The Beast in Man
The New York Review of Books, April 30, 1981 - Volume 28, Number 7
Animals' Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress
by Henry S. Salt, revised edition with a preface by Peter Singer
Society for Animal Rights, 421 South State Street, Clarks Summit,, 232 pp., $9.95
Reckoning with the Beast: Animals, Pain, and Humanity in the Victorian Mind
by James Turner
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 190 pp., $14.00
Anyone who thinks that the concern with animal liberation is merely a fad of the last ten years would do well to consider Henry Salt's Animals' Rights, a work first published in 1892. In his preface to the new reprint Peter Singer, author of the widely celebrated Animal Liberation (1975), justly remarks that modern defenders of animals, himself included, have been able to add relatively little to the case outlined by this half-forgotten writer nearly ninety years ago. Indeed modern opponents of animal rights have produced very few arguments which Salt had not already attempted to answer.
Henry S. Salt (1851-1939) does not appear in the Dictionary of National Biography, though his posthumous influence may yet prove to be greater than that of many of the minor notabilities whose lives are recorded in that eminently respectable work.* He was the son of a colonel in the Indian army and was educated at Eton, where he later returned as a master. In his early thirties he threw up this conventional career and went to live a frugal, Thoreau-like life in a Surrey cottage, devoting himself to the propagation of socialism and a wide range of humanitarian causes. He became the friend and mentor of George Bernard Shaw and his early work, A Plea for Vegetarianism (1886), had a deep influence upon Mahatma Gandhi.
His case on behalf of animals was uncompromising. He deplored all practices which inflicted unnecessary cruelty upon sentient beings. He attacked the ill-treatment of domestic animals and the slaughter of wild ones. He opposed hunting and vivisection; and he bitterly criticized the fashion trade in furs and feathers ("murderous millinery"). He maintained that the slaughter of living creatures for food was both repugnant and unnecessary. Above all, he urged that animals, no less than men, had rights to just treatment and to full self-development. (Pet-keeping he thought morally reprehensible because it involved treating animals as mere play-things.) Salt's religion was what he called the Creed of Kinship: a belief that one day men would recognize both their brotherhood with each other and their close affinity with all other sentient species.
Cool and reasonable in tone, Animals' Rights was a masterpiece of its kind; and it remains one of the most lucid and persuasive of all the books written in defense of animals. Yet it was very far from being the first work on the subject. In his original edition Salt included a bibliographical appendix listing other works, stretching back to the eighteenth century, in which the position of animals had been discussed and conclusions of a very similar kind reached. Today that list could be greatly extended, for the last decade has seen a torrent of writing on the subject (particularly in university philosophy departments, if we are to judge by the valuable fifty-page bibliography contributed by Charles R. Magel to the new edition of Salt's book). Yet the present debate over the status of animals is not a new departure, but merely the revival of the earlier and equally bitter controversy that raged in both Britain and the United States throughout the nineteenth century.
The scale of the animal protection movement during that period had no real precedent. It was only in the nineteenth century that pressure groups were formed, systematic agitation conducted, and, from 1822 onward, a series of laws concerning animals put on the statute books. In the second half of the nineteenth century the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals became the largest voluntary organization in Britain.
Yet only a few hundred years earlier it had been generally assumed that animals were created for the benefit of man. Human dominion was absolute. Beasts lacked immortal souls and to talk of their possessing "rights" would have seemed absurd. Why was it that attitudes were so dramatically transformed? Why did an increasing number of people come to deplore the ill-treatment of animals? Why did both England and the United States see the passage of legislation forbidding cruelty, protecting wild species, and enforcing, if not the rights of animals, then at least the duties of humans?
This difficult problem was discussed long ago in the now scarce and forgotten work of Dix Harwood, Love of Animals and How It Developed in Great Britain (New York, 1928), itself perhaps a worthy candidate for reissue. More recently the question has been considered by several historians of ideas. It cannot be said that any definitive answer has emerged, but most discussions of the subject have tended to stress one or more of three distinct influences which may be respectively labeled moral, scientific, and material.
The moral influence was the Judeo-Christian tradition of stewardship, according to which man's duty was to cherish God's creation. From the fifteenth century onward theologians urged that it was sinful to cause unnecessary cruelty to animals. This argument left much room for debate on what forms of cruelty were or were not "unnecessary," but in the early modern period it developed into a powerful case against the inconsiderate treatment of the lower species. In the eighteenth century this theological approach was reinforced by the more secular and utilitarian doctrine that the happiness of all sentient beings should be maximized. "Pain is pain," wrote Humphrey Primatt in 1776, "whether it be inflicted on man or beast." In the Victorian debate both theological and utilitarian arguments were prominent.
The second influence was the demonstration by scientists from the late seventeenth century onward of substantial similarities in anatomy and intelligence between man and the great apes. It culminated in the Darwinian revelation that men and beasts had a common ancestry. The exploitation of animals, it is argued, became much harder to accept after the disclosure of their genealogical relationship to man.
