Utilitarianism and the Moral Status of Animals: A Psychological Perspective

Ethical Theory and Moral Practice:1-19 (forthcoming)
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Recent years have seen a growing interest among psychologists for debates in moral philosophy. Moral psychologists have investigated the causal origins of the opposition between utilitarian and deontological judgments and the psychological underpinnings of people’s beliefs about the moral status of animals. One issue that remains underexplored in this research area is the relationship between people’s disposition to engage in utilitarian thinking and their attitudes towards animals. This gap is unfortunate considering the tight philosophical connection between utilitarianism and the claim that animals have the same moral status as humans. Indeed, the principle of utility leads naturally enough to the view that animals count every bit as much as human beings. In this paper, we report two empirical studies dedicated to bridging this gap. In Study 1, we looked at the relationship between attitudes towards animals and utilitarian judgments in the context of sacrificial dilemmas. In Study 2, we bypassed the problems raised by the use of such dilemmas as a measure of utilitarianism by relying on other types of thought experiments. Overall, our results suggest no strong correlation between utilitarianism and attitudes towards animals. Rather, the existence of a correlation between utilitarianism and attitudes towards animals very much depends on how both are measured.

Author Profiles

François Jaquet
Université de Strasbourg
Florian Cova
University of Geneva


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