Week 2 Instructor Guidance Utilitarianism: Making the World a Better Place

This week we are focusing on the first of the three major theories that seek to give an account of what it means to live well and act morally, and how this theory applies to our treatment of animals.

This Week's Topics

1. Utilitarianism

Let's review an important point from last week's guidance:

If we regard human actions as consisting of three parts, then the main difference between these moral theories has to do with which part they believe to be most important consideration when thinking about ethics.

The three parts of human action are:

  1. The nature and character of the person performing the action.
  2. The nature of the action itself.
  3. The consequences of the action.

The three moral theories can be distinguished in this way:

  1. Virtue ethics focuses on the nature and character of the person performing the action.
  2. Deontological ethics focuses on the action itself.
  3. Consequentialism focuses on the consequences of the action.

This week, we are focusing on a type of consequentialism called Utilitarianism, according to which moral actions are those that produce the most happiness and the least suffering.

2. Animal Ethics

Animals are living beings, and many seem to be able to experience things like pleasure and pain, form bonds with other animals (including humans), and have their own natural way of living and flourishing. Does this present us with a responsibility to treat animals a certain way? Do animals have rights? Is it ethical to kill them, use them for experiments, or do other things that we would normally be wrong to do to human beings? What does utilitarianism have to say about such issues, and is it the best approach to take to such questions?

3. Discussions

There are two discussions this week. Please carefully read each discussion prompt before you begin posting, and review them often during the week.


Consequentialism: Aiming for the Best Results

All actions have consequences. Some consequences are better than others.

Consequentialism holds that the morally right thing to do is that which results in the best consequences. This might mean bringing about some good thing, preventing some bad thing, or a balance of both.

Utility: Happiness or Well-Being

When we talk about "utility" we mean some measure of well-being. This is usually happiness, which is often also defined in terms of pleasure and the absence of suffering.

Utilitarianism: The Greatest Happiness for the Greatest Number

Right actions = those that result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number when compared with the alternatives.

Wrong actions = actions that are preformed when another one would have resulted in more happiness, or less unhappiness.

The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can.
John Wesley

Utilitarianism is based in the straightforward idea, captured in this quote by the 18th century founder of the Methodist Church, that we ought to be living and acting so as to bring about the most good in the world. A utilitarian theory of morality thus tries to specify what exactly we should mean by "bringing about the most good".

Let's begin by watching the following video, which provides an overview of utilitarianism.

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How can I recognize a utilitarian argument?

Typically an argument that says, “This is the right thing to do because it will lead to good results” is a utilitarian argument. So is one that says, “This is wrong because it will bring about bad results.

Of course, when we encounter these arguments in real life, someone will usually be saying what those good/bad results are. In the following examples, the action that one should or should not do is in blue, but the reason why one should or shouldn't to the action makes reference to the results, given in red.

  • Don't cheat on your boyfriend because it will really hurt him if he finds out.
  • Don't cheat on your boyfriend because you don't want to give him an excuse to cheat on you.
  • Don't cheat on your boyfriend because he might get angry and physically harm you.
  • Share that toy with your brother because it will make him happy.
  • Share that toy with your brother so that when he has something you want, he'll share with you.
  • Share that toy with your brother because if you don't, you will get a time out.

  • Homosexuals should be allowed to marry because it makes them happy and doesn't hurt anyone else.
  • Homosexuals should be allowed to marry because the additional marriage license fees will bring needed revenue to the state.
  • Homosexuals should be allowed to marry because if they aren't we will look like a backward society in the eyes of other nations.

  • You should spend your vacation helping the victims of the tornado rather than going to Tahiti, because the good you can do for those ravaged communities is much greater than the pleasure you would get from basking in the sun for a week.
  • You should spend your vacation helping the victims of the tornado rather than going to Tahiti, because it will impress your boss and may result in a big raise. You should spend your vacation helping the victims of the tornado rather than going to Tahiti, because if you don't you are going to be plagued by guilt during the whole vacation.

Notice how in all of these cases, the action is good and moral if the results are better than the alternative. In some cases, the results considered the benefit or harm to others. In other cases, the results considered the benefit to the person or people acting. And in others, the results considered the harm to the person or people acting if they didn't do the action.

Notice how in all of these cases, the action is good and moral if the results are better than the alternative. In some cases, the results considered the benefit or harm to others. In other cases, the results considered the benefit to the person or people acting. And in others, the results considered the harm to the person or people acting if they didn't do the action.

This highlights an important feature of utilitarianism that distinguishes it from other moral theories:

If the consequences are all that matter morally, then it ultimately doesn't matter what you are doing or why you are doing it, so long as the intended consequences of that action are better overall than alternative actions.

