Navigation – Plan du site
Cahiers du Centre Bentham

From Jeremy Bentham to Peter Singer

Emilie Dardenne

Texte intégral


1In this paper I would like to compare two forms of utilitarianism: the late eighteenth-century doctrine systematized by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and the philosophy advocated by its most visible contemporary proponent, Peter Singer (1946- ). Here is how the latter introduces the former in the headword “Ethics” of the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

  • 1  P. Singer, “Ethics” in Encyclopædia Britannica, Chicago, 1985, pp. 627-648.

[…] Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) is properly considered the father of modern Utilitarianism. It was he who made the Utilitarian principle serve as the basis for a unified and comprehensive ethical system that applies, in theory at least, to every area of life. Never before had a complete, detailed system of ethics been so consistently constructed from a single fundamental ethical principle. […] One of the strengths of Bentham's position is its honest bluntness, which it owes to his refusal to be fazed by the contrary opinions either of conventional morality or of refined society. He never thought that the aim of Utilitarianism was to explain or justify ordinary moral views; it was, rather, to reform them.1

2Both thinkers share a common resilience in the face of sometimes extremely violent criticism, as well as a matter-of-factness and a desire to change the world. Both have a taste for observable, practical things. In 1994, when asked what there was about utilitarianism that made it so compelling a doctrine to him, Singer answered “its concreteness.”2 However; unlike Bentham, a jurist who wrote extensively on such topics as the prison system, administrative science, state political organisations, and constitutional, civil, and penal law, Singer is primarily an ethicist. He studied under the direction of Richard M. Hare at Oxford and examined such questions as the status of animals, the sanctity of human life, the moral obligations of the citizens of rich countries towards the inhabitants of poor countries, the ethics of globalisation, and the rhetoric of George W. Bush. Bentham and Singer are interested in different research fields, however, for both of them, ethics must not be based on custom or habit but be evaluated by looking at the consequences of an action (which is where the consequentialist principle originates).

  • 3  J. Dinwiddy, Bentham, Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 111.

3Does that make Singer a heir to Bentham’s, a legatee of his theories? In an endeavour to answer that question this paper will follow three approaches. The first part will focus on the various definitions of utilitarianism on which the two men’s thinking and ethical concerns are based. It will further evaluate whether they are being applied at the societal level (i.e macroethics) or at the individual level (i.e. microethics). The second part will explore the more precise touchstone of the status of animals, a less central concern for Bentham than for Singer. The third part will deal with the utilitarian challenge, in other words with positions that John Dinwiddy euphemistically defines as “less congenial”3 to the majority, namely such issues as infanticide, torture, animal experimentation, the status of the severely handicapped, or the sexual practices of people.

1. The Basic Tenets of Utilitarianism

1.1. Bentham’s Utility as opposed to Singer’s Equal Consideration of Interests

4Though the basic tenets of utilitarian thought still hold, the doctrine has considerably evolved over the two centuries that separate the two thinkers. Bentham’s utilitarianism can be seen as a more hedonistic one, its goal being to maximise the happiness of individuals:

  • 4  J. Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation [1780], New York: Dover, 2 (...)

By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.4

5Singer appears as a proponent of preference utilitarianism, which tends to maximise the satisfaction of individual preferences. This can be seen in the following introduction of the equal consideration of interests principle when compared to Bentham’s and Mill’s classical utilitarian precept:

  • 5  P. Singer, Practical Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993 (2nd edition), p. 14.

The way of thinking I have outlined is a form of utilitarianism. It differs from classical utilitarianism in that “best consequences” is understood as meaning what, on balance, furthers the interests of those affected, rather than merely what increases pleasure and reduces pain. (It has, however, been suggested that classical utilitarians like Bentham and John Stuart Mill used “pleasure” and “pain” in a broad sense that allowed them to include achieving what one desired as a “pleasure” and the reverse as a “pain”).5

  • 6  This form of utilitarianism has also been criticised on the grounds that some preferences do not m (...)
  • 7  P. Singer, Practical Ethics, op. cit, p. 14.

