Utilitarianism 101 for Animal Liberation

The famous utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer became an early darling of the animal rights movement for his book, Animal Liberation. Imagine, then the betrayal that some felt when Singer came out in favor of not just any animal research, but primate research.

This should not be too surprising if one has studied a bit of utilitarianism, which measures actions by their ends, not their means–it is a consequentialist philosophy, after all. Therefore, while animals do sometimes trump human babies in Singer’s calculus most of the time (which is one reason why many folks detest him), it need not be always the case. In fact, as I recall, Singer did concede in Practical Ethics that in some cases humans could justifiably eat animals if there were not other viable food source (e.g., the Gobi desert or the Arctic circle, I would suppose, where edible plants are in short supply). I guess the animal lib types were too busy hyperventilating about Singer’s otherwise strong support to notice that little fly in the ointment.

Take home message: it’s really hard to pin anyone down if he’s a utilitarian, because if society wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and decides that a particular minority has too much property or is otherwise cramping the style of the majority…well, I mentioned something about the ends justifying the means, yes?

Atrocities have been and will be committed by people of all philosophical and ideological stripes, but perhaps we can at least steer clear of philosophies (like Singer’s) that threaten to hopeless muddle any and all moral lines and let us lie to ourselves about what’s really going on? In this regard, I stand with the animal lib types, though I’m not against animal research per se.

Comments 14

  1. Advogado de Diabo wrote:

    An interesting study I remember from one of my Public Administration texts: When asked if the ends justify the means the majority of people will say no. However, when presented with a tangible example of an ethical dilemmas, the majority of respondents selected a course of action that could be characterized as an “the end justified the means”.

    Posted 21 Dec 2006 at 2:24 pm
  2. Tom Smith wrote:

    I just finished writing a paper for a philosophy class on Kantian deontological ethics; in this same class, we read Mill’s Utilitarianism. For another class, I had to read Jeremy Bentham. I have to confess that I have nothing good to say about utilitarian ethics, particularly as formulated by Bentham.

    Deontology, on the other hand, is an ethical system which is rationally well-backed, argued very well in Kant, and avoiding of many of the traps of subjectivity which confound other ethical systems. Utilitarianism. . . well, John Stuart Mill was a politician; I’ll leave it at that.

    Posted 22 Dec 2006 at 12:54 pm
  3. Funky Dung wrote:

    I think it’s safe to say that most people live by the idea that their ends justify their means, but other people should be held to a higher standard. That is, everyone thinks their circumstances mitigate the punishments they would otherwise expect to be given to others committing the same sins/crimes. Put another way, excuses are like rectums…

    Posted 22 Dec 2006 at 7:13 pm
  4. Tom Smith wrote:

    I’d say it’s more than that — look at the debate on torture for the Guantanamo prisoners. Lots of people condemn torture, when taken in the abstract, but if torture could save lives in a potential terrorist attack, the very same people would torture.

    Posted 22 Dec 2006 at 8:04 pm
  5. Rob wrote:


    The Guantanamo example is fascinating. We know that torture doesn’t work, but it makes us feel good and gives us the illusion of accomplishing something. Torture actually prevents useful information from being recovered from the terrorist. There are better ways of getting information from these people, but it’s not as fun.

    By “The ends justify the means” rule, torture to retrieve information from a terrorist is evil.

    What I’ve always wondered is, what about medicine. Is there something so horrific that we cannot do it to a person, even if it means saving that person’s life? I’ve watched a doctor rip a conscious man’s heart out of his chest to treat cardiac tamponade — no anaesthetic even. The man’s head jerked up and got a look at his own heart before he passed out. For the record, when he woke up, he didn’t remember seeing his own heart.

    I know of at least one woman who had a heartbeat and was sort of awake when I saw her — it must have been around Christmas, there were Christmas lights around. Funny the things you remember. The patient’s heartbeat was a nearly (but not entirely) pulseless ventricular tachycardia. I cardioverted her, as per everything I know, had been taught, and taught to physicians. Cardioversion in such situations is without valium: there isn’t time, and the valium won’t circulate anyway. That cardioversion permanently stopped her heart. I was the immediate cause of her death. She would have died anyway, but I killed her.

    One patient had febrile seizures as a child. Back then (late ’50s, early ’60s), the Rx was ice baths for high fevers in such children. The child’s parents forcefully held the child down in a tub of ice and water, per doctor’s orders, while the child screamed and begged for them to stop. Ironically, the shivering and fighting the child did increased core temps and provoked more febrile seizures. Modern medicine teaches parents to use tepid baths warm enough that the child does not shiver or fight. As an adult, the person exhibits all the signs and symptoms of someone sexually and physically abused as a child — including depression and suicidality.