How do I know what the best consequences are?

Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham

One of the first proponents of consequentialism was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). He offered a “hedonistic” view of value, which means that we whittle down all "value" to happiness or unhappiness, and all happiness to pleasure (good) and unhappiness to pain (bad). Doing so, he maintained, would give us the basis for distinguishing good from bad consequences. Every action or policy produces a certain amount of pleasure and a certain amount of pain among the various people affected by it, which can be measured (like we measure flour for baking). If we add up all the pleasure that’s produced, subtract the pain that’s produced, we can come out with a certain value for every situation that would result from different actions.

Below we consider some possible problems with this assumption about measurement, but leaving that aside for the moment, what we come up with is a utility matrix for calculating consequences. In the example below, we are comparing 4 possible actions I could do. We look at the number of persons who would be affected by each action (column 1), consider how much pleasure or pain each person will experience as a result of the action and assign a positive number to the pleasure and a negative number to the pain (column 2), add up the total positive and total negative value among all people (column 3), and see whether the net value is overall positive or overall negative.

If we’re looking only at individual actions, then they would be moral if the net value is positive, immoral if the net value is negative. But if we’re comparing different actions, then the moral thing is the one that has the most positive value or least negative value. (For example, if we’re deciding between actions 2 and 3, action 3 would be the moral one; if we’re deciding between actions 1 and 4, action 1 would be moral.)

utility matrix
A Utility Matrix

(Action 1) Sometimes we find that actions that would bring great benefit to a few people would not be good if they would result in a small inconvenience to a lot of people.

(Action 2) Sometimes, however, we find that the good that such actions would bring to that small group of people is so large, that it outweighs the relatively small inconvenience that a few people would suffer.

(Action 3) Sometimes we find that actions that would bring a small benefit to a large number of people would be acceptable if the overall good outweighs the bad experienced by a small number of people.

(Action 4) Sometimes, however, we find that the pain and suffering of the few outweighs any good that might result, even if that small good is enjoyed by a lot of people.

Each of these kinds of situation is one that commonly invoke moral disputes, and so the ability to resolve them in an objective way depends on how well we’re able to identify and measure the overall pain and pleasure that are produced.

Of course, real-life situations are much more complicated than this, and different utilitarian theories have different things to say about how what we use as the standard of measurement, how we identify it, and how we compare the overall value. But the core idea remains the same:

The utilitarian calculus:

Calculate how much pleasure (or other good), minus pain (or other bad), will result from different actions, spread across all the people affected by the action, and do that which results in the most positive value.

Mill’s Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill

With this background, we can now turn to John Stuart Mill’s 1861 text Utilitarianism, portions of which we will be reading. Mill adopted Bentham’s view (with an important difference that we will look at momentarily), and tried to communicate it in a way that was simple, straightforward, and addressed the most common criticisms made of utilitarianism.

Go ahead and read the first column on page 5, and come back here when you get to the section “Higher and Lower Pleasures”.

He began with a simple and straightforward definition, one that clearly sets out the difference between right from wrong actions.

The doctrine that the basis of morals is utility, or the greatest happiness principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong in proportion as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By ‘happiness’ is meant pleasure and the absence of pain; by ‘unhappiness’ is meant pain and the lack of pleasure.

But in that same paragraph, he also offers a “general theory of life”, which is his primary justification for the theory. This is crucial, since it is his answer to the question we should ask of the theory: why suppose that happiness, defined in terms of pleasure and the absence of pain, should be the standard of value when distinguishing right from wrong?

pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things that are desirable as ends, and that everything that is desirable at all is so either for the pleasure inherent in it or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.

In other words, when we consider what we value, what we desire, what we aim at, and so forth, we find that it it’s pleasurable in itself, or it leads to pleasure or to the prevention of pain. Gaining pleasure and avoiding pain is the ultimate purpose of everything we do, according to Mill. You guys are here right now, at Ashford, taking a philosophy course, because of pleasure or pain. While the course may not bring you pleasure immediately (and may even be quite painful at times!), you’re taking the course to get a degree. There’s lots of reasons why you might be pursuing a degree, but if we go far enough along the road of considering why you’re doing different things, eventually it’s the prospect of pleasure and relief from pain that drives you (so Mill says). The same goes for when you go to church, you get married, you raise your kids in certain ways, you help out in a neighbor, you vote for a certain candidate, or you tie your shoes. Basically, when we ask the question “why did you do that”, the answer always comes down to pleasure or pain.

