Policy Papers

The animal cause and its greater traditions

Chien-hui Li |

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Executive Summary

  • Compared to reform issues relating to people's affairs, the ethical cause of animals is often dismissed as trivial, insignificant, and incompatible with human interests. Its supporters are often regarded as sentimental, irrational, and misanthropic, if not portrayed by the media as aggressively violent.
  • These widespread negative conceptions are misleading and detrimental to a sufficient understanding and discussion of the ethical issues concerning animals and human society today.
  • However, a survey of humanitarian reforms in the nineteenth century in relation to the literary, religious and political traditions that contributed so much to this development shows that people's concern and action for humans and for other animals often sprang from the same social and ideological roots, reflected common moral visions, and shared similar characteristics and tactics. The two spheres of reform did not grow at the expense of each other, but on the contrary flourished and declined side by side as part of the same historical trends and expression of humanitarianism.
  • This long-term perspective on the development of the animal cause should dispel widespread misconceptions of it as inconsequential and antagonistic to human rights.
  • To those who are concerned to see its further advance, this longer-term view should usefully strengthen their awareness of the wider struggles for values such as charity, justice and equality of which they are unmistakably a part.


It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that compared to other lines of reform, animals unfortunately enjoy the status of a lesser cause. In most circles, they never seem to receive the kind of seriousness and respect people pay to other 'more important' issues concerning humans. However large a collective 'voice' or 'noise' campaigners for animals make, it is often regarded merely as a manifestation of unthinking sentimentality, irrational crankiness, or a prevalent form of modern morbidity. The media's preoccupation with the militant tactics of some animal activists contributes to the same effect.

But one simple fact that often causes surprise is that the movement for the prevention of cruelty to animals in Britain dates back to the early-nineteenth century: the movement has been in existence for almost two centuries! By juxtaposing the humanitarian reforms for animals with those for humans and placing them back within the major intellectual traditions of their age, this paper will show that people's concern and action for humans and animals often sprang from the same social and ideological roots, reflected common moral visions, and manifested similar characteristics and even shortcomings. The two spheres of reform did not grow at the expense of each other, but on the contrary, flourished and declined together as part of the same changing historical trends.

The literary tradition

'Am not I A fly like thee? Or art not thou a man like me?' (William Blake, Book of Thel, 1789)

One important intellectual origin of humanitarianism lies in the so-called 'age of sensibility' in the eighteenth century when a revolution of the heart occurred in literature, philosophy and the polite culture of the day. During this time, instinctive sentiments and natural sympathy were idealised and 'the man of feeling' was in vogue. Poets and writers professed humanitarian sentiments and strove to identify themselves with the feelings of their subjects; readers and audiences, too, were not ashamed to show their sympathy or display their emotions over the difficulties of others. With this heightened sensibility especially to pain and suffering, there grew a sharpened sensitivity to an ever-wider range of social and moral problems brought about by the rapidly changing circumstances of an urbanising and industrialising age. Thus misfortunes such as poverty, oppression, war, disease and personal affliction, or despised subjects including criminals, beggars, prostitutes, slaves and the insane, all entered into the compassionate concern of the rising educated middling classes.

Animals, considered capable of suffering - most notably proclaimed by Jeremy Bentham in his An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) - were not excluded from this new culture of sensibility, but were deemed subjects worthy of compassion. Numerous writers and poets, especially those under Romantic influences, not only entered with sympathetic imagination into the lives of animals and identified with their joys and sufferings, but also left a large number of works that criticised cruelty and expressed indignation against the oppressed state of animals under human tyranny. Cowper's and Blake's familiar lines such as 'I would not enter on my list of friends/ ...the man/ Who needlessly sets foot upon a worm' and 'A Robin Redbreast in a cage / Puts all Heaven in a rage' give us a glimpse of this newly formed kinship and sympathetic bond between humans and other animals.

At this time, no voluntary associations had yet been formed, nor legislative efforts been attempted to suppress cruelty to animals. Yet this was a critical stage in the development of humanitarianism, in which both humans and animals were beneficiaries of an emerging sensibility of the moral community of an ever larger section of the educated public. Later, this literary tradition was to be continuously drawn upon by people who shared the same humanitarian ethic and sought to fuse it into their practical reforms and charitable work.

