You’re probably well acquainted with the terms ‘racism’ and ‘feminism’. But how often have you heard the term ‘speciesism’? If you’re anything like I was, then probably… never?
Black liberation, women’s suffrage, and gay rights have widely been regarded as the final hurdles to equality in the 21st century. But it only occurred to me within the last couple of years since becoming vegan that we are far from a world where all beings are treated with dignity, respect, and equal consideration. As such, I thought it would be helpful to share everything I’ve learnt with you about the history of animal rights.
We can’t dismantle systems of cruelty and oppression until we truly understand where they came from and why. And, throughout history, it’s clear that leading thinkers have shaped and defended our inherited attitudes and belief systems when it comes to our relationship with animals.
So let’s travel back through time and take a look at speciesism, where it comes from, and the ways in which we’re still under its influence even today.
What Is Speciesism?
A prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation
The term ‘speciesism’ was popularised by Peter Singer in his influential book Animal Liberation (1975). Speciesism is a belief held by humans that they are superior to all other animals, which can’t help but lead to exploitation and abuse. A speciesist will use animals as a means to an end – often for food, clothing, or experimentation – with no regard for an animal’s own individual wants, needs, and complexities.
A History of Animal Rights in the Western World
In truth, the concept of animal rights has been around for thousands of years. In particular, it has been a leading principle in Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism (which promotes the concept of ‘ahimsa’ or ‘non-harming) and Jainism (which stresses non-cruelty towards animals).
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to be focusing on Western history and attitudes. This is simply because these are the dominant ideologies driving our behaviour today.
It’s rare that we stop to question our inherited belief systems. Despite many of these being rooted in religion or debunked by science, we continue to use the same age-old excuses to make ourselves feel better about exploiting animals for our own selfish human interests.
The Old Testament: Dominion Over All Living Things
To really understand our relationship with animals, we’re going to have to go way, way back to the pre-Christian era. It’s hard to overstate the importance of The Old Testament in early beliefs that shaped society’s views towards animals. The biblical story of Genesis clearly sets the tone:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
According to the Bible, God made man ‘in his own image’, thereby giving him a special, god-like position in the universe. This entitlement doesn’t appear to have meant ‘kill’ or ‘exploit’ – at least at first. In fact, the Garden of Eden sounds like a genuine vegan paradise, in which Adam and Eve feasted on herbs and fruit. But after the fall of man, God explicitly states:
Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.
Throughout the Old Testament, there is no real challenge to the basic principle set out in Genesis that humans have a specially reserved position above other animals as the pinnacle of creation. And as you’ll see, this entitled view sets a dangerous tone for centuries of thought to come.
The Ancient Greeks: Aristotle vs Pythagoras
The other main strand of pre-Christian thought originated in ancient Greece.
If you only know Pythagoras’s name because of Year 9 Maths, then snap! What I didn’t realise is that alongside his triangle wizardry, he was also one of the earliest advocates of vegetarianism. Pythagoras encouraged kindness towards animals, urging his followers to also treat them with respect.
However, the more dominant school of thought to develop, at least where the treatment of animals is concerned, came from Aristotle. And while Aristotle gave us plenty of excellent stoic wisdom, he was certainly a product of his time.
Aristotle supported slavery, arguing that some men are slaves by nature. It’s therefore no surprise that he also believed that animals exist solely for the sake of human beings. While we share a common animal law, there is a hierarchy whereby humans have the right to rule over those with less reasoning ability (whether human or animal!).
Sadly, it was Aristotle’s views and not Pythagoras’s that became generally accepted into the fabric of Greek society and beyond (let’s just have a brief moment of appreciation for Pythagoras).
Dawn of Christianity: The Sanctity of Life
These two strands of early thought culminated in the Roman Empire. During this time, aggressive expansion meant that war was a standard part of life, which didn’t exactly foster a culture of tenderness or compassion.
Although Romans did care about things like justice, public duty and kindness, it’s clear that their moral sphere had very clear boundaries. If our Netflix was their Colosseum, then our murder documentaries were their… actual murder. The torment and killing of both people and wild animals was seen as the perfect form of weekend entertainment.
