Yet Another Reason Why (most versions of) Utilitarianism Cannot Liberate Animals

In the ethics course I teach at Marquette University, I have my students read both the first chapter of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (“All Animals are Equal”) and Singer’s article titled “The Singer Solution to Global Poverty.” When discussing Singer’s demanding stance on global poverty (after having read his work on animal ethics a few week prior), one of my students asked a seemingly very simple question that, when answered, tells us something interesting about Singer’s “Animal Liberation” ethic:

Does Peter Singer think that it’s morally right to adopt companion animals from shelters?

Companion Animals

While one would think that someone who wrote a whole book titled Animal Liberation surely would encourage moral agents to adopt homeless animals who would otherwise be killed, Singer’s philosophy of preference utilitarianism commits him to the following opposite conclusion: we should just kill (painlessly) every single cat and dog both in shelters and our homes so that we could save the money we would have spent on vet bills, cat/dog food, and so forth and send that money to charity organizations aimed at helping humans. In a sense, Singer’s view is very similar to that of the Catholic Church, which informs us that:

It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2814).

So, why is Singer committed to this counterintuitive conclusion? Well, first we must understand the ethical theory he endorses: preference utilitarianism (well, the last I heard was that he switched back to classical utilitarianism, but both classical and preference UT generally come to the same conclusions so I will just speak of Preference Utilitarianism). The fundamental claim of preference utilitarianism is that moral agents should always perform those actions which maximize preferences. So, when asking what I should do with the $100 bill I find on the ground, Singer would inform me that I should not just do something “nice” with this $100 (like donating it to someone in need); rather, I should seek to do the best possible act with this money, which would be an act that satisfies the most preferences possible. So, in his discussion of effective altruism, Singer points out that the Against Malaria Foundation can prevent malaria for as little as $3 per person. Other organizations can treat children who suffer from parasitic worms for 50 cents a year. These organizations, then, are the ones we should donate the $100 to because these organizations can make a little bit of money can go a long way. So, as Singer maintains in his Ted Talk, we should avoid making donations to causes that are expensive, such as a donation to a charity that provides blind people with guide dogs which cost $40,000 each. What would we rather do with $40,000: help one person suffering from blindness or help 80,000 people suffering from parasitic worms? The answer, Singer maintains, is obvious.

In addition, Singer is infamous for instructing moral agents to donate all of their money that is not being used on necessities to effective relief organizations like the Against Malaria Foundation. What, then, does this say about the money we spend on companion animals? Since I’ve adopted my two cats, I have spent at least $300 dollars a year on vet bills (sometimes way more when they are sick), over $100 each on adoption fees, and who knows how much on cat litter, food, and the occasional toys. I have had one cat for 7 years and the other cat for 2 years. How many lives could I have saved throughout the past 7 years (or at least made considerably better) if I had taken that money and sent it to an effective charity organization? Am I morally wrong for adopting these two cats when I could have been saving human lives (or at least making these lives considerably better)? The answer is quite obvious: I could have saved way more than just 2 lives (or at least made these lives significantly better) if I would have sent the money I spent on my cats to effective humanitarian charities.

One important thing to note is that for Singer, death is not a harm for a nonrational being, like a cat or a dog. According to Singer, while rational human beings have future oriented preferences that are thwarted by death (such as an interest in getting married, and interest in going to college, and so forth), most nonhuman animals do not have future-oriented preferences and thus are not harmed by death, so long as the death is carried out painlessly.

Keeping this in mind, it seems that Singer and other advocates of preference utilitarianism are thus committed to the following claim: all animal shelters and those individuals who live with companion animals should painlessly kill their companion animals immediately. They should then take the money that they would have spent on nonhuman animals and send it to charity relief organizations that will help children suffering and dying from malaria, starvation, diarrhea, and other preventable/treatable illnesses and diseases. That is, we could save more lives and satisfy more preferences by taking the money that we currently spend on companion animals and sending it to effective charities that help save human lives (and furthermore, the nonhuman animals we kill will not even be harmed by being killed, so long as their death is painless).

As someone who has profound love for my cats, I would be the first to refuse to kill my healthy companion animals, regardless of how painlessly they would die. And I do not believe that I am just “weak-willed” in my refusal to painlessly kill my cats; I believe that I have done something morally commendable by taking these two cats into my home who would have otherwise been deprived of life. Furthermore, I believe that I am doing something morally right every time I stand in the line at the grocery store to buy their food. Why? Because as human beings, we have formed relationships with nonhuman animals, especially cats and dogs, and we owe it to these beings to care for and assist them. We have directly caused them to be vulnerable and dependent, and this relationship of dependency and vulnerability makes extra demands on us as moral agents.

This is something utilitarianism cannot take account of.

But most importantly, utilitarianism cannot take into account the love that humans feel toward nonhuman animals. Any ethical theory that would demand us to kill, however painlessly, the beings whom we have a deep sense of love and affection for, surely must be deficient.

**Note the following possible objection and response: Human beings who are forced to kill their companions would suffer emotionally and this would be bad. Yet, a preference utilitarian would respond by stating that the emotional suffering that these individuals experience would be outweighed by the significant amount of happiness experienced by the children whose lives are drastically improved from the donations.