled Universe to the Nonsentient Universe, but also the Happy Sheep Universe, where the only sentient beings are sheep that have plenty of grass on which to graze. Lambs gambol happily in the fields, grow up, reproduce, and when their offspring are mature, die swiftly and without suffering. Whether hedonistic utilitarians would prefer the Happy Sheep Universe over the Peopled Universe would depend on which has the greater surplus of pleasure over pain and, as we saw at the end of the previous chapter, whether we agree with Mill’s assessment of the pleasures and pains of animals and normal human beings.

It seems obvious to me that both the Peopled Universe and the Happy Sheep Universe are better than the Nonsentient Universe, but at this point we are dealing with such basic values that it is difficult to find an argument that would persuade someone who denies this. Remember that the Peopled Universe is not our actual universe. It may be that there is more suffering and misery than happiness in our actual universe, especially if we consider the extremes of suffering that exist in it. So I am not here committed to an optimistic view of our actual universe, but only to the view that if life was really good for everyone, without terrible suffering, that would be a better universe than the Nonsentient one. Still, I admit that it would be possible for a preference utilitarian to bite the bullet here and say that the Nonsentient Universe is as good as the Peopled Universe — and explain our reluctance to embrace this conclusion by saying that it is the outcome of our evolved instinct to reproduce and care for our offspring.

In the thirty years since the first edition of this book was published, many philosophers have put forward ingenious solutions to the problem of how we should think about decisions that affect who will exist. A view that most philosophers find even tolerably satisfactory is still to be found, and any new suggestion is bound to give rise to some difficulties or counter-intuitive results. That is not in itself a reason for rejecting the view, because the difficulties may still be less serious than the difficulties afflicting all other views. It is, therefore, a consideration in favour of the kind of value I have been suggesting that, in combination with the debit view of preferences, helps us to formulate answers to these baffling questions. It enables us to move beyond the prior existence view, which is clearly not adequate for dealing with some of these questions, without forcing us to accept that all sentient beings, even those who are self-aware, are replaceable. Nevertheless, this combination of preference utilitarianism and an idea of intrinsic value that is not dependent on preferences sacrifices one of the great advantages of any form of utilitarianism that is based on just one value, which is that there is no need to explain how different values are to be traded off against one another. Instead, because this view suggests that there are two kinds of values, one personal and based on preferences and the other impersonal, it isn’t easy to see how we are to proceed when the two kinds of values clash.

I should emphasize that to hold that merely conscious beings are replaceable is not to say that their interests do not count. I hope that the third chapter of my book, Practical Ethics, makes it clear that their interests do count. As long as sentient beings are conscious, they have an interest in satisfying their desires, or in experiencing as much pleasure and as little pain as possible. Sentience suffices to place a being within the sphere of equal consideration of interests, but it does not mean that the being has a personal interest in continuing to live.

10 comments to Taking Life: Animals

  • Singer’s chapter calls for much more comment than there is room for on this response page. But let’s focus on this: “When we say that the Peopled Universe is better than the Nonsentient Universe, we are referring to value that is independent of preferences.”

    The trouble is that there is no “value independent of preferences”. Why some people prefer empty universes to ones full of interesting people is beyond me, but their value isn’t “independent of preferences.” It’s just that they have weird preferences. That WHAT they prefer includes no sentient activity suggests that they are pretty misanthropic, but so long as they don’t let their misanthropy lead to violence against their fellows, they have a perfect right to be like that.

    The point is that we are, I should think, entitled to our preferences, weird or otherwise. There are those who sympathize with nonhuman animals, and then there are those who like hamburger and chicken too much to let whatever such sympathies they may have deter them from eating accordingly. When it comes to our fellow people, though, things are quite a bit different, for they, unlike animals, can respond intelligently, not only to our actions but also to our various claims and proposals about our intended as well as our actual actions. Thus, we can make arrangements, have understandings with, our fellows that we really can’t with animals. And foremost among those understandings, I think, is nonviolence.

    Now, when it comes to future people: any “duties” we have “toward” those not-yet existent people run up against the sobering facts that we don’t have any reciprocity with them, so there’s no place for “deals” or “understandings” or agreements with them. Rather, it’s a matter of adjusting our preferences about such matters in relation to our existing fellow humans, now. Most of us want to have children, e.g., and would like that they do well and be well. But of course, no one of us can bring about the existence of more than a handful of these people in the near future, and as to the far future, there are too many variables – it scarcely matters what we think.

    Peter’s invocation of global warming is apposite. He makes the intensely PC assumption that mankind is imminently threatened with serious meteorological consequences, within the next century even, if we don’t engage in various expensive “preventive” measures now. That’s a matter of scientific appraisal of the evidence, for one thing, and in my and many people’s appraisals, it doesn’t come close to supporting such conclusion. But more important is that the measures we can do now will demonstrably do nothing significant along that line, albeit at enormous expense. The same by and large goes for future people. We don’t know enough to attach enough plausibility to any thesis about shortages and consquently worse lives for future generations to make it worth bothering with the subject now. So, is there a problem of the typical philosophers’ type, going like this: well, IF there WERE such a problem, THEN what would or should we do? I’m inclined toward the view: “each person may do as much or as little as he or she feels like doing”, and that’s it.

    But the original question was whether the fact of human tastes in meat implies that animals of edible types actually benefit from this propensity, since there would be so many more of them. Now, it is pretty clear that the animals themselves do not “benefit” from that fact, as such: they simply have no view on this matter (or any others at anywhere near this level of abstraction). More basically, it is still more clear that they have no “say” in the matter. How we should treat them is entirely a matter of how we see OUR interests being affected. Those who sympathize strongly with animals will decry, and those who, like most of us, enjoy a good steak now and then, will not. What matters is that we each have the right to our opinion, and neither has the right to compel the others to act in accordance with his or her own such opinion. I am not clear whether Singer agrees with this latter, though I suspect that in fact he does. That is, I suspect that he doesn’t REALLY think that we should be putting people in jail, or perhaps to the guillotine, for “murdering” millions of innocent beef animals, cows, chickens, and so on. And if not, his general invocation of the language of “obligation” in these contexts is slightly misplaced – and quite dangerous, since a lot of people will take him to be justifying precisely such things.

    Most of us have enough sympathy with animals that we’d rather not see them killed painfully when they could instead be killed painlessly, for our eating pleasure. But even that, I think, doesn’t justify making laws for the benefit of animals. People come first, not just in the sense that animals come second, but in the sense that they don’t “come” at all, on this list.

  • There is so much to discuss here (and what a great thing that Practical Ethics will be out in its 3rd edition. It is an invaluable resource for teaching ethics). One of the worries I have in relation to the replaceability arguments that Peter raises is that the distinction between the “merely conscious” and those with interests in continued existence may not be as readily drawn as discussions of replaceability suggest.

    Even though happy chickens do not have explicit preferences for continued existence, they do, in fact, have future-directed interests. All admit that the animals that are typically raised and slaughtered to be eaten are conscious beings whose lives can go better or worse for them. But are they “merely conscious”? They can be considered intentional beings — if permitted, they will move from one place to another on their own, will eat some things and not other things, will gather materials for nesting and pick a spot to build the nest, and will choose the company of some individuals and actively avoid others. Like human animals, other animals have identifiable desires and interests. And these desires and interests persist over time, although it is an empirical question just how long they do persist. When a cow starts to move to another part of the pasture, it might be said that she has an interest in getting to the spot where the grass is greener. If she is prevented from getting there, say she is painlessly killed on her way, her interest or desire will be frustrated. If it is wrong, other things being equal, to thwart the future-directed desires and interests of persons, it may also be wrong to thwart the future-directed interests of non-persons, although the wrongs may be of different strengths.

