February 22, 2024

Felicific calculus

Hi there,

Some time ago I reviewed a book by David
Benatar, a South African utilitarian, whose view of life was so bleak that the
headline was “the ultimate miserabilist”. The theme of Better
Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence
, is that we all would
be better off had we never existed. As the old Jewish joke goes, “Life is
so terrible, it would have been better never to have been born. Who is so
lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand!”

It turns out that the same utilitarian
argument can be applied to animals. Jeff McMahan recently argued in the New
York Times (see below) that carnivores cause such dire suffering in the animal
world that we (homo sapiens) should organise their extinction as soon as

I highlight this only to suggest that the “felicific
calculus” of utilitarianism can produce peculiar answers. The ultimate
utilitarian, Peter Singer, has become the guiding light of the animal rights
movement because he wants to decrease suffering in chicken farms and
laboratories. However, the same principle also leads to McMahan’s extinction

It seems to me that utilitarian thinking,
however compassionate it may sound, has a dark side. Taken to its logical
extreme, the best way to eliminate the suffering of living beings is to
eliminate the living beings. Does this say something about utilitarian
arguments for euthanasia? Should we look elsewhere for an answer to the
perennial problem of pain?

Michael Cook