6Singer views this far more recent version of utilitarianism as more flexible, while further seeing it as a response to a criticism often levelled against Bentham’s felicific calculus, the objection stemming from the difficulty in determining a specific amount of happiness from an individual’s mental state (a subjective evaluation). With preferences, the calculus is based on objective behaviour rather than on mental state, and therefore much easier to apply.6 What then legitimizes utilitarianism in Singer’s eyes is the position it holds as “a first base.”7 In other words, if one adopts the universal point of view common to all great ethical ideals (be they individual rights, the sanctity of life, justice, or virtue ethics), if one agrees with the fact that individual desires and tastes should not count for more than the desires and tastes of others, then it simply suggests that we adopt the course of action most likely, on balance, to maximize the interests of all those affected.

7Singer is more than a preference utilitarian, though. Indeed, in the second edition of Practical Ethics (1993) he adopts Hare’s two-level utilitarianism, which states that we should establish our everyday choices on intuitive moral thinking based on rules which usually maximize happiness or preferences. It adds, however, that there are times when we must ascend to a higher “critical” level of reflection in order to decide what to do. That is the point at which the utilitarian calculus will come into play, as it is too unwieldy a tool to be used in everyday circumstances.

  • 8  P. Singer, The Expanding Circl:. Ethics and Sociobiology, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 198 (...)

8As early as 1981, with The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology8 Singer had explained that utilitarians would be well advised not to ask for an impossibly demanding ethic, that would be an ethic for saints. In other words, he discouraged their impartially taking into account all individual interests. He argued that an ethic applicable to ordinary human beings would be satisfied with limiting its claims. This did not mean that it would demand no more than people were willing to do, but that it would recommend a set of standards that people could be “realistically” expected to meet. The question to be asked at this point is whether it follows that Singer’s admonitions are voiced within that particular framework? Does it mean that when he asks people for instance to stop eating animal products or when he seeks to persuade them to give a significant amount of their income to charities, he speaks from that particular vantage point? One may doubt it, given the proportion of vegetarians, or of people who give at least 10% of their income to international charities. One may also wonder what is meant by a “realistic” hope. Indeed, when put to the test of reality, utilitarianism seems far from being unanimously approved, even in countries where it gets better press than in France.

1.2. Macro, Meso and Microethics

9It can be safely said that Bentham’s utility principle is intended for legislators and those in power, more than for individuals. Apart from his work in Deontology, he is not so much concerned by private ethics as by the political and judicial applications of his theory. Accordingly, he works at the macroethical (government and society) or megaethical (international relations) level. As for Singer, it would seem that depending on the ethical issue he deals with, the addressee changes, as the following examples will illustrate.

10In Animal Liberation, and in his works about the necessity for the citizens of rich countries to give a sizeable percentage of their income to poor countries, he advocates individual action and mobilization such as the recourse to boycotting (of meat, of products tested on animals, of leather etc.) or else personal financial aid, as ways of bringing about necessary changes.

11In his books on bioethics, or on the ethic of globalisation, or else on the Great Ape Project, as well as in his more recent articles that call for a new law that would make voting compulsory, he addresses legislators, or national rulers. When he challenges the sanctity of human life, he suggests a new legislation on euthanasia, abortion or infanticide. When he calls for a UN shake-up and denounces the principle of national sovereignty as inadequate, he addresses the UN. And when dealing with the rights of gorillas, chimpanzees and orang-utans, he wants them written into the “national” constitutions. The addressee, as suggested above, depends on the kind of change that he deems necessary.

12Sometimes Singer targets both individuals and nations in the same book, on similar types of issues. In Practical Ethics, for example, he writes about the relationship between rich and poor countries, arguing that the equal consideration of interests principle requires that, at the individual level, the inhabitants of the rich western countries give at least 10% of their income to the citizens of poor countries. As for the national level he reasons that:  

  • 9  P. Singer, Practical Ethics, op. cit, p. 261.

The principle of equal consideration of interests points to a world in which all countries continue to accept refugees until they are reduced to the same standard of poverty and overcrowding as the third world countries from which the refugees are seeking to flee.9

13The above examples show that Singer’s approach to ethics is broader than Bentham’s. It concerns all levels, at one point or another. In each case he looks for the most appropriate level whether it be macroethics, microethics, megaethics (on globalisation) or mesoethics (at the organizational or group level). His whole body of work perfectly illustrates his willingness to look into the impact not only on private ethics but also on societal, political, judicial and ethical concerns. This is true both in a professional / philosophical and private capacity. Indeed, like John Stuart Mill in his day and time, though less successfully so, he once considered direct political commitment. In 1994, he ran for a seat in the Australian Parliament as a member of the Green Party. While at a personal level he applies the principles he promotes to himself by giving a significant amount of his income to international charities and by refraining from eating meat or using animal products.

