The Utilitarian Suffering

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

This is a simplistic understanding of utilitarianism – the ethical stance which we more formally say ‘maximises utility’. That is, we do what is best for the largest number of people (or animals). The greatest benefit with the smallest cost.

Utilitarians will tolerate the suffering of mice in a cancer research trial, for example, because the benefit of being a step closer to curing cancer is greater than the suffering of the mice, especially if we actively try to guarantee those animal a good quality of life through environmental enrichment, etc.

Of course life is never quite that straightforward. We call this kind of thinking ‘cost-benefit’ analysis. The benefit is worth the cost. But who puts value on the cost, and who puts value on the benefit? Economics is a notoriously elastic thing – driven by motivation, need and demand. The utilitarian shopper may buy free range organic eggs at the start of the month, and barn eggs at the end of the month (and I should probably do a post on that conundrum later because the shopper, and most people, tend not to have the right welfare assumptions in these situations).

Most western societies are utilitarian, in countries where we consider animal welfare and have animal welfare laws, we allow animal use because it benefits most of us. But one of our MSc students asked a very interesting question recently that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.

Does the utilitarian accept that there will always be suffering?


This is a philsophical, thinky kind of question. The kind that I, as a scientist, am not good at but that I, as an animal welfare scientist, need to consider.

If you are a utilitarian, like myself, and you accept that animals are used (i.e. will be farmed, etc.) for human good. You  might accept different levels of this. For example, you might accept the use of animals for cancer research, but not the use of animals for beefburgers. Or you might accept the use of cows for beefburgers but think it’s wrong to make kebabs from dogs. We all have differing ideas on what it acceptable and why.

I don’t think this is a question that can be answered by debating ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Instead I think you need to turn to the assumptions in that statement.


Always Is a Very Long Time

What is ‘always’ in this statement? I expect I’ll be eating lab grown meat in my old age, and with the reduction of food animals and the increase in replacement and reduction of laboratory animals, there will be less suffering of animals in the system we currently live in. But I also foresee a future where the system we currently live in is no more, there will be other animals, unimaginable to us, and we ourselves will no longer exist in our present form. What is the ‘always’ we discuss?

If we consider it in terms of recognisable ecosystems, so a world where humans aim to maintain or improve this standard of living, but are recognisably human with recognisably human needs and failings. We need the biological machine to test biological pathways for drugs, to produce organic materials that we like – but does that biological machine have to be attached to a system that can perceive its environment, process that, and come out with emotions? Does the sentient part of the biological machine have to be there?

I am a sci-fi nerd, as we know, and I can see a possible future where we are able to create biological machines that have no sentience, and therefore animal welfare is completely circumvented. They have no suffering because they are not sentient. Some people, people who have a strong respect for nature, will find that abhorrent.

But the ‘always’ in this statement isn’t very helpful, is it?


The Suffering

So what is ‘suffering’? Some people say that it was advertisers who invented this belief that humans should always be happy. I often find myself thinking about this. As a scientist, I believe in the Normal Distribution. That is to say, the average is a good description of the population.

I believe the average height of a woman in the UK is a pretty good description of the height of women in the UK. Most women will be around 5″9. Now I’m 5″2. I am ‘noticeably’ short, according to my friends, so I already know that there are fewer people of my height than the average, but I also see people shorter than me. When I see someone very much shorter than me, say by a foot, I’m surprised, because they are at the very tail end of the normal distribution.

I think emotional state follows the same normal distribution. Most of us are ‘ok’. We have moments of extreme happiness and extreme sadness, but for the most part we’re floating around in the ‘ok’ feelings. In any normal system, the normal distribution appears.

What about suffering? What we’re really trying to do is make the tail end of ‘extreme suffering’ shorter, and to push the overall feeling closer to ‘good’. This is the whole idea of the Quality of Life concept of animal welfare – we want animals to have a life worth living, where the good things outweigh the bad things. The animal’s average emotional state is pushed closer to good, so there are fewer bad times.

The Scottish Government recently went a step further and said they wanted animals in Scotland to have a Good Life, not just a life worth living. They want to push that whole normal distribution further towards ‘good’ feelings.

But even if they are successful, that tail end will still exist. The capacity for suffering will still exist and where the capacity exists, it will occur – even if only in very small incidences.



The Utilitarian Suffering

So, yes. I think the Utilitarian accepts that there will always be suffering within a given system. What we’re trying to do is move the average up, and make the animals happier in general. HOW we do this is an entirely different question – and that’s where the ‘rights’ and the ‘wrongs’ come into play.

Ethics is a messy, messy subject. So I’m going to go have a cup of tea and discuss it with Athena.

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