    The satisfaction of a chicken’s interest in crossing the road or a cow’s interest in moving to greener pastures requires continued existence. Those interests would not be satisfied if the chicken or cow were killed before getting to their destination. So, it could be argued, any diachronic interest is accompanied by an interest in living, even if the concepts of life and death are not ones that the individual possesses or is capable of formulating. Because what we might think of as a “merely conscious being” say a puppy or an infant, has an interest in being cuddled and cared for, she has a derivative interest in continuing to exist, and that interest is violated when she is painlessly killed. The same could be said for chickens, hens, sows, pigs, cows, and cattle. Their interests may not be as sophisticated as those of human persons, but they are beings that appear to have future-directed interests, even if their time horizon is rather short.

    If we are concerned with thwarting future directed interests and other animals can reasonably be said to have such interests, then killing and replacing these beings (for example, on the pasture based farms that Pollan and Fearnley-Whittingstall extol) is ethically problematic.

  • Leslie Francis

    Do the effects of our present actions on future contingent people matter morally? This is a familiar ethical question to those who study problems of environmental sustainability or population policy. Arguments that we now should take into account the interests of they then have been thought to founder because who they are is contingent on what we do. An act now cannot wrong them then, it is said, if they would not have existed had we not performed that act. Acting sustainably now will ultimately result in a world in which those who are alive later will experience a world rich in resources. Rejecting sustainability now will ultimately result in a world in which those alive then will experience a world that is comparatively poorer. But rejecting sustainability doesn’t push those who would have lived in a better world into a worse one. Those who actually come into being and experience the poorer world are different people. Derek Parfit famously called this the “non-identity” problem.

    For environmentalists, something seems wrong about limiting our ethical reasoning to those who exist or who will in fact exist, and ignoring those whose existence is contingent on the choices we make. Contingent, “merely possible,” people count, too; scope of ethical concern does not presuppose non-contingent existence. In the posted excerpt from Practical Ethics, Peter Singer points out potentially problematic parallel to this reasoning: the “replaceability” argument offered to justify the painless killing of animals.

    On the replaceability argument, if the result of painlessly killing one animal is its replacement by an equally happy twin, the world it seems is an equally good place. If two happy twins replace the killed animal, the world is a better place. Of course, this reasoning assumes that the killing is painless and that replacement animals are genuinely happy. If so, what’s the problem? The answer seems to lie in the claim that some sentient beings are not “replaceable”—that existence counts, ethically. This point, however, is just what the argument for sustainability rejected in taking contingent people into moral account. If existing animals matter ethically in a way contingent animals do not (so the omnivore’s replaceability argument fails), why doesn’t the sustainability argument fail, too?

    Singer believes that the distinction between preference utilitarianism and hedonistic utilitarianism can take us part of the way to a solution. Preference utilitarianism maximizes preferences, including those that may be future-directed. Hedonistic utilitarianism maximizes experiences (of pleasures, hedons, etc.). Beings that are self-conscious have preferences that project into the future. Beings that are merely conscious in the sense that they are aware of pleasure or pain do not. For hedonistic utilitarians, death is not a loss if new pleasures come into being and can be satisfied. For preference utilitarians death is a loss in that is a failure to satisfy existing preferences, and these preferences cannot simply be replaced by the satisfaction of new preferences. For Singer, this point is key: failure to satisfy one preference creates a “debit” that remains. Killing existing animals with preferences for their futures leaves debits that are not offset by the satisfied preferences of their replacements.

    Preference utilitarianism thus provides part of an answer to replaceability. But it does not provide a complete answer, at least for someone committed to utilitarian maximization. Singer does not explain how the “debit” view of preferences actually works. Surely, for a utilitarian, “debits” can be overridden by greater “credits.” Thus the fact that a debit is created when a preference is unsatisfied is only half of the story. The debit may still be outweighed (albeit not cancelled) by other satisfactions. Unless “debits” have a kind of absolute moral weight, Singer’s answer to the replaceability argument is only partial. For the satisfied preferences of other beings could outweigh the unsatisfied preference of the animal killed. (This is the point Singer attributes to H.L.A. Hart.) But it is implausible to suggest that failures to satisfy preferences create debits that cannot be overridden.

    Nor can preference utilitarianism solve the sustainability problem. That problem requires explaining why the interests of contingent beings count morally. Preference utilitarianism can explain why it is wrong to cut off an existing life, but not why a life should be brought into being. To solve this problem Singer believes, we must turn to an account of intrinsic value that is independent of preferences. (Such an account of intrinsic value might also explain why failures to satisfy some preferences can readily be overridden, while others cannot).

    These issues are not easy ones. In calling out the tension between the sustainability argument (that we need to take contingent beings into account) and the rejection of replaceability (that existence matters), Singer has done a real service. But how Singer handles Hart’s point remains obscure. Moreover, the move to intrinsic value may raise more problems than it solves. It does not seem that the solution to the sustainability problem is to contend that there is intrinsic value in bringing merely contingent people into existence. (Think of what that would do to the population problem!). It is not the intrinsic value of the lives of contingent people that is at issue. We still need to find a better way to explain the wrongfulness of ongoing practices that carry us down a course to a world with inhabitants who will not live very well.

  • Peter Singer’s essay, unsurprisingly, is so full of material that it seems likely to spawn several further volumes of both complimentary and critical comment. Often, it will be the unvoiced assumptions behind his argument that attract attention; often, the careful detail of the explicit argument. It will be clear enough that I share a broadly “liberationist” or “animal rightist” agenda, but have come to it from a quite different direction. I write as a professing Christian, but one more open to the implications of modern ethological observation and evolutionary theory than is usual even amongst secular philosophers.

    Hardly anyone ever actually decides what to do after determining what net result would satisfy the most (weighted) preferences of those affected by the decision. Usually, we only even approximate this method when there are – as we suppose – no substantial ethical issues in play: what flavour ice-cream to buy for a whole group, when the only ice-cream available comes in blocks. Few of us even momentarily wonder whether to include the preferences of paedophiles, rapists, sadistic torturers and so on in a calculus about the “best outcome”. And of course we are all easily persuaded that some creatures – human or non-human – have no preferences at all, nor any need for a vote. Most of us do whatever we choose to do within a complex network of rights and responsibilities, in the light of multiple attractions and inhibitions, memories and loyalties. The nearest we ever come to analysing or defending our choices in the way that Singer describes is to believe or hope that our honest choices will work out “for the best”.

    Probably this is itself for the best. After all, even if the best outcome were the one that best satisfies the serious preferences of all those affected we don’t know enough about those preferences, nor about the likely or actual results of our own actions to determine what we should ourselves do here and now. As George Berkeley remarked in a slightly different context (in his Alciphron), ‘he who undertakes to measure without knowing either [the measure or the thing to be measured] can be no more exact than he is modest!’ Only omniscient and impartially benevolent observers would have much chance of specifying what such a “best outcome” was, or how we might achieve it. And the best instruction they could offer us, perhaps, would be to let our impulses be guided, our preferences educated, by whatever doubtful wisdom we have inherited.

