by Brian Tomasik
First written: 26 Mar. 2016; last update: 27 Mar. 2016


There are many cases where animal advocates apply human moral norms to the situations of non-human animals. It's sometimes assumed that failing to do this amounts to speciesism -- treating a moral patient differently based solely on its species membership. However, mainstream moral norms in the human realm are heavily deontological, and when utilitarians disagree with these norms, utilitarians may be mistaken for speciesists. There are actually good consequentialist reasons for acting like deontologists, but many of these reasons only apply in the case of human society.

Motivating examples

Humane slaughter

I think that animal-welfare reforms, especially humane slaughter, are the clearest ways we can alleviate the suffering of farm animals, because welfare reforms make animal lives less bad without directly changing the numbers of animals farmed. In contrast, promoting veg*ism might actually hurt wild animals on balance, both in the short and long runs.

It's sometimes objected that welfare reforms are speciesist, since in the case of human slavery, we wouldn't be content to merely make slaves' lives better. Of course, this argument ignores the realities of our limited resources. If slavery still existed (as it actually does, in greater numbers than ever in human history), it would seem reasonable to me to use finite lobbying resources to greatly reduce the suffering of 100 slaves rather than to fully liberate 20 slaves.

But at least in thought experiments, the difference of sentiment becomes more pronounced: I don't think it would, in principle, be very bad for an animal himself to be raised with a hypothetically idyllic life and a hypothetically completely painless and unanticipated death. (Unfortunately, making such statements can sometimes open doors for meat defenders to pretend that my view has relevance to more than 0.0001% of present-day farmed animals.) However, others claim that this position is speciesist, because we wouldn't say the same about a happy human slave.

Habitat destruction

Most animals in nature have hardscrabble, short lives followed by painful deaths. Many people from diverse ethical viewpoints agree that the welfare of wild animals, in aggregate, is probably negative. As a result, it would seem that habitat loss generally reduces wild-animal suffering over the long run.

Unfortunately, habitat destruction means painfully killing many animals who currently occupy the targeted habitat. For instance, if a bulldozer is used to clear a forest, it may crush small animals, and larger animals that can escape will probably starve, be eaten, or otherwise perish without their old home. This short-term suffering is tragic, but the long-term reduction in natural animal suffering that would have existed on that habitat is far greater.

At this point, some animal advocates demur. They note that we wouldn't solve the problem of a net balance of human suffering by destroying human habitat. Of course, the advocate for habitat destruction can reply with several practical points:

  • In the case of humans, except in situations of dealing with hostile foreign states like North Korea, we have fine-grained control over where humans go and how they behave. We don't have the same degree of control in the case of the most numerous small animals in nature.
  • Most humans plausibly have pretty good lives, and those who don't can probably be taken care of in ways that would make their lives better. With wild animals, especially the smallest ones like insects, such tender, loving care is nearly impossible on a large scale.
  • In an ideal world, we would use contraception or other less destructive measures to reduce wild-animal populations. But in the real world, such intervention would be expensive and would be difficult to apply on a wide scale. Given that only a tiny number of people cares about wild-animal suffering, the amount of contraception-based intervention that we could fund would be regrettably diminutive, especially for insects and fish. (And contraception of large herbivores would plausibly actually increase total wildlife suffering because big herbivores may eat food that could otherwise support larger insect populations.) In contrast, habitat loss in the service of human expansion and resource acquisition often has negative economic cost and thus can be done much more extensively.

However, some animal advocates could reply that even if all the extenuating circumstances outlined above applied to suffering humans too, we still wouldn't bulldoze human habitat in order to prevent much greater human suffering in the future. So, they claim, my position is speciesist.

When utilitarians act like deontologists

To set foundations, let's examine the link between utilitarianism and deontology. Naively, the two views are seen as rivals without much common ground. But many philosophers have pointed out convergence between the views. For example, rule utilitarianism might endorse heuristics like "never murder another person" as guard rails against

  • miscalculation by naive act-utilitarians (in a similar way as a robot may use hard-coded heuristics to avoid making bad judgements in the face of noisy data or when its more complex algorithms fail), or
  • people or nations making Machiavellian excuses in order to acquire greater power for selfish reasons.