So ultimately that’s what happiness is – the more pleasure and less pain we have in our lives, the happier we are; and we all want happiness more than anything else.

If this is true, then we have our ultimate standard. For all the differences we might have in terms of what we believe, what we value, what we desire, it all comes down to the same thing for all of us, which makes pleasure the ultimate value. If “good” actions are ones that produce the most value, then “good” actions are ones that produce the most pleasure and the least pain. But of course the potential for pleasure among a lot of people is greater than for just one person, so the best actions are the ones that seek to bring about the most net pleasure overall. And now we have arrived at the greatest happiness principle, which holds that:

the standard of morality is the greatest happiness for all.

A Doctrine Worthy of Pigs?

Mill immediately proceeds to address a common criticism of utilitarian theory.

Go ahead and read the rest of page 5 through the top of page 7, and return here.

To see what he’s trying to say here, it’s important to first get a bit of important background on Mill.

Mill was born in 1806 into a philosophical family. His father, James Mill, was a disciple and friend of Bentham, and they were dissatisfied with the educational system and the time and wanted to reform the system such that children were raised and educated according to strict utilitarian principles. So Mill became a kind of experiment in such an education.

And indeed he was a child prodigy – he was helping his father edit a history of India at age 3, had read half of Plato by age 6, was fluent in several languages, knew advanced mathematics, science, history, etc., by the time he was a teenager.

But at age 20, he was editing one of Bentham’s works, and worked so hard on it that he ended up having a nervous breakdown. He emerged from this condition partly by reading the poetry of William Wordsworth, and this experience led him to depart in an important way from Bentham’s theory. We recall that Bentham’s “hedonistic” view maintained that pleasure is the only component of happiness, and pain is the only component of unhappiness. Moreover, he famously insisted that there is no difference between different kinds of pleasure or pain, only differences of quantity. “Quantity of pleasure being equal,” he said, “push-pin is as good as poetry” (Mill, 1974, 123). Pushpin was a simple child’s game, providing simple amusements, but certainly not invoking those deeper and more sophisticated human intellectual and emotional capacities that are invoked by good poetry. But Bentham insisted that this doesn’t matter, and that while there might be different amounts of pleasure gained from playing a child’s game vs. reading good poetry, there is no difference in the pleasure itself.

The Devolution of Man

Mill disagreed. He brings up a common criticism of utilitarianism, namely that is a “doctrine worthy of pigs.” What did this mean? First, think of what might be "pig-like" (or animal-like) behavior - the kinds of things that people do which aren't very different from the kinds of things that animals do. [For example.] In some cases it's relatively harmless (like in the video above), and often even necessary (we all have to eat, whether we're a pig or a human!). But in other cases, we have a choice between acting more like an animal would act, versus acting in a way that puts into use those capacities that we humans have but other animals don't have.

It's the idea expressed when one person says of another, "she was capable of so much, but she wasted her talent on her wild ways". In other words, some people have the potential to do remarkable things, but instead of realizing that potential, they indulge in activities that people without such capacities could do, thus failing to bring about those remarkable things.

Amy Winehouse

We have this sense that if someone has a certain potential for something great, it's a shame when that person doesn't realize that potential. And we could say this about someone who has a very specific talent (comparing her with people who don't have that talent), and we could also say this about the human race itself (comparing it with animals that don't have our capacities).

So when critics called utilitarianism a "doctrine worthy of pigs," they were saying that utilitarianism doesn't acknowledge the fact that we humans are capable of far more than other animals, but instead reduces all value to the lowest common denominator. To be sure, those pig-like pleasures are easier to come by, and often we can enjoy more of them. So if we simply wanted to "maximize pleasure," utilitarianism would seem to be encouraging us to indulge in baser and more carnal forms of pleasure-seeking at the expense of ones we might normally consider more noble or more worthy.

Of these pairs of people, whose lives contain more "raw pleasure"? And whose lives do we consider admirable?

Mill responds to this by maintaining that we should be concerned not just with the quantity of pleasure produced by our actions, but the quality.

How does he make this distinction? Essentially, the same way that he tried to show that pleasure is the ultimate end of our actions: by looking at what people actually desire:

Pleasure P1 is more desirable than pleasure P2 if: all or almost all people who have had experience of both give a decided preference to P1, irrespective of any feeling that they ought to prefer it.

For example, if you go to a liquor store you will often find dozens of different kinds of beer, ranging from cheap frat-party brands, to expensive ones brewed in Belgian abbeys, and everything in between. Sometimes we can get a whole case of one for the same price that we pay for a single bottle of another. For many people, the pleasure of a beautifully-crafted Belgian beer is incomparable to the pleasure of a watery Natty Light, and drinking more of them won’t somehow make them equal (speaking just of the beer itself; naturally if the pleasure we’re after is that conferred by the alcohol, that might be a different matter).