The religious tradition

'I cannot but think that benevolence to our species, and humanity to the brute creation, go hand in hand, and that it is impossible for an individual to possess the one virtue without also possessing the other.' (W. A. Mackinnon at the 1837 Annual Meeting of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals)

Protestant evangelicalism was another important tradition that exerted great influence over the ideological base, objectives and discourses of the animal cause when it took the shape of a reform movement in the early-nineteenth century. Beginning in the latter half of the eighteenth century, evangelicalism swept the churches and influenced the morals and values of British society for over a century. This intense wave of religious piety shared with the contemporary literary tradition an emphasis on the heart and human morality. It stressed an instinctive faith in the scriptures, the personal experience of conversion and salvation through divine grace and good works. This unleashed a great outpouring of energy from the Christian public and led to the mobilisation of social forces in two directions. One was the unprecedented flowering of charitable projects for the alleviation of the sufferings of underprivileged groups in a society that was undergoing rapid industrialising and urbanising processes. The other was the growth of voluntary organisations and reform movements concerned with moral causes, such as the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, sexual purity, temperance, criminal and prison reform - many of which were aimed at combating vices and enforcing morality among the lower classes. It was within this larger context of the advent of voluntary philanthropy and moral reforms that the movement against cruelty to animals emerged.

Though the idea of extending protection to animals was by no means immediately apparent to all humanitarian workers at this time, there were people who began to respond to the conditions of mistreated, overburdened or cruelly beaten and baited animals. In the 1820s, several legislative attempts were made to stop animal baiting and fighting, mostly engaged in by the working classes. In 1822, the first law against the ill treatment of cattle was passed and was followed by a succession of similar acts over the next century. In 1824, the first anti-cruelty society - The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (which became the RSPCA in 1840) - was founded and was soon followed by dozens of other societies and their branches. The movement for the protection of animals as we know it today was gradually taking shape.

The majority of the first generation of workers for animals was inspired by the same religious faith and zeal which prompted charitable projects and reform movements concerning human welfare. People sought justification for the animal cause principally in the Christian religion and utilised three connected theological concepts in their discourses: creation, dominion, and the benevolent character of God. They generally argued that as the benevolent Creator had made all living creatures on earth and entrusted humans with dominion over them, it was humans' duty to imitate the divine benevolence of God and extend it to the brute creation. They also appropriated common discourses on Christian charity and quoted popular scriptural texts such as 'Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy' and 'Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful' in their mobilisation for the animal cause.

For most anti-cruelty workers, charity for the animal creation was a natural extension of charity towards humans. In their appeals to the public, they frequently drew upon the proud British tradition of philanthropy and urged a widening circle of compassion. The development of charitable institutions on a long-term scale therefore followed the expected pattern: as philanthropy for people thrived in the mid-nineteenth century, similar endeavours for animals progressed. For example, after the drinking fountains for encouraging temperance, there were drinking troughs for donkeys and horses to quench their thirst on the road established all over the country from 1867. After the orphanages, asylums, refuges, and hospitals, there were established homes for lost dogs, cats, and horses beginning in 1860. After Sunday Schools and Bands of Hope that taught religious and moral lessons to children, hundreds of Bands of Mercy and other juvenile groups also popped up around the country for imbuing kindness to animals in children in the 1870s. Not incidentally, supporters also overlapped, including some prominent figures such as William Wilberforce, Thomas Fowell Buxton, Joseph Pease, Samuel Gurney, the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury and Baroness Burdett-Coutts.

During intense periods of agitation, workers for animal welfare referred to other popular reform movements symbolising the high Christian virtues of charity and justice. For example, in the controversy surrounding animal experimentation in the 1870s and 1880s, many anti-vivisectionists considered themselves to be fighting a moral as well as a religious cause and identified themselves with the movement for the abolition of slavery of a couple of generations earlier. For them, as one campaigner once said, 'The movement for obtaining justice for animals is the necessary sequence and corollary of the anti-slavery crusade.' The vivisected animals strapped on the operating tables were like slaves bound in shackles; and the abolitionists of vivisection regarded themselves as divinely-appointed guardians of the animal victims, just like the abolitionists of human slavery of the coloured races.

In sharing a common ideological foundation and moral vision with other humanitarian reform movements, the movement for animals exhibited some similar characteristics not always appealing to our eyes today. For example, out of the same evangelical preoccupation over human morality, these early reformers censured cruelty to animals not only because of the pain suffered by the animals, but also because of the alleged brutalising effect on human character. From its inception, the animal movement also acquired the aggressive and punitive character of the movement for the suppression of vice in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries by actively engaging in private investigation and the prosecution of offenders. Being equally dominated by the middle and upper classes, the movement assumed a superior and paternalistic attitude in relation not only to the animals waiting to be saved but also to the perpetrators of cruelty waiting to be reformed. It is thus no surprise that for much of the nineteenth century, the movement concerned itself largely with working-class cruelties such as animal baiting and mistreatment of cattle and draught animals, while remaining silent on upper-class cruelties such as fox-hunting and pigeon-shooting.