The third influence was that of material circumstances. So long as men and wild beasts were engaged in direct conflict for material resources, kindness to animals remained an impossible luxury. It was the triumph of the human species (symbolized in England by the disappearance after the fifteenth century of the wolf) which permitted the rise of more tolerant attitudes to wild nature. In due course the Industrial Revolution freed men from economic dependence upon animal labor. As animals became marginal to the process of production it became possible to take a more indulgent attitude to their welfare. The middle classes regarded animals as pets, to be maintained for emotional gratification, not for economic purposes. (In the same way indulgent attitudes to children became more widespread when child labor ceased to be an economic necessity.)
These general considerations have yet to be convincingly related to the actual progress of thought and legislation on animal welfare. James Turner's Reckoning with the Beast is a short monograph on the movements for animal protection in nineteenth-century Britain and the United States. The author is well read in the sources of the period and has some original points to make. But his general explanation for the rise of the animal protection movement seems strained and unconvincing. For in preference to more conventional explanations, Mr. Turner offers an interpretation which is best described as psychohistorical. To him the movement on behalf of animals is to be understood as the means by which middle-class Victorians tried to lessen the emotional anxieties they felt about other matters.
These anxieties, he suggests, took several distinct forms. One was the trauma produced by the scientific demonstration of the kinship of man and beast. The discovery of the beast in man, urges Mr. Turner, frightened the Victorians. It generated such fantasies as Robert Louis Stevenson's bestial Mr. Hyde and Cesare Lombroso's concept of the "criminal type," whose brain and facial structure closely resembled those of an ape. Forced to confront their own animality, the Victorians preached kindness to animals as "the surest refutation of the human being's bestial savagery." The animal protection movement thus "served as a sort of intellectual pacifier for the thousands of literate individuals who had now to live with the idea of the cousinhood of man and brute."
This explanation for the growth of kindness to animals seems to ignore the fact that the idea of the beast in man was at least as old as Plato. But Mr. Turner does not regard Darwinism as the only source of Victorian anxiety for which animal protection "provided a kind of therapy." An even greater worry was the growth of industrialization. Mr. Turner suggests that the Industrial Revolution encouraged the new concern for animals in three separate ways. First, it created the need for labor-discipline. Bull-baiting, cock-fighting, and the other cruel sports were features of the old rural order. They had to be eliminated to make room for the new factory ethic. Secondly, industrialization tore men away from the natural world.
The entire developing ethos of kindness to animals reflected the worries and psychological stresses of a once-agrarian society suffering the trauma of modernization…. By standing up for the animals that they or their ancestors had left behind, city dwellers could ease the need to feel a sense of kinship with their rural past.The defense of animals was "a psychological bulwark against modernization."
Thirdly, the Industrial Revolution confronted the middle classes with the squalor and misery of working-class life. According to Mr. Turner, the animal protection movement was a convenient form of evasion. It provided an outlet for compassionate feelings which might otherwise have challenged the new industrial order. By alleviating animal suffering, the middle classes could lessen the guilt they felt about the plight of the proletariat. "Might not some of these uneasy Victorians," asks Mr. Turner, "have subconsciously transferred their charitable impulses from the forbidden ground of the working-class slums to a more acceptable object of benevolence?"
To such a question one can only answer: well, yes, they might, and then again they might not. As Mr. Turner confesses, "this sort of displacement of guilt from exploited workers to maltreated brutes would be impossible to document." His only evidence is the tendency of some middle-class writers to use the same language for both animals and workers. Both were perceived as either docile servants to be praised for their industry and loyalty or wild beasts who needed to be tamed, disciplined, and educated. On the basis of such verbal analogies, Mr. Turner concludes that the movement for animal protection relieved the consciences of people mildly worried about the condition of the laboring poor. For those who wanted "to protest the sordid acquisitiveness of Victorian capitalism, but not too loudly," the animal welfare movement "opened…a path toward peace of mind."
Even so, there were strict limits to what these defenders of animals were prepared to do. Mr. Turner rightly emphasizes the caution displayed by the British SPCA. Lewis Gompertz, its first secretary, was too extreme for most of its members. A vegetarian Jew who would not even ride in a carriage for fear of causing cruelty to the horses, Gompertz was much too radical to remain in charge of what was meant to be a highly respectable pressure group. He resigned his office in 1832 and founded the rival Animals' Friend Society, which did not rejoin the RSPCA until after his death. Both in Britain and in the US the SPCAS were solidly middle-class, hostile to anything unconventional, and drawing the line at vegetarianism. By following an exceedingly moderate policy, they successfully domesticated the new concern for animal welfare. "The harmless, unoffending, cheerfully hopeless character of SPCA reform," concludes Mr. Turner, "was a main reason for its wide appeal."