14The last issue serves as a fitting transition towards a key question, that is to say the relationship between utilitarianism and the moral status of animals as evidenced by our perception of their nature, and our treatment of them. To answer the question of animal welfare will hopefully shed light on the basic tenets of utilitarianism while providing part of the answer to the central question posed in this paper, to wit: “what legacy if any Bentham has bestowed on Singer?”

2. The Moral Status of Animals

2.1. The Issue of Sentience

15Both Hume’s empiricism, which holds that all living beings are capable of reasoning, and Bentham’s utilitarianism, stress the closeness between animals and humans, simultaneously raising the question of the nature of the connexion between the two forms of being. In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, the governing principles are identified as pain and pleasure. They are presented as the prevailing features even before the concept of utility is mentioned, as evidenced by the following quote:

  • 10  J. Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, op. cit., p. 1.

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.10

16The very foundation of the Benthamian principle of utilitarianism rests on the antagonism of pain and pleasure. For Bentham, it meant that all sentient beings should be included in the utilitarian calculus. Though a mere footnote in Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation this argument has become a must in the propaganda of the animal movement, consequently promoting Bentham into the ranks of the major thinkers in animal philosophy. Here is the famous passage:

  • 11  Ibid., p. 311 n. Emphasis in original.

The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of the legs, the pilosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?11

17In addition to the role played by pain and pleasure, there is the issue of killing. In an extract that is often left out, understandably so, Bentham explains that animals may be killed to be eaten, as long as we do not hurt them in the process. This is legitimated by the fact that they have no sense of the future:

  • 12  Ibid. Emphasis in original.

If the being eaten were all, there is very good reason why we should be suffered to eat such of them as we like to eat: we are the better for it, and they are never the worse. They have none of those long-protracted anticipations of future misery which we have. But is there any reason why we should be suffered to torment them? Not any that I can see. Are there any why we should not be suffered to torment them? Yes, several.12

18The central idea that emerges from the two quotes is that sentience lies at the heart of utilitarianism. Given that animals are sentient, we must not hurt them, though it may be admissible to kill them; which is not the same in moral terms.

  • 13  While Singer, like some of Bentham’s contemporaries is a vegetarian, Bentham did not opt for a mea (...)

19In Animal Liberation, which has sold over hundreds of thousands copies worldwide, Singer follows in Bentham’s tracks, even overtaking him.13 He takes the elder philosopher’s reasoning one step further when he holds that if a being (be it human or animal) suffers, there is no legitimate moral argument which justifies not taking its suffering into account. The principle of equal consideration of interests makes any sentient being the equivalent of other such beings. However this principle does not apply if a being is incapable of suffering or of feeling either pain or happiness. In that case there is no compelling interest to take it into account.

  • 14  P. Singer, Practical Ethics, op. cit., p. 58.

20Take a stone for example as opposed to a mouse. A stone has no interest in not being kicked along the road, contrary to a mouse, which makes sentience, in other words the capacity to feel pleasure and pain, the only objective criterion from a moral point of view.14 The limits of the moral sphere thus established depend neither on intelligence, nor on rationality, but on sentience, a conclusion supported by two further arguments: first, a being that suffers, whether human or animal, behaves in the same way; second, both categories of beings possess a nervous system.

21The lower limit, the boundary between morally relevant beings and others, is the vegetable kingdom. Plants do not react to pain in the way that humans and animals do, nor do they possess a nervous system. This however, should be qualified, according to Singer. Questions consequently arise about the degree of sentience, if any, as regards some animals (such as insects, molluscs, crustaceans, in fact, most invertebrates) or as regards plants, in which case the question has not been absolutely settled.

  • 15  P. Singer, Animal Liberation, A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals, New York: Avon Books, 197 (...)
  • 16  P. Singer, Practical Ethics, op. cit., p. 232.