    But of course that inherited wisdom can be corrected, or at least distrusted just a little. It is not long ago, nor very far away, that the only people whose preferences mattered (or still matter) were adult, male, property-owning, sane, clever, and of our own ethnicity and religion. Even the gradual ascent of universal humanism as a significant moral stance did not do much to help the Others: children, women, the poor and homeless, the visibly deluded or simply the “not very clever” could not override the preferences and opinions of “real people”. In fact, insofar as humanism pretended to be a rational escape from older rights and responsibilities, attractions and inhibitions, it was also released from any “merely superstitious” respect even for the human form, let alone for the other creatures that God had chosen to populate the world alongside us. The eugenicists, for example, that chose to imprison, sterilize, castrate and eventually kill anyone they considered a liability were honestly – or fairly honestly – seeking the best outcome. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough”, said Oliver Wendell Holmes as he ordered that a young girl, innocent of any crime (and incidentally not provably even an imbecile, whatever that might be), be sterilized.

    A more consistent and compassionate humanism, practised by rationalists not quite so certain of their own virtue and intelligence, seems more agreeable to most of us. But humanism, of its nature, pushes aside all creatures not deemed human, even when it does not also push aside those human beings who aren’t thought “human enough” to count. This is an understandable reaction against eugenicists, and others, who treated human beings as if they were domestic cattle, but it sits a little oddly with the other side of the modern rationalizing enterprise. The human species is not, on current biological theory, a natural kind: human beings are not of a wholly different sort than all the other creatures alongside whom we live. It seems to be true that all of us human beings are more closely related (and so more nearly homogeneous) than most other primate groups: our line passed through a bottleneck of some sort only a few thousand years ago, when there were no more than a few thousand of our species living, and all in the same region. But it also seems clear that there have been other hominid species (and may yet be again), and that whatever particular talents, habits and liabilities we possess are also to be found, in different degrees and with different associations, in other animal lines. Very strangely, even those philosophers most committed (as they suppose) to a rational, scientific understanding of our place in nature, fall back on ancient stereotypes when discussing “animals”. Even Peter Singer, who is widely regarded and respected as a founder of the modern “animal liberation movement” seems ready to suppose that many of the animals that most modern Westerners regard as “ours to do as we please with” lack any self-awareness or serious preferences about their lives. They are not, he insists, to be hurt, but as long as they have “happy lives” (as we suppose) we may not need to be troubled by killing them (and replacing them with equally “happy” others). It does not seem that philosophers often take any pains to find out what these animals are actually like, whether from those who work with them or from professional students of animal behaviour. Instead, they tend to repeat the stereotypes that were fashionable in the Hellenistic era, amongst Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, and that were, with some variations, adopted also by Western Christian theologians: animals, said Aquinas, don’t act, but are only acted on. Notoriously, Descartes’s followers concluded – more firmly than Descartes himself – that they didn’t even feel – thereby adopting as their own what had been offered as an obvious reductio by the critics of Stoic theory, and providing an easy excuse for doing anything they pleased to “animals”.

    That animals had no feelings at all was hardly plausible (though there are still philosophers who apparently believe it), but perhaps an error was made in replying that they certainly did feel pain and pleasure, as though that was all that they could seriously feel or know. It may be true of some creatures that they only ever respond to immediate stimuli: the woodlouse simply speeds up, and changes direction more often, when conditions are bright and dry, and so ends up, seemingly by design, in damp, dark places. But very few complex creatures lack awareness of where they are, and how their present location is related to other possible places: some are very much better at running mazes, for example, than I am. Very few (if any) social creatures lack awareness of their immediate peers, and how their status is related to that of others. Very few (if any) lack foresight into what may happen next, or memory of how they evaded danger on some earlier occasion. Very few think only of obtaining pleasures and avoiding pains: as even Stoic philosophers recognized, animals have other goals than transient sensations. Many animals – and not only vertebrates – have complex communication systems. Many are innovative. Many show more compassion to their peers than the human experimentalists who seek to uncover how they feel and act. Human language, unsurprisingly, is only found amongst humans. But there is no clear reason to suppose that the acquisition of language makes as great a difference as some philosophers have supposed: on their account, it sometimes seems, it is not only the discovery of language by our hominid ancestors that is miraculous, but also the mere beginnings of speech in present-day human infants. If no-one can think or feel or recognize their kin or worry about what isn’t there until they can clearly speak, whatever do they have to speak about, and how could they understand what others say?

    Singer of course agrees that there is less “moral difference” between human and non-human animals than has mostly been supposed. What is troubling is that he should apparently still think it plausible that so many animals – and particularly the animals we farm and mostly experiment upon – are only “sentient” in some diminished sense, and that they are not injured by being killed: “conscious”, but not “self-conscious”. Realistically, of course, the idea that farm animals are killed “painlessly” and that they had “happy” lives – munching away at the grass in the open air – unless they were factory-farmed, is fantasy. Realistically, experimental animals have at best a narrow and tedious existence, even before they are put to any particular use. And those Stoic and Epicurean philosophers whose stereotypes about animals still influence the philosophical consciousness, would themselves be shocked by our own obsession with corporeal pleasure and with medical escapes from pain: both those schools thought poorly of non-human animals precisely because they despised the pleasures (and pains) we share with them. Virtuous human beings, the Stoics especially supposed, had their eye on what was right, not on what was “enjoyable”. And one of the chief arguments against the animal welfare laws that took shape in early nineteenth century Britain (to outlaw bull-baiting and the like) was that it was good for Britons to see animal courage in action, and to learn how little pain should matter to a noble mind. It is an historical irony that the very utilitarians who drew our attention to how bad pain was (and conversely how good pleasure felt) both provided arguments for a somewhat better treatment of animals and for an even more exploitative use of them. If pain and pleasure matter more to us than they did to our moralizing ancestors, we have reason both to sympathize with non-human creatures and to make more use of them, unloading our own pains on them (with the ill-grounded excuse that they don’t feel it quite so much).

    So is it only wrong to hurt animals, but not to kill them (a familiar “animal welfarist” claim)? It is not entirely clear, from this one essay, what Singer’s conclusion is. His intuition or educated preference suggests that – given the choice – it would be better for there to be Happy Sheep than not, but that no actual sheep have any interest in their own continued existence, let alone the subsequent existence of any “replacement sheep”. From this he concludes that preference utilitarianism has to be patched together with some form of hedonistic utilitarian calculation, however clumsy this may seem. To that extent he seems to endorse Leslie Stephen’s argument that since breeding sheep for slaughter is a necessary condition for there being sheep at all, the industry and the habit of eating sheep are justified (at least if there are some minimal animal welfare standards). At any rate, the answer given by Henry Salt, that non-existent sheep cannot be injured by denying them existence, is inadequate. It would also seem difficult, at least, to say that existing sheep had been harmed by the act that gave them existence, even if the existence is brief or less than perfect.

