Beastly No More

Concern for animals is rooted in our history, and in our nature

| July-August 2011

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    Corey Arnold /

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Critics of today’s animal protection movement often argue that animal welfare is ultimately a trivial matter—the product of effete modern sensibilities. But the truth is that our relationship with animals has always been profoundly important. How we treat the world’s animals is a measure of who we are. It defines our character, our moral progress, and our ability to look beyond self-interest. There’s a reason why the decent treatment of animals commands ownership of the word humane.

The care of animals and the fight against cruelty can bring out the best in the human heart—all the more so because it inspires pure altruism, with no angle or payoff. For the earliest reformers in the humane movement, religious conviction was no hindrance to an active concern for the treatment of animals. It was their greatest inspiration, and it gave them the courage to call cruelty by its name. Theirs was the spirit of Britain’s William Wilberforce, the great 19th-century Christian champion against both human slavery and cruelty to animals. Then as now, such reformist zeal was often dismissed as extreme and subversive, but Wilberforce had his answer: “If to be feeling alive to the suffering of my fellow-creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.”

The campaigners of Wilberforce’s time brought new passion to the cause, and added the first major animal welfare reforms to Western law, but they were carrying on a debate and a mission that had begun much earlier. For millennia, the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions have called followers to be compassionate toward animals, and Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism are even more solidly grounded on the principles of kindness toward all creatures. During the Middle Ages, stories of saints and their solicitude to animals provided a rich lore of tradition. Even St. Thomas Aquinas, sometimes cited to support the view that we have no direct duty to animals, recognized animal cruelty as a moral issue, because he feared it fostered wickedness.

In the early modern era, questions about cruelty and kindness were given even more serious attention. Even in 1641, while the French philosopher René Descartes was arguing that animals were automata with no souls, mind, or conscious experience of pain, New England Puritans were approving the first legal code to protect animals—the Body of Liberties, which prohibited “tyranny or cruelty towards any brute creatures which are usually kept for the use of man.”

In 1693, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education, John Locke advised parents to chastise thoughtless cruelty by their children, and within a few decades the kindness-to-animals ethic became a common theme in children’s literature. By the late 18th century, a few influential thinkers, including Jeremy Bentham and John Lawrence, were arguing that the law should extend its protection to animals. The authors and poets of the Romantic movement weighed in with admonitions against cruelty and a call to respect nature.

By the early 19th century, these moral convictions were widely shared. Although the German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed like Aquinas and Locke that humans had no direct duty to animals, he agreed that cruelty was wrong because it debased humans and hardened their hearts. Before the end of the century, in 1892, the reformer Henry Salt laid the groundwork for the modern approach to animal rights with a powerful work that makes remarkable reading even today, Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress. Salt encouraged people to “recognize the common bond of humanity that unites all living beings in one universal brotherhood.”

steve eatenson
8/22/2011 11:38:10 AM

It seems to me that we ARE animals, either evolved or mutated or deliberately put together by inbreeding between species that were here and early extraterrestrial visitors. What ever we are, we can't seem to prevent cruelty to other humans, let alone other animal species. Maybe it's time for a SPCH, (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Humans). Isn't it odd that some humans can be so cruel to one another yet show great kindness towards animals. Others of us can be kind to humans but negligent towards other animals. How odd we are. One of the cruelest things we do is keep dogs and cats, etc., as pets. They were designed to be wild and free. We've made them dependent on us for food and shelter and then we neglect to properly care for them. Keeping an animal cooped up without attention all day creates neurotic, unhealthy creatures. Then again, our answer to many social ills is the prison system so with that mentality, who could expect more of us?

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