    In medicine, is there anything so horrible that we will say “No, you cannot do that, even if it saves the person’s life!”?

    At least one Pro-Life group has been pushing for ACLS to be performed on every patient whose heart falters or stops — no matter how terminal their condition. They believe the end (saving life) justifies the means (unnecessary torture that, even if successful, does not significantly prolong life).

    Trust me, Advanced Cardiac Life Support treatments can be horrific and brutal. I think that was one of the things that bothered us the most about the pre-Christmas cardiac arrest we ran in the East Liberty Giant Eagle. Shopping parents sat their kids down to watch the live-action episode of Rescue 911 while the parents continued to shop. So here we are at work with an audience of 4 and 5 year olds. The children were amazingly attentive. The patient never responded to therapy, meaning we kept pulling out more and nastier things to do, including transcutaneous pacing (the resulting involuntary twitching got the kids laughing) and a subclavian line (the doc on-scene botched the first one, bloodily, which the kids also enjoyed). Normally, we’d have pronounced the patient there and called the coroner, but…there were problems with that. What are you going to do? Call for cleanup in isle 9? We transported to a hospital to have the patient pronounced.

    Merry Christmas everyone! I hope you have a joyous holiday and warm and jovial celebrations!

    Posted 25 Dec 2006 at 10:15 am
  6. Lightwave wrote:


    Would it not be more accurate to say that torture does indeed work, it just doesn’t work reliably? I understand that the measure of reliability itself is a matter of debate.

    From that perspective, could not a utilitarian (and perhaps those subscribing to other philosophy) justify torture (perhaps being the only remaining means available given the constraints on the situation), saying in some circumstances the ends do justify the means, in that unreliable information is better than no information?

    Posted 29 Dec 2006 at 5:39 pm
  7. Rob wrote:


    Torture is worse than unreliable. Not only does it promt the victim to tell you what you want to hear, as long as it’s not the truth) but it prevents further attempts from getting information via techniques that are much more likely to work and are less likely to produce lies.

    The only justification for torture that I can see is it makes the torturers feel good. And honestly, I don’t see that as a justification.

    Posted 30 Dec 2006 at 7:15 am
  8. Lightwave wrote:


    That’s simply not true. Even some American ex-POWs will tell you that they have given up true intelligence under torture. And if a small number admit to breaking, how many have broken but not confessed? To make a blanket statement that torture never results in valid intelligence is simply a fallacy, unless you believe every confession of breaking by every tortured subject to be a lie.

    You simply cannot say with any legitmatimacy that torture never results in the truth without denying all the historical evidence and first hand testimony to the contrary.

    Posted 30 Dec 2006 at 12:11 pm
  9. Rob wrote:

    You’ve been watching too much “24.” Jack Bauer’s exploits are fantasy.

    Notice what I said: torture produces unreliable information and it later prevents you from further attempts at getting information.” I never said it doesn’t work. I just said the information is very doubtful and that it causes you to lose access to real information. Therefore, it’s worse than simply not working. If it only didn’t work, you’d be better off.

    Most of the American POWs that broke in WW II didn’t break under torture, but under other techniques, such as threatening the lives of fellow soldiers. Those that did break tended to give up information that was, by that time, useless to the enemy anyway — and the soldiers knew it. At that point, the point of the torture was to break the individual, not recover information.

    Ever see a photograph from North Korea of a bunch of captured Americans giving the “Hawaiian Good Luck Sign?”

    In Viet Nam, the situation was even worse. Many of the POWs were fighting a war they didn’t believe in and wasn’t supported back home. Yes, torture worked in Viet Nam, but under that circumstance, other techniques designed to increase doubt and convince the prisoner that giving up information would save the lives of Americans would have worked faster and been more reliable.

    And let’s face it, when you get back home, it’s easier to say you broke under torture than to admit you got played. “I held out as long as I could,” while humiliating, elicits some sympathy.

    At Gitmo, the professionals have been consistently frustrated by the use of torture by those not trained in techniques of information extraction. They know it doesn’t work, and a lot of false alarms have resulted from Gitmo information.