    But are the abstract arguments about Peopled or Un-peopled Worlds, or about the distinct populations to be found in radically different futures, likely to assist us here? And do we need much assistance? Even if sheep bred for slaughter are not harmed by having been bred into existence (since they would not be better-off if they did not exist) it does not follow that, granted that they now exist, they may legitimately be slaughtered. House-bred slaves have likewise owed their existence to their parents’ capture and enslavement: it does not follow that they should stay slaves. And Singer’s imagined human clones would obviously be injured – not by their conception but by their continued use. Nor is it even a good argument for breeding sheep on these terms that it would be good for such sheep to exist (good, that is, that such sheep existed, not that it would be good for them): not all good results can be obtained at a decent cost. Both Leslie Stephen and Salt were wrong to couch the argument in terms of what was good for sheep (or any other domestic cattle), but Salt was right to doubt that the argument gave us any good excuse.

    The practical import of Leslie Stephen’s thesis, and the more difficult question, was that we would need a sufficient reason to allow the existence of other animals in an increasingly crowded world, and that we would favour especially useful animals: the price they would pay for living or being allowed to live (if only for a while) would be their flesh. A better informed generation might perhaps instead understand that we human beings are dependent on a living world composed of many different sorts of living thing. The only sensible answer to the question “what would human beings be like in a world without other animals?” is simply “Scarce”. There will always be a good reason even for anthropocentrists to permit, and cultivate, the existence of other creatures. There may also be better reasons, of a sort that animal liberationists especially endorse: our loyalties are to our lineage, but also to the many other lines with whom we share the world. Our goal should be to treat all others as we would wish to be treated. Maybe we will have time to learn.

  • I am wondering what Singer’s excerpt is doing in a book called Practical Ethics. Singer himself observes that “The first point to note about the replaceability argument is that even if it is valid when the animals in question have pleasant lives, it would not justify eating the flesh of animals reared in modern factory farms….” Factory farming (indeed, all animal agriculture; indeed, all use of other animals by human beings; indeed, all impact on other animals by human activities) is a real ethical problem. But the kind of argumentation featured in the excerpt seems to me to have little to do with any practical response to it. What we who care about these things need to grapple with is the recalcitrance of other people to change their dietary (and other) behavior in the face of a calamity of unprecedented proportion. It seems to me that the main practical response to this practical issue will be something that even non-professional-philosophers could do quite well, namely, educating people about the sheer facts of the situation – that the images of contented cows and crowing cocks on milk and egg cartons are lies, and so forth — and about viable alternatives, such as how to become vegan (nutritionally, economically, gustatorily, and with minimal effort).

    No person alive has done more than Peter Singer to address the problem in such very practical ways. Furthermore, philosophers qua philosophers are also well-suited to help in the effort, for example by pointing out, as Singer herein does, but only in passing, that Leslie Stephen’s comment, however sincerely put forward, is beside the point at issue, and even somewhat confused in its own right. Philosophers are also ones who could analyze the problem in ways that suggest ever broader practical connections, such as pointing to our general human attitude towards other animals, and even some other humans, as “less than” human. But Singer devotes his main effort in the excerpt to convincing us that something imponderable is at stake. That may well be true, but, again, why (attempt to) ponder it here?

    Singer’s argument, intricate and provocative, strikes me as a way an introductory philosophy teacher might go about trying to lead students into the more metaphysical reaches of our discipline by reference to topical issues. That is well and good, for certainly there is wonder to be found in the commonplace. But, again, if our concern is the practical, this could be an unnecessary and even a counterproductive detour. I am reminded of the Buddha’s parable in which a wounded man refuses to allow a deadly arrow to be removed from his body until he receives a complete explanation of where it came from, who shot it, what it is made of, etc. “Before knowing all this,” says the Buddha, “this man would die.”

    Again, the Parfit examples are marvelous to contemplate, but have they any practical bearing? Our intuitions about the two thought experiments are clear, that is, in these pared-down scenarios. Given free rein to concoct whatever variations we like, as has been done, for instance, with the Trolley Car cases, our intuitions could end up all over the map. Thus, it would be easy enough to imagine a case where most of us (in a given culture, anyway) would favor the second woman’s conceiving before the three months were up. For the rest, the lesson is that contingency reigns in the world. My favorite example of that is what I call “Hitler’s Humanity.” It seems to me, employing the same criterion of personal identity that Singer does in his excerpt, that as of, say, three decades from now, every single human being alive will owe his or her existence to Hitler. It is probable that that is true also for all of the contributors to this discussion in On the Human. But … has this practical ethical significance? Does this fact or knowledge justify our doing anything differently than we would otherwise? Should we perhaps be rooting for the dictators in the Mideast on behalf of the millions of future beings who will owe their existence to them? None of us thinks so. Those future beings will not even have grounds for gratitude, just as we are not moved to be grateful to Hitler despite our existential debt to him. Meanwhile, recognizing that World War II and the Holocaust might well have been prevented had somebody murdered baby Adolf gives us no practical guidance either. So where is the practical ethics in these, admittedly profound, thoughts?

    Let me mention one more example of a “metaphysical” observation about an everyday topic, where I can see that there could be a change in our way of conceiving a situation, albeit still without practical effect. It struck me some years ago that car seats for babies and children are a perfect proof of life’s absurdity. For on many perhaps most of the occasions that a car seat performs as advertised and saves its occupant from serious injury or death, so that the parent sings hallelujah and swears by car seats forevermore … it would have been better had the child not been strapped into the seat at all. Why? Because it was precisely the time spent securing the child in the seat that put the vehicle in the temporal/geographical location where the accident occurred (such as another car jumping a red light at an intersection). No car seat, no accident — surely better than being in an accident with moderated injury. But — and this is what I mean by the absurdity –— it probably remains the case that using car seats is rational, indeed obligatory from the moral point of view. Why? Not because on other occasions the time spent would preclude yet other accidents. Rather because (let us suppose) the use of car seats in a given society reduces the number of childhood injuries and deaths. So my point now is that (1) the example serves to induce wonder and various metaphysical speculations, but (2) it serves no practical purpose in justifying any change of behavior in the use of car seats, and yet (3) it does suggest a very different way to think about why we should use car seats for our children, namely, not for the sake of our child but for the sake of society.

    In conclusion: if we conceive ethics as fulfilling the function of philosophy as “the guide to life,” then let us indeed focus on its practical applications. This does not mean discontinuing the more “metaphysical speculations” attendant on ethical issues but rather having a sense of where and how they have purchase. The issue of factory farming, like so many others, calls for the marshaling of existing philosophical (and other) resources to combat a clear and present scourge. Issues like personal identity and contingency engage us for different reasons, perhaps intrinsically as a source of wonder, but even for practical purposes of a more general sort, such as cultivating a certain equanimity regarding our very peculiar existence in this extraordinary universe.

  • Mark Bernstein

    Peter has written a rich piece containing several rich strands. I want to comment in a very preliminary, brief, and rough way about the strand that seems to be a kind of apologia for preference utilitarianism, at least when compared to hedonistic utilitarianism. Very roughly and briefly, the argument seems to be that the replaceability argument — which concludes that we are justified in killing X if this would be the only way of bringing Y into existence where Y’s life would be at least as good as X’s were X allowed to survive — should be considered a sound argument by hedonistic utilitarians who accept the ‘total’ rather than ‘prior existence’ view. The case for the total view gets supported by Parfitian considerations. In Peter’s Parfitian case, we can only criticize the wrongness of Business as Usual (and Singer clearly thinks that Business as Usual is criticizable, i.e., wrong), and adopt Sustainability, if we take into account the interests of those whose existence depends upon us adopting Sustainability. We need, that is, to take into account the interests of individuals who both do not exist and would not exist if we adopted Business as Usual. This entails rejecting the ‘prior existence’ view and adopting the ‘total’ view. Acceptance of the ‘total’ view lends strong support for replaceability being morally legitimate at least on some occasions.