22Both Singer and Bentham draw a distinction between the suffering of animals and their killing when looked upon from a moral point of view. For Singer, the debate about taking animal lives is peripheral15 because in the state of things, considerations of pain and suffering are paramount. In Animal Liberation and Practical Ethics, he repeatedly writes that “pain is pain,”16 transforming his message on suffering into a leitmotiv. Though he suggests that it is not necessary to refer to specific scientific discoveries showing precisely which animals suffer and to what extent, Singer admits that it is difficult to draw a definite boundary between the animals that may be killed and those whose interests must be taken into account. In a particular passage of Animal Liberation on the practical consequences of the movement against speciesism (the prejudice based on species membership) and on vegetarianism more specifically, he takes a stand against eating mammals, birds, fish or molluscs. He draws a potential line of demarcation between shrimps and oysters, based on the nature and capacities of these animals.

2.2. An Ethical Revolution

23Using his principle of equal consideration of interests, Singer comes to the idea of an extension of fundamental rights to those animals that, due to their abilities, their way of life, or their genes closely resemble humans. In the Great Ape Project, edited together with Paola Cavalieri, Singer and other contributors drafted the following “Declaration on Great Apes:”

We demand the extension of the community of equals to include all great apes: human beings, chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans. “The community of equals” is the moral community within which we accept certain basic principles or rights as governing our relations with each other and enforceable at law. Among these principles or rights are the following:

1 The Right to Life

2 The Protection of Individual Liberty

3 The Prohibition of Torture

  • 17  P. Cavalieri, P. Singer (Ed.), The Great Ape Project. Equality Beyond Humanity, New York: St Marti (...)

At present, only members of the species Homo sapiens are regarded as members of the community of equals. The inclusion, for the first time, of nonhuman animals into this community is an ambitious project. The chimpanzee, the gorilla, Gorilla gorilla, and the orang-utan, Pongo pygmaeus, are the closest relatives of our species.17

24Two dimensions deserve special notice here: first, though the project is described as an ambitious one, it only concerns a limited number of individuals in comparison with the total number of mammals; second, Singer uses the concept of animal “rights,” though he had refused to do so many times, preferring to refer to interests instead.

25To note that the sentience of animals is comparable to human sentience is in itself enough to bring about an ethical revolution. From a moral point of view, animals find themselves promoted into our moral world, a world which, theoretically at least, includes all humans, even those that share so-called animal’ “deficiencies:” such as lack of autonomy, lack of self-awareness, or of language, yet whose interests are treated no differently from the interests of all other humans. Because of this, Singer advocates a levelling up rather than a levelling down process, which means that animals should be treated like humans and not that infants and the severely handicapped should be treated like animals. This idea is expressed in plain words in the passage quoted below, with the purpose of silencing his many critics who claim otherwise:

  • 18  P. Singer, Practical Ethics, op. cit., p. 78.

I do not wish to suggest that intellectually disabled humans should be force-fed with food colourings until half of them die […]. I would like our conviction that it would be wrong to treat intellectually disabled humans in this way to be transferred to nonhuman animals at similar levels of self-consciousness and with similar capacities for suffering.18

26The reference to young children and to the heavily handicapped, which serves a line of  argument drawing on marginal cases, is a recurring feature in Singer’s rhetoric. He takes it even further. Within that framework, the relevant ontological distinction is not one that opposes animals and humans, but rather one that differentiates a person from a non person. Persons are defined as beings that possess self-awareness, autonomy, and a capacity to feel pleasure and pain, to which is added a sense of the future. Not all human beings are persons in that sense. Comatose patients, or newborn children, for example, are not. Animals such as apes, dolphins and other superior mammals though can be persons in the sense defined above. Their lives consequently have more value than the lives of non persons. This is the very line of argument Singer’s opponents find offensive. Calling certain animals persons while excluding some humans from that category is severely criticized. Singer is well aware of the confusion that his labelling causes in his readers’ minds. As he puts it, it is hard to overcome the feeling of the permanent otherness within which animals have tended to be confined, in spite of the ethical and scientific arguments:

  • 19  Ibid., p. 110.