    The terrorists at Gitmo (along with all the innocent people and low level yutzes — look at how many repatriated “worst of the terrorists” are repatriated and then let go) tend to be highly religious. Most religions (Christianity and Islam included) see torture as proof that you are doing “God’s will.” If you weren’t doing God’s will, you wouldn’t be being tortured! In Islam, lying under torture is even seen as good — converting to another religion under torture is recommended, as long as the conversion is fraudulent. Torture just strengthens the terrorists resolve and eliminates doubt. “Gee, everything we were told back at the training camp about America’s war on Islam must be true!”

    If I were a prisoner, I ‘d be sorely tempted to feed my torturers plausible scenarios, just to watch them declare red alerts and make themselves look stupid. Ever notice how much “information” that the government claims is generated from Gitmo (and probably the secret renderings) turns out to be bad?

    There is a problem with giving false information. There is at least one recorded instance of an American POW giving what he believed to be fraudulent information that, by coincidence, happened to be close to the truth. This is why “Name, Rank, and Serial Number only” is generally taught to American soldiers. There are training programs for American soldiers on techniques for resisting torture, but that’s not information that should be made public.

    Posted 30 Dec 2006 at 1:03 pm
  10. Lightwave wrote:


    I think that if you were a prisoner you would be tempted to feed your questioners false information, regardless of torture, no? And there are much better documented reasons for “Name, Rank, Serial” in each of the armed forces training material.

    In any case, you do agree that torture has in the past resulted in accurate intelligence? (And as I’ve said in every post, the degree to which it is or is not reliable is a matter of debate.)

    Posted 30 Dec 2006 at 4:58 pm
  11. Rob wrote:

    My question is, what if the torture that relied on some accurate intelligence cost us more and more useful intelligence?

    Torture is moronic. It also damages the individuals that are torturers.

    You’re attempting to defend the indefensible. For years, the United States (at least publicly) stood against torture. Now that we have embraced it, whatever restraint (limited admittedly) might have been shown in the treatment of American POWs has now been removed. We used to use the Red Cross to ensure that our POWs were properly treated. With secret renditions and torture, we’ve lost the moral right to ask our enemies to do what we ourselves would not do.

    Tell me, what do you think should be done about the guy that the United States tortured for a while before realizing they’d gotten bad information and the guy was completely innocent?

    Our government has refused to answer his accusations, because doing so would “compromise the war on terror.” In other words “Oopsie! Tough luck. Admitting to a mistake would embarrass us and expose our criminal behavior.”

    How would you feel if the person being tortured by the United States were you — or your child?

    How do you feel when we cannot convict these terrorists because illegal methods, methods the courts have determined to be unreliable and unacceptable, were used to get evidence needed to convict them? What happens when these known terrorists go free because we had to get our jollies torturing them?

    Torture has become an American shame. I can’t help but wonder what happens when some of the torturers leave the military and enter civilian life, where they become police officers who might decide that torturing you would be a good way to get you to admit to a crime — even if you didn’t actually commit the crime.

    What happens to the American military personnel who are psychologically damaged by the torture they committed and who can’t even receive treatment for it because we refuse to admit we did it and their actions are considered secret? Was the damage to them worth it?

    What happened to America’s world standing when the torture we permitted finally came to light? The resulting P.R. disaster significantly hurt our war on terror and gave aid and comfort to the enemy. Way to go.

    In medicine, there’s a concept known as “risk/benefit.” Torture fails the risk/benefit analysis by a wide margin and is used only by the ignorant and those without self-control.

    Posted 30 Dec 2006 at 10:02 pm
  12. Lightwave wrote:


    Your mention of risk/reward takes us right back to my orginal question, which I think satisfies your criteria:

    could not a utilitarian (and perhaps those subscribing to other philosophy) justify torture (perhaps being the only remaining means available given the constraints on the situation), saying in some circumstances the ends do justify the means, in that unreliable information is better than no information?

    By the way…read carefuly, you’ll see I am (so far) defending nothing. 😉 (Unless you count the defense that torture has at least once in history resulted in accurate information, but I think we’ve already covered that as an undisputed fact).

    Posted 30 Dec 2006 at 11:13 pm
  13. Rob wrote:

    (Unless you count the defense that torture has at least once in history resulted in accurate information, but I think we’ve already covered that as an undisputed fact)

    I’d argue that instance of torture was also indefensible, both for the damage it did to the torturers and for the information that was not recovered through torture.

    Just because someone was incompetent but accidentally successful does not mean that incompetence should be defended.

    Posted 30 Dec 2006 at 11:34 pm
  14. Lightwave wrote:


    Okay, so for clairty sake, defensible or not, you do agree that torture has historically provided useful information sometimes? (my original question)

    Posted 31 Dec 2006 at 11:52 am

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