Bentham on Animal Rights #182
Philosophy in Quotes
Like many of his radical English contemporaries, Bentham was active in his opposition to slavery, colonialism, the death penalty, the treatment of women as inferiors, and vast discrepancies in wealth. More unusually for the times, he also took up the cause of the welfare of animals.
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And now, let’s go back to our series of discussing the most famous quotes in the history of philosophy — and what they really mean. Today, it’s Bentham’s turn, with a famous quote about the suffering of animals, explained by Professor David E. Cooper.
Jeremy Bentham on animal ethics
By David E. Cooper
The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? (Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789, Ch 17. n.122.)
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was a distinctly quotable author. One thinks, for example, of the crisp, robust statement of the utilitarian moral philosophy of which he is held to be the ‘father’: ‘It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong’. Like many of his radical English contemporaries, Bentham was active in his opposition to slavery, colonialism, the death penalty, the treatment of women as inferiors, and vast discrepancies in wealth. More unusually for the times, he also took up the cause of the welfare of animals.
The remark of Bentham’s that I come across most frequently is the one quoted at the beginning of this article in which, of course, ‘they’ refers to (non-human) animals. It occurs in the context of advocating the extension of legal protection to animals. Having applauded the French for affording protection to black people — for, in effect, recognising the irrelevance of skin colour to legal status — he proposes that the same be done for animals. In the case of human beings and animals alike, the only relevant criterion for establishing legal rights against cruel treatment is the capacity to experience suffering. The ability to reason or converse is as irrelevant as skin colour.
The only relevant criterion for establishing legal rights against cruel treatment is the capacity to experience suffering.
For Bentham’s later admirers, his point should not be confined to the sphere of law. As an application of the general principle of utility it in effect furnishes the basis for animal ethics at large, for deciding quite generally how we should treat and otherwise relate to animals. There is hardly an animal welfare or rights organization whose website does not contain an approving citation of Bentham’s famous line. Indeed, it has become a virtual slogan for the whole animal liberation movement over the last few decades.
Some of the enthusiastic responses to Bentham’s remark are certainly misinformed. On one animal rights website, for example, it is stated that Bentham was a ‘pioneer of animal rights’. This is doubly wrong.
First, he did not think that animals could have any rights except those granted to them by the law. In another of his most frequently quoted remarks, he wrote that the idea of non-legal rights — of ‘natural’ or ‘human’ rights — was ‘nonsense on stilts’, a left-over from a theistic ethics that, as a convinced atheist, Bentham entirely rejected. Those philosophers, therefore, who do think animals have moral rights are not disciples, but critics, of Bentham.
On one animal rights website it is stated that Bentham was a ‘pioneer of animal rights’. This is doubly wrong.
Second, Bentham was hardly a ‘pioneer’ in speaking up for animals and deploring the suffering that they experience at human hands. Plutarch, Pliny the Younger and Montaigne in the West, and Jains, Buddhists and Daoists further East had complained just as emphatically.
Neither of these points call into question the truth or importance of Bentham’s remark. That animals suffer is, it seems, something that even today needs emphasising. In a recent survey, over half of the inspectors for the UK’s largest animal welfare organization identify the main reason for animal cruelty as people’s failure to appreciate the suffering they cause. Remarkably, too, there has been a perceived need in the UK to introduce into Parliament an Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill that would legally require recognition of ‘all vertebrate animals and some invertebrate animals as sentient beings.’
Not even those animal rights theorists critical of Bentham deny the relevance of suffering: for them, it is typically a significant reason why animals should be regarded as morally ‘considerable’, as subjects of rights. Their complaint against Bentham is that causing suffering is not the only way to do wrong to an animal. Painlessly killing or experimenting on them will also be wrong if, as many hold, animals have a right not to be killed or exploited for human advantage.
