Was Jeremy Bentham an Antivivisectionist?

Jeremy Bentham Animal ExperimentsIn this post we look at whether or not Jeremy Bentham, an eminent 18th and 19th century English philosopher,  was opposed to animal experiments. Ahead of his time in many areas, Bentham advocated for freedom of expression, abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, and the separation of church and state. His Utilitarian philosophy has influenced philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and, more recently, Peter Singer.

In his 1789 book, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, he briefly muses the question of rights for non-human beings. In a footnote, the following can be found.  

The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

This bolded section (my emphasis) has been held up by the animal rights movement as an argument against animal research. The quote can be found on the websites of PETA, Animal Aid, New England Anti-Vivisection Society and many other animal rights groups.

NEAVS website, April 2016

NEAVS website, April 2016

You can read a full debunking of Bentham’s argument for the rights of animals in our “Animal Rights Philosophy” section. An extract can be found below:

Bentham neglects to explain why suffering should be a basis for rights. Central to this question is that of “What grants rights?”

[…]

It is the power for entirely autonomous thought and action which grants rights to human, uniquely among all animals. However there is more to the advent of rights. With a right comes a duty. My right and your right not to be arbitrarily killed are fundamentally linked to your duty, and my duty, not to arbitrarily kill someone else. My right to property hinges on my duty not to steal from other people. Before civic society came about, humans were free of any laws preventing them from killing each other, however killing your neighbor would justify your neighbor’s friend in killing you. So an unuttered agreement formed that said “if I don’t kill you, you don’t kill me”, and the beginnings of society could come about.

Animals cannot partake in any agreement. They cannot understand the duties required of them that would allow them to receive the protection that rights would offer them.

However, to return to the original question: Was Jeremy Bentham an Antivivisectionist? Many have taken his quote to mean that he was, however, in a Letter to Editor to the Morning Chronicle, March 4th 1825, Bentham tackles this question head on. His first sentence outlines his position clearly:

Sir, —I never have seen, nor ever can see, any objection to the putting of dogs and other inferior animals to pain, in the way of medical experiment, when that experiment has a determinate object, beneficial to mankind, accompanied with a fair prospect of the accomplishment of it.

He goes on to say what the vast majority of us would agree with – that unnecessary animal suffering should be avoided.

So there you have it – Bentham was not against animal research. Such tactics of adopting people based on single sentences has been common. We have seen Albert Sabin – creator of the oral polio vaccine – misrepresented, we have seen former NIH director, Elias Zerhouni misrepresented. And Bentham is not the only philosopher. While Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, has certainly supported principles of animal rights on a Utilitarian basis, his views on the matter are more nuanced than many activists give him credit for. In 2006, while debating the issue with Prof Tipu Aziz – a brain surgeon who has conducted pioneering work into deep brain stimulation – Singer agreed that Aziz’s use of monkeys could probably be justified. The Independent writes:

In the film Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing, Singer is seen in discussion with the Oxford academic Professor Tipu Aziz, who has been conducting experiments on macaque monkeys as part of his work to find a treatment for Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses. Told by Aziz that tests on some 100 monkeys has led to positive treatment for 40,000 patients, Singer responds that he “would certainly not say that no animal research could be justified.

Or watch the segment of the documentary Monkey Rats and Me, below:

Next time you see Bentham quotes plastered on animal rights websites, just remember:

Sir, —I never have seen, nor ever can see, any objection to the putting of dogs and other inferior animals to pain, in the way of medical experiment, when that experiment has a determinate object, beneficial to mankind, accompanied with a fair prospect of the accomplishment of it.

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