Good BeerBad Beer
A few more cans of the stuff on the right and you won't be able to tell the difference anyway I guess

Or to take another example, think of the difference between the pleasures of a casual dating relationship, and a relationship that involves deep connection and love. Those who have experienced the physical and emotional pleasures of a deep, long-lasting relationship with one person often say that they would never trade that for the shallower, even if more frequent, physical and emotional pleasures of multiple casual dating relationships.

Mill argues that by drawing this distinction between higher and lower pleasures, he can show that utilitarianism does not reduce humans to the level of animals in setting pleasure and the avoidance of pain as the standard of action.

This depends, of course, on whether he can draw this distinction in a way that allows us to continue to use pleasure and pain as objective standards of measurement. Bentham’s view that all pleasures are equal supposedly meant that we could objectively compare various outcomes in terms of their moral value. How might adding in this distinction between higher and lower pleasures complicate the utilitarian calculus?

Why is this Important?

As the following short audio lecture explains, explaining and defending a certain standard of measurement is essential if we are going to be able to meaningfully and objectively compare the value of different possible outcomes.

How do we measure utility? Is it the quantity of pleasure, as Bentham thought? Can this be identified and measured adequately enough to draw comparisons between different outcomes? If not, is there another standard that we can use to measure utility?

What are the implications for utilitarianism as a moral theory if such a standard cannot be found?

[Written transcript here].

Putting Utilitarianism Into Practice

We have seen that consequentialism is the view that moral actions are the ones that bring about the best results relative to the alternatives. Utilitarianism holds that the “best results” are the ones that contain the most utility. According to Mill, utility is a measure of the amount of happiness in the world, which he further specifies as pleasure and the absence of pain, adding that “higher” pleasures count for more than “lower” ones.

One common question that people have about utilitarianism is how their own interests and happiness is to factor in to moral decisions:

Does utilitarianism maintain that my own happiness and interests is less important than that of the majority?

Not quite. First, the utilitarian won't say that any particular person's happiness or suffering or life is more important or less important than anyone else's; they are all to be counted equally. However, the question is what the overall value is when all of these things are added together. It's similar to the way we think of money. All dollar bills have equal value, but if one action results in 99 dollar bills gained and 1 lost, and another action results in 1 dollar bill gained but 99 lost, then that first action is better from a financial standpoint, but we're not going to say that that 1 dollar bill is "less important".

Second, what we’re concerned with here is the greatest net happiness (and least suffering) overall. This is not always the greatest happiness of the majority. Looking back at the utility matrix above, we noticed that there might be situations in which an action might bring a small amount of pleasure to a large number of people, but a great deal of suffering to a few. It might be the case that the suffering is so great that it outweighs the value of the happiness gained by “the majority”. For example, if we used slave labor to harvest our fruits and vegetables, we (the majority) might save a few bucks at the grocery store, but the suffering experienced by those forced to work in the fields (the minority) would far outweigh that benefit.

Indeed, it might be the case that my own happiness or suffering might be great enough to warrant action that benefits me rather than other people. So utilitarianism does not say that we must always be sacrificing ourselves for the greater good.

The main task is to consider which of the various possible actions will result in the greatest overall good, and to be able to give an account of why.

Going Further

Further information and resources on utilitarian theory can be found under the "Consequentialism" entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

This page also has a large collection of text and resources related to utilitarianism.

Animal Ethics

The Arguments Matter

Peter Singer and Tom Regan have similar views on what our moral obligations toward animals are, but they have different ways of arguing for those obligations: Singer takes a utilitarian approach, while Regan is critical of that approach and favors an approach that's more deontological. This difference is important not just when it comes to evaluating the merits of their own conclusions, but also when thinking about what other conclusions would be drawn from the same form of argument.


Both Singer and Regan rely on the notion of "speciesism", which is a kind of prejudice similar to racism and sexism. Speciesism involves applying different moral considerations to different beings simply on the basis of species membership (just as a racist would do that on the basis of race, and a sexist would do that on the basis of sex). This does not mean that humans and animals are the same (any more than men and women are the same). Rather, the question is whether being a different species means that moral considerations - such as suffering - count less for beings of one species than they do for another species.

Meet Your Meat

Before reading the text and watching the videos, I encourage you to first watch the short but challenging video "Meet Your Meat". This video describes the conditions that most of the animals raised for food have to endure before their meat makes it to our supermarkets and restaurants. It's difficult to watch, but is that very fact morally significant?

