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Preference utilitarianism

Peter Singer is an Australian who is now professor of bio-ethics at Princeton in the US. His parents were Jewish and three of his relatives died in the Holocaust. He repudiates all religion and refused to have a bar mitzvah. Singer is passionately committed to the view that ethics must be about how life is lived: "There would be something incoherent about living a life where the conclusions you came to in ethics did not make any difference to your life. It would make it an academic exercise. The whole point about doing ethics is to think about the way to live. My life has a kind of harmony between my ideas and the way I live. It would be highly discordant if that was not the case."

Singer: some animals have equal value to humans

Singer is a preference utilitarian. They argue that the consequences to be promoted are those which satisfy the wishes or preferences of the maximum numbers of beings who have preferences. In other words, the more people get what they want, the better, from a moral point of view, the world is. The more people's desires are frustrated, the worse the world is. It is only morally right to frustrate the preferences of others if by so doing we enable more beings to satisfy their preferences. Actions should not be judged on their simple pain-and-pleasure outcomes, but on how they affect the interests, the preferences, of all beings involved. Singer asks an important additional question - "What sort of beings should we include in the sum of interests?" Singer argues that this question is not addressed by Christians - they assume that humans are more valuable than animals. Singer rejects this assumption.

Why should humans be valued more than animals? What is the intellectual basis for experimenting on animals rather than a person in a persistent vegetative state? Singer argues that humans have no inherent right to better treatment than animals - instead their ability to suffer and their rationality need to be evaluated. A dolphin or a chimpanzee may be more rational and be able to suffer more than a newborn baby. Beings that have rationality or self-consciousness are more important than mere sentient beings. If you had to choose to save a child or a dog, you should save the higher "person" - the child. For Singer, not all persons are humans, and some humans are definitely not persons. An adult chimpanzee can exhibit more self-consciousness, more personhood, than a newborn human infant. If the choice was between saving a newborn baby who had no family and a mature chimpanzee and could only save one of them, the chimp should be saved. "Killing them [babies], therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings. No infant - disabled or not - has as strong a claim to life as beings capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities existing over time" (Practical Ethics). Singer has proposed a post-natal 28-day qualification period during which infants - non-persons at that stage – could be killed.

Singer puts forward arguments that, while rational, go against fundamental human intuitions. Perhaps most significantly, however, he does not take potential into account. A baby has the potential to become an adult human being and destroying this potential may be an evil act. On this basis, the value of beings should be measured by their potential - and a disabled baby may still have more potential than a dolphin.

The great attraction of Benthamite utilitarianism is that it seems to appeal to common sense in that most people think that happiness is the main aim in life and, in addition, it is often held to be measurable in financial terms.

Happiness and fulfilment

For the great Greek philosophers, what it means to live a fulfilled human life cannot be measured, and what matters does not depend on funding or "measurable outcomes". Also, what many people want may not be what is in their best interests in terms of human fulfilment. GE Moore said "you cannot get an ought from an is" – the fact that many men enjoy watching football, having too much to drink on a Saturday night and looking at pornography does not mean that this is what they should desire – philosophy holds there is more to life than this.

The search for personal happiness may take people away from the importance of a search for meaning and understanding what a fulfilled human life should be life. The growing tide of utilitarianism, however, threatens to sweep aside ideals like justice, goodness, truth or, indeed, the distinctiveness and importance of each individual, so its influence and importance is likely to increase. Mill's approach is far more sophisticated than Bentham's because it recognises that fulfilling human potential is essential for ethics and that happiness is not something personally chosen but is directly linked to the common human nature that we all share.

Recently there has been a coming together of utilitarianism with virtue ethics through the work of Robert Merrihew Adams. Since 1976 Adams advocated "motive utilitarianism", i.e a utilitarianism which starts with the individual, demanding that they cultivate the character traits and skills which are likely to yield the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This utilitiarianism does not just focus on acts and consequences, but also considers the character and motivations, in this it shares a great deal with virtue ethics, a subject which Adams has also written on in the last couple of years.

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