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Rule-Consequentialism and the Significance of Species


According to rule-consequentialism, we ought to follow the principles that would result in the best consequences if they were generally accepted. These principles constitute the ideal code. My aim is to make clear what the ideal code says about what we owe to animals. I argue that it accords moral status to them: the rule-consequentialist should acknowledge both general duties and special obligations to animals. However, in the ideal code there is no place for animal rights, conceived as deontological constraints. Within the animal rights debate, I conclude, rule-consequentialism is superior to some of the most prominent ethical theories in its agreement with widely shared moral intuitions. But some of its practical implications regarding the proper treatment of animals remain unclear. This point is illustrated by a discussion of what Jeff McMahan called ‘benign carnivorism’.

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1 See McMahan, J., ‘Eating Animals the Nice Way’, Dedalus 137.1 (2008), pp. 66-76 , at 67.

2 Singer, P., ‘Ethics and Intuitions’, The Journal of Ethics 9 (2005), pp. 331-52, at 331.

3 Kagan, S., The Limits of Morality (Oxford, 1989), pp. 11-14 .

4 Since I am not sure that most contractualists satisfy this description, the label ‘typical contractualist’ is not meant to imply such a statistical claim. And I do not exclude the hypothesis that the best version of contractualism accords moral status to animals. For an interesting attempt to find a place for duties to animals in a contractualist framework, see Talbert, M., ‘Contractualism and Our Duties to Nonhuman Animals’, Environmental Ethics 28.2 (2006), pp. 201-15.

5 Carruthers, P., The Animals Issue (Cambridge, 1992), p. 107 .

6 See Carruthers, The Animals Issue, pp. 146-69.

7 Regan, T., Animal Rights, Human Wrongs: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy (Lanham, 2003), p. 98 .

8 See Hooker, B., Ideal Code, Real World (Oxford, 2000), pp. 78-80 .

9 Obviously, we may contrast three codes – or even a few more – in this way. An example is Hooker's discussion of our obligations towards the needy, where three alternative principles of beneficence are considered. See Hooker, B., ‘Review of The Demands of Consequentialism, by T. Mulgan’, Philosophy 78.2 (2003), pp. 289-96, at 294-5.

10 Regan denies this conclusion, but I find his whole discussion quite unhelpful because he seems to suppose that the rule-consequentialist (or, to be more precise, the rule-utilitarian) would have to rest his case for the moral status of animals on considerations about envy or declining marginal utility. Then he asserts, without any clear justification, that ‘the attempt to ground a rule against harming moral patients [i.e. animals and other individuals that are not moral agents] on the disutility that results from what they will feel or what they will do, as a result of being harmed, seems certain to be inefficacious’. See Regan, T., The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley, 1983), pp. 250-9, at 255. I hope to have said enough to undermine this claim.

11 Harsanyi, J. C., ‘Does Reason Tell Us What Moral Code to Follow, and, Indeed, to Follow any Moral Code at All?’, Ethics 96.1 (1985), pp. 42-55 , at 44.

12 Harsanyi, J. C., ‘Rule Utilitarianism and Decision Theory’, Erkenntnis 11 (1977), pp. 25-53 , at 36.

13 Harsanyi, ‘Rule Utilitarianism’, p. 33.

14 Why? In a nutshell, because any code with a requirement to promote the good but no prerogative would have absurdly high motivational costs of internalization. And also because too much good (e.g. deep personal relations) would be lost in a world of perfectly impartial benefactors. See Hooker, Ideal Code, pp. 95 and 136-41.

15 For a good survey of this point, see Mulgan, T., The Demands of Consequentialism (Oxford, 2001), pp. 152-6.

16 On the reasonable assumption that some human beings (e.g. embryos or patients in PVS) cannot have any interests at all, it is hardly believable that the ideal code confers rights to all humans. That is why I describe C2 as a code that is not committed to such universal extension of rights.

17 Carruthers, P., ‘Against the Moral Standing of Animals’, Questions of Life and Death: Readings in Practical Ethics, ed. Morris, C. W. (Oxford, 2012), pp. 274-84, at 276-7.

18 Carruthers, ‘Against’, p. 276.

19 But what does the ideal code say about those human beings that are neither moral agents nor deeply attached to any moral agent? Does it accord rights to them? This is a delicate issue for rule-consequentialists (and also for contractualists) that cannot be properly dealt with here. But it is worth noting that, according to rule-consequentialism, simpler principles are to be preferred to more complex ones, especially when the latter are quite hard to apply and thus open to abuse. Since in many cases it will be far from clear whether or not a human being is neither a moral agent nor deeply attached to any moral agent, a principle extending rights to all human beings (with only a few clear and careful exceptions) is likely to have better consequences than a principle that restricts rights to those human beings who satisfy some conditions imbued with a considerable vagueness. Such restriction would carry a serious risk of a slippery slope. On this point, see Carruthers, The Animals Issue, pp. 114-17. In the face of uncertainty, some rule-consequentialists would take closeness to conventional morality as a reason for preferring the more inclusive principle.

20 See Carruthers, ‘Against’, p. 278.

21 See Herzog, H. A., ‘Biology, Culture, and the Origins of Pet-Keeping’, Animal Behavior and Cognition 1 (2014), pp. 296-308 .

22 See Singer, P., ‘All Animals are Equal’, Philosophical Exchange 1.5 (1974), pp. 103-16, at 104-8.

23 See Hooker, Ideal Code, pp. 136-41.

24 See McMahan, ‘Eating Animals’.

25 McMahan, ‘Eating Animals’, p. 68.

26 McMahan, ‘Eating Animals’, pp. 71-2.

27 Research for this article was supported by FEDER funds and National funds through FCT (Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia) under the project FCOMP-01-0124-FEDER-029527 (PTDC/MHC-ETI/4890/2012). For helpful written comments, I thank two anonymous referees for Utilitas. I am also grateful to Nuno Marques for his kind assistance in editing the manuscript. I dedicate this article to the memory of Professor Cristina Beckert, who contributed more than anyone else to make animal ethics a lively philosophical subject in Portugal.

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