What emotions do you experience as you watch this video? What do they reveal about the lives of these animals? What moral implications might that have?

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Suffering is Suffering?

All animals experience suffering and pain. Or at least it seems obvious that animals like chickens, cows, and pigs do, as the video above brings out; not to mention animals with which we often form bonds, such as dogs and cats.

When the utilitarian argues that we ought to maximize well-being and minimize suffering in the world, shouldn't we be concerned with all forms of suffering period, not just human suffering?

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Peter Singer

That's the view of one of the most famous contemporary utilitarians, and one of the most well-knows philosophers living today, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer.

If animals experience suffering just as humans do, why don't we regard their suffering as on a par with human suffering? Why would we think it was okay to cause suffering and death to animals, when we would not think that about humans?

Singer claims that the fact that we discriminate against animals in this way is wrong, and he calls this "speciesism." Just as "racism" unjustly discriminates against others on the basis of "race", and "sexism" unjustly discriminates against others on the basis of "sex", Singer argues that "speciesism" unjustly discriminates against others on the basis of "species".

To understand the comparison to racism and sexism, we have to back away from those and example what they are, and what makes them wrong. 

When a certain way of treating people is “racist” or “sexist,” we are treating certain people differently (i.e., worse) than others simply because of their race or simply because of their sex. For instance, if a restaurant owner refuses to serve someone simply because they are black, or pays someone a lower wage simply because she’s a woman – i.e., for no other reason than the race or the sex. 

It’s racist or sexist because we think that someone’s race or sex is irrelevant to how they should be treated in these kinds of matters.  Notice I didn’t say that they were irrelevant in all matters of treatment, which is obviously not the case.  But when it comes to whether someone should be served in restaurant, or sit in the front of the bus, or use the same drinking fountains, race is irrelevant.  And when it comes to how much someone should be paid for their work, or whether they should be able to vote or hold public office, sex is irrelevant

Okay, so what makes something racist is when we take someone’s race to be a reason to treat them differently, when it’s not actually a good reason to do so. (Remember, we’re not talking about all forms of treatment, just certain ones in which race shouldn’t matter. And we’re not suggesting that there is no difference, just not one that matters for the particular kind of treatment in question.)

What makes something sexist is when we take someone’s sex to be a reason to treat them differently in a certain way, when it’s not a reason to do so.  (Again, we’re not talking about all forms of treatment, just certain ones in which sex shouldn’t matter. And we’re not suggesting that there is no difference, just not one that matters for the particular kind of treatment in question.)

What makes something speciesist, according to Singer,  is when we take something’s species to be a reason to treat them differently in a certain way, when it’s not a reason to do so.  (And again, we’re not talking about all forms of treatment, just certain ones in which species shouldn’t matter. And we’re not suggesting that there is no difference, just not one that matters for the particular kind of treatment in question.)

So let’s take the particular question of whether we should treat another being cruelly simply to satisfy our appetites.  Why would that be wrong to do to someone “like us”?  Perhaps it’s because it causes suffering, and causing suffering is something that we should try to avoid causing if possible. 

Does the fact that someone simply has a different skin color provide a good reason why it’s okay to do so?  No, because someone of another race can still experience suffering.

Does the fact that someone simply has a different gender provide a good reason why it’s okay to do so?  No, because someone of another sex can still experience suffering.

Does the fact that someone simply has a different species provide a good reason why it’s okay to do so?  No, according to Singer, because someone of another species can still experience suffering.

In short, if we’re going to cause pain, suffering, and death to another being, we should have a good reason to do so, or at least not have a good reason to refrain from it. 

A reason to refrain is that a being experiences suffering, and animals experience suffering too.  So we ought to have a good reason to cause that suffering. 

Is satisfying our appetites a good reason to cause or allow another being to suffer?  It’s certainly not a good reason to cause suffering to other people, and being of a different race or different sex doesn’t change that.  So why would being of a different species change it? Singer claims that it does not.

As you read the text, consider whether you find his arguments to be convincing. If you disagree with his conclusion, then often laying out the argument and seeing how it is supposed to work, and what premises it relies on, is a great way to identify exactly where the flaw might be.

Remember that this course isn’t about preaching to you or convincing you of some particular ethical view.  Rather, it’s to help us grasp what moral reasoning involves and how to do it well, and to look closely at ethical issues that we may not have had a chance to consider deeply before.  But doing that may well challenge us, and that’s good!  

Read "All animals are equal." (Note that the text is also available in your textbook, and you can find it online here.)