It sounds odd to call an animal a person. This oddness may be no more than a symptom of our habit of keeping our own species sharply separated from others.19

27From the publication of the cornerstone of the contemporary animal movement, his groundbreaking Animal Liberation onwards, Peter Singer has associated his ideas on speciesism to other ethical questions traditionally approached by utilitarians and by Bentham in particular. We need to be aware both of the fact that animal lives have a value, since animals are sentient, and that human lives are not sacrosanct simply because they are human. Singer, like Bentham, rejects all absolute moral obligations in that respect. The last part will deal with the challenges such positions pose for the majority of people.

3. The Utilitarian Challenge

3.1. Against Absolutism

  • 20  J. Dinwiddy, Bentham, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 111.

28In 1989, Dinwiddy wrote that some of the positions adopted by Bentham in accordance with utilitarianism probably seemed “less congenial” to many people. In the manuscripts, indeed, Bentham legitimates certain cases of infanticide or torture. None of the two acts should be absolutely prohibited. Torture may be admissible if it aims at wresting capital information out of someone, in view of the general interest. In addition, for Bentham, murder is a serious misdeed neither because it takes a human life, nor because it causes suffering to the person killed, but because the idea of such an act arouses terror among other people.20

29In one of his manuscripts entitled “Of Torture,” Bentham defined torture as the act of inflicting violent physical pain to someone in order to compel him to do something, or to prevent him from doing something, which, once done or prevented, immediately brings about the end of this form of duress. In a carefully phrased passage, he explains why torture should not be absolutely proscribed:

  • 21  J. Bentham, “Of Torture”, manuscript transcribed in W.L. and P.E. Twining “Bentham on Torture,” Je (...)

[I]n the course of a scrupulous examination a man learns to render himself proof against the delusive power of words, and to correct the first impressions of sentiment by the more extensive considerations of utility. // I have given the subject a very attentive consideration, and the result is that I am inclined to think there are a very few cases in which a very particular purpose, torture might be made use of with advantage.21 

30Singer follows the same line of thought. It may come as a surprise that the philosopher who had been advocating animal liberation for forty years should not be adamantly opposed to animal experiments. The answer is probably that he defends that position for the same reasons that led Bentham to defend torture. As suggested above he considers it to be legitimate in some rare cases, because one cannot say, from a utilitarian point of view, that an act is intrinsically wrong. An act, as already mentioned, is judged according to the consequences it brings about. Using the same example as his predecessor, Singer writes:

  • 22  P. Singer, Animal Liberation. op. cit., p. 77-78.

If torture were the only way in which we could discover the location of a nuclear time bomb hidden in a NYC basement, then torture would be justifiable. Similarly, if a single experiment could cure a major disease, that experiment would be justifiable. But in actual life the benefits are always much, much more remote, and more often than not they are nonexistent.22

31He also adds that in his animal liberation perspective, the answer to the question of the legitimacy of an experiment lies in the marginal cases test. If the experimenter is ready to replace the animal by a human being with an equal or lower level of self-consciousness, an anencephalic child or a comatose patient for instance, then the experiment is legitimate. From this perspective, Singer concludes, most experiments now conducted are unacceptable. Against the widely accepted view that animal life has no value and that human life is sacrosanct, Singer’s utilitarianism emphasizes the quality of the life lived, according to the individual’s ability to feel pleasure and pain, to be autonomous, and to have a sense of the future. Life has no absolute value in itself, so that some lives had better not be lived at all.

32This argument is obviously invalid for Christian and conservative thinkers who have vigorously objected to Singer’s reasoning. They argue against the “commodification” of human life, positing on the contrary the inherent dignity that all humans, even foetuses or comatose patients, possess equally. These thinkers have also vehemently opposed utilitarian views on allegedly aberrant sexual activities. This is yet another challenge faced by utilitarian philosophers.

3.2. Supposedly Deviant Sexuality

33In accordance with the maximisation of individual well-being or preferences, Bentham and Singer both advocate forms of sexuality condemned by their contemporary moral codes. Anticipating twentieth-century thinking, Bentham wrote about homosexual acts:

  • 23  J. Bentham, Essai sur la pédérastie (Essay on Paederasty), Lille: Questions de Genre, GKC, 2003, p (...)

I have been tormenting myself for years to find if possible a sufficient ground for treating them with the severity with which they are treated at this time of day by all European nations: but upon the principle of utility I can find none.23

  • 24  Ibid., p. 12.

