Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress

Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress

Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress. By HENRY S. SALT (Centaur Press, 1980. Pp. 256. Price £7.50.)

The first edition of this work was published in 1892; revised editions were published in 1905 and 1922. Even second-hand copies have long been in short supply, and not many university libraries ever stocked the book. This reissue, adorned with a preface by Peter Singer and an updated bibliography by Charles Magel, is therefore very welcome. All serious students of ethics and all university libraries should at once obtain a copy.

This may seem an unlikely judgment. How should the moral exhortations of a forgotten humanitarian who never held any academic post be worth re-reading after ninety years? The first edition attracted little philosophical attention: D. G. Ritchie mentioned his theory of ethics in Natural Rights (1894), contemptuously, but “animals’ rights” have only entered the academic philosopher’s vocabulary in the last ten years. Surely they have better, fuller advocates by now?

Even if Salt were only of historical interest my claim would stand: other defenders of our animal kin, like Thomas Tryon (1691), Humphrey Primatt (1776), John Oswald (1791), could profitably be reissued, and I hope that publishers may be encouraged to do so. Defenders of animals have the same need as, for example, feminists to remind themselves of the long tradition of humane thought on which they take their stand. Salt especially should be remembered, as the one who stabilized Gandhi in his lifelong vegetarianism, who gave him his earliest rationale for community politics and nonviolence. But Salt's work is not of merely historical interest. No one who reads or rereads this volume can fail to be enlightened, confirmed in her fidelity to the right, encouraged to seek out new applications of Salt's “Creed of Kinship” (the title of his last book, published in 1935).

That non-human animals have rights was long considered, in academic circles, an absurdity, and is still often assumed to be a view mistaken in principle or inapplicable in practice. A great deal of recent discussion, involving subtle distinctions between “true” right-holders and “fringe” cases (such as human imbeciles or infants) or the metaphysical status of “rights”, seems scholastic in the worst sense when placed alongside Salt. That animals, as living individuals, have rights was, to Salt, merely a way of saying that “men... have a sense of justice which marks the boundary-line where acquiescence ceases and resistance begins; a demand for freedom to live their own life, subject to the necessity of respecting the equal freedom of (others)”. We cannot claim freedom for ourselves as of right unless we are ready to allow it to other individuals. That some of our fellows are of our own species, or endowed with a distinctively “human” intelligence, is of no especial importance. Building on an aphorism of De Quincey, that to maltreat a fellow human is to offer a “foul indignity... to our common nature lodged in the person of him on whom it is inflicted”, Salt urges that “human soul” lurks in other animals than those of our own species, in the sense that such animals display intelligence, have desires and purposes, troubles and individual lives. Those who can still be heard denying this, with many a scornful reference to the sentimentality of dog-lovers, merely put into words the presumption on which our civilization is founded: that “animals” are of quite another sort than “humans” (as other despots insist that women are quite other than men, slaves than freeborn, hairy-faced than smooth). Those who have fully realized that there are other living creatures with their lives to live can no longer go on living by the standards of our age: can no longer live on flesh-foods, torture their fellows to find some novel “fact” or think themselves entitled to lay claim to any part of the earth’s surface currently unoccupied by a nation-state.

Salt saw clearly enough that “in this infinitely complex modern society, great wrongs cannot be wholly righted by simple means, not even by the consuming enthusiasm of the prophet” (p. 130). Furthermore, in a natural world “based to a large degree on rapine and violence” it is impossible “to formulate an entirely and logically consistent philosophy of rights” (p. 108): not all wrongs can be remedied by us, even if Michelet was correct to hope for "the pacification and harmonious union of all living nature”.

Salt accordingly distinguished between high ideals of equal freedom and the practical piecemeal reform of obvious iniquity. His study embraces the fate of domesticated and wild creatures at the hands of farmers, hunters and scientists, and the behest of all of us who demand fine clothing, flesh-foods, drugs, amusement.

Salt was a moralist and preacher, though a subtle one: he saw no need, almost no hope, of a complete theory of justice that went beyond the simple claim of equal freedom for all to live their lives. He saw our recognition of this claim as stemming from our expanding sympathy for all our kin. He did not, it seems, ask himself whether Utilitarianism was adequate to the defence of this value: certainly he did not rest his case on any supposed moral requirement to maximize pleasure-states or minimize pain-states. A well-lived animal life was one embodying “a moral principle”, a destiny fulfilled, an individual essence fully realized. The captives even of the best possible menagerie are “merely the outer semblances and simulacra of the denizens of forest and prairie — poor spiritless remnants of what were formerly wild animals” (p. 51). Nor does his outright rejection of all vivisection rest easily on utilitarian principles. There is therefore a little irony that Singer should so admire Salt: my own suspicion is that many who think themselves bound by utilitarian principle to advocate “animal liberation” are really motivated by Salt’s sense of justice.

The one feature of Salt’s case that now seems fallacious is his attempt to cast the blame for our ill-treatment of the non-human creation on the Judaeo-Christian command to “have dominion” over all the earth (as well, more plausibly, as on the Cartesian delusion that non-humans are all unconscious things). The later effort to blame all our ecological mistakes on Hebrew religion has likewise failed to interpret the tradition correctly, and ignored the massive errors of other human tribes. Salt’s “creed of kinship” was truer to the tradition than the efforts of such men as Joseph Rickaby (Moral Philosophy, 1892) to prove animals mere things.

The only criticisms I have of this reissue are bibliographical: fashions have changed, and no scholarly work could now get away with such sketchy bibliographical references as Salt provides; times have changed, and the figures Salt gives could usefully have been updated; and finally, it is a pity that no index is provided. But though this is not the definitive scholarly edition of Henry Salt's most academic work, it is an essential part of any library of humane thought.

Stephen Clark

The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 33 No. 130, January 1983