    But surely, at a minimum, we — ‘normal’ adult humans — are not replaceable. It would be wrong — would it not — to kill us and replace us with substitutes that would have lives of greater net pleasure than we would have had if left to survive? This is where (‘total’ view) preference utilitarians have an advantage over their (‘total’ view) hedonistic utilitarian cousins, for the former can, and the latter cannot, accommodate our (justified) irreplaceability. With value being a function of satisfied preferences rather than merely pleasant experiences, we — as individuals with future-oriented preferences (we want to write books, see our families, and, perhaps most fundamentally, continue to live) are disvalued in death in ways that merely sentient creatures (i.e., those individuals who can be, by their very nature, subject to only hedonistic concerns) cannot be. While under the aegis of the ‘total’ view, future happiness can be compensated by others having good experiences (thus suggesting the justifiability of replacement), Peter apparently believes that no such compensation is possible for unsatisfied preferences.

    Well, yes and no. Given preference utilitarianism, and adherence to the ‘total’ view, my death cannot be compensated by simply replacing me with, say, a merely sentient creature “with similar prospects of pleasurable experiences”. But is there any principled reason for the preference utilitarian acting within the ‘total’ view, not to opt for, say, a replacement who is virtually my clone (a qualification added to prevent Peter’s reply to Hart which itself deserves a large discussion), one who can only come into existence after my death — who will, as it turns out, have more of his preferences satisfied than I would have had, had I survived? And if there is not some principled reason (some impartial reason, some reason sub specie aeternitatis), is this not quite counter-intuitive? So, while I agree with Peter that adherence to the ‘total’ view/replaceability theses present serious problems to classical utilitarians, I am unconvinced that in the adoption of preference utilitarianism we are much better off.

    In closing, let me express some misgivings about the project of preference utilitarianism. As a normative ethical theory, its task is to give a criterion of right actions; we are to maximize preference satisfaction. But I have difficulty understanding why the satisfaction of a preference is — if you will allow me in this somewhat informal venue — ‘intrinsically’ good. It strikes me that that the satisfaction of a preference of a desire is good (if?) and only if the preference is merits or is worthy of being satisfied. And, were time permitting, I would argue that the satisfaction of an unworthy desire is good neither for the individual who has the desire, or ‘for the world’ (assuming, at the end of the day, that this is intelligible), i.e., that the satisfaction of an unworthy desire is neither personally nor impersonally good. It’s true that this account is not ‘reductive’ in the sense that we don’t explain the normative in terms of the non-normative, and as a result we do lose some advantages of a reductive explanation, but it is fantasy to think that truth comes without any costs.

    Let us not lose sight of the fact that this is deep ‘within-the-beltway’ bickering. In his reasoned and artful development of Bentham’s insight, Peter has been responsible for the alleviation and reduction of untold suffering. He deserves our honor and gratitude.

  • Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the work of a thinker so great as to have inspired the animal liberation movement, among many other notable achievements. Singer considers a proposition that philosopher R. M. Hare endorses: that some meat-eating can be justified since it brings happy beings into existence. One seeming “solution” to this is prior existence utilitarianism. One does not need to consider cows who only might exist on that view. But this also leads to not considering sentient beings who only might exist in environmental ethics. So prior existence utilitarianism seems to be no genuine solution after all, or it is too dear in price.


    I agree with Dr. Singer that part of the solution to this problem is emphasizing values besides preference-satisfaction. Dr. Gruen also seems right to say that chickens show interests in the future, and this seems relevant. Indeed, Singer has written that fish are not self-aware, but I think the “three second memory” prejudice about fish has long been debunked by careful study. It also seems right to emphasize that chickens also have pleasures and pains, again, another sort of value besides preferences. This leads to a problem with commensurating different types of value, as Singer concedes. But is it a theoretically viable option to ignore a reality—another type of value—just to have a simpler model? Theory should not do violence to the reality that is supposed to be captured by theorists.

    Singer points out that preference utilitarianism helps against replacement killings because killing a self-aware being goes contrary to their long-term preferences. Does this leave sentient beings without long-term preferences vulnerable to replacement? I think Singer could develop scenarios based upon pleasure-and-pain-related values to show that these simpler beings also should not be replaced.

    Singer seems to believe that simpler beings have no future-directed preferences and so “we are not acting contrary to any of their preferences if we kill them instantly and painlessly.” (p. 5) I think this is just plain wrong. These simpler animals have an ongoing preference to experience happy times and to avoid painful times. That is why we would give them anesthetics when doing veterinary surgery on them. This is paternalistic. Dogs do not anticipate or understand the anesthetic, let alone its effects. But such paternalism is justifiable.

    There is a difference between a simpler being not being aware that they have future interests, and there not being future interests. The fact is, they have future opportunities for happiness precluded when they are killed, whether they realize this or not. But we realize it. So we should act in their best interests paternalistically just as in the surgery case. Future life is in their interests, even if they are not consciously interested in such times to come. This is an important set of distinctions that is also relevant to child abuse: “they might never know anything better.” Lives remain unique and irreplaceable then, and we need to respect continuities not only for beings with long-term preferences. We can sometimes see what might happen to particular beings even if they cannot. Benefit to another being X will not be a substitute benefit for being Y. True, for simpler beings, future times may not be linked over time with conscious states (or meta-consciousness), as Singer notes, but they are linked metaphysically by being part of one real continuum of mind, and they are also linked in the consciousness of the moral agent who paternalistically takes account of these individual, continuous realties.

    Singer writes that death for a simpler being does not involve a greater loss than a temporary loss in consciousness. (p. 6) This again seems false. Killing being Y permanently erases benefit for that being. Temporary unconsciousness precludes experienced value for being Y only for a short time by comparison. Singer concedes of simpler beings: “As long as sentient beings are conscious, they have an interest in satisfying their desires, or in experiencing as much pleasure and as little pain as possible.” (p. 10) However, as I have argued, they also have an interest in having a life in the long-term with as much happiness as possible. Being Y may not recollect happiness, nor anticipate it, but if there is a succession of many moments when being Y is happy, that is certainly good for that particular being regardless of either memory or anticipation.

    I agree that self-aware beings have interests, e.g., plans, that simpler beings lack, but this does not logically entail that simpler beings have no other kinds of interest in continued life, only these will be interests whose nature I have hinted at above. Thus paternalism provides a utilitarian with a way to avoid the prior existence view, to concede a difference between future-aware beings and others, but to avoid replacement killings by acting not only with respect to what beings are interested in (preferences), but also what is in their interests (pleasure and pain), even if the replacement-avoidance is purely paternalistic on humanity’s part (as would be replacement-killings themselves).


    That utilitarians even worry about replacement killings indicates to me that they do not take individuals seriously, a traditional charge against utility-aggregating. L. W. Sumner, a utilitarian, in his NOUS review of The Case for Animal Rights, does relevantly point out: “utilitarians are committed to believing that it is a good thing (a gain) when an individual life goes well and a bad thing (a loss) when one goes badly.” True, but not sufficient. Utilitarians still glom these interests together, such that “best utility” might require that an animal be vivisected, partly because aggregates of interests easily overwhelm an individual’s interests.