34The philosopher of utility advocates the decriminalisation of sodomy, which, in his day, was punished by hanging. Bentham also argues that homosexual acts do not threaten people or marriage, even though they are motivated, he claims, by a “perverted taste.”24

35Two centuries later, Singer follows exactly the same argumentation, except that he does not refer to homosexuality but to bestiality. It is, in his view, the ultimate sexual taboo. In a review of Midas Dekker’s book Dearest Pet, 25 Singer explains that not so long ago, the moral code only approved of reproductive sexuality. Other sexual activities were seen at best, as wanton lust, or worse, a perversion. Many taboos have since fallen. Contraception is publicly encouraged, sex toys are freely sold, masturbation and sodomy are not systematically stigmatised. Yet, sexual relationships between humans and animals are still strongly prohibited. This reveals nothing but our ambivalence towards animals, Singer claims. If a sexual act involving a dog and a human being is satisfying to both parties, why should it be so potently proscribed?

  • 26  Ibid.

36This is precisely the question Bentham asked about homosexuality. Only one reason would make it unacceptable: if it was cruel to the animal. There is no clear answer for all the other cases. Singer does not give his opinion on the “normal” or “natural” character of these acts, but he considers that the only reason why the taboo remains is that such acts constitute “an offence to our status and dignity as human beings.”26 Once more, Singer wants us to think twice about the supposed ethical gap between human beings and animals—a “fiction” in Bentham’s terms. The similarity of their positions in the field of sexuality bears witness to the coherence of utilitarian thinking over the long span, though the particular issues are time specific. The same coherence can be identified as regards two other ethical issues: abortion and infanticide.

3.3. Abortion and Infanticide

37In the conclusion to their article entitled “Bentham on Torture,” W.L. Twining and P.E. Twinging explain how difficult it is to deal with the question of torture in a rational way:

  • 27  W.L. and P.E. Twining, “Bentham on Torture”, Jeremy Bentham: Critical Assessments, B. Parekh (Ed.) (...)

It is not easy to be rigorous in dealing with the problem of torture; nor is it easy to be intellectually honest. There are many reasons for this. The term torture has strong emotive associations and this inhibits open recognition of its complexity; the practices it connotes often inspire genuine responses of fear, horror, disgust and righteous indignation; this inhibits cool and rigorous analysis.27

  • 28  J. Bentham, Traités de législation civile et pénale, trans. Étienne Dumont, London: Taylor and Fra (...)

38In spite of these difficulties both Bentham and Singer followed their utilitarianism through to its logical conclusion, whether they were dealing with “torture” or “infanticide.” Bentham wonders why there is such an onus on infanticide. In the Traités de législation civile et pénale, he explains that in order not to tarnish her reputation, an unmarried mother kills her newborn child. Indeed, had the child’s existence been known, she would have suffered shame and rejection all her life. Bentham’s reasoning rests on the fact that the child feels very little—if any—pain when killed, that he dies before he has even experienced life, that the evocation of his death does not give other people any cause for anxiety, and that the only person who may miss him is the very one who, motivated by pity and an excessive sensitivity, refuses to let him live a miserable life.28 If a child’s birth entails more suffering than happiness, early death seems the best outcome. For Bentham, therefore, the laws that criminalise infanticide are based more on a feeling of abhorrence than on a rational principle of utility.

  • 29  P. Singer, Rethinking Life and Death. The Collapse of our Traditional Ethics, New York: St Martin’ (...)

39How does Singer in turn legitimize infanticide? He too considers that the life of the mother takes precedence over the life of the foetus or baby. In other words, the sentient, self-aware, autonomous person must prevail over the potential human being.  This long-time utilitarian stance awakens particular contemporary echoes with what Singer calls “the abortion deadlock.”29 He asks the question: what is the difference between a foetus whose development the parents can legally decide to stop, and a newborn child? The fact that the latter has actually come out of its mother’s womb does not mark a morally significant dividing line. Like Bentham, who wrote that a full-grown horse is a more rational and conversable animal than a one-month-old infant, Singer tells us:

  • 30  P. Singer, Practical Ethics, op. cit., p. 188. I think that Singer considerably underestimates the (...)

