I have written about utilitarianism before. Utilitarianism is a consequentialistic ethical view point that places the moral weight of an action on the utility of that action towards increasing a desirable thing/notion and/or reducing an undesirable thing/notion. However, something I have only mentioned once is a fundamental question that is at the core of utilitarianism. Utility is a term relative to some end. So for example, when we say that computers are useful, we mean that they are useful for us.
Whenever there is utility, there is an end.
Who is the beneficiary of the notion of utility in utilitarian ethics? This brings us back to the equality question and the answer utilitarianism gives. This was covered here. Unlike other ethical systems, classical utilitarianism is species-blind. It does not give humans a special status. The only relevant criteria is whether or not the being in question can feel pain. If you feel pain, you are a beneficiary regardless of your species. This means that, a priori, the end of minimising the pain of a human adult and the end of minimising the pain of a sheep adult are weighed equally. I covered this topic here. But I want to take this a step further. Who is the beneficiary of the notion of utility in utilitarian ethics? Living beings with central nervous systems. As a rule of thumb, CNS-equipped life forms are capable of experiencing pain. We will leave the CNS out of the equation in this post.
The beneficiaries of utility are a particular group of life forms.
This makes utilitarianism a bio-centric ethical system as opposed to most ethical systems that tend to adopt anthropocentric stances.
For now on, we will assume both a utilitarian stance and a bio-centric stance. What are the implications of holding those views? As Daniel Pearce pointed out in the Antispeciesist Revolution, the implications are huge, titanic. Implications the size of which have never been faced by the human species. Imagine the implications that having 3000 children could have for a mother. We are effectively talking about taking care of millions, perhaps even billions, of CNS-equipped life forms as we would if they were humans. From birth to death. Physical and psychological health, happiness, constant monitoring. Any of these alone is complex enough let alone all of them at once. But that is what we would have to do under our assumptions. We will leave aside the financial feasibility of carrying out and ensuring the above to throw around some questions.
Ensuring the “happiness” of CNS-equipped life forms would be have some major consequences. If we decide that to ensure their happiness, they should be protected from predators and we would be affecting the world ecosystems in major ways, not necessarily beneficial for humans or even life forms in general.
There is also the issue of carnivore life forms. The nascent technology of synthesized meat could tackle this. But would producing amounts of meat large enough to feed all the CNS-equipped carnivores be affordable? Another issue is reproduction. It is very likely that in the absence of predators and with enough food available, reproduction at a massive scale is going to happen. How would we control their population? Chemical castration? While technically useful, we run the risk of overuse it and chemically castrating a whole species. It is very likely that a change like isolating all mammals from their predators could transform the world ecosystems in such a way that it becomes detrimental to our survival.
Are these life forms to be protected?
Their protection might spell our end or a period of famine if the changes affect plant population levels. Not protecting them implies leaving them exposed to potential harm and thus pain. It soon becomes a matter of self-interest. Do I expose them to pain or do I expose us to pain? In this simplified world, if we were to decide to protect them, we might have to accept a drastic reduction of our species size as a result of the likely changes in the ecosystem that would follow our isolating of all mammals in species based natural spaces. If were to decide not to protect them, our current state, we would have to face the huge amount of pain we could be avoiding and the huge amount of pleasure we are not providing.
However, you see it, adopting a practical utilitarian bio-centric approach does not automatically calculate the rational path to take. Technology could help us choosing which path to take but, is such technology existent or will it develop in the near future? And even if it does, will it be helpful enough to let us see in clear ways the advantages and disadvantages of the different ways to take care of the biosphere utilitarianism-style?
In the absence of this technology, all we can see from our limited perspective is that both protecting and not protecting CNS-equipped life forms produce pain. The million dollar question is which path produces less pain. A quick idea that would likely be noticed on this landscape of never-ending pain is that reducing the population numbers of a species will reduce the pain in the long term. The combined pain experienced by 30 CNS-equipped life forms is lower than the combined pain of 3,000,000,000,000,000,000 CNS-equipped life forms, other things being equal. Assuming that, on average, all CNS-equipped life forms experience the same amount of pain when exposed to the same painful stimuli, it is easy to conclude that:
The less life forms alive, the lower the amount of pain we have to reduce.
We could choose to keep the CNS-equipped population numbers low and all our ethical conflicts would also be reduced. The reason for this is that ethics has always been confined to living beings, in some cases only life forms belonging to the human species, in others, only CNS-equipped life forms, and in some, all life forms. While some religion-based system of ethics could make a case for an ethical system of some inanimate object like a rock, it seems very unlikely to be accepted outside that particular religion. So, ethics is for those are alive.What are the implications of reducing a species numbers to reduce the amount of pain it experiences as a whole? The most immediate one is that if you do it for one species, you are bound to do the same with the rest. So we would be bound to keep our own population numbers under some number. What are the implications of this? Just like our decision reduced or deprived animals of their reproductive capability:
Our decision will limit our reproductive freedoms
Some legal mechanism like the Chinese one-child policy would be enacted but without discriminating on the sex of the baby. Laws are made to be broken. A very popular aphorism that could apply to the attitude of some parents towards this hypothetical policy. Ideally, all humans would be aware of the full chain of reasoning leading to the child policy and would all adopt a bio-centric and utilitarian stance. But it is not likely to be the case. It is very likely that for some parents, their own interests will have a higher priority than those of the rest of CNS-equipped life forms. For them, the chain of reasoning would be completely meaningless because they rejected the initial premise:
A priori, the interests of all CNS-equipped life forms are weighed equally.
They would argue that they only care about their fetus and could not give a “chocolate bun” about the rest of life forms. It would be really difficult to argue with someone with whom you have no shared premises. And one could predict that there would be plenty of these self-interested parents who would try to break the law and do anything and everything to give birth to as many humans as they want.
I did not write this with a solution in a mind but only to expose the entangled nature of the implications of adopting a practical utilitarian bio-centrism.