Applying a Utilitarian Ethic to Activism
from No Compromise Issue 22

by David Hayden

In Animal Liberation, Peter Singer argues that, from the perspective of a Utilitarian philosophy of ethics, the interests of all sentient beings should be taken into consideration equally. Adherents to this viewpoint thus take a stand against the oppression of animals, acknowledging that their interests are as important as human interests. But an oft-overlooked corollary to this is that if the interests of each individual being are every bit as significant as our own personal interests, then it’s only logical that we should sacrifice luxuries in our lives if it helps others. Sadly, the amount that even those who are activists are willing to sacrifice for the animals tends to be all too little.

But, how can this be? If we take Singer’s utilitarian philosophy seriously, then we must acknowledge that our own interest in going to see a new movie is nowhere near as great as the interest a rat has in avoiding an electric shock inflicted by an experimenter. And that’s just one rat we’re talking about, while millions upon millions of animal are killed in an average day. How can we possibly relax while these atrocities continue? Imagine if your most beloved animal companion were locked in a lab and slated to die tonight; would you really be able to continue sitting there, just reading this article?

Of course part of the difference is that the degree of separation we have from what’s being done to the animals allows us to be more strategic in deciding what to do. Similarly, since the struggle for animal liberation can’t be accomplished in just a few days, we also need to be careful not to let ourselves burn out or become overwhelmed by trying to do more than we’re capable of. Our commitment to helping animals needs to be a lifetime commitment, not just a passing.

Let’s be honest with ourselves and admit the sad truth: the vast majority of us could be contributing a whole lot more to the animals than we are, both time wise and financially. Essentially, if we truly believe in the Utilitarian ethic, we should be putting whatever time, energy, and money that we have beyond what we need for the essentials in our lives toward helping those who are worse off than we are (e.g. the animals). So let’s take a moment to think about what might be a base level of support we should all be able to offer the animals.

Assuming you work a 40-hour a week job; sleep eight hours a night; and spend three hours a day on preparing and eating your meals, an hour a day on household chores, five hours a week exercising, ten hours a week in transit, and fourteen hours a week recreationally, this would still leave a full fifteen hours a week to devote to activism. This isn’t much, and it seems plausible that the vast majority of us shouldn’t have much difficulty allotting at least that much time (and hopefully quite a bit more) to helping animals each week.

The amount of money you can afford to put into the movement varies, depending on the cost of living in your area. Let’s look at an example. Teresa is a single parent living in San Francisco with one child and has an income of $60,000/year. The government takes about $20,000 off the top in taxes, and the cost of the basic necessities of life in San Francisco for herself and her child comes to $32,047 (according to the Economic Policy Institute’s Basic Family Budget Calculator: This leaves Teresa just about $8,000 she can put back into the movement per year.

This is just an example though. The key thing is to find the way that you personally can do the most for the animals. For some, this may mean not working at all so that they have even more time to put into activism. For others it may mean putting all their time into making tons of money to help fund others’ activism.

Regardless of the choices you make in this regard, it’s all too easy to for a person’s time and money to slip through her or his fingers without even noticing it’s happening. That’s why developing a general schedule to help you manage your time and/or a budget to help you manage your money can be a great idea. It might seem a pain, but it’s the least we can do for the animals. And this sort of general guidance can make it easier to see if you are doing as much for the animals as you could.

Although it’s important to not make excuses for doing less for the animals than you can, it’s equally important to find a level of commitment that’s sustainable for you. Spending every possible moment on activism for an entire year and then burning out as a result doesn’t do the animals much good.

Finding that fine line between doing too little and over-extending yourself can be extremely difficult, but it’s an essential balancing act that lies at the heart of being a lifer – committed to doing all you can for the animals for the rest of one’s life. A second, equally critical component to applying a utilitarian ethic to activism is selecting those projects that you can most effectively contribute to, but that’s a topic for another article.

With millions of animals dying each day, and while countless more survive another torturous day of industrialized, institutionalized abuse, the animals need each of us to be doing everything we can for them. The question every person must ask him or herself is: How much of your own privilege and luxury are you willing to sacrifice to help end the abuse and killing? How far will you go?