I cannot see how one could defend the view that fetuses may be “replaced” before birth, but newborn infants may not be. Nor is there any other point, such as viability that does a better job of dividing the fetus from the infant. Self-consciousness, which could provide a basis for holding that it is wrong to kill one being and replace it with another, is not to be found in either the fetus or the individual capable of regarding itself as a distinct entity with a life of its own to lead […].30

  • 31  Ibid., p. 191.
  • 32  See Courrier International, n°73, 25 novembre 1999, p. 2.
  • 33  In practice, in France, this option is almost systematically opened to them during the pregnancy.

40If one considers that an infant’s life will in all probability be more painful than happy, then it is not worth living. It follows, for Singer, that killing a severely handicapped child is not morally equivalent to killing a person, adding that very often, it is not wrong at all.31 As a result of several exchanges with organisations for the disabled, Singer has accepted the objection according to which doctors may have an exaggeratedly negative view of the life lived with a disability. This is the reason why he now advises parents faced with the birth of a handicapped child to get in touch with organisations representing such individuals32 before taking an important decision concerning their child’s life. If they still think the odds are that their child is likely to be more miserable than happy, then they should have the right to terminate it.33 Like Bentham, Singer believes that an infant only becomes a person around the age of one month, a conviction which meets a great deal of public obloquy. Yet he will not be fazed by conventional morality:

  • 34  P. Singer, Practical Ethics, op. cit., p. 169-170.

I do not regard the conflict between the position I have taken and widely accepted views about the sanctity of infant life as a ground for abandoning my position. These widely accepted views need to be challenged.34


41What would have been Bentham’s position had he lived in our time and day? Would he have emulated Singer? Those questions are pointless since Bentham is long dead and mummified. The question of Singer’s debt towards Bentham is far more relevant and stimulating. As this paper has argued Bentham’s legacy not only survives in Singer, it expands into new developments following a logical, coherent pattern, reformulating Bentham’s principles and applying them to contemporary issues.

42Though at times they diverge notably in their definition of utilitarianism, it is caused more by the perspective of two centuries of philosophical thinking with its necessary evolution and adaptation than by a fundamental difference in thinking. Utilitarianism finds its strength, notably, in its ability to transform itself in response to various objections as is apparent in Singer’s constantly shifting position.

  • 35 P. Singer, “Ethics,” op. cit., 1985, pp. 627-648.

43The utilitarian tradition is comprehensive enough to offer a variety of trends. If Singer revises Bentham, he does nonetheless remain a heir to the classical theorist whom he calls “the father of modern utilitarianism.”35 Though he explored the question of the status of animals more thoroughly than Bentham, the real explanation lies with the Australian academic’s greater  interest in applied ethics as well as with a historical and ideological context that vastly favoured thinking on the nature of animals, a key concern in the 1970s. Yet the parallelism between the two is most strikingly visible when dealing with the questions of infanticide, torture, murder and sexuality. This is where utilitarianism, whether classical or contemporary, is at its best: challenging our intuitive or conventional ethical reactions.

44According to Singer, we need an ethical revolution. This revolution is already underway. It entails positions which seem neither comfortable nor appealing, but which offer two advantages. As W.L. and P.E. Twining pointed out in “Bentham on Torture,” these utilitarian positions effectively remind us how difficult it is to go beyond our primary emotional reactions. They also force us to face dilemmas caused by the choice between two evils—torturing a human being or allowing a bomb to explode in a city, killing a newborn child or letting it live a wretched life. Whether one adopts a utilitarian stance or not, Bentham and Singer’s philosophy allows us at least to acknowledge the dilemma, whereas moral absolutism and the theory of individual rights mask it.

Haut de page


Bentham, Jeremy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, New York, Dover, 2007 [1780].

Bentham, Jeremy, Essai sur la pédérastie (Essay on Pæderasty), Lille, Questions de Genre, GKC, 2003 [ca. 1785].

Bentham, Jeremy, “Of Torture”, manuscript transcribed in W.L. and P.E. Twining “Bentham on Torture,” Bhikhu Parekh (Ed.), Jeremy Bentham : Critical Assessments, (II), Londres, Routledge, 1993, p. 512-565.

Bentham, Jeremy, Traités de législation civile et pénale, trans. Étienne Dumont, London, Taylor and Francis, 1858.

Cavalieri, Paola and Peter Singer (eds.), The Great Ape Project. Equality Beyond Humanity, New York, St Martin, 1996.