    Deontology does not need to be based in foggy “intuitions” of inherent value of individuals, as Tom Regan might have it. An honouring of individuals can be based in a justifiable line of thinking:

    1. Things are only significant to sentient beings, not mindless things.
    2. Therefore, in ethics, seeking to produce positive significance must mean what is significant to individual sentient beings.
    3. If we seek what is best, then we must honour what is best for each and every sentient being as much as possible, not act for mere things such as idols, toasters, maximal utility, or happiness, or even “the best,” which are all mere things.

    If this is true, then individuals are not mere receptacles of bits of aggregated value. Anything that is best for one is not necessarily best for another. “Best” has separate significance in relation to each individual sentient being: there are many bests. So it does matter if a “receptacle” is broken, even if a wrongly termed “replacement” being gains equal or more happiness than the broken or violated sentient being. It is far from “best” for a sentient being to be “broken,” as it were.

    As Singer recalls from Sidgwick: “the only thing that is intrinsically or ultimately good—good for its own sake—is a form of consciousness, or state of mind, that we regard as desirable.” (p. 8) E.g., pleasure. The view I abridge above states that we act for sentient beings for their own sakes. Just for them. And we realize pleasure for them too, rather than concern ourselves with sentient beings for the sake of impersonal entities referred to as pleasure-units, or what-have-you. Thus, to borrow Kant’s idea, sentient beings are “ends in themselves” and not mere means towards realizing some thing, even if that thing is or may be of value to sentient beings. Vivisection is still never best for the vivisected, even if it is best for accumulaing things referred to as utility-units.

    Perhaps the deontological view can yield a hybrid of prior existence and possible-contingent existence as a way of approaching Parfit’s “non-identity” problem. A being who actually exists must be treated with dignity, and indeed their individual identity is established and a reality that matters. However, it does not necessarily matter whose identity emerges with possible future beings (although they too must be accorded a dignity whoever they are, might be, or turn out to be). Why should it? Nothing matters to a non-existent entity. Things will matter to future beings, though, including their individuality. However, their identity does not matter in prospect not least of all because it does not (yet) exist as a consideration. But what you do to me matters to me quite uniquely. Why we should have an all-or-nothing view about the relevance of personal identity escapes me.

    This deontic view is not vulnerable to worries trailing after total utilitarianism:

    1. It rejects replacement killings as not best for the possible victims;
    2. The woman who refrains from conceiving for 3 months does the only right thing, since identity does not matter for possible future beings as it does with actual beings;
    3. It produces at least some good to make babies who can enjoy life so long as that is sustainable for all sentient beings (and in choices between lives, I do not think a normal human has an equally good life as a maggot);
    4. Relatedly to (3), a universe with sentient beings might well be better than one without;
    5. We can avoid fossil fuels for future beings, whoever they might turn out to be; and
    6. It is not best for the infantile clone, as an individual, to be killed.

    If one accepts my sort of deontic view then we need not worry whether normal adult humans can be replaced. They cannot on my view. However, I agree that this still seems to me to remain an open question for utilitarianism, in spite of ink spilled on both sides of that issue. If the stark individuality of states of happiness does not matter to a “replacement theorist,” then I do not see why the uniqueness of preferences should matter either. Again this gets back to not taking individuals seriously. I heartily thank Singer for remarkably furthering thought on these issues, and look forward to yet another edition of an extremely valuable work.

  • R.G. Frey

    We have come to expect Peter to be interesting, challenging, and innovative, and so he proves to be in this new chapter to a new edition of Practical Ethics, the best single-authored introductory text in applied ethics. Of course, I could be biased; I have strong sympathies with some version of utilitarianism, indeed, some version of act-utilitarianism. This exposes me to problems over an account of the wrongness of killing; but I do not think some foray into preference theory is the way to go about addressing these problems. Here, after a general point, I shall make several comments upon Peter’s chapter.

    Utilitarianism, of whatever stripe, requires a value theory. We can, historically, distinguish between mental-state and desire-satisfaction value theories. Hedonistic utilitarians maintained that pleasure and pain were the only things intrinsically valuable; they maintained that the satisfaction of desire mattered only to the extent that that satisfaction produced or led to the production of pleasure and pain. Desire theorists, on the other hand, broadened the picture beyond pleasure and pain (and other ways of expressing these notions) so that desire-satisfaction, whether or not it was intrinsically valuable, mattered in a way separate from any pleasure or pain that that satisfaction might give rise to. Hedonistic utilitarians thought that we here faced a choice between views: they simply denied that desire-satisfaction was intrinsically valuable and affirmed that any account of the good had to run through pleasure and pain. A being had to be conscious in order to experience pleasure and pain, and some of these beings, some human beings, were also self-conscious; animals came to matter morally because they were thought to be able to experience pleasure and pain. They were, so it might seem, receptacles of these experiences, and only if one could make out a case for self-consciousness on our parts were we, human beings, other than receptacles of pleasure and pain. It was thought by hedonistic utilitarians that we had to choose between mental-state and desire-satisfaction theories of value; whether desire-satisfaction was valuable or not depended upon the desire in question and whether, and to the extent that, it produced or led to the production of pleasure and pain. Peter simply rejects the choice and holds that we can put pleasure/pain theories together with desire-satisfaction theories (or put together some bits of each type of theory) into a consistent whole. Can we do this consistently? The point is not argued by Peter; he simply puts forth the possibility of such combination. If one is going to give a desire-satisfaction account of value, so the hedonist utilitarian will maintain, one has to show why the satisfaction of desire matters. One has also to say which desire-satisfactions or desire-frustrations matter? Do we focus upon actual or future or informed desires? For most theorists, the focus came to be upon informed desires, despite the fact that, at the time of deciding what to do, we never seem to have full information about the future. The view seemed to be that, given some account of fully informed desire, a fully informed desire would come to be our actual desire, and the satisfaction of some actual desires would be held to be in part constitutive of our good. It is unclear to me how all of this story goes in Peter, and it must go some way or other, if only to avoid well-known objections to the focus upon actual or future or informed desire. Suppose a model has for today a desire for facial mutilation: is (the satisfaction of) that desire constitutive of her good? Or do we wait to find out what she desires tomorrow? Do we ask what she would desire, if, for example, she knew how the future would go? Is the satisfaction of just any of our desires constitutive of our good? Or is the satisfaction of only some of our desires at issue? If the latter, how does one tell which these are?

    As I say, there are a host of issues to consider when one ventures off into desire-satisfaction theory. It is not clear to me how Peter deals with some of these issues. Obviously, of course, one cannot deal with everything in a chapter; but some of these issues appear vital to the very statement of a desire-satisfaction theory. I turn to a few remarks on Peter’s chapter.

    I do not think Peter is right about how arguments from compensation run, if one thinks one can compensate for some debit in our ledger. Peter treats compensation in the context of replacement by animals whose lives are at least as good as those we kill in order to eat; indeed, if we replace those animals with animals who have an even higher quality of life (or an increased freedom from pain), it might seem that we are morally required to kill them. This same argument would apply to human beings, unless one can mark off the human case from the animal. Peter claims that we can; human beings have a concept of self and have a desire (or set of particular desires) with respect to their futures and how that future will go. To kill a human being, therefore, is to leave a mark in his ledger that cannot be compensated for by creating additional, more happy human lives. It is not permissible to kill such a being, if only we replace the life taken by another human life at least as pleasurable as or at least as painless as the life taken.

