Animal Rights and the Wrongness of Killing

5. Utilitarian Maximizing Principles

5.1 The 'Mixed' View

Book cover: The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer

Utilitarianism, as a consequentialist theory, at its core is a principle stipulating how utility is to be maximized. From the previous section, we can specify utility as 'happiness' and more generally as 'satisfaction'. (In the interests of simplicity, from this point forward I will use the term 'happiness' to include all forms of utility, including both 'happiness' and 'pleasure'.) For the utilitarian, then, the wrongness of an act, rule or practice is judged by its effect on the overall amount of happiness. The more the amount of happiness diverges from the optimal amount calculated using the principle of maximization, the more wrong the act, rule or practice is.

A problem arises in that happiness does not exist in disembodied form and in discrete units like pebbles on a beach, just waiting to be collected in a single, large bucket. Happiness always occurs in the lives of individuals; in lives that form structured wholes and in which happiness is an integral part of those structures. It is an integral part because, often, happiness is the result of goal directed activities; activities that only make sense in terms of an individual life to be lived. Utilitarianism, in some of its forms, has been criticized for not recognizing the boundaries around individuals. I think this charge has been justified.

With the importance of individuation in mind, we can restate the utilitarian principle to take account of this important insight. The claim that happiness per se is valuable can be expanded into the claim that the utility of a state of affairs is a function of both the total sum of happiness in a community and the amount of happiness in each individual life. This latter quantity, the amount of happiness in an individual's life, I will call the level of the 'quality of life'.

Whether we value the quantity of happiness, quality, or both, will determine which principle of maximization we choose. We could opt for the classical 'total' view, which states we should maximize the aggregate of utility within a population. Or we could choose the 'average' view, which stipulates that we ought to maximize instead average utility. Which principle of maximization we select will influence how we see the wrongness of killing human beings vis-á-vis animals.

For example, if we think that only quantity of happiness has value (the 'total' view), then, ignoring side-effects, we will regard the killing of a sufficient number of chickens worse than the killing of a single normal adult human being. If we accept that only quality of life has value (the 'average' view), then we will think that if the killing of all of the chickens in the world will have no effect on the happiness of human beings, then doing this would be morally obligatory because it would raise the average level of happiness. (These two examples assume that the life of a chicken has less utility than the life of a normal adult human being, which, to me, seems at least prima facie plausible. I will argue in §6 below that we have good reasons for thinking this so.)

In my Allan [2015: §5], I proposed what I considered to be the basic structure of an adequate utilitarian maximizing principle. I did not claim the theory to be free of problems. However, I thought that it was good enough to deal with the ethical questions at issue in that essay; namely on contraception and abortion. I thought it adequate because a normal foetus has the potential to achieve a utility value within the range of a normal adult. This is not the case with animals, though. A more complex and less problematic principle of maximization is required in order to deal with this question of killing human beings vis-á-vis animals.

I termed this new maximizing principle the 'mixed' view. This approach contrasts with two current rival principles; the 'total' view and the 'average' view. The 'mixed' view is based on two postulates, each framed in terms of a variable population base. The two postulates encapsulate key insights and are as follows:

Postulate 1:
For any given variable population with fixed total utility x, if the average utility decreases (with a corresponding increase in population level), then the moral desirability of the population level will diminish.
Postulate 2:
For any given variable population with fixed average utility y, if the total utility decreases (with a corresponding decrease in population level), then the moral desirability of the population level will diminish.

These two postulates are satisfied by the 'mixed' view maximizing principle. With this principle, what we should be aiming to maximize in a utilitarian maximizing theory is 'mixed utility'. The 'mixed utility' of the population is a product of its total and average utilities and can be expressed by the simple equation:

m = t.a     where 'm' ='mixed utility'
        't'  = 'total utility'
        'a' = 'average utility'

Where one of the variables t or a is unknown and the number of individuals in the population n is known, mixed utility m can be calculated using the following considerations.

Since t = n.a and a = t/n    
then m = a2.n and m = t2/n  where 'n' = 'number of individuals in population'

The 'mixed utility' that ought to be maximized in a given population is simply a 'mixture' of that population's total and average utilities. It is important to note that this maximizing theory is intended solely for application to problems involving a variable population base. The classical theory stipulating the maximizing of total utility (or what is an extensionally equivalent consideration in this case, average utility) is still to be used for fixed populations.

Derek Parfit, in his Reasons and Persons [1984: 381–90], levelled a fatal objection against the 'total' view; what he called the 'Repugnant Conclusion'. As he explained it, for any given possible population in which all members have a very high quality of life, there is a much larger possible population whose members have lives that are barely worth living. The 'Repugnant Conclusion' that the 'total' view leads us to is that the existence of the latter population is morally preferable to the existence of the former. Unfortunately, the 'mixed' view maximizing principle, as it stands, also does not avoid Parfit's 'Repugnant Conclusion'. Although the 'mixed' view is an improvement over the classical 'total' view, both views fail to avoid the basic idea behind Parfit's objection: that there is a level of quality of life below which no aggregate of satisfaction can compensate for the loss of quality.

Let us encapsulate this basic intuition in a third postulate:

Postulate 3:
For any given variable population with variable average utility and variable total utility, such that t.a = k, where k is a constant, if the population level is steadily increased, there is a level of average utility below which no further increase in total utility will compensate for the loss of average utility.

What is this level of average utility below which an increase in total utility no longer compensates? I propose a threshold value of 0.7 of the average utility of the original population. More specifically, the point below which a further decrease in average utility cannot be compensated by any further increase in total utility is 0·7ay, where ay is the average utility of the original population or state of affairs. The threshold level of 0·7ay is somewhat arbitrary, but not completely. I will leave the determination of this value to future discussion, proposing at the moment to offer 0·7ay as a tentative level only. None the less, I think it reasonable to suppose that the value could be no lower than 0.6 and no higher than 0.9. I think there would be little argument that outside of these levels, the increase in utility is clearly insufficient compensation.

Copyright © 2015

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