In general, the literature on "global consequentialism" suggests that we can evaluate the utility not just of specific actions but also of motives, norms, virtues, and so on.

Naive act-utilitarianism is challenged by problems in decision theory like Parfit's hitchhiker, where the ability to make deontological-type commitments can actually result in a better utilitarian outcome. Kant's categorical imperative can be seen as akin to "timeless decision theory", and deontology in general shares resemblance with "updateless decision theory".

Game-theoretic behavior often requires one to treat others "nicely", even if doing so seems suboptimal. Strategic interaction with other powerful agents may force one to give more weight to the interests of those agents rather than merely having "each to count for one" as a utilitarian would prefer. This is why social Schelling points typically must be respected, even if a fully utilitarian society would not have those same Schelling points.

Even a naive act-utilitarian recognizes many indirect reasons for deontological-type behavior. For example, murdering one person painlessly would strike fear into the hearts of all other humans who heard the news. The increased anxiety and distrust might exacerbate conflict and contribute to a breakdown of social order. People would be less able to trade with one another or enter into intimate relationships. And so on. Similarly, lying and stealing tend to be punished, tarnish one's reputation, and contribute to a worse social environment for everyone.

"Utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for people"

When we examine the above list of points, we see that most of the utilitarian arguments for deontological / virtue-ethical behavior only apply regarding our interactions with other humans.a For example:

  1. Game-theoretic considerations only apply to other agents smart enough to interact in a game-theoretic way with us, which seems to exclude most non-human animals.
  2. Decision-theoretic motivations for promises and honesty likewise only apply to agents who can understand the relevance of such commitments.
  3. Striking fear into the hearts of a populace only applies to animals that read the news or spread gossip (except for other animals that may be present to directly witness or hear, e.g., a slaughter taking place).
  4. Breaking down bonds of social cohesion only applies to animals who enter into long-term trusting relationships with humans. (So, e.g., it might be bad on balance to violate the trust of your pet dog even for good reasons but not bad on balance to break the trust of a wild animal for good reasons.)

The only arguments from the previous section that seem to apply clearly in the case of animals are

  1. overriding severe miscalculation of costs vs. benefits regarding actions that harm some individuals
  2. preventing self-serving behavior that's justified under the pretext of advancing the greater good.

While these two considerations are important, the main force of the utilitarian arguments for deontology is lost in the case of non-human animals.

This observation might suggest the principle discussed by Robert Nozick of "utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for people." Nozick calls the position "too minimal" and later expresses his own view on the idea: "But isn't utilitarianism at least adequate for animals? I think not." However, the slogan is a useful peg on which to hang the ideas we've been discussing. Moreover, the proposal makes a surprising degree of sense, rather than being "a very confused, morally inconsistent position" or a "normative stratification [that] is in no way defended".

Chloë Taylor acknowledges that

it could be that certain human capacities, such as being able to imagine the children that we might have had, makes certain acts, like involuntary sterilisation, cruel to humans in a way that they are not for members of some other species (although how we could ever know if cats and dogs regret their infertility is unclear to me).b

Nozick's principle helps answer the objections against animal welfarism and habitat destruction discussed at the beginning of this piece:

  • Human slavery is worse than animal slavery because humans understand being enslaved to a high degree, resent enslavement, and feel degraded. Perhaps ethology will uncover similar feelings in those few farm animals who live in idyllic conditions, but I find that unlikely. Well treated pets seem quite content to have domesticated lives free from predators, hunger, cold, etc.
  • Killing humans as the only way to prevent long-run suffering is worse than killing animals as the only way to prevent long-run suffering because killing humans contributes to fear, distrust, social breakdown, and so on. In contrast, wild animals displaced by a bulldozer don't spread the worrying news to animals elsewhere.

So it's not speciesist to distinguish between humans and animals in these and similar cases. The different treatment results from the different cognitive abilities and social structures of humans vs. animals.

This is similar to the observation that it's not speciesist to give a single human more moral weight than a single fish because a human has a more complex brain with more going on in it than in a fish's brain. If our moral valuation applies at the level of brain processes, then it's obvious that different animals will have different moral weight.