The one conspicuous exception to the policy of cautious moderation was the passionate attack launched in the last three decades of the nineteenth century upon scientific vivisection. Mr. Turner is quick to spot the "inflated rhetoric" and "offensively low level" of the anti-vivisectionist propaganda. "Anxieties trembling beneath the surface of Victorian culture erupted now into the full light of day." Although there was a genuine dislike for anything which caused pain to sentient beings, it was, once again according to Mr. Turner, not the animals who were the real object of concern. The true enemy was scientific materialism. People felt "threatened" when cultivated persons could cold-bloodedly torture animals in pursuit of scientific truth. "Science simply baffled antivivisectionists." Only when the doctors showed that diphtheria had been dramatically reduced as a result of knowledge gained through experiments on animals did the hostility to vivisection subside. Scientists appropriated the new humane sensibility to themselves, developing the picture of the white-coated life-saver and agent of mercy.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Mr. Turner thinks, the compassion of which animals had hitherto been the chief recipient could be safely allowed to influence attitudes to other social problems. "In 1800 sympathy was a tenuous, fitful, and often superficial response to the distress of others. By 1900 compassion for suffering was second nature." A "revolution in feeling" had occurred. "Modernization had stood midwife to a new sensibility." The movement for animal welfare had helped to generate that dispassionate concern for the sufferings of others which Mr. Turner regards as a distinctive feature of modern Anglo-American culture.
Even after several rereadings, Mr. Turner's argument remains too protean and elusive to be confidently assessed. But it seems to have three obvious weaknesses. The first is the author's marked reluctance to take anything which Victorian animal lovers said at its face value. Like those historians who assume that opponents of black slavery were really trying to legitimate the capitalist system by showing its superior humanity, he seems unwilling to believe that there really were people who wanted to reduce the sufferings of sentient beings, not because of some ulterior motive or secret anxiety, but because they thought cruelty to animals was wrong tout court. Although he urges his readers not to mock the Victorians, he comes near to doing so himself, remarking that "the insecure, guilt-ridden new middle classes" of the nineteenth century had an "almost childlike faith" in progress, even though "violence always lurked around the corner in the Victorians' unlovely world." Perhaps it is now not the working classes but the bourgeoisie who need to be rescued from what E.P. Thompson called "the enormous condescension of posterity."
The second objection to Mr. Turner's argument is that it exaggerates the extent to which kindness to animals was a means of evading other social problems. He is right to stress the stuffy respectability of the RSPCA and its relative indifference to the condition of the working classes. But the concern for animal welfare was essentially part of a much wider movement involving the spread of humane feelings to sufferers of every kind. In the mid-seventeenth century a writer who wanted a law banning cruel animal sports could also condemn torture and brutal executions as acts "of cruelty and too much insulting over our poor fellow creatures." In the eighteenth century many defenders of animals were simultaneously active in other spheres of social reform, whether in attacking the slave trade, the beating of children, the treatment of agricultural laborers, or the cruelties of the poor law.
In 1791 the vegetarian John Oswald hailed the French Revolution as offering hope to animals as well. As "the barbarous governments of Europe" gave way "to a better system of things," he felt confident that "the growing sentiment of peace and goodwill towards men" would "embrace in a wider circle of benevolence the lower orders of life." This is what Henry Salt would claim a hundred years later: "The emancipation of men from cruelty and injustice will bring in due course the emancipation of animals also. The two reforms are inseparably connected and neither can be fully realised alone."
Finally, Mr. Turner's argument fails to satisfy because he exaggerates the novelty of the nineteenth-century concern for animal suffering. Although recognizing that the movement had earlier roots, he seems to underrate the intensity of this earlier feeling. It was not in nineteenth-century England that the first law against cruelty to animals was passed, but in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, which in 1641 prohibited "tyranny or cruelty towards any brute creatures which are usually kept for the use of man."
Mr. Turner is wrong to suggest that before 1800 the morality of killing animals for food "hardly bothered" people. On the contrary, it was a subject of perpetual debate; and there were many who, like Sir Isaac Newton, found "a frightful contradiction" between accepting that animals could feel and making them suffer for the sake of human beings. In the sixteenth century the martyrologist John Foxe wrote that "such is my disposition that I can scarce pass the shambles where beasts are slaughtered but my mind recoils with a feeling of pain." In 1756 the naturalist Gilbert White planted four lime trees at Selborne between his house and the butcher's yard opposite, thus neatly symbolizing a growing desire, if not to abolish slaughterhouses, then at least to hide them from public gaze.
It was this long-felt uneasiness among meat-eaters which the defenders of animals would exploit. As Henry Salt observed of animal castration, it was a disagreeable subject and one about which most people did not care to think, "probably from an unconscious perception that the established custom could scarcely survive the critical ordeal of thought." Salt was aware that his humanitarian convictions would be laughed at as "ridiculous." But in the twentieth century the intensified conflict between our emotional sensibilities and our material dependence on animal food goes far to justify his retort that "already there are not a few signs that the laugh will rest ultimately with the humanitarians."
* He is the subject of a brief recent study by George Hendrick, Henry Salt, Humanitarian Reformer and Man of Letters (University of Illinois Press, 1977), but the best introduction to his life remains his autobiography, Seventy Years among Savages (1921).