But then Christianity came along, continuing to emphasise man’s uniqueness but also bringing along with it a new idea – that of the human soul. As human beings alone were destined for life after death, it created the concept of the sanctity of all human life.
While this was great news for humans (and in many ways progressive for Roman society), it didn’t do animals any favours. Plus, the New Testament didn’t go out of its way to condemn animal cruelty or encourage respect. As such, wild animals were used in blood sports well into the Christian era, with bullfighting continuing to this day in parts of Spain and Latin America.
A Roundabout Consideration From Aquinas
Time marches on, but it’s worth pausing before the Reformation to shine a quick spotlight on Thomas Aquinas. His Christian views are strongly echoed by later thinkers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant.
While he had an awareness that killing for food isn’t strictly necessary (i.e. we can survive on plants), he took the stance that only those “more perfect” (aka humans) are entitled to kill. He believes the only wrongs a human can commit are those against God, himself, or a neighbour. And because animals aren’t competent, can’t speak, and don’t ‘possess good’, they aren’t worthy of moral consideration.
So far, this is sounding suspiciously like a rehash of Aristotle. But he does qualify this with the view that it’s better not to be cruel to animals because it may lead to violence against human beings:
Now it is evident that if a man practices a pitiable affection for animals, he is all the more disposed to take pity on his fellow men.
On the surface of things, this train of thought does go some way to help the plight of animals. But fundamentally, it doesn’t give animals any consideration in and of themselves as sentient beings, i.e. outside of their relationship with humans.
Renaissance Humanism: “Man Is the Measure of All Things”
The 14th-16th centuries can in many ways be seen as the beginning of modern thought. But they can just as accurately be summed up as the era of self-indulgence.
During this time, there was a particular emphasis placed on the value and dignity of human beings… and their central place in the universe. Rather than dwelling on original sin or human weakness compared to God, the focus was decidedly on human beings as the holders of free will, potential and dignity. This was in stark contrast to “lower animals.”
Like the sanctity of life, Renaissance Humanism undoubtedly contributed towards human progress. But it only caused a wider gulf in perception between animals and humans.
From Bad to Rock Bottom: Descartes & Animals as Automata
If you thought it couldn’t get much worse for animals, then think again. The 17th century heralded the philosophy of René Descartes, who is particularly famous for developing his ‘mechanistic’ view of the universe. According to Descartes, there are two types of being – those of the spirit/soul and those of the physical/material.
As animals don’t have a soul, he came to the worrying conclusion that they also don’t have consciousness. This means that they are essentially no more than machines. They experience neither pleasure nor pain. A bit like a clock, any noises animals make are simply the reaction of the springs and mechanisms inside.
I’ll just pause here to say that if you’ve ever owned a pet yourself, then you’re probably wondering how on earth this theory came to be so widely accepted, other than it handily removing any sense of responsibility towards animals. Descartes even admits this:
My opinion is not so much cruel to animals as indulgent to men – at least to those who are not given to the superstitions of Pythagoras – since it absolves them from the suspicion of crime when they eat or kill animals.
Around this time, animal testing became much more widespread in Europe, which had devastating consequences for many animals. Descartes’s mechanistic theory allowed unlimited live experimentation (aka vivisection), often performed without any anaesthetic.
Age of Enlightenment: The Only Way Is Up
All of this experimentation backfired quite spectacularly, because opening up animals only served to highlight that there are in fact remarkable similarities between the inner workings of humans and other species. Descartes’s views started to look less and less plausible.
While it didn’t lead to any major changes in the treatment of animals, there was a gradual shift in recognition over the 18th century that animals can suffer and should be given some consideration.
Animals were still a million miles away from having rights (and barely even interests, as these were superseded by those of humans). But the main theme of the era was more kindness, less brutality. Scottish philosopher David Hume summed it up when he said that we are:
Bound up by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures.
Around the same time came Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the father of Romanticism, and the idealisation of the natural world. By seeing ourselves as ‘noble savages’ at one with nature, we regained some kinship with ‘the beasts’.
Jeremy Bentham Asks “Can They Suffer?”
A little later, Jeremy Bentham argued that it was the ability to suffer that should be the benchmark for how we treat other beings:
The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
It is the capacity for suffering, he states, which gives the right to equal consideration. After all, if rationality or intelligence were the criteria, then many humans (including very young children and the disabled) might also in theory be treated no better than animals.
