Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress Pennsylvania 18411
Reckoning with the Beast: Animals, Pain, and Humanity in the Victorian Mind
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 …