29 October 2008

John Passmore (1914-2004) on the History of Animal Cruelty

Once a definite social movement got under way in the West with its objective the restricting of man's treatment of animals, it moved with relative rapidity. Moral philosophers began to regard it as an obvious truth that it is wrong to treat animals cruelly. So the history we have been tracing is at once discouraging, in so far as it took two thousand years for Western men to agree that it is wrong to treat animals cruelly, and encouraging in so far as it suggests that man's opinion on such matters can change with considerable rapidity. This is especially true nowadays when the critic of man's treatment of Nature no longer has to contend with a general persuasion that in this respect man's conduct must be left unconfined. It should be observed, however, that if our analysis of the situation is correct, then this change in moral attitude resulted in a restriction of rights rather than an extension of them.

The degree of restriction placed on human behavior, furthermore, is relatively slight. Whereas it once used to be argued, as by Newman, that the least human good compensates for any possible amount of animal suffering, the current doctrine is that it requires a considerable good to compensate for such suffering. There is far from being a precise analogy, however, between the importance attached to animal and to human suffering. So while it is generally agreed that it is wrong to experiment on human beings without their consent in the expectation of making scientific discoveries, there is no such general opposition to animal vivisection. Biological warfare against human beings is generally condemned but not biological warfare against animals. Man-hunting is ruled out as a sport but not, at least with the same degree of unanimity, fox or bird hunting. In all these cases, of course, a minority opinion would support laws which go further than the present laws in limiting the circumstances in which men are entitled to cause pain to animals. But not so far as seriously to limit man's domination of the world.

(John Passmore, "The Treatment of Animals," Journal of the History of Ideas 36 [April-June 1975]: 195-218, at 217-8 [italics in original])