Bentham was the First Philosopher to Advocate for Animal RightsJune 27, 2021
The two principal philosophers before Bentham—Descartes and Kant—had little regard for the rights of animals, or even their well-being. However, Bentham is the first to consider that pleasure and pain are not only for the welfare of humans, but for the well-being of all sentient beings! He believed it was anxiety.
It is difficult to imagine a philosopher more indifferent to the well-being, health, and comfort of animals than Rene Descartes. According to Descartes, people have the privileged quality of being res cogitans, that is, “thinking thing or substance”. In other words, there is an undeniably real and important mind or spirit in humans. This mind is the locus of thought, emotions, rationality, and the foundation of free will and moral values. In contrast, according to Descartes, animals have no mind or soul, and therefore animals are ultimately res extensa, ‘extended, physical thing or substance. There is no “soul” reflected in his eyes; in the same way, real pain is not reflected in their apparent behavior regarding pain. As a result of their lack of spirit, they also lack consciousness and cannot feel pain or pleasure. Descartes’ teaching is also Christian doctrine, that is, Descartes accepted this doctrine that humans have souls created by God, while animals do not. And since mind is the same as spirit, if animals don’t have a soul then they don’t have minds either. If they don’t have minds, then they can’t feel pain. It takes the mind to feel pain.
Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy of social hedonism, of course, did not mean that everyone should experience unremitting pleasure. His understanding was similar to Epicurean philosophy. Bentham argued that social hedonism is maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, which doesn’t mean you have to go to restaurants, bars, or brothels all the time.
After Descartes, various views were put forward on the welfare and rights of animals during the Enlightenment period. Kant told his students in his “Lecture Notes on Ethics”:
“As far as animals are concerned, our duties are not direct duties. Animals are not conscious creatures and serve a single purpose. That end is man. Therefore, our duties to animals are in fact our duties to humans.”
Here Kant agrees with Descartes, who said that animals have no consciousness. Moreover, in a second version of Kant’s categorical imperative, he admonishes people to “treat others (or rational beings) never as means, but always as ends”. It allows you to treat non-humans however you want.
In 1780, the year Kant’s Lecture Notes were published, Bentham also completed his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation and answered Kant openly on the subject of animals:
“It’s not whether they can reason or talk, it’s whether they can suffer.”
Here, the utilitarian Bentham shows that rationality is secondary to goodness and worth. Pleasures and pains form the basis of one’s treatment of sentient beings. What Bentham means is that if you cause pain in sentient beings, you are acting immoral. Meanwhile, utilitarianism emerges as a much more compassionate and loving philosophy than Kant’s deontology (homework morality). The Old Testament says that humans have “rule and dominion” over animals. Bentham was probably the first to deny this rule and sovereignty, calling it tyranny.
Some who do not care about animal rights argue that non-humans cannot have rights either. Even if this is true, it does not mean that your duty not to harm animals will be erased. For example, you have a duty not to destroy a famous building or a religious statue, but it is not because these objects have a right to exist.
Few philosophers, if any, have embraced and continued Bentham’s efforts to defend animals more than Peter Singer. Singer, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, vigorously defended animal rights, even arguing that these rights were equal to human rights. According to Singer, not respecting the interests of animals is “speciesism” or “species discrimination”. And just like racism or gender discrimination, this is an attitude that needs to be challenged. Because this understanding treats animals badly just because they belong to a different species, or it privileges our own species just because we are human. But on what basis is this an understanding that should be challenged?
According to Singer, having interests is linked to the ability to feel pleasure and pain, because pleasure comes from the satisfaction of interests. In this sense, animals differ from plants. Although plants have no interests, there are things that do. Because the interests of animals are similar to ours, according to Singer, these are