There is no need, however, to espouse the idea of animal rights in order to judge that Bentham’s position is too constrictive, and that the infliction of suffering is not the only way in which to treat animals badly. Champions of virtue ethics, for instance, will identify human failings responsible for bad attitudes and practices towards animals, but not all of which - unlike cruelty and hard-heartedness — are responsible for pain and suffering. Indifference towards the extinction of a species, laughing at animals for their perceived ugliness or stupidity, a readiness to have pets put down when they become inconvenient … these are among the countless ways in which, though no suffering may be caused, people are reasonably condemned for their attitudes to animals.
Painlessly killing or experimenting on animals will also be wrong if, as many hold, animals have a right not to be killed or exploited for human advantage.
Might Bentham concede the point being made by his critics? His remark was made, after all, when writing about the standing of animals in legal systems, not about the treatment of animals in general. So, perhaps he meant that while, from a legal perspective, suffering is the only relevant consideration, this may not be the case when it comes to how, in everyday life, animals should be regarded and treated. But this would be to ignore Bentham’s uncompromising utilitarianism, which does not allow for any morally relevant considerations other than those of pain and pleasure, happiness and suffering.
So we should take Bentham to mean that, as his followers these days often put it, the capacity to suffer is the sole ground of the moral status or considerability of animals. It is the goal of minimising their suffering that should, by itself, determine our moral concern for animals. And if this is what he intended, then critics are right to accuse Bentham of having an unacceptably constricted view of this moral concern. As we’ll see, however, this is not for the reason that rival moral theorists — notably those who assert the moral rights of animals — typically provide. Indeed, their positions share the limitations of the utilitarian one.
To recognise these limitations, it is helpful, for a moment, to consider the implausibility of Bentham’s remark when it is applied, not to our relations with animals, but with each other.
Take, for example, the question of how a good father should regard and treat his children. Certainly he wants to protect them from harm and suffering, but this hardly exhausts what is expected of him. He will, for instance, encourage his sons or daughters to develop their talents, discuss their emotional problems with them, express affection and sympathy, and ensure them a suitable education. He will, moreover, have the feelings that we expect from a good father. There is something wrong with a man who is indifferent to the successes and failures of his daughter, even if he puts on a good show of caring. Important, too, among the paternal virtues is a recognition of and engagement with the ways his children think, reason, talk and more generally communicate. How he acts towards them will, quite rightly, be shaped in part by what they think and say. Insensitivity to their exercise of their capacities to reason and communicate would be culpable.
It would be barely less constricting to propose that, in our relationships of care to animals, the only concern is the minimising of suffering. Consider, for example, a woman who has dogs as pets. As a good pet owner, she will, of course, call the vet when a dog is in pain or ill: she will be sensitive to the dog’s suffering. But there is much else to expect in a good relationship with a pet. Our dog owner will not dress him in a tuxedo and ‘marry’ him to another dog wearing a bridal gown; she won’t put him down when he is no longer a cuddly puppy; she won’t, when he dies, feed his carcass to the crows; she’ll be responsive to his moods, his joy or depression; she’ll try to communicate with him and understand what he thinks and wants; she will, in lots of small ways, let him share in her life, so that he is a companion and friend, not a ‘mere’ pet.
I spoke earlier of a father’s relationship with his children, but I could as well have spoken of a colleague’s relationship with his fellow workers or a teacher’s with her students. And, instead of a dog owner’s relationship with a pet, my example might have been that of a farmer’s — or a conservationist’s, hunter’s or zoo worker’s — relationship with the animals with which they engage. In all these cases, the same point would apply: a morally responsible relationship will involve, but certainly not be exhausted by, a concern to protect the human beings or animals engaged with from suffering. Compassion for creatures who suffer is one, but not the only, virtue to exercise in relation to animals, any more than it is in relation to fellow human beings.
Someone may object that while, no doubt, there are many desiderata in how people relate to their fellows and to animals, the only strictly moral one is a concern to prevent or alleviate harm and suffering. The respect for her dog, for example, shown by the woman who refuses to dress him in a tuxedo or treat his dead body as carrion may be admirable, but not on moral grounds.