Peter Singer on the Human Use of Animals

For a shorter, conversational-style explanation of his view, listen to Singer's interview on the podcast Philosophy Bites:

Text transcript available here.

Or you can listen it through YouTube:

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Tom Regan: A Non-Utilitarian Alternative

Often people might have similar ethical views, but disagree about the best approach to defending those views. That's why it's important to think critically about the arguments, even if we find the conclusion plausible.

That's the case here. Tom Regan agrees with a lot of Singer's conclusions about how we ought to treat animals; however, he doesn't think that Singer's utilitarian approach is the best. What does he think is problematic about the utilitarian approach? How does his approach differ from that?

What you are looking for is an argument about how we should live that does not involve weighing positive and negative outcomes of our actions. Does he identify things that have absolute value, and cannot be "traded off" against other things with more value? Does he identify certain actions that should always or never be done, no matter what? These might be indications of a non-utilitarian approach.

With those preliminaries in mind, go ahead and read the article.

Once you have read the article, I recommend that you watch the short video below, which provides an overview of Regan's approach. It may help you tie up the ideas you just read about, and you will see clearly how he broadens the concern from suffering and pain, and considers the fact that animals have their own experiences, and they have their own interests.

Should a being with its own interests and experiences ever be reduced to a mere tool for us to use however we please? Does it matter if that being is human or not?

Would a utilitarian answer this question differently than a non-utilitarian? What implications would each of these answers have beyond questions concerning our treatment of animals?

A Case for Animal Rights
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Going Deeper

The Philosophy of Food Project is a large database of philosophical resources related to eating habits, including arguments and resources concerning the treatment of animals. 

More about animal cruelty and factory farming

"In the belly of the beast" (2013) is a fairly recent article from Rolling Stone Magazine that brings together a wealth of powerful and disturbing facts, arguments, and media an interactive and visually stunning layout.

In his article "Animal cruelty laws and factory farming" (2008), Joseph Vining makes a legal case that there should be stronger laws protecting the welfare of animals on factory farms. He gives legal precedent for such regulation of private industry, and demonstrates that current laws appear to be inadequate.

Farm Sanctuary works to end cruelty to farm animals, and their website has lots of useful information.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the largest animal rights organization in the world, was inspired by Peter Singer's 1975 book Animal Liberation.

Alternative approaches

There are a few resources that take alternative approaches to the issue of our treatment of animals than either Singer's utilitarian one or Regan's deontological one.

In her article, "Applying Virtue Ethics to Our Treatment of the Other Animals," Rosalind Hursthouse shows how approaching these moral questions from a virtue ethics perspective offers new insights and ways of overcoming some of the limitations of other ethical theories while preserving their insights.  This connects up with the theory we will be looking more deeply into during week 4.  

If you are interested in an approach to the issue of eating animals from a Christian perspective, you may find this article interesting: Matthew C. Halteman (2008), Living Toward the Peaceable Kingdom: Compassionate Eating as Care of Creation. Halteman draws out of various Christian traditions a common focus on the importance of dominion and stewardship over God’s creation, and how that carries responsibilities to care for and nurture creation, especially non-human animals, into their own flourishing.  He speaks of such care as a “spiritual discipline” to eat in ways that express and embody one’s faith in God’s care for, provision for, and ultimate redemption of the world. 

Alternative conclusions

Michael Pollan begins his article, "An Animal’s Place"  with his account of eating a steak while reading Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, not as an act of defiance but as an attempt to be honest and forthright in confronting the intellectual arguments with the humanly desires for aesthetic gratification.  The article includes a sympathetic but critical examination of the animal liberation and rights movement, a disturbing look at the impact of factory farming on humans, animals, and the environment, and a foray into the kind of alternative farming practices pioneered by farmers like Joel Salatin (see below).  This article later became incorporated into his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (see “Further Reading” below).

To see some video of Joel Salatin on his farm explaining how and why he rejects industrialized farming in favor of one that allows the animals to express their natural tendencies, see here and here.

Both Pollan's and Salatin's approaches anticipate the "Aristotelian" kinds of ideas we will consider in week 4.

Information on the benefits of food that has not been produced by factory farming and how to find it can be found at these sites:

Finally, for an alternative perspective on the other major issue Singer and Regan discuss - using animals for research - see Carl Cohen's defense of that practice here.

Further Reading

Even more readings and resources for those interested in pursuing these questions from multiple perspectives.

Baxter, W. (1975). People or penguins. Journal of Economic Literature, 13(3), 943-947.

  • William Baxter adopts the view that all of our obligations to protect the environment are for the sake of humans only. Animals have value only if they are valued by humans.

