The Road Not Taken: Humanitarian reform and the origins of animal rights

The Road Not Taken: Humanitarian reform and the origins of animal rights

This dissertation analyzes the Humanitarian movement in Britain and the United States around the turn of the twentieth century, with particular attention to its origins and its relationship to both contemporaneous reform movements and the broader realm of science. The primary argument is that Humanitarianism - a central tenet of which was a cogent appeal for acknowledging the rights of non-human animals - was, paradoxically, not really about animals at all. Instead, I contend that the Humanitarians' interpretation of the human-animal relationship was rooted in a specific worldview informed equally by Romantic naturalism and recent Darwinian evidence that humans and animals shared a common evolutionary heritage. Another defining quality of Humanitarianism was a profound ambivalence toward science. Many Humanitarians vehemently opposed vivisection and vaccination, and accused scientists of being more interested in knowledge for its own sake than its potential utility for solving social problems. Yet evolutionary biology was at the core of their assertion that animals possessed rights, and research in fields like organic chemistry and nutritional science helped demonstrate the feasibility of the vegetarian diet many of them adopted and promoted. Moreover, Humanitarians hoped science would aid in developing suitable alternatives to meat, wool, and leather. Ultimately, their ambivalence led Humanitarians to envision and advocate a new, "humane" version of science that combined objective rationalism with a holistic, Romantic understanding of the connections between humans, animals, and nature. Despite ostensibly similar goals, the relationship between Humanitarians and other Progressive Era reformers was sometimes contentious, often because of the Humanitarian positions on animal rights and vegetarianism. Humanitarians were especially critical of mainstream animal welfare organizations, for instance, castigating their members for continuing to eat meat or engage in sport hunting. Partially because of these conflicts, Humanitarianism was generally ineffective at achieving its goals for reform. The movement weakened as the new century progressed, and deep divisions about World War I effectively ended it. While Humanitarianism was soon forgotten, many of its core ideals about animals were rediscovered a half-century later, as the modern animal rights movement emerged from the liberation movements of the 1960s.


Gary K. Jarvis

The University of Iowa, 2009, pp. 377

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