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The Rights of Animals, Brigid Brophy, 1965

In 1965 The Sunday Times invited Brigid Brophy to write an article on a topic of her choice. The following essay stimulated debate and placed Brophy in the vanguard of the modern pro-animal movement. Her argument is still relevant today.


Were it announced tomorrow that anyone who fancied it might, without risk of reprisals or recriminations, stand at a fourth- storey window, dangle out of it a length of string with a meal (labelled ‘Free’) on the end, wait till a chance passer-by took a bite and then, having entangled his cheek or gullet on a hook hidden in the food, haul him up the fourth floor and there batter him to death with a knobkerrie, I do not think there would be many takers.

Most sane adults would, I imagine, sicken at the mere thought. Yet sane adults do the equivalent to fish every day: not in panic, sexual jealousy, ideological frenzy or even greed— many of our freshwater fish are virtually inedible, and not one of them constitutes a threat to the life, love or ideology of a human on the bank—but for amusement. Civilization is not outraged at their behaviour. On the contrary: that a person’s hobby is fishing is often read as a guarantee of his sterling and innocent character.

The relationship of homo sapiens to the other animals is one of unremitting exploitation. We employ their work; we eat and wear them. We employ them to serve our superstitions: whereas we used to sacrifice them to our gods and tear out their entrails in order to foresee the future, we now sacrifice them to science, and experiment on their entrails in the hope—or on the mere offchance— that we might thereby see a little more clearly into the present. When we can think of no pretext for causing their death and no profit to turn it to, we often cause it none the less, wantonly, the only gain being a brief pleasure for ourselves, which is usually only marginally bigger than the pleasure we could have had without killing anything; we could well enjoy marksmanship or cross-country galloping without requiring a real dead wild animal to show for it at the end.

It is rare for us to leave wild animals alive; when we do, we often do not leave them wild. Some we put on display in a prison just large enough for them to survive, but not in any full sense to live, in. Others we trundle about the country in their prisons, pausing every now and then to put them on public exhibition performing, like clockwork, ‘tricks’ we have ‘trained’ into them. However, animals are not clockwork but instinctual beings. Circus ‘tricks’ are spectacular or risible as the case may be precisely because they violate the animals’ instinctual nature—which is precisely why they ought to violate both our moral and our aesthetic sense.

But where animals are concerned humanity seems to have switched off its morals and aesthetics—indeed, its very imagination. Goodness knows those faculties function erratically enough in our dealings with one another. But at least we recognise their faultiness. We spend an increasing number of our cooler moments trying to forestall the moral and aesthetic breakdowns which are liable, in a crisis, to precipitate us into atrocities against one another. We have bitter demarcation disputes about where the rights of one man end and those of the next man begin, but most men now acknowledge that there are such things as the rights of the next man. Only in relation to the next animal can civilized humans persuade themselves that they have absolute and arbitrary rights—that they may do anything whatever that they can get away with.

The reader will have guessed in some detail by now what sort of person he confronts in me: a sentimentalist; probably a killjoy; a person with no grasp on economic realities; a twee anthropomorphiser, who attributes human feelings (and no doubt human names and clothes as well) to animals, and yet actually prefers animals to humans and would sooner succour a stray cat than an orphan child; a latterday version of those folklore English spinsters who in the nineteenth century excited the ridicule of the natives by walking round Florence requesting them not to ill-treat their donkeys; and par excellence, of course, a crank.

Well. To take the last item first: if by ‘crank’ you mean ‘abnormal’, yes. My views are shared by only a smallish (but probably not so small as you think) part of the citizenry—as yet. Still, that proves nothing either way about the validity of our views. It is abnormal to be a lunatic convinced you are Napoleon, but equally (indeed, numerically considered, probably even more) abnormal to be a genius. The test of a view is its rationality, not the number of people who endorse it. It would have been cranky indeed in the ancient world to raise the question of the rights of slaves—so cranky that scarcely a voice went on record as doing so. To us it seems incredible that the Greek philosophers should have scanned so deep into right and wrong and yet never noticed the immorality of slavery. Perhaps 3,000 years from now it will seem equally incredible that we do not notice the immorality of our oppression of animals.

Slavery was the ancient world’s patch of moral and aesthetic insensitivity. Indeed, it was not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of our own era that the human conscience was effectively and universally switched on in that respect. Even then, we went on with economic and social exploitations which stopped short of slavery only in constitutional status, and people were found to justify them. But by then the exploiters had at least been forced on to the defensive and felt obliged to produce feeble arguments that had never even been called for in the ancient world.

