Bentham: The First Philosopher for Animal Rights
Two major philosophers prior to Bentham — René Descartes and Immanuel Kant — had little regard for the rights or even well-being of animals. But Bentham thought that pleasure and pain were primary considerations in the well-being of all sentient beings (beings possessing sensations), not only humans.
Early Indifference to Animals
It is hard to imagine a philosopher being more indifferent to the well-being of animals than René Descartes. According to Descartes, human beings possess the distinguishing feature of being
As a consequence of lacking souls they also lack consciousness and cannot feel pleasure or pain. Descartes's teaching is also Christian doctrine, and Descartes accepted the teaching that humans have souls created by God but animals do not. And since soul is identical to mind, if animals have no soul, they are also lacking in mind. And if they have no mind, they cannot feel pain. In order to feel pain a mind is needed.
Jeremy Bentham's philosophy of social hedonism did not mean that everyone was entitled to live out a nonstop pleasure principle. His philosophy resembled the Epicurean philosophy. He asserted that social hedonism meant maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, which is not the same as saying that you should attend restaurants, bars, and houses of ill repute.
After Descartes, there were mixed views about the rights and well-being of animals during the Enlightenment. In his
Here Kant adopts the same view that Descartes does in asserting that animals are lacking in consciousness. Even the second version of Kant's categorical imperative enjoins people to “treat other persons (or rational beings) as ends but never as means.” But Kant allows humans to treat non-humans as they will.
The First Champion of Animal Rights
In 1780, the same year that Kant's
Here Bentham the utilitarian shows that rationality is secondary to well-being and value. Pleasures and pains form the foundation of a person's treatment toward sentient beings. Bentham implies that if you cause pain to sentient beings, then you have acted immorally. So in this way utilitarianism comes across as a more compassionate philosophy than Kant's deontology.
In the Old Testament it is stated that man shall have “dominion” over the animals. Bentham may have been the first to denounce that dominion and call it tyranny.
Animal Rights: Bentham's Legacy
Some animal rights detractors claim that nonhumans cannot possess rights. Even if this is true, it doesn't erase your duty not to harm them. You may have a duty, for example, not to destroy a famous building or religious statue, but not because the items have
According to Singer, having interests is connected to the ability to feel pleasure and pain, because the pleasure is derived from the satisfaction of an interest. Animals are different from plants in this regard. Plants have things that are
Others argue that animals need not be treated as equal to humans and that their interests ought not to be given equal weight with ours. It is because of the difference in species'
Whether or not something is cruel to an animal might be determined by the extent of the pain it experiences, as when you speak of cruelty in terms of “unnecessary” pain. But Singer found that many experiments that made use of animals as guinea pigs to test products ranging from vaccines to shampoos to antifreeze were cruel and immoral. No doubt Bentham would have drawn the same conclusion.