WASM 4: Linzey vs. Singer

(Previous posts are here, here, and here.)

In his concluding chapter to Why Animal Suffering Matters, Linzey does address one of the concerns I raised in my previous post in the course of taking some pains to distinguish his program from that of utilitarians like Peter Singer. While appreciating Singer’s contribution to the cause of animal liberation, Linzey thinks that Singer’s utilitarian outlook has unfortunate consequences—both moral and practical—in its assessment of the status of children. As is well known, Singer has argued that infants could be justly killed up to perhaps the age of one month. His reasoning is that, lacking self-awareness, the painless death of a very young infant would not count as harming him or her. Similarly, Singer thinks—consistent with his utilitarianism—that painlessly killing animals isn’t wrong, other things being equal, if they are replaced with another animal living a satisfactory life.

Singer’s reason for thinking this is rooted in his particular version of utilitarianism, namely preference utilitarianism. Unlike classic utilitarianism, such as that of Jeremy Bentham, which seeks to minimize suffering and maximize pleasure, Singer’s version seeks to maximize the satisfaction of preferences. Thus, the right action is the one that, on balance, satisfies the most preferences, irrespective of whose they are. This accounts for Singer’s egalitarianism with respect to human and animal suffering.

However, Singer has argued that having a preference to go on living requires a level of self-awareness not possessed by (at least) most non-human animals or by human infants. Consequently, assuming that the killing didn’t involve suffering, there is nothing inherently wrong with killing a very young human or an animal if doing so will lead to a greater balance of preference satisfaction over preference frustration.

The most common case where this comes up is in Singer’s (in)famous defense of euthanasia for disabled infants. Singer says that killing such an infant is permissible if it would result in a net balance of good (defined in terms of preference satisfaction) for all parties concerned (parents, etc.). Since—lacking the necessary self-awareness—the infant can have no preference as such to go on living, painlessly killing him or her would not frustrate any of the child’s preferences.

There are many objections to Singer’s position, even from a strictly utilitarian viewpoint. For example, it’s been pointed out that Singer doesn’t seem to have a particularly good grasp on the quality of life that is actually available to people with disabilities and tends to assume that such lives aren’t worth living. But experience shows that people with even quite serious disabilities can have very fulfilling lives, both in terms of the satisfactions available to them and the contributions they make to the lives of others.

Moreover, as Linzey argues, there are good grounds for rejecting a purely preference-based account of what’s wrong with killing (either a human or an animal). As Linzey says, taking the life of a sentient being is robbing it of its future, whether or not that being has a conscious preference to go on living as such. There may be cases, he admits, where the balance of suffering over pleasure is so lopsided that ending life may be the most merciful choice, but this is surely the exception, not the rule.

Linzey is concerned to distinguish his position from Singer’s because he believes that movements for better treatment for animals have historically gone hand-in-hand with campaigns for human rights and should continue to do so. He rejects any misanthropic inferences that animal liberationists might draw from their stance and fears that Singer’s defense of infanticide reinforces the image of animal rightists as anti-human. In Linzey’s terms, very young children share the same qualities that ought to prompt greater moral solicitude for animals: the inability to give or withhold consent, the inability to represent their interests to others linguistically, and moral innocence or blamelessness. Linzey rejects Singer’s privileging of self-awareness as a necessary condition for full moral protection, emphasizing the duties that the innocence and relative vulnerability of both childern and animals place on us.

In the next–and last–post in this series, I’ll look at some objections Linzey considers and try to tie some thoughts together on the book as a whole.

16 thoughts on “WASM 4: Linzey vs. Singer

  1. Does this perhaps boil down to the question, “Is it good for utilitarian goals to proclaim utilitarian principles too loudly?”

    My chief problem with Singer is that he is a utilitarian. Given his assumptions, his position makes sense to me. I just reject the approach. It is not clear to me from what you wrote whether Linzey is rejecting utilitarianism at points or not. The words “even from a strictly utilitarian standpoint” make me wonder. The possibly bright future of a disabled infant is a real consideration. But in the end is this really a math problem? I think that a strict utilitarian can dismiss such questions with statistics. Yes, this or that given individual might have had a bright future, but on the whole, this group and their families suffered and resources that could be used to find other ways of satisfying preferences were wasted. I think one key question is whether these decisions can be made in the aggregate. I suspect Linzey’s exception is bounded by some other moral rules that wouldn’t appear to be strictly utilitarian. Linzey seems to have a place for something like rights which makes more aggregate decisions less likely. I haven’t done heavy reading here, but I wonder whether this isn’t less that Singer has missed some utilitarian considerations and more that Linzey may have a few hidden assumptions—ones I would likely agree with.

  2. Yeah, that’s right: Linzey does use rights-langugage, though he says that no single moral theory is adequate to capturing all our intuitions and experience (which I think is basically right). Actually, he likes to talk about “theos-rights” by which he means God’s rights to have his creatures treated with respect.

    I posted about a previous book of his here:


    In saying that Singer can be criticized on utilitarian grounds, I didn’t mean to exclude other moral approaches, merely to point out that even on his own terms his arguments aren’t air tight. You might be interested in this post on a similar theme:


  3. To clarify: the fifth paragraph in this post (“There are many objections…”) is my gloss on what a utilitarian response to Singer might look like–that, even on utilitarian grounds, his conclusions about euthanasia don’t necessarily follow. But Linzey thinks that morality goes beyond utility (so do I).