Compassion for creatures who suffer is one, but not the only, virtue to exercise in relation to animals.
This objection reflects a tendency in modern ethics to uncouple morality from the notion of the good life — of what the Greeks called eudaimonia and the Buddhists ‘wholesomeness’. The task of moral reflection, for many moderns, is to identify a principle — like Bentham’s principle of utility or Kant’s categorical imperative — that will dictate how in general anyone should act towards any other being that, because of its sentience, rationality or whatever, qualifies for moral regard. But this kind of reflection has little to offer a person trying to live well in relation to the people or animals that — as father, teacher, dog owner, zoo keeper — he or she engages with in everyday life. As the Daoists point out, something has already gone wrong with the life of a person who needs to consult principles in order to comport themselves in their ordinary dealings with others.
On this narrow understanding of morality, perhaps Bentham was right to propose that the sole moral requirement in our dealings with animals is to minimise their suffering. But then the criticism will be that this is just one of many ingredients essential to living well in relation to animals, and hence to the good life as a whole. Just the same criticism could be levelled against those who think that our moral dealings with animals are confined to protecting their alleged rights.
Perhaps what is needed is less moral theory and more a kind of moral phenomenology.
It is unfortunate, in my judgement, that ethical reflection on our relationships with animals has become dominated by general theories of moral status and principles, like utilitarianism and ‘rights’ theory. Perhaps what is needed is less moral theory and more a kind of moral phenomenology. I have in mind attention to and cultivation of our experience of animals in the many complex contexts in which our lives intersect with theirs. As Mary Midgley and J.M. Coetzee have eloquently argued, the problem with our attitudes to and treatment of animals is less a failure to acknowledge some moral truths or principles than a failure to see and appreciate the creatures for what they are. Would people be quite so ready to snare a fox if they saw him as a social being with ties of affection and emotion to a family that is dependent upon his finding food?
I use terms like ‘see’ and ‘experience’, for what moral phenomenology invites is not mere recognition of some propositional truths, like ‘Mice can feel pain’, ‘Dogs are able to love’, or ‘Foxes have families’. A person can happily acknowledge that these propositions are true, but then pass on and ignore what they might mean for his or her comportment towards animals. They don’t register with such persons, don’t go deep with them.
Would people be quite so ready to snare a fox if they saw him as a social being with ties of affection and emotion to a family?
The task of moral phenomenology is educative and practical, not merely academic: it is to encourage people to be mindful of the animal lives with which they engage, to see and experience the animals in ways that will spontaneously prompt compassion, respect, solicitude, and even humility and admiration. Not every mindful person, of course, will then develop such a sensibility: there are people who will remain stone-hearted or indifferent. But then people like this will also remain unmoved by exhortations to abide by moral principles or to honour their obligations to creatures with rights.
So, is the only question ‘Can they suffer’?
Bentham’s remark, recall, was in the context of advocating the legal protection of animals, and it can certainly be argued that prevention of cruel treatment is the most central, if not the only, component in enlightened animal legislation. Nor, of course, should anyone deny the importance of alleviating or preventing animal suffering in the conduct of everyday life. But, as a guide to how people should relate to animals and engage with them, Bentham’s criterion is badly limited. Like the father whose only concern is to protect his children from suffering, the person whose attitudes and comportment towards animals are dictated by a comparable ambition is morally stunted.
David E. Cooper is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Durham University, UK. He has been a visiting professor in several countries, including the USA, Canada, Malta, Germany and Sri Lanka. He has been the Chair or President of a number of academic societies, including The Aristotelian Society and The Nietzsche Society of Great Britain. His many books include World Philosophies: An Historical Introduction, The Measure of Things: Humanism, Humility and Mystery, A Philosophy of Gardens, and Animals and Misanthropy. He is also the author of three novels set in Sri Lanka.