Cavalieri, P. (2005). Are human rights human? Logosjournal, 4(2). Retrieved from http://www.logosjournal.com/issue_4.2/cavalieri.htm

  • Paola Cavalieri makes a case that philosophical attempts to give rights to all and only humans fail. The reason is that all of the arguments that humans have certain rights also apply to some animals as well. Therefore, logically, they should have those rights as well.

DeGrazia, D. (2002). Animal rights: A very short introduction. New York, NY: Oxford.

  • In this short book David DeGrazia outlines the basic arguments behind the animal rights movement and how they apply to various questions about how we should treat animals.

Kurlansky, M. (2014, March 17). Inside the milk machine: how the modern dairy works. Modern Farmer.  Retrieved from http://modernfarmer.com/2014/03/real-talk-milk/

  • An in-depth and first-hand look into the modern dairy farm. 

Pollan, M. (2006). The omnivore's dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York: Penguin Press. 

  • Michael Pollan explores the moral ramifications of the way we eat through an account of three sources of our food: industrial farming, sustainable agriculture, and hunting/foraging. 

Regan, T. (2003). Animal rights, human wrongs: An introduction to moral philosophy. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefied.

  • This book takes a look at philosophical positions for and against animal rights. Tom Regan gives his own arguments for animal rights and responds to objections to his position.

Safran Foer, J. (2009). Eating animals. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

  • Jonathan Safran Foer is an author of several popular books, such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In this book he discusses the ethics of eating animals by drawing upon his own experiences growing up in a food-loving family, his ventures into the factory farming industry and into the lives of the sentient creatures we eat and keep as pets, and a critical examination of contemporary eating habits from multiple angles

Singer, P. (1975). Animal liberation. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

  • This classic work that helped spawn the animal rights movement gives Singer’s arguments for the ethical treatment of animals and chronicles the many ways in which those ethics are violated within agriculture, medical research, and elsewhere. He argues for drastic changes in the way society treats sentient non-human beings.

Wallace, D. F. (2006). Consider the lobster. In Consider the lobster and other essays (pp. 235-254). New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company. Retrieved from

  • Widely admired author David Foster Wallace writes an article for Gourmet magazine chronicling his visit to the Maine Lobster Festival. What he finds is rather disturbing. He investigates the question of whether lobsters feel pain when boiled alive and seems to wonder why so many people seem not to care about the answer.

Further Multimedia

Kenner, R (Director). (2008). Food, inc. [Motion picture]. United States: Participant Media.

  • An interesting documentary about how large corporations and the government have controlled and manipulated food production in the United States in ways that are detrimental to animals, the environment, labor, and people’s health.

Nation Earth. (2012). Earthlings [Video file]. Retrieved from http://earthlings.com/?page_id=32

  • A highly disturbing film with footage of the human treatment of animals for food, entertainment, research, companionship, and clothing. Warning: this is an extremely troubling film; however, what is being shown is real footage of things that are going billions of times every day.

Rainer Ebert (2008, March 15). Carl Cohen: Why animals do not have rights [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbk7xY9t-UQ

  • A six-part series in which Carl Cohen outlines his reasoning that animals do not have rights because they cannot make and keep contracts.

Rainer Ebert. (2008, March 16). Tom Regan: Animal rights – an introduction [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTNNJspZXA4

  • A five part series in which Tom Regan gives a public lecture about why animals should have rights and how those rights are routinely violated by humans.

TEDxPeachtree. (2012, April). Frans de waal: Moral behavior in animals [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals.html

  • An interesting public lecture about many ways in which non-human animals demonstrate moral behavior.

WilliamsCollege. (2009, December 14). Peter Singer: The ethics of what we eat [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHzwqf_JkrA

  • A public lecture in which Peter Singer explains his reasoning about the ethics of eating. Singer has been innovative among philosophers for arguing that theoretical philosophy should have practical consequences in terms of modifying how we actually live.


There are two discussions this week. The requirements for each of the discussions this week are a minimum of four posts on four separate days. For each discussion, the total word count on all of your posts combined should be over 600 words. Be sure to answer all the questions in the prompt and to read any resources that are required to complete the discussion properly. In order to satisfy the posting requirements for the week, the latest day you can post would be Friday (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday). However, we recommend that you get into the discussion early and spread out your posts over the course of the week.

