Utilitarianism as a starting point

In An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation (1789), Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) asks which of the many characteristics of living organisms in their entirety may be crucial in recognizing a place for non-human animals in the field of moral consideration. The point, he states, should not be if the creature walks on four or two legs, or if it has or doesn’t have a tail, or even if it is capable of rational thought or speech. The crucial matter would be if whatever life form we are looking at can experience pain.


With such choice of words he kickstarts the modern philosophical theory known as utilitarianism. This is the starting point from which Peter Singer (1946-) would later formulate the notion of expanding circle we already tackled in The expanding circle (03/09/2020).


Utilitarianism is a philosophical approach that emphasizes the concept of “utility” (hence the name) and makes it into the foundation of values and criterion for morale actions. Despite being already present in Greek philosophy, utilitarianism would be redefined and reworked on during the 18th Century. Jeremy Bentham in particular developed the theory of “calculating” the immediate and future utility of actions, with the aim of maximizing and expanding pleasure while minimizing pain. Within such a framework, at least in theory, the aims of any particular individual would not contrast general happiness but rather promote it themselves.


We have already discussed, in Animals in perspective (18/01/2021) about how Chales Darwin (1809-1882) contributed to the discussion about continuity or discontinuity between human and non-human animals with On the origin of species (1859); offering a very brief overview, the possibility (given what Darwin’s research and hypothesis entailed) of walking back up to a common ancestor to human and non-human animals ends the debate on the matter: there is no discontinuity because the appearance of Homo Sapiens on the metaphorical scene can be justified by means of mechanisms of a selection (opposed to external or metaphysical intervention, like what the theory and perspective of fixism proposed) that is still going on today.


As an quick example of how humankind is still subject to natural selection and is still changing, suffice to say that the so called wisdom teeth are progressively becoming rarer: the third molar is a structure that was necessary when Homo Sapiens used to feed very differently from how we do nowadays and did in the last few centuries: as a consequence (albeit it may sound as somewhat of an oversimplification), where the outside world does not present the necessity for us to use such teeth in particular, their manifestation is becoming progressively rarer though they are not yet disappeared completely as a trait.


The matter of wisdom teeth is of course rather unimportant to our discussion, it has to be said, but still it represents a functional example; we have discussed about how Darwin has shown and proven the continuity between non-human animals and Homo Sapiens and how we are still subject to the metaphorical “pressure” that drives the species to evolve nowadays. From here we may come back to the perspective of an expanding circle and to Bentham’s words: we have established that there are no substantial differences between humans and non-human animals, that is to say humankind is not intrinsically different of superior to anyone by sheer virtue of being human, and that non-human animals can (to take the word out of Bentham’s book, somewhat literally in this case), experience pain. Given all this, there is no valid reason to avoid extending the boundaries of moral discourse to include them too.

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