Comparing the position of animals to that of black slaves, he is perhaps the first to radically question man’s dominion over animals (aka a traditionally ‘speciesist’ view). While he never goes so far as to say that animals and humans should have the same rights, there is at least an acknowledgement that an animal’s interests should be taken into consideration.
I should point out that despite all this good stuff, he still accepted that animals could be killed for food and didn’t object to experiments on animals, as long as they didn’t undergo ‘unnecessary’ suffering. He also ascribed in part to Aquinas’s view, worrying that cruelty to animals might encourage cruel behaviour towards humans, too.
First Legislation: The Martin Act & Formation of the RSPCA
The 19th century saw the early introduction of legislation against ‘unwanton’ cruelty towards animals. Although progress was a hard slog, which just goes to show the entrenched attitudes of the day.
The first to succeed was Richard Martin, an Irish landowner and member of parliament, with his bill for The Treatment of Horses. Even this was at first defeated in 1821. It was famously laughed out of the House of Commons, with scoffs that people would be asking for rights for ‘asses, dogs and cats’ next (what a crazy thought, hey).
Martin was influential and convincing, so the bill was finally passed in 1822. This meant that the mistreatment of certain domestic animals was a punishable offence for the first time (of course, it had to be framed as a measure to protect a landowner’s private property, rather than for the sake of animals themselves). Amendments extended Martin’s Act into The Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835, which outlawed cockfighting, baiting, and dog fighting.
However, it quickly became clear to Martin that it wasn’t being taken very seriously. For starters, it wasn’t reliably enforced. But more to the point, the victims couldn’t make a complaint. So he began the first welfare organisation – The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (which later became the RSPCA in 1840).
The Influence of Arthur Schopenhauer
The growing awareness of the need for animal protection in England at this time was strongly supported by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. He described the attitude of Western philosophy as crude in comparison to Buddhist and Hindu teachings:
Thus, because Christian morality leaves animals out of account… they are at once outlawed in philosophical morals; they are mere “things,” mere means to any ends whatsoever. They can therefore be used for vivisection, hunting, coursing, bullfights, and horse racing, and can be whipped to death as they struggle along with heavy carts of stone. Shame on such a morality that is worthy of pariahs, chandalas, and mlechchhas, and that fails to recognize the eternal essence that exists in every living thing.
That said, just like Bentham, his sympathy still had limits that stopped short of the innate worth of an animal’s life. As long as their death was short and painless, he reasoned, men would suffer more by not eating animals than animals would suffer by being eaten. He also argued that meat was essential for survival for those living in colder, more northerly climates (scraping the barrel of excuses, much?).
Charles Darwin & The Descent of Man
Charles Darwin wrote an innocent little sentence in one of his early notebooks:
Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of a deity. More humble and, I believe, true, to consider him created from animals.
This seed grew into the 1859 text ‘Origin of Species’, in which Darwin outlines his theory of evolution; the idea that one species can evolve out of another. However, he deliberately left out any mention of humans having descended from animals (despite having extensive notes), as he believed that it would be one step too far for people to accept.
Only when many of his contemporaries had accepted his earlier work did he publish ‘The Descent of Man’, in which he points out how differences between humans and animals are not so great as previously assumed:
We have seen… love, memory, attention and curiosity, imitation, reason etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.
What Does This New Knowledge Mean?
It’s safe to say that minds were blown. Darwin’s work shook the basis of traditional Christian thought to its very core, challenging the speciesist view that God put us on a lofty pedestal to do as we pleased.
As with any kind of new knowledge, there was a barrage of initial resistance. But interestingly, it didn’t change our attitudes towards animals as much as you might think it would (never underestimate the power of ingrained cultural beliefs).
Even Darwin himself, recognising the innate similarities between men and animals, continued to eat meat and refused to sign a petition from the RSPCA pressing for legislative control of animal experimentation. The rather hypocritical view can be summed up by T. H. Huxley, one of Darwin’s greatest supporters, when he said:
No one is more strongly convinced than I am of the vastness of the gulf between civilised man and the brutes; our reverence for the nobility of mankind will not be lessened by the knowledge that man is, in substance and in structure, one with the brutes.