All of these characteristics shared by reformers for humans and other animals were to come under severe attack when new intellectual traditions came to exert considerable influence over society and politics in the late-nineteenth century.

The radical tradition

'The emancipation of men from cruelty and injustice will bring with it in due course the emancipation of animals also. The two reforms are inseparably connected, and neither can be fully realised alone.' (Henry Salt, Seventy Years among the Savages, 1921)

The late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were exciting times for reforms, very much like the sixties and seventies in the twentieth century. Various progressive causes such as secularism, trade unionism, socialism, feminism, and a back-to-nature movement all thrived in this period in reaction against the organisation of society strengthened by Victorian liberalism and its Christian worldview. Among the various strands of thought threatening the late-Victorian establishment and social complacency, evolutionary theories and the socialist critiques of laissez-faire liberalism were perhaps the most unsettling. The animal cause, which had by this time acquired a certain respectability, was equally influenced by the new ideologies, rhetoric and tactics current at this time.

The increasing intellectual and ethical revolt against religious orthodoxy in the later half of the nineteenth century inevitably had its impact on animal campaigns that had previously relied heavily upon the Christian tradition. The crisis in faith led many people to seek moral justification for action outside Christian doctrines. The evolutionary theories that had challenged creationism and biblical authority initially also undermined the theological framework and moral foundation upon which the animal cause was based. However, when consciously interpreted and appropriated, as they had been for a number of other issues, evolutionary ideas were also capable of creating a new philosophical foundation based on the universal kinship between humans and other animals. Rather than emphasising the superiority and noblesse oblige of humans, a section of people in the movement began to utilise the evolutionary sciences to illustrate the common origin of all species and the physical and mental continuity and similarity between them. They not only wished to close up the great gulf previously assumed between humans and other animals, but also used the new concept of kinship to argue for greater consideration for other beings than that allowed by the Christian vision. So convinced of the beneficial impact of evolutionary theories to the animal cause was one sympathetic freethinker that he even boldly proclaimed, with the obvious intention of contesting the Christian monopoly over morals, that: 'Darwin has done more for the kind treatment of animals than Paul or Jesus Christ'.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the traditional ways of dealing with social problems also came under severe attack. Socialists and radical critics systematically exposed problems such as poverty, unemployment, exploitation and inequality, with the aid of new investigative techniques with an unprecedented intensity and thoroughness. They not only showed that these problems, which became more serious in the depression years of the 1870s and 1880s, were rooted in the political and economic systems of the day, but also argued that the traditional means of relief, such as the Poor Law and private philanthropy, were inadequate or merely palliative. And whatever diverse new ideologies - socialism, 'new liberalism', trade unionism, or feminism - the progressive reformers brought with them in this age, which also fostered the Labour Party, what they shared were strong reactions against the economic and social status quo and demands for the general principles of equality, justice and basic legal rights.

This radical shift of ideologies in reform politics had a direct bearing on the animal cause and offered it opportunities for change. In general, with the new concepts of 'kinship of life,' 'brotherhood,' 'equality' and 'justice' brought by evolutionism and socialism, some people began to see animals not as objects of pity, but as having a right to just and fair treatment. Their watchwords now became 'justice' and 'rights,' no longer 'mercy' and 'kindness.' They also sought the causes of cruelty less in human moral failings than in social and economic systems such as capitalist competition, that subjected both humans and animals to exploitation and degradation; or in liberal creeds of self-help and respectability, that sustained social exploitation and hypocrisy. With a more systematic examination of human-animal relationships, issues hitherto neglected such as animal experimentation, hunting, wearing of furs and feathers, flesh-eating, etc., all gradually emerged on the movement's reform agenda. In tactics, besides drawing on the repertoire of action early established by the middle- and upper-class-dominated anti-slavery movement, such as mass petitions, itinerary lectures, literature distribution, electoral pledges, mission-hall and drawing room meetings, more confrontational strategies - hitherto associated only with radical working-class movements, militant suffragists and socialist groups - such as open-air meetings and street demonstrations, also began to be adopted by the animal defence movement's more radical fringe.

