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?

R. I. P. Prince Philip, Master Logician and Cricket Fan.

Of all the over-hasty remarks Prince Philip made from time to time in a life devoted to public service, my favourite concerned a hypothetical and homicidal cricketer. It was an unfortunate attempt at the logical analysis of firearms legislation following the Dunblane shootings: “If a cricketer, for instance, suddenly decided to go into a school and batter a lot of people to death with a cricket bat, which he could do very easily, I mean, are you going to ban cricket bats?” In terms of sheer off-the-wall Britishness this is hard to beat. Since hearing it so many years ago, I still retain an indelible image of this mythical cricketer, all padded up in whites, setting off on his fatal spree, “which he could do very easily”. A Monty Python moment. Or a nightmare novel of Middle England.

John Stuart Mill on Eccentricity

I’ve always felt that the following utterance, in praise of eccentricity, is slightly problematic. What I believe it is not, and could easily be mistaken for, is a get-out-of-jail-free card for anyone who imagines that self-proclaiming buffoonery is a badge of individuality, originality, healthy dissent so on. Discuss. ☺️

In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.

John Stuart Mill on War

A useful mini-primer by JSM, for whenever one needs gently to moderate the zeal of an over-militant pacifist…

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice, — is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.


John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy

John Stuart Mill on Liberty

Here Mill gives the essence of his philosophical essay On Liberty, published in 1859.

This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived. No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.