Jeremy Bentham on Cruelty to Animals

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) was an English philosopher, jurist and social reformer. He was the founding father of modern utilitarianism, a doctrine founded on his belief that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. Bentham is also  remembered for his lifelong commitment to prison reform and for his views on animal rights. As regards animals, Bentham strongly opposed the widespread view, advanced by Descartes and others, that animals were mere automata, complex but soulless machines, incapable of suffering. The following brief passage, from Bentham’s The Principles of Morals and Legislation, can be fairly described as a cornerstone of the modern animal rights movement.

The day may come when the rest of 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 one day come to be recognized that the number of 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 they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

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