Additional Information:

  • When posting an independent post (i.e., not replying to your peer), please use the following heading (w/out the quotes): "Your Name 1" (for your first such post), and "Your Name 2", "Your Name 3"... for any subsequent independent posts. That will help me keep track of different threads.
  • Be sure you understand the general discussion requirements stated above, and which are explained in more detail in the Faculty Expectations (which includes video guidance and a "Frequently Asked Questions" section). If you have read that and are unclear about the requirements, be sure to read the Frequently Asked Questions section, and if you have questions not answered there, please contact me.
  • Before composing your post, be sure to read and watch the relevant text(s) and media, and be sure to also read the instructor guidance and watch any associated lectures on this topic.

Key Discussion Requirements to Remember:

  • Post at least once on four separate days during the discussion week.
  • Total word count for all posts combined should be at least 600 words.
  • Demonstrate a thoughtful engagement with the relevant resources and the instructor guidance.
  • All posts should be on-topic and contribute to the discussion topic in a meaningful and substantive way.
  • All posts should be carefully proofread for spelling, grammatical, and mechanical errors, and should cite all sources in APA format.

Discussion 1: The Trolley Problem

Consider the following scenario, adapted from one described by the philosopher Philippa Foot (2002), and also discussed in your textbook (section 6.1). 

Imagine that you are a standing next to a railroad track, and careening down the track is a runaway train.  In the path of the train are 5 workers (let’s suppose they cannot escape the path of the trolley; perhaps they are on a bridge high above a ravine).  You know that if the train continues on its path, it will certainly kill those 5 workers. 

However, you see that there is a sidetrack, and on the sidetrack is a single worker.  Let’s also suppose that you know that if the train goes onto the sidetrack, that single worker would be killed. 

Lo and behold, you discover that you are standing next to a lever that can send the train onto the sidetrack.  Therefore you are faced with a decision: pull the lever and send the train off on the sidetrack, killing the one worker but sparing the five, or do nothing and allow the train to continue on its course, killing the five workers. 

Here’s an interactive illustration of this, taken from your textbook:

The Trolley Problem
  1. What would a utilitarian say is the right action here?  Give the reasoning by referring to John Stuart Mill’s arguments found in this week’s reading. 
  2. Do you agree with that? 

Now consider this slight variation:

Instead of standing next to a lever that can switch the train to another track, you are standing on a bridge overlooking the track, and next to you is a very fat man.  Suppose you can give that man a little push, and over he goes.  Let’s suppose (however unrealistic) that he’s large enough to stop the train, thus sparing the 5 workers; but his own life will be lost in the process.  (Let’s also suppose that you aren’t large enough for that, so it would do no good to throw yourself over.) 

Should you throw the fat man over the bridge? 

Again, consider:

  1. What would a utilitarian say is the right action here?  Give the reasoning by referring to John Stuart Mill’s arguments found in this week’s reading. 
  2. Do you agree with that? 

Did you provide a different answer to the second scenario than you did to the first for either of the questions?  If so, explain what accounts for that difference.  If not, why do you thing most people would want to give different answers to the two? (These are questions you might address in discussion with your peers.)  

Discussion 2: Obligations Toward Animals

Please carefully read and think about the entire prompt before composing your first post. This discussion will require you to have carefully read and thought about the excerpt from Mill’s Utilitarianism, as well as the instructor guidance and related material.

Tom Regan (1985) and Peter Singer (1989) agree that we have moral responsibilities toward animals, but disagree about the best approach to animal ethics.

What basic conclusions do they agree about (be specific)?

How would you explain the basic difference in their approach? Specifically, explain how Singer's argument represents a utilitarian view, referring to John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism for the basic framework of a utilitarian theory of morality. In what way is Regan's view a non-utilitarian one? Name at least one argument he makes that is non-utilitarian, and compare it with an argument from Singer that is utilitarian.  

The aim in this discussion is to unpack the utilitarian approach to ethics, not simply our responsibilities toward animals.  

Finally, share your responses to either or both of the arguments and any of the other material on animal ethics from this week.  

When responding to your peers, consider what Singer and/or Regan would say in response to their remarks, think about whether what a peer calls a non-utilitarian consideration might be, after all, a utilitarian one, or vice versa, or think of strengths and weaknesses in their argument that they might not have considered.


Regan, T. (1985). The case for animal rights. In P. Singer (Ed.), In defense of animals (pp. 13-26). New York: Basil Blackwell.

Singer, P. (1989). All animals are equal. In T. Regan & P. Singer (Eds.), Animal rights and human obligations (pp. 148-162). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Additional References

Bentham quotation above given in Mill, J. S. (1974). "Bentham." In John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism, On Liberty, and Essay on Bentham. Ed. M. Warnock. (New American Library).

Foot, P. (2002). The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect. In Virtues and Vices (pp. 19-32). Oxford: Oxford University Press.