Society is mostly deontological

The reason utilitarianism is so easily mistaken for speciesism is that most moral norms in society are deontological in character. This is obviously true of formal laws, which are rules rather than cost-benefit calculations, but it's also typically true of informal mores. Hence, when we apply human principles to animals, we're usually applying deontological principles to animals.c

Unfortunately, this means that even if we're personally utilitarians, the policies we promote might -- without proper context -- reinforce speciesism, because most people are thinking deontologically.

This post makes the same point regarding a hypothetical policy of hunting predators to save prey from predation:

Many people who see this message don’t interpret that hunting certain animals would be a means to reduce suffering, instead they are more likely to interpret that it’s OK to kill and to exploit any animals for human interests. Support hunting some animals for the sake of increasing utility is something hardly distinguishable from killing them for human consumption or other anthropocentric or environmentalist interests (such as killing animals from invasive species).

On the other hand, if "speciesist" policies like animal welfarism and habitat destruction are actually better for animals, then it's not obvious that making people purely antispeciesist is the goal. That said, practical situations may change, and it may be important for future generations to be genuinely antispeciesist to correctly confront novel circumstances.

I should add that in practice, many animal welfarists are in fact speciesist to some degree, because the degree of moral weight they give to non-humans is too little. For example, while a utilitarian society might not completely eliminate laboratory-animal testing, it would probably do away with most of it, and what testing remained would be subject to far higher welfare standards than exist today.

Help now, worry about ideology later

The worry that certain utilitarian policies may reinforce speciesism is an important consideration. But emotionally, my feeling is like this: There are huge numbers of wild animals suffering right now. We can either take actions to significantly reduce that suffering in the short run, such as via habitat destruction, or we can refrain from action now out of worries about how our proposals might affect the long-term future of antispeciesism. My conscience is just not okay with waiting and letting millions of animals suffer whom I could have helped. We can figure out the long-term memetic issues later, but I refuse to sit by while the atrocities in nature continue. I feel like this is actually more in line with common-sense and deontological impulses. For instance, people shouldn't refrain from intervening in genocide just because some people will get killed in the process or because doing so will upset other powerful nations.

In any case, what kinds of values are we trying to promote within society? Are we trying to promote the idea of holding back on doing the right thing because of how others may misinterpret it? Are we trying to promote the idea of knowingly helping fewer animals because society at large doesn't like cost-benefit calculations? Or are we trying to promote a movement of people who care so much about animals that they insist on rationally calculating how to actually prevent the most suffering?

Of course, you can call me the irrational one for not giving enough weight to long-term ideological impacts in my calculations. But I think the ideology question isn't settled, because there's also value in challenging prevailing assumptions in the animal movement and promoting a culture of compassionate consequentialism, which could reduce the likelihood that the animal movement neglects huge sources of suffering in the future in the way it currently neglects (and refuses to prevent via the most effective means we have) wild-animal suffering.

I favor a policy of doing the right thing and trying to explain to others why it's the right thing, rather than always meekly deferring to established ideologies and never being able to change the system. While I'm sure Martin Luther King, Jr. would have disagreed with my views on wild-animal suffering, I sympathize with the frustration he expressed in this passage of his "Letter from Birmingham Jail":

the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season."

Defenses of Nozick's dictum that I don't endorse

Self-awareness and individuality

Zebra BotswanaThis essay proposes that non-human animals (at least those without a strong sense of self-awareness) can be regarded in a more utilitarian way because they aren't very distinct as individuals:

John Rawls famously objected to utilitarianism on the grounds that it “does not take the distinction between persons seriously.” This failure to recognize the separateness of individuals explains why utilitarianism allows for actions in which an individual is sacrificed for the sake of utility. [...]

for [many animals] utilitarianism (or some theory like it) is not unreasonable.14 In other words, a creature that possesses sentience but lacks a strong sense of self is the sort of creature that could reasonably be sacrificed for the sake of the greater good.

To my ears, this is a rather silly view, but that's because, as a utilitarian, I don't see "distinction between persons" as being very relevant to begin with, except for instrumental reasons. As discussed previously, instrumental considerations that come into play for more self-aware creatures are quite relevant, including the ability to become fearful when hearing about how others have been mistreated and the ability to feel objectified when used merely as a means to an end.

