Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Towards Animal Rights and Moral Reform

RSPCA Today, Summer 1981

A review of Henry Salt’s book, Animals’ Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress. Published by Centeur Press.

By Dr Judith Hampson RSPCA Chief Animal Experimentation Research Officer

The re-publication of Salt’s visionary discourse on animal rights, written almost a century ago, comes at a time when philosophers and others are giving serious thought to the deeper questions surrounding man’s proper relationship with the non-human animals.

To those who have digested the arguments of contemporary writers on the subject (such as Clarke, Regan, and Singer) the wisdom and vision of Henry Salt comes as a riveting shock. Much of what he says might well have been written yesterday.

Salt is an eloquent writer and his book is both moving and uplifting. It is also profoundly depressing. Many of the cruelties he speaks of are still with us and the attitudes of the indifferent majority have been little moved.

Most fashionable ladies no longer sport the exotic headgear spoken of in Salt’s chapter on ‘murderous millinery’, perhaps because many of the birds so exploited have now largely disappeared. Yet the comparable atrocity of animal fur is a multi-pound industry today, and growing public awareness of the cruelties involved in its production seems to have had little effect upon the world market.

As Salt so rightly pointed out, an end to such cruelties can only be brought about by a cessation of demand for the product:

‘It is evident that, in this case, as the butchering trade, the responsibility for whatever wrongs are done must rest ultimately on the class which demands an unnecessary commodity, rather than on that which is compelled by economic pressure to supply it; it is not the man who kills the bird, but the lady who wears the feathers in her hat, who is the offender.’

This emphasis on individual responsibility is a central theme of the book and one which might leave the reader feeling somewhat uncomfortable; surely the intention. The same conscience-stirring tactic has been used to good effect by Singer, (Animal Liberation, Jonathon Cape 1976, Paladin Books 1977).

One individual responsibility given full consideration by Salt, and by contemporary philosophers on the rights of animals, is the question of the justification of eating animals. This is an issue which any serious-minded humanitarian can hardly shirk since nothing brings us into more intimate contact with the other animals than the daily dinner plate. To people concerned with the simple issue of animal suffering, the inevitable sufferings involved in confinement, transit and slaughter of the 350 million animals for food each year in the UK alone, can hardly be ignored. To those seeking humane treatment of food animals, Singer poses the blunt argument; even supposing they were all humanely killed, which they certainly are not, there can be little justification for humanitarians tacitly supporting the intensive methods they argue against by consuming factory-farmed flesh; indeed, if their arguments still hold credibility, those individuals do not.

But all serious writers about animal rights have recognised the much wider issues of this problem. Arguments on the advisability of flesh eating range from the anti-cruelty approach of the animal welfarist, through those of human health, the world food shortage, ecological expediency, religious and moral arguments to the simple condemnation of violence in Wynne-Tyson’s eclectic pattern of a ‘better’ life and a ‘better’ society (The Civilised Alternative, Centaur Press, 1972). In the final analysis, perhaps the most powerful argument posited by all these authors after the pros and cons have been thrashed out is simply an aesthetic one. All see moral attitudes in general as inextricably bound up with our basic way of life; we are, after all, what we eat.

These are the two most important facets of the animal rights argument; firstly individual responsibility and secondly the relationship between our attitudes towards animals and those towards all other ills and injustices of the world. And it is these elements which distinguish the animal rights movement from arguments about animal welfare. Animal rights and animal welfare are not the same thing, and those who speak about ‘rights’ for animals are not necessarily ‘animal lovers’.

Confusion over these concepts has lead to disruption and division in the animal welfare movement. The differences are very real though the two approaches need not be totally incompatible bedfellows. They have been exacerbated by an inability on the part of many humane-minded, if inconsistent, people to grasp the central issue of what animal rights, and its relationship to social reform, is all about, and an intransigence on the part of those already ‘reformed’ who having, as they believe, ‘seen the light’ expect Utopia tomorrow.

Animal welfare is not about an end to the exploitation of animals, it simply seeks to give the exploited a better deal. In this sense, it rather smacks of the well-meaning, though often blinkered, philanthropy of the Victorian well-to-do moralists who campaigned for better living and working conditions for the poor. Whether or not one delves into the deeper philosophical arguments about rights, as does Clarke (The Moral Status of Animals, Clarendon 1977), or whether one takes a less thorny and more practical approach, a thoughtful consideration of the question of rights for animals leads one inevitably to the very simple concept, so eloquently expressed by Salt more than one hundred years ago, that of universal justice. It is this concept which links the animal rights movement with all other aspects of social and moral reform, all of which are essential elements in the struggle for the ‘better’ society envisaged by Wynne-Tyson. And it is the recognition that the ultimate goal can be achieved only through enlightenment and individual effort which forms the inspiration of all these writers. They are educators rather than political reformers.

The moral sickness and violence of contemporary society which we see all around us is most profoundly depressing and yet the ray of hope always envisaged by those philosophers who are long ahead of their time cannot fail to uplift people with imagination.

In 1789, Jeremy Bentham postulated that ‘the day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withheld from them but by the hand of tyranny’. (Principles of Moral Legislation, 1789.)

Almost a century later, Henry Salt, who recognised that his arguments would appear ridiculous to those who had never seriously questioned their own vested interests in the exploitation of animals, concluded that his book should be seen ‘not as a plea for ‘mercy’ to the ‘brute animals’ whose sole criminality consists in not belonging to the noble family of homo sapiens. It is addressed rather to those who see and feel that, as has been well said, ‘the great advancement of the world, throughout all ages, is to be measured by the increase of humanity and the decrease of cruelty’.

In pointing out that sympathy was quite a different thing from recognition of rights, he speculated that the latter would surely follow from the former since:

‘Every great liberating movement has preceded exactly on these lines. Oppression and cruelty are invariably founded on a lack of imaginative sympathy; the tyrant of tormentor can have no true sense of kinship with the victim of his injustice.’

The flesh eater surely cannot experience kinship with those who must lose their lives to satisfy his dietary preference, yet:

‘When once the sense of affinity is awakened, the knell of tyranny is sounded, and the ultimate concession of ‘rights’ is simply a matter of time.’

Another century later it has fallen to Peter Singer, widely held as modern-day ‘leader’ of the ‘animal liberation movement’, to revitalise an old crusade.

The re-publication of Salt’s book in 1980 is timely. It sets the current debate in its historical context. Society must be thankful that men of vision such as Salt dared to say that which would make them appear ridiculous in their day and to record their thoughts for posterity. Many men regarded as cranks in their time have later been recorded by historians as men of wisdom, and so perhaps might Salt be.

As Peter Singer says in his preface to the work:

‘When the book was written, it was far ahead of its time. Whether its time has yet come remains to be seen.’

Judith Hampson