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.