Animal Passions

2 November 2011 by Jeremy Bentham, posted in Uncategorized

Greetings, my friends

You may from time to time have had occasion to turn to that curious omnium-gatherum of the modern age that goes by the name of Wikipedia – an endeavour, as I understand it, that is the collaborative work of many hands, in which the considered contribution of the greatest acknowledged professional authority in the field may be confounded in an instant at the whim of an uninformed youth on a ranch in rural Idaho; and in which, if length of entry and frequency of revision be any measure, the Third Law of Thermodynamics is deemed to be a lesser contribution to the sum of human knowledge than the List of My Little Pony Characters . Should you do so, and should you be inclined to seek therein the account of my own life and thought , you will learn that I am ‘best known’ for my ‘advocacy of utilitarianism and animal rights, and the idea of the panopticon’.

I must confess that this intelligence caused me no little surprise when first I chanced to come across it. I have, of course, no argument with being hailed as the arch-proponent of utilitarianism, a mode of rational argument which may be seen as forming the cornerstone of my life’s work. And while my plans for panopticon prisons, industry houses and manufactories must be deemed to have fallen short of total success, in that I failed to persuade the several administrations of the day of the practical efficacy of their adoption, I will concede that my labours upon them occupied more than a dozen years of my life, and that they merit a place in any summation of my ideas and achievements. But what of the third integrant in this triad? Is it my formulation of the hedonistic calculus, my deontology, my arguments for the codification of laws – all topics for which I would hope to have been remembered in the annals of posterity? No, it is none of these: it is my advocacy of ‘animal rights’; a matter which, had I been invited to pen my own obituary at far greater length than the Wikipedia article, it would hardly have occurred to me to mention.

The question of animal welfare, in the particular context of experimentation upon animal subjects to scientific ends, has recently (once again) been touched upon in the public prints . It is, moreover, a topic of ethical concern with which some of my present readers may be directly engaged. This seems an opportune moment and forum, therefore, to expound and clarify some of my views on the subject of animal suffering.

Mistake me not, I am not about to deny an interest in animal welfare. I was in my lifetime extremely fond of animals. Barring a moment of youthful aberration (for which I soon expressed remorse) in which I tormented ear-wigs by placing them in the flame of a candle in order to enjoy the writhings of their bodies and the little explosions made by the moisture
of their juices, I had many happy encounters with animals. I kept a pet mouse in the drawer of my desk, a pet pig in my garden, I fed the deer in St James’s Park, and for many years in old age I enjoyed the company of my cat, the Reverend Dr. John Langborn. My complaint is rather that a few brief remarks upon the subject of animal suffering have been taken from their context and, although not significantly distorted, accorded a weight which I did not envisage. Let me quote them now. Within the context of a much broader discussion of the limits of penal jurisprudence, I digressed as follows:

The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. … It may come one day to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate [the caprice of a tormentor]. 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?

Those words, or at least the last of them, have become almost a slogan of the lobbyists for animal rights, even being seen inscribed upon that most extraordinary of modern garments, the ‘t-shirt’. (I am tempted to enter here upon a digression concerning the vagaries of fashion, but I shall resist the lure.)

I did, in fact, discourse upon the subject at slightly greater length in a letter published in the Morning Chronicle in March 1825, and I feel that some of the arguments I expressed then deserve repetition here:

I have never seen, nor ever can see, any object to the putting of dogs and other inferior animals to pain, in the way of medical experiment, when that experiment has a determinate object, beneficial to mankind, accompanied with a fair prospect of the accomplishment of it. But I have a decided and insuperable objection to the putting of them to pain without any such view. To my apprehension, every act by which, without prospect of preponderant good, pain is knowingly and willingly produced in any being whatsoever, is an act of cruelty; and like other bad habits, the more the correspondent habit is indulged in, the stronger it grows, and the more frequently productive of its bad fruit. I am unable to comprehend how it should be, that to him to whom it is a matter of amusement to see a dog or horse suffer, it should not be matter of like amusement to see a man suffer; seeing, as I do, how much more morality as well as intelligence, an adult quadruped of those and many other species has in him, than any biped has for some months after he has been brought into existence.

In the article in the Independent newspaper which has prompted the present rumination, it is noted that scientific experiments upon animals in Britain are now regulated by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986, which requires that, for any experiment to be licensed, the good to humans must clearly outweigh the harm to animals. That is an unambiguous demand for a utilitarian approach to the issue, and it is, I would like to think, my true legacy.

I remain your servant,

3 Responses to “Animal Passions”

  1. Jeremy Bentham Reply | Permalink

    An addendum. It has been brought to my attention that, barely 36 hours after I published the above remarks, a person unknown – but, I must assume,  a dedicated follower of my writings, both pre- and post-mortem – has amended the article in Wikipedia, so that it now includes the passage from my letter to the Morning Chronicle. I am truly grateful for this prompt and scrupulous attention to accuracy, and trust that it will aid the dissemination of my true ideas to the world at large.

  2. Jeremy Bentham Reply | Permalink

    An Addendum. It has been brought to my attention that, barely 36 hours after I had published the above remarks, a person unknown – but, I must assume, a voracious consumer of my words, both pre- and post-mortem – has amended the article in Wikipedia, so that it now includes the passage from my letter to the Morning Chronicle quoted here. I am indeed grateful for this prompt and scrupulous dedication to accuracy, and trust that it will assist in the dissemination of my true ideas to the world at large.

  3. Lea Stern Reply | Permalink

    Bentham's foresight is truly impressive, seeing as Idaho did not become a state until 1890. Maybe we should ask him for his predictions of the next 50 years! Further, it seems to me that "uninformed youth" is a universal phenomenon, as likely to appear in London or New York as in the rural West.
    --But this is the bias of an American reader.

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