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Henry S. Salt (1851-1939)
On Henry Salt's 'Animal Rights'

by Stephen Ronan

The philosophical basis for animal protection using the concept of "rights" is not, as many believe, a recent phenomenon. One of the classic books on the subject was published in 1892 by the great humanitarian Henry Salt. His book is entitled "Animals' Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress."

Peter Singer, in a preface to the Society for Animal Rights edition, states, "More momentous still was [Salt's] influence on Gandhi, whom Salt had befriended when Gandhi first arrived in England, alone, unknown and unable to find vegetarian food. Gandhi later wrote that he owed his thoughts about civil disobedience and non-cooperation to Salt's book on the then little-known American radical, Henry Thoreau."

Gandhi also, apparently, once stated, "It was Mr. Salt's book, "A Plea for Vegetarianism", which showed me why, apart from hereditary habit, and apart from my adherence to a vow administered to me by my mother, it was right to be a vegetarian. He showed me why it was a moral duty incumbent on vegetarians not to live upon fellow-animals."

The following are the words of Henry Salt excerpted from the start of his 1892 book, "Animals' Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress."

ANIMALS' RIGHTS: Considered in Relation to Social Progress

From Preface:

We have to decide, not whether the practice of fox-hunting, for example, is more, or less, cruel than vivisection, but whether all practices which inflict unnecessary pain on sentient beings are not incompatible with the higher instincts of humanity.

CHAPTER 1: The Principle of Animals' Rights

Have the lower animals "rights?" Undoubtedly--if men have. That is the point I wish to make evident in this opening chapter. But have men rights? Let it be stated at the outset that I have no intention of discussing the abstract theory of natural rights, which, at the present time, is looked upon with suspicion and disfavour by many social reformers, since it has not unfrequently been made to cover the most extravagant and contradictory assertions. But though its phraseology is confessedly vague and perilous, there is nevertheless a solid truth underlying it--a truth which has always been clearly apprehended by the moral faculty, however difficult it may be to establish it on an unassailable logical basis. If men have not "rights"--well, they have an unmistakable intimation of something very similar; 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 other people.

Such is the doctrine of rights as formulated by Herbert Spencer. "Every man," he says, "is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal liberty of any other man." And again, "Whoever admits that each man must have a certain restricted freedom, asserts that it is right he should have this restricted freedom... And hence the several particular freedoms deducible may fitly be called, as they commonly are called, his rights."

The fitness of this nomenclature is disputed, but the existence of some real principle of the kind can hardly be called in question; so that the controversy concerning "rights" is little else than an academic battle over words, which leads to no practical conclusion. I shall assume, therefore, that men are possessed of "rights," in the sense of Herbert Spencer's definition; and if any of my readers object to this qualified use of the term, I can only say that I shall be perfectly willing to change the word as soon as a more appropriate one is forthcoming. The immediate question that claims our attention is this--if men have rights, have animals their rights also?

From the earliest times there have been thinkers who, directly or indirectly, answered this question with an affirmative. The Buddhist and Pythagorean canons, dominated perhaps by the creed of reincarnation, included the maxim "not to kill or injure any innocent animals." The humanitarian philosophers of the Roman empire, among whom Seneca and Plutarch and Porphyry were the most conspicuous, took still higher ground in preaching humanity on the broadest principle of universal benevolence. "Since justice is due to rational beings," wrote Porphyry, "how is it possible to evade the admission that we are bound also to act justly towards the races below us?"

It is a lamentable fact that during the churchdom of the middle ages, from the fourth century to the sixteenth, from the time of Porphyry to the time of Montaigne, little or no attention was paid to the question of the rights and wrongs of the lower races. Then, with the Reformation and the revival of learning, came a revival also of humanitarian feeling, as may be seen in many passages of Erasmus and More, Shakespeare and Bacon; but it was not until the eighteenth century, the age of enlightenment and "sensibility," of which Voltaire and Rousseau were the spokesmen, that the rights of animals obtained more deliberate recognition. From the great Revolution of 1789 dates the period when the world-wide spirit of humanitarianism, which had hitherto been felt by but one man in a million--the thesis of the philosopher or the vision of the poet--began to disclose itself, gradually and dimly at first, as an essential feature of democracy.

A great and far-reaching effect was produced in England at this time by the publication of such revolutionary works as Paine's "Rights of Man," and Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Women;" and looking back now, after the lapse of a hundred years, we can see that a still wider extension of the theory of rights was thenceforth inevitable. In fact, such a claim was anticipated--if only in bitter jest--by a contemporary writer, who furnishes us with a notable instance of how the mockery of one generation may become the reality of the next. There was published anonymously in 1792 a little volume entitled "A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes", (attributed to Thomas Taylor, the Platonist) a reduction ad absurdum of Mary Wollstonecraft's essay, written, as the author informs us, "to evince by demonstrative arguments the perfect equality of what is called the irrational species to the human." The further opinion is expressed that "after those wonderful productions of Mr. Paine and Mrs. Wollstonecraft, such a theory as the present seems to be necessary." It was necessary; and a very short term of years sufficed to bring it into effect; indeed, the theory had already been put forward by several English pioneers of nineteenth-century humanitarianism.

To Jeremy Bentham in particular, belongs the high honour of first asserting the rights of animals with authority and persistence. "The legislator," he wrote, "ought to interdict everything which may serve to lead to cruelty. The barbarous spectacles of gladiators no doubt contributed to give the Romans that ferocity which they displayed in their civil wars. A people accustomed to despise human life in their games could not be expected to respect it amid the fury of their passions. It is proper for the same reason to forbid every kind of cruelty towards animals, whether by way of amusement, or to gratify gluttony. Cock fights, bull-baiting, hunting hares and foxes, fishing, and other amusements of the same kind, necessarily suppose either the absence of reflection or a fund of inhumanity, since they produce the most acute sufferings to sensible beings, and the most painful and lingering death of which we can form any idea. Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes..."

From later passages:

If the use of flesh-meat can itself be dispensed with, how can it be argued that the pain, which is inseparable from slaughtering, can be otherwise than unnecessary also?

The wise scientist and the wise humanist are identical. A true science cannot possibly ignore the incontrovertible fact that the practice of vivisection is revolting to the human conscience, even among the ordinary members of a not over-sensitive society. The so-called "science" which overlooks this vital fact, and confines its view to the material aspects of the problem, is not science at all, but a one-sided assertion of the views which find favour with a particular class of specialists.

Nothing is necessary which is abhorrent, revolting, intolerable, to the general instincts of humanity. Better a thousand times that science should forego or postpone the questionable advantage of certain problematical discoveries, than that the moral conscience of the community should be unmistakably outraged by the confusion of right and wrong. The short cut is not always the right path; and to perpetrate a cruel injustice to the lower animals, and then attempt to excuse it on the ground that it will benefit posterity, is an argument which is as irrelevant as it is immoral. Ingenious it may be (in the way of hoodwinking the unwary), but it is certainly in no true sense scientific.

Note by Jon Wynne-Tyson:

These brief extracts from Salt's most important book must serve for introduction to one of the least-known but most outstanding champions of animals' rights. A scholar, and then a master, at Eton College, Salt was a friend of Shaw, Gandhi and William Morris. A vegetarian and pacifist, he was also an early environmentalist with considerable botanical knowledge. Civilized and witty, he chose a life of great simplicity. He wrote nearly forty books, most of them urging humane reforms in prison conditions, schools, in the economic organisation of society, and in the treatment of animals. Biographical notes and a full bibliography are to be found in the 1980 edition of Animals' Rights.