    But this is not, at least if one turns to preference theory, how the argument for compensation of debits runs. Suppose I have a desire with respect to my future that that future look of a certain kind: even if I replace you in the way required, I leave that desire frustrated. Another, happier life will not compensate for the loss that that frustration represents. But suppose it turns out that other people have desires with respect to your future as well. Suppose millions of other people come intensely to desire your death, desire that your future self undergo extreme torment (and construct camps to ensure that you do undergo such torment): do we take into consideration these desires? It seems implausible to hold that your desire outweighs all these other desires. We do not need replacement to be true, in order, if we foray into preference theory, for me to acquire a reason, even in preference theory, why it is permissible or right to kill you. If one does not take these other desires into account, why not? How do we distinguish which desires are to be taken into account? Do we just hold that your intense desire not to have a future that runs in a certain way more or less automatically is the desire that takes precedence in this discussion? Why? I wipe out the debit, not by compensation, but by taking desires seriously — all desires that bear upon you and your future. If I am to weigh some desires more heavily than others, not by strength, but by something else, I need some discussion of this something else. For if I go by strength, why is not the combined weight of these desires that bear upon your future more than weighty enough to compensate for the frustration of your desire? If one does not believe that desires can be combined in a way that leads to a combined weight, then we can just suppose that the other people each desires your demise to a degree that approximates the degree of strength of your desire. Unless one argues that my desire with respect to my future automatically outweighs your and other people’s desires with respect to my future, I cannot see why a preference theorist is not still confronted with a problem over killing.

    If one maintains that one can discount these desires of others, then we need some discussion of the discounts, of the rates of discount, and the principles by which we determine these rates.

    It is not the case, however, that all problems of the sort alluded to are problems of discounting; they often appear to be problems of counting. I do not know anyone that takes into account the rapist’s desire to rape and to continue to rape into the future, throwing it on to the balance together with the victim’s desire not to be raped, now or in the future. It is not that one discounts the rapist desire, at a rate always sufficient to let the victim’s desire outweigh it; it is that one does not count the rapist’s desire at all. If Peter suggests that this is inconsistent, that we must throw all desires on to the balance, then I cannot see how the problem over killing is not simply transformed into a problem over raping. And so on. Certainly, there is no sense whatever in which most people give “equal consideration” to the rapist’s desire.

    I take it that even upon Peter’s present view it is not wrong to kill people in a permanently vegetative state or the irreversibly comatose or those who have suffered certain sorts of brain injuries. In these cases, arguably, there can be no experience of pleasure and pain and there are no desires, let alone some set of particular desires with respect to the future of the selves in question. So why is it wrong to kill these people, side-effects apart? If it is suggested that it is not wrong, then it is not clear why the preference theorist is not landed back with a problem over killing. And the scope of those who may be permissibly killed is expanded, as one finds the scope of those with different kinds of brain injuries that render them, so to speak, no longer loci of value expands.

    Finally, there are interesting questions to be raised over discussions of diminishing the amount of suffering in the world and the way these discussions raise questions about taking desires into account. (I raise the issue because what is really wrong with factory farming, if I understand Peter correctly, is not that the animals are killed and replaced; what is wrong is that they are made intensely to suffer.) Suppose we simply take ourselves to be concerned in some moral way with diminishing the total amount of suffering in the world, now and in the future: if there is a step we could take to bring this about, then we must take it, side-effects apart. Where does this discussion end? If I drive my car into work and have several accidents over the years, then there is a clear step I could take to diminish the total amount of suffering in the present and future; I seem morally required to give up driving, or picking the tulips in my garden, and so on. Other people both now desire and in the future will desire and, on informed desire, would desire not to suffer in the ways inflicted by my accidents. How do I avoid being subject to rule by their desires? No one really thinks this sort of thing. That is, no one thinks that we are subject to rule by other people’s desires, even though there is related to their desires a step we could take to diminish the total amount of suffering in the world, now and in the future. How does the preference theorist avoid being so ruled?

    The above are familiar points, in the utilitarian debates over killing. Peter does not avoid them, simply by putting some version of preference theory into a mixture with hedonistic utilitarianism. Yet, I think he is absolutely correct in not resorting to some version of rights-theory in order to avoid having to address them. So, where do we turn? I think there is an answer.

  • First, I am grateful to Gary Comstock for the opportunity to post my extract, and to all those who have taken the time to read my extract and react to it. The kind words of many of you about Practical Ethics, or about my work in general, are truly heart-warming.

    I will respond to the comments in the order in which they were made.

    Jan Narveson doesn’t think humane slaughter laws are justifiable. He thinks we have no obligations to future generations. In this, he is at least consistent, for these are the logical consequences of the view that morality is a contract and we only have moral obligations to beings who can reciprocate. And no doubt for the same reason, and with equal consistency, he would not see any need for laws regulating the conditions under which we slaughter people with profound intellectual disabilities, should we wish to eat them or use them for research, as long as they have no capacity to reciprocate, and do not have relatives who care about them and are capable of reciprocating.

    Since I’m no great fan of resting our moral theories on commonly accepted intuitions, I do not regard the above as refuting a consistent contractarian view. But in the comment above, Narveson relies on a confusion to make is view seem more plausible than it really is. He says that people are “entitled” to their preferences or have “a perfect right” to them. That seems to be an attempt to win over those who believe in freedom of thought; but if it is, it muddles political and legal rights with the issue of philosophical justification for a moral theory. In the political and legal system that I support, Narveson has a right to say that there is no strong evidence that our continued emissions of greenhouse gases will change the climate of our planet.

    Nevertheless, if he does say that, he will be saying something that is untrue. There is a fact of the matter here, and he has got it wrong. The interesting philosophical question is whether the same applies to moral judgments. People have a right to say that a world in which billions of animals suffer greatly is just as good as an otherwise identical world in which very few animals suffer. But if they do say that, is there a fact of the matter that they have got wrong? That’s too big a question for me to answer here, but I recommend those interested in this deep question to read Derek Parfit’s major work, On What Matters, which is scheduled to be published next month by Oxford University Press. Parfit argues for an affirmative answer to the question I just asked, and from now on, any serious discussion of whether there are objective moral truths, independently of what reciprocating beings may prefer, will have to take his arguments into account.

    Lori Gruen is right to point to the fact that the difference between merely conscious beings and beings with an interest in a future existence is not clear-cut. Here’s an amusing video about a goose that certainly seems to anticipate the future: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7358041n

    That’s far from a scientific proof of the ability of birds to anticipate the future, but in the 3rd edition of Practical Ethics I also discuss studies of scrub jays that appear to show just that. On the ethical question, I have shifted my position between the 2nd and 3rd editions, to the extent that I acknowledge that are differences of degree rather than a sharp cut-off, in the abilities of various beings to anticipate the future. Our judgments of the wrongness of killing should reflect this. In the case of beings with the kind of anticipation of the future that Gruen describes, I would regard this as providing grounds for thinking that the painless killing is wrong, but still less seriously wrong than in the case of a being with a clearer and more long-term view of its own future.

