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?

Samuel Johnson on Vivisection

An excerpt from my book A Very Fine Cat Indeed; A Dramatic Monologue. Having heard a tale of  cruelty from William Hogarth, Johnson turns to the horrors and futility of vivisection. My book, a monologue in which Johnson talks about his favourite cat, and about his love for animals, is available here

Touching on cruelty to beasts, I met Mr. Hogarth, the painter, at Sam Richardson’s one day. He had drawn a most accurate picture, that he shewed me, of wretches in a street. Some boys had hanged two cats by their tails, upon a lamppost that looked like gibbet. In the street beyond was a high building where a ruffian leered down from an attic. He had tied wings to a cat’s back, and tossed him out the window. The cat could be seen in mid-air, a wretched parody of Icarus, and you could but imagine the terrour that attended his descent.
“Saw you this, Sir?” said I.
“It happened in France, Sir,” said Hogarth, “where they had a Massacre of Cats.”
“Depend on it, Sir,” said I, “There are worse horrors yet, awaiting thy ingenious pencil. Among the inferior professors of medical knowledge, is a race of wretches, whose favourite amusement is to nail cats and dogs to tables and open them alive, to examine whether burning irons are felt more acutely by the bone or tendon; and whether the more
lasting agonies are produced by poison forced into the mouth, or injected into the veins. What is alleged in defence of those hateful practices, every one knows; but the truth is, that by knives, fire, and poison, knowledge is not always sought and is very seldom attained. The experiments that have been tried, are tried again; he that burned an animal with irons yesterday, will be willing to amuse himself with burning another tomorrow. He surely buys knowledge dear, who learns it at the expense of his humanity. It is time that universal resentment should arise against these horrid operations, which harden the heart, extinguish those sensations which give man confidence in man, and make the physician more dreadful than the gout or stone.”