In other words, despite all evidence to the contrary, the speciesist view that animals exist to serve the needs of human beings still holds strong.
Increasing Pressure to Reform
Towards the end of the 19th century, there was growing concern for animals. In 1875, Francis Power Cobbe founded The Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection – the world’s first organisation opposed to animal experimentation.
Around the same time, feminist Anna Kingsford not only became one of the first English women to graduate in medicine – she insisted on doing so without experimenting on animals. She went on to promote a vegetarian diet in her 1881 book ‘The Perfect Way in Diet’, founded the Food Reform Society, and was a vocal campaigner against research on animals.
Then, in 1894, Henry Salt introduced the idea of animals being ‘rights bearers’ in and of themselves (rather than the begrudging legislation passed because they were the property of men):
We must get rid of the antiquated notion of a ‘great gulf’ fixed between them and mankind, and must recognize the common bond of humanity that unites all living beings in one universal brotherhood.
Despite this, many scientists around this time became hardened to cries for animal protection. They thought it was dangerous to anthropomorphise animals, and judged any sympathy as ‘unscientific’. In true Descartes fashion, this allowed them to keep doing what they were doing well into the 20th century, without a shred of remorse.
WWII & the Rise of Industrial Farming
The English Vegetarian Society had been formed in 1847, with those who chose not to consume any animal products being labelled ‘strict vegetarians’. But it wasn’t until 1944 that Donald Watson and several other members broke away over the contentious issue of dairy and eggs, and formed The British Vegan Society.
Despite these developments and some animal welfare legislation progress, animals still had no legal rights. It’s telling that Henry Salt wrote:
A Vegetarian is still regarded, in ordinary society, as little better than a madman.
Particularly towards the end of WWII, the situation began to deteriorate again for animals. This was due in part to the exponential increase in animal testing, but mostly the development of modern factory farming methods.
Industrial practices meant that millions (to become billions) of animals were now being raised and killed for food on a scale that would scarcely have been considered possible before the war.
'Equal Consideration' vs 'Subjects of a Life'
Inspired by Ruth Harrison’s 1964 book ‘Animal Machines’, which shone a light on intensive factory farming, there was an explosion of interest in animal rights in the 1970s.
Peter Singer’s ‘Animal Liberation’ is probably the most influential text to have come out of this period, and is now considered one of the seminal texts of the animal rights movement. Although in truth, he isn’t really arguing for ‘animal rights’, but rather an equal consideration of interests.
Interestingly, the work focuses on the question of suffering as opposed to whether or not it’s right to kill an animal (this is philosophical territory he seems unwilling to get into). So while he does advocate for vegetarianism, he doesn’t seem too worried about veganism – even though he acknowledges that it involves the slaughter of billions of male chicks and the premature death of layer hens.
In contrast, Tom Regan – a lesser-known voice – went a step further in his book ‘The Case for Animal Rights’, stating that non-human animals are ‘subjects of a life’ and therefore have an inherent right to life. While Singer and Regan are technically ‘on the same side’, there is a crucial distinction between the utilitarian and abolitionist approach.
Where Does All This Leave Us in 2023?
We’re such a progressive society in many ways, but we find ourselves in a strange, unsustainable limbo period where animals still have no rights.
We segregate them into neat groups like ‘pets’ and ‘food’ to stamp out any feelings of guilt. So we are silently complicit in the mass-scale suffering and slaughter of billions of sentient animals, and yet simultaneously shocked and appalled by someone abusing their dog.
There is still a widely held view that as long as animals are treated ‘well’, there is no problem with using them for human ends. But this is still speciesism in disguise. We can readily accept an animal losing their life (a major interest for them) to satisfy our tastebuds (a minor interest for us). But what if the shoe was on the other foot? Would we be okay living for a fraction of our natural lifespan, so long as we’d been treated ‘well’ up to that point?
As long as animals are treated as ‘objects’ or ‘things’, there will always be exploitation and abuse, because we cannot truly care about animal welfare if their lives don’t matter. As with other major social justice movements, there is always a tipping point… and it looks like the tide is turning. It’s up to us which side of history we end up on.