    I agree with Leslie Francis about many things, but none more than her statement that “These issues are not easy ones.” On more specific points, I also agree that on the “debit” view, the debits can be outweighed by credits. The point I was making was the more limited one, that the debit of thwarting the future directed preferences of a being, by killing that being, is not balanced simply by bringing another being into existence (where the new being will have a life as good as the being who is killed). That is enough to defeat the replaceability argument, as I understand it, and as it applies to animals raised to be killed for food, although it does not show that it cannot be justifiable to kill one being because it will be replaced by a being with a much better life.

    Francis is mistaken, however, in thinking that accepting the idea of intrinsic value has, in itself, any implications for the population problem. That would depend not on whether we think there is intrinsic value, independently of the present preferences of actual beings, but on the content of our views about intrinsic value, that is, on what we think has intrinsic value. We might, for example, hold that the greatest intrinsic value lies in experiences of solitude amidst vast tracts of wilderness. And even if we think that happiness is the only thing of intrinsic value, the implications of that position for the population problem would vary according to our judgment of the facts regarding the likely consequences of an increase in population, and also on where we draw the line between intrinsically valuable happiness and states of mind that are not of intrinsic value.

    Stephen Clark’s long-standing support for including animals within the sphere of ethics is admirable, but I have to take issue with his suggestion that I do not take the trouble to find out what animals are really like. (He doesn’t quite say this, but since I am the only philosopher named in the paragraph in which he says that “philosophers often” do not take this trouble, the implication is that I am one of them.) There are many references in such books as Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, The Expanding Circle, and The Great Ape Project, to studies in animal behavior, and the third edition of Practical Ethics refers to some new studies that were done since the writing of the second edition. I have also never suggested that animals killed for food are generally painlessly slaughtered, nor that animals not kept in factory farms all lead happy lives. I often say that animals in factory farms do not lead happy lives, but that does not imply that those outside factory farms do.

    The more philosophical differences between Clark and myself, though, are harder to fathom. His concluding suggestion that we should treat all others as we would wish to be treated does not resolve the question under discussion. R.M. Hare, for example, used exactly this argument to defend the idea that, since those of us fortunate enough to enjoy our lives are glad that we were born, there is a reason for not terminating a pregnancy that will, if not terminated, lead to the existence of a being who will enjoy his or her life. (See R.M. Hare, “Abortion and the Golden Rule,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1975). On that basis we could also justify bringing into existence animals who will have happy lives, before they are painlessly slaughtered.

    It’s a refreshing change to have Joel Marks criticize Practical Ethics for being not practical enough! Over the forty years that I have been doing practical ethics, the more common criticism by far has been that the field is not philosophical enough. But it is both philosophical and practical. These issues are discussed by Michael Pollan in his best-selling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and I have talked about them with non-philosophers who are concerned about the way we treat animals, but are reluctant to stop eating meat. Like Pollan, they are willing to seek out farms that have above-average standards of animal welfare, and interested in whether that is ethically defensible. Of course, the facts also play a role — just how high are the animal welfare standards of the farms from which they are considering buying meat?

    The broader arguments being considered in this extract also have practical ramifications in other areas, for example when we consider the ethics of abortion, or decisions about euthanasia for a severely disabled infant, when a couple beliee that they can care for another child if the infant dies, but not otherwise.

    Mark Bernstein asks on what basis a preference utilitarian who adheres to the total view could object to being replaced by a clone who will have more preference satisfaction than he would and who would not exist if he were not killed. (I confess that I don’t understand the relevance of the fact that replacement is by a clone, rather than someone with a different genome, but I will let that pass.) My answer is, once again, that if we accept the debit view of preferences, then creating a new being with new preferences, and satisfying those preferences, does not compensate for thwarting the preferences of an already existing being, because creating the new being, and the new preferences, merely opens up a notional debit in the moral ledger that is cancelled out when the new preferences are satisfied.

    As I have acknowledged, there are problems with this debit view, and I am now more open to an idea that Bernstein apparently shares, that some things may be intrinsically good independently of anyone’s present preferences.

    I agree with Bernstein that we should not expect to be able to explain the normative in terms of the non-normative. Naturalists attempt to do this, but I have never defended meta-ethical naturalism. Preference utilitarianism does not attempt to explain the normative in terms of the non-normative, because it is itself a normative theory. The preference utilitarian makes the normative claim that the satisfaction of preferences is good, and indeed, the only thing that is good. That claim may be mistaken. But Bernstein’s notion of an “unworthy” desire would need more explanation before I could accept it.

    David Sztybel will be pleased to know that in the 3rd edition of Practical Ethics, I also reject the “three second memory” myth about fish, and point out that the category “fish”includes a remarkable variety of beings with very different cognitive capacities. I say that whether any fish are capable of conscious planning is unclear.

    I do not understand, though, what Sztybel is trying to say when he claims that beings with no future-directed preferences have “an ongoing preference to experience happy times and to avoid painful times.” If they have no future-directed preferences, how can that be? They can have a preference to get away from this pain now, (which is why we should give them an anesthetic if we are performing surgery on them) but, by definition, they cannot have a preference for some future time without pain. Since Sztybel mentions dogs in this context, let me say emphatically that I am not saying that dogs have no future-directed preferences.

    Do these simpler beings without future-directed preferences have interests in continued life? I’m not sure that they do; or at least, that they do in any sense in which we could not also say that a possible future being who will, if it exists, have an enjoyable life, has an interest in coming into existence.

    Too offer an adequate response to Sztybel’s deontological alternative to utilitarianism would take too long, but I will make one brief comment. The weakness in his position seems to me the third premise, namely: If we seek what is best, then we must honour what is best for each and every sentient being as much as possible, not act for mere things such as idols, toasters, maximal utility, or happiness, or even “the best,” which are all mere things.

    The question is, why does seeking what is best mean “honouring” what is best for existing sentient beings, rather than bringing more sentient beings into existence if they will lead good lives and thus produce more of what is best? That premise needs further defense. The distinction between honouring an existing being and bringing another being into existence seems especially in need of justification if the being we are “honouring” by preserving its existence lacks the mental continuity to realize that it is the same being that existed an hour before, and will exist in a further hour.

    Ray Frey vividly presents some difficulties for utilitarians that are, as he says, familiar. The version of preference utilitarianism that I have tried to defend is based on the desires we would have, if fully informed and thinking calmly. That does give rise to the problem of knowing what this might be, and also to the further implication that, even though preference utilitarianism is generally less authoritarian or paternalistic than hedonistic utilitarianism, it can still be the case that what we see as good for a person may be quite different from what he thinks is good, no matter how hard we try to give him full information and get him to think calmly. He may just refuse to accept the information.

    The problem of desires to harm others is different. I do think that a desire theorist should hold that at the most fundamental level of moral consideration, all desires go into the scales, including, horrible as it may sound, the desires of the sadist to torture and of the rapist to rape. But since we judge that the victims of sadistic torture suffer far more from being tortured than the sadists would suffer from not being able to satisfy their desire to torture, we rightly make torture a crime, and foster attitudes of repugnance to anyone who commits that crime. Having done so, we no long weigh the desire of the sadist against the desire of his victim. Instead, we set up a moral and legal system that does everything it can to prevent anyone having, or acting on, sadistic desires, and that includes giving no weight, in our everyday practical decision-making, to anyone’s sadistic desires.

    Frey finishes his comment enigmatically, saying, “I think there is an answer.” I hope he will not leave this comment hanging, its promise unfulfilled, like Fermat’s famous note about having discovered a proof of his “last theorem.”

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