Animal Rights:

A History

Jeremy Bentham

The Deeper Minds Of All Ages Have Had Pity For Animals
Friedrich Nietzsche

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This page is part of the section: Animal Rights:A History

Jeremy Bentham 1748-1832

Recognised as one of the earliest proponents of animal rights Jeremy Bentham,  1748-1832,  was an English philosopher and one of the founders of modern utilitarianism. He is regarded as one of the earliest proponents of animal rights

Bentham described utilitarianism as "the greatest happiness or greatest felicity principle"

Utilitarianism is the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its utility in providing happiness or pleasure as summed among all sentient beings.

It is therefore a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome.  Utilitarianism is an ethical theory according to which an action is right if its results are superior to those of any other action. The fundamental idea is to engender the greatest possible amount of happiness among the greatest number.

It was during the 1800s that an increase in consideration and respect for the rights of animals grew, along with the idea that animals should be treated differently. Much of this change in attitude was due to the influence of Jeremy Bentham who changed the philosophies of many people by changing the way they looked at animals. Rather than regarding them as inferior to human beings because of their inability to reason, Bentham applied ethical utilitarianism to animals. He said that because animals suffer, their happiness and wellbeing is relevant and that it is the capacity for suffering that gives all sentient beings the right to equal consideration .

He argued that it was the ability to suffer rather than the ability to reason that should provide the benchmark, or what he called the "insuperable line", of how we treat other animals. He pointed out that if rationality was the main criterion of who ought to have rights and how we treated other animals than many humans would for similar reasons be treated as objects in much the same way as animals, for example babies and the mentally disabled. Referring to the limited degree of legal protection given to slaves in the French West Indies by the Code Noir, in 1789 he wrote:

The day has been, I am sad to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated by the law exactly upon the same footing, as, in England for example, the inferior races of animals are still. 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. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity 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? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes..."

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Photo Jeremy Bentham by Henry William Pickersgill

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