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Utilitarianism as a Starting Point to Environmentalism


The modern conception of utilitarianism is the starting point for the theory of the expanding circle that would later be developed by Peter Singer (July, 6th, 1946 -): the latter takes steps to justify how morality has changed throughout human history and how we managed to extend rights and privileges to categories that didn’t have them in the first place. The expanding circle aims at expanding (hence the name) the boundaries of moral consideration up to and including non-human animals and (stretching the definition just a bit) the environment they live in. However such objectives do not entail that everything under the sun should benefit from the same treatment: humans and trees are different, no two ways about it, and we should avoid (of course) treating the former as we do the latter (especially insofar as trees are sawed, and humans may not be too keen of sharing such fate).

One question we may have could  be: “how exactly does the idea of maximizing utility for all (which is the core tenet of utilitarianism) interact with and lead to the inclusion of non-human animals in the scope of subjects worthy of moral consideration and attention?" In An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation (penned in 1789), Jeremy Bentham (February, 15th, 1748 – June, 6th, 1832) asks which one of the many characteristics of living organisms may be the defining factor in recognizing non-human animals as a place in the field of moral consideration. The point, he states, should not be if the creature we are observing is capable of walking on four or two legs, if it has or doesn’t have a tail, or even if it is capable of rational thought or elaborate speech. The crucial matter, Bentham states, isif whatever life form we are looking at can experience pain.

As such, he opens up the modern philosophical theory known as utilitarianism. Thatwouldbe the starting point from which Peter Singer would later formulate the notion of the expanding circle. As a philosophical approach, utilitarianism emphasizes the concept of “utility” (hence the name) and makes it the foundation of values and criteria for moral action (or inaction, in some cases). Despite being already present in Greek philosophy, utilitarianism as a philosophical current would be redefined and worked on massively during the 18th Century. Jeremy Bentham in particular developed the theory of a “calculus” of the immediate and future impact and utility of particular actions, intending to maximize pleasure for the greatest number of parties involved while minimizing their pain in the meantime.


At least in a theoretical sense, inside the utilitarian framework the aims of any particular individual would not contrast general happiness but rather promote it themselves: assuming humans desire similar things from life (sustenance and shelter, for example) and wish to avoid similar things (such as famine and exposure to the elements) the idea of producing the maximum amount of satisfaction for the highest number of people (organizing foodstuffs and habitations, in our example) translates directly to an increase in general happiness and vice-versa: the increase of unhappiness in a sufficient number of individuals (such as being exposed and starving) would somewhat “dilute” happiness in general. As of now, we have utilitarianism take care of humankind, of its needs and wants. The question now becomes: “how do we translate to non-human animals, though?”


Charles Darwin (February, 12th, 1809 - April, 19th, 1882) contributed to the discussion about continuity or discontinuity between human and non-human animals with On the origin of species (penned in 1859): given what Darwin’s research and hypothesis entailed, there is proof that walking our evolutionary line backward we would end up to a common ancestor to human and non-human animals.This point in particular accomplishes two different things: it ends the scientific debate on the matter of whether humankind is something inherently different from the rest of the animal kingdom, as well as the discussionon whether humankind is worthy of special treatment. The answers Darwin’s work provides are two resounding “no”: humankind evolved much like anything else on the planet, there is no discontinuity between Homo Sapiens and other life forms simply because its appearance on the scene of history can be justified by using natural selection based on fitness (as opposed to external or metaphysical intervention, like what the theory and perspective of fixism proposed). Following this, humankind is not entitled to any particular or favorable treatment for the simple fact of being human.

The very same evolutionary race that produced Homo Sapiensis still going on today. As a quick example of how humankind is still subject to natural selection and is still changing going from one generation to the next, the so-called wisdom teeth are progressively becoming rarer: the third molar is a structure that was originally necessary for survival when Homo Sapiens used to feed very differently from how we do nowadays and did in the last few centuries (which is why the trait was selected because those teeth were necessary for individuals to be able to eat and grow and pass on their genes, while those that didn’t have them were less fortunate). As a consequence (albeit it may sound like somewhat of an oversimplification), where the outside world ceased to present the necessity for us to use such teeth in particular, their manifestation started becoming progressively rarer. They are not yet disappeared completely as a trait, though, and that is a way to glimpse at simply how slowly natural selection operates as a system.

It has to be said: that matter of wisdom teeth is rather unimportant to our discussion, but it represents a functional example; we have discussed how Darwin has shown and proven the continuity between non-human animals and Homo sapiens and how we are still subject to the metaphorical “pressure” that drives the species to evolve nowadays. From here we may come back to the perspective of an expanding circle and Bentham’s words: we have established that there are no substantial differences between humans and non-human animals, that is to say, humankind is not intrinsically different or superior to anyone by sheer virtue of being human, and those non-human animals can (to take the words out of Bentham’s book, somewhat literally in this case), experience pain. Putting all these points together aims at a very particular endpoint: there is no valid reason to avoid extending the boundaries of moral discourse to include them too. And still, it took humankind far more time than it was strictly necessary to begin considering specific groups of people as worthy of moral consideration: we can only hope that having extended such courtesy already to our peers, we may prove somewhat faster in expanding the circle further.

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