“A Conversation with Peter Singer”, The Animals' Agenda, part II, May/June;

Dinwiddy, John, Bentham, Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Singer, Peter, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals, New York, Avon Books, 1975.

Singer, Peter, Practical Ethics [1979], Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Singer, Peter, The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981.

Singer, Peter, “Ethics,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Chicago, 1985, p. 627-648.

Singer, Peter, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of our Traditional Ethics, New York, St Martin’s Press, 1994.

Singer, Peter, Courrier des lecteurs, Courrier International, (73), 25 November 1999, p. 2.

Singer, Peter, “Heavy Petting,” Nerve, 2001.

Haut de page


1  P. Singer, “Ethics” in Encyclopædia Britannica, Chicago, 1985, pp. 627-648.

2  “A Conversation with Peter Singer”, The Animals'Agenda, part II, May/June;

3  J. Dinwiddy, Bentham, Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 111.

4  J. Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation [1780], New York: Dover, 2007, p. 2.

5  P. Singer, Practical Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993 (2nd edition), p. 14.

6  This form of utilitarianism has also been criticised on the grounds that some preferences do not make people happy and should therefore be modified.

7  P. Singer, Practical Ethics, op. cit, p. 14.

8  P. Singer, The Expanding Circl:. Ethics and Sociobiology, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981, p. 159-160.

9  P. Singer, Practical Ethics, op. cit, p. 261.

10  J. Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, op. cit., p. 1.

11  Ibid., p. 311 n. Emphasis in original.

12  Ibid. Emphasis in original.

13  While Singer, like some of Bentham’s contemporaries is a vegetarian, Bentham did not opt for a meat-free diet.

14  P. Singer, Practical Ethics, op. cit., p. 58.

15  P. Singer, Animal Liberation, A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals, New York: Avon Books, 1975, p. 18.

16  P. Singer, Practical Ethics, op. cit., p. 232.

17  P. Cavalieri, P. Singer (Ed.), The Great Ape Project. Equality Beyond Humanity, New York: St Martin, 1996, p. 4-5.

18  P. Singer, Practical Ethics, op. cit., p. 78.

19  Ibid., p. 110.

20  J. Dinwiddy, Bentham, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 111.

21  J. Bentham, “Of Torture”, manuscript transcribed in W.L. and P.E. Twining “Bentham on Torture,” Jeremy Bentham: Critical Assessments, (Ed. Bhikhu Parekh), (II), London, Routledge, 1993, p. 514.

22  P. Singer, Animal Liberation. op. cit., p. 77-78.

23  J. Bentham, Essai sur la pédérastie (Essay on Paederasty), Lille: Questions de Genre, GKC, 2003, p. 10.

24  Ibid., p. 12.

25  P. Singer, “Heavy Petting”, Nerve, 2001.

26  Ibid.

27  W.L. and P.E. Twining, “Bentham on Torture”, Jeremy Bentham: Critical Assessments, B. Parekh (Ed.), London: Routledge, 1993, vol. II., p. 558.

28  J. Bentham, Traités de législation civile et pénale, trans. Étienne Dumont, London: Taylor and Francis, 1858, p. 218.

29  P. Singer, Rethinking Life and Death. The Collapse of our Traditional Ethics, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1994, p. 105.

30  P. Singer, Practical Ethics, op. cit., p. 188. I think that Singer considerably underestimates the love a parent feels for his newborn child, a feeling so powerful indeed that it is likely to resist any rational utilitarian calculus, even accompanied with the replaceability argument. Maybe Singer should explicitly ask parents not to commit themselves to the relationship with their infant before it has reached the age of one month.

31  Ibid., p. 191.

32  See Courrier International, n°73, 25 novembre 1999, p. 2.

33  In practice, in France, this option is almost systematically opened to them during the pregnancy.

34  P. Singer, Practical Ethics, op. cit., p. 169-170.

35 P. Singer, “Ethics,” op. cit., 1985, pp. 627-648.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Emilie Dardenne, « From Jeremy Bentham to Peter Singer », Revue d’études benthamiennes [En ligne], 7 | 2010, mis en ligne le 13 septembre 2010, consulté le 20 janvier 2017. URL :

Haut de page


Emilie Dardenne

Université de Rennes II

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d'auteur

Droits réservés

Haut de page