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.