Utility, Morality, Strategy and Scholarly Communication
Libraries have vast and varied responsibilities
Bear with me; this story will become relevant within a few paragraphs. About 40 years ago, in my mid-teens, I got very interested in animal rights. While I was doing some research on the topic in my high school library, I came across a book titled Animal Liberation, written by a young philosopher named Peter Singer. He came from the utilitarian school—a philosophical position that argues, more or less, that the morality of an action is determined by whether it creates more utility (benefit, pleasure, well-being) in the world than a different action would. So starting from the assumption that animals have the same moral standing as humans (to disagree, in his view, is to be guilty of speciesism), and applying utilitarian thinking to human-animal interactions, Singer concluded that, for example, eating meat is morally indefensible in humans because although it creates utility for the human in the form of culinary pleasure, it causes pain to the animal and deprives the animal of life, thus creating a massive imbalance in utility. The same kind of imbalance is created when we use animals to test the safety of cosmetics, when we wear animal skins as a marker of wealth and status, etc., and therefore all such exploitation of animals is morally indefensible.
At age 14, I found Singer’s arguments pretty compelling, and I saw no reason to question his basic assumption that humans and animals have the same moral standing. My thinking has evolved since then, but Singer’s arguments and the utilitarian position generally have stuck in my mind. And since then, as I’ve explored utilitarianism a bit more, I’ve been especially struck by another of its implications: that although the common-sense morality most of us apply in our daily lives leads us to feel that we each owe a special moral duty to our family and friends, utilitarianism tends to disagree. A strict utilitarian might argue that it’s immoral to give material support to a family member if the same support would create greater utility for a stranger. (So, by this logic, giving my son $5 to buy ice cream would be immoral if I have the option of using the $5 to feed a starving stranger instead. From utilitarianism you could even argue that feeding my child his third meal of the day is immoral when I could give that food to a child from another family who hasn’t eaten at all that day.)
It’s basic questions like these — how can we do the most good, and where do our most fundamental moral obligations lie? — that keep coming back to my mind as I wrestle with various issues related to scholarly communication.
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