  4. Hedonistic utilitarianism has the same issue.

    the problem is that the utilitarian rule just tells you to maximize utility.

    Other things equal, diminishing utility violates the rule but doing something that leaves the utility total (or average, or whatever) unchanged does not and so is not wrong.

    It’s not people (or animals) that matter.

    It’s utility that matters.

    People (or animals) are just vessels that contain utility.

    And that is the fundamental objection to utilitarianism.

    It is as indifferent to people or animals as it is to absolutely anything at all in the universe but utility.

    If you like, people, like everything else, are for the sake of utility, and not vice versa.

  5. Oh, and that’s why so many think Kantian ethics, or rights-based ethics, or deotological ethics make more sense.

    Where utilitarianism really doesn’t take people (or animals) seriously, these other ethical approaches do just that.

    Although, clearly, a Kantian approach would need to be modified to accord animals moral weight on their own account.

  6. Right–which is sort of what Tom Regan does in “The Case for Animal Rights.” He makes a similar criticism of utilitarianism–that people and animals are mere receptacles of utility.

  7. Yeah – In addition to Regan, Sapontzis in “Morals, Reason, and Animals” and Pluhar in “Beyond Prejudice” have pretty exhaustive discussions of the replaceability issue as it pertains to animals.

  8. Oh, and one more thing.

    For Utilitarianism, and any form of pure consequentialism, the end justifies the means.

    There is nothing at all that you might not be positively obliged to do, if the utilities happened to work out best that way.

    Stop at nothing.

    Victory at any cost.


  9. I follow. It is very clear how Singer can be faulted by someone coming from outside of utilitarianism. I can also see how he could be faulted by another utilitarian, but I’m not sure whether this is truly on strictly utilitarian grounds. Linzey’s approach is clearly more attractive to me than Singer’s. But I think the greatest strength is its not strictly utilitarian features. The one argument that seemed to perhaps work against Singer in the strictly utilitarian sense is that people hearing about what his conclusion are could hurt the cause. This is perhaps true. But I can imagine that there might be some utilitarian argument for honesty. (I have read one by Ayn Rand, who was not really a utilitarian, but whose pragmatic argument for honesty might fit within the system without adding a deontological element.)

    Also, don’t forget Virtue Ethics as an alternative to utilitarianism or deontological ethics.

  10. Well, Graccus won’t be the only one posting a lot here.

    I read the piece at debitage. I think again that there is a fudging of whether Singer is being judged from inside or outside of utilitarian thought. Surely there is more to the problem of euthanizing the disabled than that we can find anecdotal evidence of fulfilling lives. “Replaceability,” as described above, means that you could always say that for the same cost of keeping them able to enjoy those lives, we could have increased the preference attainment of x number of other humans and animals. Much as I like Linzey more, I think Singer always has a good counterargument from within his system.

    Also, it wasn’t really clear as to whether dependence on data was considered a good thing or a bad thing. Was Singer wrong because he didn’t have data, or because he needed it in the first place?

    I would have wanted to see some discussion of whether the human race’s ethical thoughts contain moral wisdom that likely yields good results in all kinds of shifting circumstances.

  11. I do think Singer and others have debated whether in some cases utilitarian justifications should be kept secret (because it would increase utility). Another variation on the theme is the “two-level” utilitarianism that says we should primarily act according to well-worn, non-utilitarian moral maxims, which will indirectly maximize utility.

    One problem I have with utilitarianism is that I don’t see how you can non-arbitrarily (a) determine which events count as consequences of a particular action and (b) weigh up utilities and dis-utilities. I guess the first applies to any form of consequentialism, whereas the second applies specifically to utilitarianism.

    But I think the point in the debitage post was that if you’re going to be a utilitiarian you have to get your facts straight, because that’s what will tell you if the net balance of utility is positive for any given action. (I think the author considers himself a utilitarian.)

    Now, in my view, that creates a problem for utilitarianism because we’re always acting on limited and imperfect information, so how much data do you have to collect before you can act? Utilitarians can say that their maxim is “act so that the foreseeable consequences of your actions maximize utility,” but you get into issues about what’s foreseeable, how much work you’re required to do to determine what the likely consequences of your actions are, etc.

    Which isn’t to say that utilitarians don’t have replies to these concerns. Plus, any moral theory worth its salt is going to have to take consequences into account to some extent.

  12. Incidentally, I haven’t come across a really compelling “virtue ethics” take on animal issues, though Stephen R. L. Clark does touch on it a bit.

  13. Lee, as to (a) some try to escape the problem by saying that in principle what you have to take into account is the total (or average, or whatever) utility of everyone or everything in the universe after each act and compare those.

    But that just makes (b) worse, since it is much more obvious this is completely unknowable – so far from knowable we couldn’t even begin to justify any guess as a “best guess.”

  14. Pingback: Human “exceptionalism” as moral exclusion « A Thinking Reed

  15. Pingback: Press and web reports up to February 2010 | Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics

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