Policing nature as a reductio

This blog post asks:

If someone follows Nozick's arguments and examples to the conclusion that Kantianism should apply equally to human beings and animals, would one then need to accept that Nozick's ultraminimalist state should protect animals from animals? If a pack of wolves kills a cow, aren't they using that cow as a means? And, on the putative view that "utilitarianism for animals" is wrong, wouldn't that mean that the wolves are violating the cow's rights?

Another blogger replied:

the real breakdown in this line of argument is that it exposes us to some responsibility to protect those who can't help themselves; in this system that means the animals who are killed by other animals. Unless we're willing to take on this responsibility, the whole idea of Kantianism (ie full constraining rights) for animals falls apart. This is why it seems to me there has to be some separation between human and natural ethics; animals (not the domesticated ones) exist within a natural order that is far from human notions of ethics, and trying to endow them with our own rights can't take that into account. This doesn't mean that we can't find ways to treat them ethically, just that the ethics will have to be more complex and nuanced than simply bestowing inalienable human rights.

Needless to say, I embrace the conclusion that we should (in some cases) prevent predation, and if Kantianism can, like utilitarianism, arrive at such a conclusion, so much the better for Kantianism.

Appendix: Negative utilitarianism looks more like deontology

As discussed above, one reason to consider deontological constraints on policies regarding animal suffering is because people, without enough context, may misinterpret utilitarian policies as being speciesist, thereby reinforcing speciesism. Another argument in favor of deontology is that it's sometimes an ally with my negative-utilitarian position against the potential Machiavellianism of non-negative, pleasure-focused utilitarianism.

For example, this page suggests that

a utilitarian would argue that we should torture a nonhuman animal, such as circus animals, if doing so would maximize happiness in the world. An animal rights position would vehemently disagree with this conclusion, since this theory maintains that nonhuman animals have the right to respectful treatment, which entails that they should never be used as a tool for social utility, regardless of how good the benefits might be.

A negative utilitarian would side with the deontologist in this case, since pleasure cannot morally outweigh extreme suffering.

Similarly, Nozick says:

if people are utility devourers with respect to animals, always getting greatly counterbalancing utility from each sacrifice of an animald, we may feel that "utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for people," in requiring (or allowing) that almost always animals be sacrificed, makes animals too subordinate to persons.

But negative utilitarianism opposes causing harm to animals merely for the pleasure of (enough) people.

However, I'm definitely not a deontologist. I think causing extreme suffering to some can, in certain cases, be justified, for the sake of only one thing: Preventing even more extreme suffering on the part of others. So I would worry about a strategy like "negative utilitarians should just support deontology". In the short run, such a policy would result in vastly more wild-animal suffering by disallowing habitat destruction. And in the long run, deontology might lead to immense suffering in other ways, such as (potentially) forbidding people to kill off a sovereign civilization of baby-eating extraterrestrials who are far more cruel than humans.e


Pablo Stafforini introduced me to Nozick's slogan. Adriano Mannino helped inspire the section on the parallels between deontology and negative utilitarianism. The topic of this piece was inspired by countless Facebook conversations where the issue often comes up.


  1. It's interesting that deontology is appropriate in more complex, social situations, while utilitarianism is appropriate in more God-like, engineering-type situations, given Joshua Greene's hypothesis that deontological intuitions are more automatic, while utilitarian judgments require more rational thought.  (back)
  2. She continues: "While I want to acknowledge that such an argument might be made for some acts concerning some live human and nonhuman animals, I would reject any categorical ethical division [...] such as is declared by Robert Nozick [...]."  (back)
  3. That said, in the long term, utilitarianism can influence deontological intuitions. Joshua Greene points out:

    Drunk-driving and the shirking of military duty are real-world problems that produce serious harms, and therefore it’s no surprise that we have strong prohibitions against them in spite of their being born of dispositions that are really not so bad. [...] The crucial point illustrated by both cases, however, is that big utilitarian considerations tend to work their way into our moral norms provided that they concern real-world phenomena from which we can learn, either through explicit learning or through cultural and/or biological adaptation, although this is certainly not always the case.


  4. Brian Tomasik adds: Obviously, this is completely unrealistic in practice.  (back)
  5. Maybe avoiding war with aliens is actually good from a utilitarian perspective, but if so, a peaceful policy should be enacted for reasons of game/decision theory, rather than being fixed prematurely by deontology.  (back)