Crossing the Insuperable Line
Times Literary Supplement, January 16, 1981
HENRY S. SALT: Animals’ Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Justice. 231pp. Centaur Press.
“Put animals into politics”. The slogan is urging a tactical move. On a strategic view of politics, animals of the other species are there already—and have been ever since the “political animal” first organized himself and colonized his environment. They constitute the most grossly and bitterly exploited class in history, the permanent lower-than-slave class whom humans wantonly imprison, eat, torture, wear and use for target-practice.
It is in terms essentially of political morality that Henry Salt, self-described “rationalist, socialist, pacifist and humanitarian”, makes his case. Reissued, with trimmings, by the Centaur Press, which thereby keeps up its honourable record on this subject and lives up to its species-reconciling name, Salt’s book was first published in 1892. It appeals not only to mercy (the other animals are not, Salt points out, criminals) but to justice, and the argument at its heart is an expansion of Jeremy Bentham’s prophecy that, having “begun by attending to the condition of the slaves”, human being will eventually extend the protection of the law to “any sensitive being”.
What, Bentham crucially asked in 1780, traces the supposedly “insuperable line” between sentient human individuals and sentient individuals of all the other kinds? “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 more conversable animal than an infant of a day, a week, or even a month old. . . . The question in not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
Bentham’s assault on “the insuperable line” was succeeded by Schopenhauer’s on (as Salt quotes him, in Howard William’s translation) those “who set themselves to work to hollow out between man and beast an enormous abyss” and, in 1975, Richard Ryder’s on “speciesism” a coinage that further expands Bentham by an analogy with the struggles against racism and sexism. That the line or abyss is as much a figment of superstition as the feudal moat between lord and serf is confirmed by the theory of evolution, though, as Richard Ryder has discerned, biologists have trapped themselves in a painful (to their victims) paradox, being scientific enough to claim that it is useful to test shampoos on rabbits’ eyes precisely because rabbits are fairly close kin to humans and yet superstitious enough to point to the supposed abyss and claim that, while it forbids them to vivisect humans, who would yield results yet more useful, it licenses them to treat the sentient and individual kin of humans as though they were things.
In an appendix Salt argues his preference for the claim that animals have rights over the theological notion that men have or may have duties towards them. His choice was correct, not merely because a right is a dynamic and political concept but because it puts the animals at the centre of the discussion. Such shifts of centre are part of the process that corrects our egocentric and anthropocentric vision in the direction of realism.
Even the legal mind of Perry Mason deceived itself when, after informing Della Street that “Karakul coats are made from one-day old, new-born lambs,” he answered her protesting “Seems a mean trick to play on the lambs” with “On the other hand, if it weren’t for the fur industry, the strain wouldn’t be cultivated, so the lamb wouldn’t be born at all”. A lamb that is never conceived because its breed is not cultivated suffers no pain or injury thereby. It does not exist to do so. Neither can I make up for infringing the rights of an individual by claiming to promote his species, and more than I am justified in murdering you in order to leave more room in the house for your children. It is only humans who stand to gain (money, fur coats and aesthetic pleasure) from the continuation of the Karakul or indeed any animal species qua species, and only humans are hypocrites enough to pretend that by profiting from killing lambs they are benefactors of lambs.
Conversely, if, centring the discussion on yourself instead of your victim, you eat a pork chop on the grounds that a pig’s life is of no value to you, you are confessing that you would as happily kill and eat your next-door neighbour if you took no pleasure in his existence and if you could get away with it. The proper question is what value that individual pig’s irreplaceable life holds from that individual pig. The answer was given by Thomas Tyson in 1682: “the lives of all beasts are as sweet to them and they as much desire to continue them as men do and as unwillingly part with them”.
Tyson is not mentioned in Salt’s bibliography, which, however, disclaims completeness and is informative and discursive on what it does cover. It disposes of the next (after Perry Mason’s) most popular fallacy, namely that human cruelty to animals is justified by the cruelty of some animals to other animals (or, as it is often put nowadays, that it is all right for humans to eat sheep because blackbirds eat worms), by quoting Humphrey Primatt in 1776: “dogs will worry and cocks will fight (though not so often, if we did not set them on) . . . Yet what is that to us? Are we dogs? Are we fighting cocks? Are they to be our tutors and instructors, that we appeal to them for arguments to justify and palliate our inhumanity.
Salt’s biography is brought up to date by a supplement that seems (not through sour grapes—I’m in) a little top-heavy with articles in philosophical journals. It is compiled by Charles Magel, a professor of philosophy in Minnesota and part of the now extensive North American branch of the movement to Put Animals into Philosophy, which in Britain is led by Roslind Godlovitch (one of the movement’s initiators, in 1971), Stephen Clark and Timothy Sprigge.
Salt’s, text, however, addresses general readers, in clear, good-humoured prose. Sadly, its chapters on slaughter, “sports” and experiments need little bringing up to date—except in the scale of the atrocities. For what Salt calls “murderous millinery” it is easy, as Peter Singer’s preface says, to read the present-day fur trade, a murder case in which even Perry Mason cannot secure an acquittal.
Salt, who lived from 1851 to 1939, was one of the progressives of the 1890s whose thinking often seems nowadays radical to the point of daring. He abandoned school-mastering at Eton for a cottage and the secretaryship of the Humanitarian League, in the course of which he collaborated with his fellow vegetarian Bernard Shaw, who also recorded his horror of the “murderous millinery” then in fashion for women.
There is a photograph of Salt in the Hodder and Stoughton symposium The Genius of Shaw, a book that ought to be in the bibliography, as indeed ought the first two volumes of Shaw’s collected letters, from which there are scraps to be picked up about Salt beyond the scope of the brief biographical bits that frame this edition. Salt’s cottage was at Tilford, Surrey, whose rusticity daunted even Shaw’s rural romanticism. Salt’s first wife, Kate, alternated with the future Mrs Shaw in playing amanuensis to Shaw—and also played transcriptions of Wagner with him at the piano.
Four hundred million individuals were killed in Britain in 1980. None of the killings was in self-defence or provoked by the victim. Indeed, those responsible would have been better off economically, and almost certainly in health, too, had they held their hand. The issue belongs not to the fringes of politics but to the core. What is taking place is the systematic oppression of one class by another, and it is perpetuated by the accustomed mechanisms in the tyrant class of convention, hypocrisy, snobbery and superstition. The line of thought that Henry Salt developed in 1892 challenges philosophy, which is now responding and responding sensitively, and, even more directly, politics. Is politics a matter of right and rights; or are we all in a conspiracy to talk political justice while secretly believing that the strong and cunning are wise to express all the blood lust they can get away with against the weak?Brigid Brophy