In short, in this dynamic era of social reform, the animal cause was again carried forward by the wider currents of which it was a part, and it underwent a buoyant period of expansion and radicalisation.

In our time

Entering into its second century of activity, the fortunes of the animal cause continued to follow closely those of major humanitarian and social reforms. Apart from the mass efforts devoted to the rescue of soldiers and war horses alike, the two great wars in the first half of the twentieth century and the repressions and reconstructions that followed were low times for social movements in general and animal defence in particular. However, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, all forms of authority and power relationships began to face critical scrutiny and popular movements for civil rights, women's rights, nuclear disarmament and peace, and environmental protection, all emerged one after another. Soon afterwards, a radical wing of the animal protection movement also surfaced and began to dominate the central scene and image of the cause. To a certain extent, this new generation of activists for animals drew upon the emerging critical discourses against colonialism, patriarchy, consumerism, technocentrism, and ecological crisis. Many made explicit the connection between racism, sexism and 'speciesism'-a new catchword coined in the early 1970s. Politically-charged languages of 'rights' and 'liberation' used by oppressed minority groups at this time were also consciously employed by activists to resist the discrimination, domination, and degradation to which animals were subjected, not unlike human groups. With the contemporary green movement, the animal movement also began to share a common critique of instrumentalist and anthropocentric views of nature and worked jointly on the protection of endangered species and wild life. And in terms of the disruptive tactics of some anti-vivisection, anti-hunting, or anti-live-export groups, these can largely be traced to the civil disobedience and direct action traditions developed in the sixties and continued into recent protests against globalisation. The sense of desperation and moral passion that has driven their action should therefore be seen as no more 'irrational', or incomprehensible than their equivalents in other protest movements.

The uses of history

This close examination of the first century and brief portrayal of the second century of the movement for animals shows that, far from being marginal and isolated, it has always been closely associated with the major literary, religious, and political traditions contributing to the broad development of humanitarianism. Rather than growing at the expense of each other, reform for humans and other animals developed side by side and showed parallel patterns of emergence, consolidation and transformation from eighteenth-century humanitarian sensibility through Victorian philanthropy to political radicalism in the late-nineteenth and again in the late-twentieth centuries. And despite their different tasks and short-term objectives, the two spheres of reform for the most part shared the same ideological origins, cohered in moral vision, and employed similar rhetoric and tactics in their common pursuit of core human values such as charity, equality and justice.

This understanding gained from a long-term historical perspective should instantly clear up the common misconception of the animal cause as inconsequential, misanthropic and an ephemeral sign of modern morbidity. This should provide a less biased starting point from which constructive dialogue over the animal question could begin.

For those directly involved in the movement, other uses can also be made of this uncovered past. Thus modern-day successors, equipped with a strengthened awareness of their connections with wider traditions and social struggles through the research of the historian, may become more sensitive to the opportunities available to them in dealing with the present. Indeed, in the situation faced by the contemporary movement discussed at the beginning of this paper, two prospects seem to lie ahead. On the one hand, it can choose to remain isolated from its potential allies and friends and put up with a distorted public image as anti-human, irrational and lacking deep roots. On the other, it can work to reclaim the intellectual traditions and common ground it shares with other movements, and advance with an assured confidence alongside kindred forces by creating links - in theory and in practice - for the pursuit of common visions and ideals.

While there may be every need for the animal movement to focus on sharply-defined targets in order to achieve short-term goals, there is an equally urgent need to engage with wider literary, religious, scientific, political and other traditions, and to cultivate the state of mind of belonging to much broader social forces striving in the same directions of charity, equality, and justice. This could not only strengthen activists' faith in something of a deeper nature and broaden their outlook, but also affect the spirit in which their work is undertaken and make it all the more powerful and appealing to others.

Further Reading

French, R. D., Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society, New Jersey, 1975.

Harrison, B., Peaceable Kingdom: Stability and Change in Modern Britain, Oxford, 1982.

Kean, H., Animal Rights: Social and Political Change Since 1800, London, 1998.

Li, C., 'A union of Christianity, humanity and philanthropy: the Christian tradition and the prevention of cruelty to animals in nineteenth-century Britain', in Society and Animals, 2000.

Ritvo, H, The Animal Estate: the English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1987.

Ibid., 'History and animal studies', in Society and Animals, 2002.

Thomas, K., Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800, London, 1983.

Turner, J., Reckoning with the Beast: Animals, Pain, and Humanity in the Victorian Mind, Baltimore, 1980.

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