Animal lives matter: death, sentience, and utilitarianism
The killing of nonhuman animals is a controversial topic in utilitarian ethics. As an ethical theory mainly concerned with well-being, utilitarianism usually grants moral status to sentient animals, and thus, animal suffering is considered a moral problem. However, the painless killing of animals is frequently considered morally neutral. This position is therefore not based on the denial of the moral status of animals, but on beliefs about the value of animal life and death. My objective is to challenge these beliefs and argue that the killing of animals is, in fact, a serious moral issue. I contend that the loss of a positive balance of well-being is a sufficient condition for the badness of death, and as such, death can be a misfortune for sentient animals. I argue that this gives us a pro tanto reason to oppose the killing of animals. Moreover, I maintain that the loss suffered by the animal is a significant one, which implies that, although utilitarians accept interpersonal trades of utility, weighty reasons are needed to outweigh the frustration of this interest. I then address the two main problems for a utilitarian account of the wrongness of killing merely sentient beings, namely, the replaceability argument and the logic of the larder argument. I maintain that we have reasons to reject both of these arguments. Finally, I apply my position to the more relevant instances of killing animals in the real world, in particular the killing of farm animals, of wild animals, and of companion animals. While the killing of farm and wild animals are the most relevant ones in terms of numbers, my analysis of the killing of animal companions sheds light on complex questions about animal euthanasia and the value of animal life. I conclude that most of our killing of animals cannot be morally justified under a utilitarian approach, even in cases where the animals have lived lives worth living and die painlessly.