Perhaps it is a sign that our conscience is about to be switched on in relation to animals that some animal-exploiters are now seeking to justify themselves. When factory farmers tell us that animals kept in ‘intensive’ (i.e., concentration) camps are being kindly spared the inclemency of a winter outdoors, and that calves do not mind being tethered for life on slats because they have never known anything else, an echo should start in our historical consciousness: do you remember how the child-like blackamoors were being kindly spared the harsh responsibilities of freedom, how the skivvy didn’t feel the hardship of scrubbing all day because she was used to it, how the poor didn’t mind their slums because they had never know anything else?

The first of the factory farmers’ arguments is, of course, an argument for ordinary farms to make better provision for animals in winter, not for ordinary farms to be replaced by torture chambers. As for the one about the animals’ never having known anything else, I still shan’t believe it valid but I shall accept that the factory farmers genuinely believe it themselves when they follow out its logic by using their profits to finance the repatriation of every circus and zoo animal that was caught in the wild, on the grounds that those have known something else.

Undismayed by being a crank, I will make you a free gift of another stick to beat me with, by informing you that I am a vegetarian. Now, surely, you have me. Not only am I a more extreme crank, a member of an even smaller minority, than you had realised; surely I must, now, be a killjoy. Yet which, in fact, kills more joy: the killjoy who would deprive you of your joy in eating steak, which is just one of the joys open to you, or the kill-animal who puts an end to all the animal’s joys along with its life?

Beware, however (if we may now take up the first item in your identikit portrait of me), how you call me a sentimentalist in this matter. I may be less of one than you are. I won’t kill an animal in order to eat it, but I am no respecter of dead bodies as such. If our chemists discovered (as I am sure they quickly would were there a demand) how to give tenderness and hygiene to the body of an animal which had died of old age, I would willingly eat it; and in principle that goes for human animals, too. In practice I suspect I should choke on a rissole which I knew might contain bits of Great-Aunt Emily (whether through love for or repulsion from her I am not quite sure), and I admit I might have to leave rational cannibalism to future generations brought up without my irrational prejudice (which is equally irrational whether prompted by love or by repulsion for the old lady). But you were accusing me, weren’t you, of sentimentality and ignorance of economic realities: have you thought how much of the world’s potential food supply you unrealistically let go waste because of your sentimental compunction about eating your fellow citizens after they have lived out their natural lives?

If we are going to rear and kill animals for our food, I think we have a moral obligation to spare them pain and terror in both processes, simply because they are sentient. I can’t prove they are sentient; but then I have no proof you are. Even though you are articulate, whereas an animal can only scream or struggle, I have no assurance that your ‘It hurts’, expresses anything like the intolerable sensations I experience in pain. I know, however, that when I visit my dentist and say ‘It hurts’, I am grateful that he gives me the benefit of the doubt.

I don’t myself believe that, even when we fulfil our minimum obligations not to cause pain, we have the right to kill animals. I know I would have no right to kill you, however painlessly, just because I liked your flavour, and I am not in a position to judge that your life is worth more to you than the animal’s to it. If anything, you probably value yours less; unlike the animal, you are capable of acting on an impulse to suicide. Christian tradition would permit me to kill the animal but not you, on the grounds that you have, and it hasn’t, an immortal soul. I am not a Christian and do not avail myself of this licence; but if I were, I should in elementary justice see the soul theory as all the more reason to let the animal live out the one mortal life it has.

The only genuine moral problem is where there is a direct clash between an animal’s life and a human one. Our diet proposes no such clash, meat not being essential to a human life; I have sustained a very healthy one for ten years without. And in fact such clashes are much rarer in reality than in exam. papers, where we are always being asked to rescue either our grandmother or a Rubens from a blazing house. Human fantasy often fabricates a dilemma (yours did when you suggested I love animals in preference to people—there is no psychological law which prevents me from loving both) as an excuse for inertia. It is a principle of ‘divide and do nothing’. In reality, your own preference for humans over animals will not justify you in resisting my hint that you should send a cheque to the Performing Animals Defence League (11 Buckingham Street, Adelphi, WC2, by the way) unless you really and actually do get round to sending it instead to Oxfam (c/o Barclays Bank, Oxford). 

The most genuine and painful clash is, of course, on the subject of vivisection. To hold vivisection never justified is a hard belief. But so is its opposite. I believe it is never justified because I can see nothing (except our being able to get away with it) which lets us pick on animals that would not equally let us pick on idiot humans (who would be more useful) or, for the matter of that, on a few humans of any sort whom we might sacrifice for the good of the many.

If we do permit vivisection, here if anywhere we are under the most stringent minimum obligations. The very least we must make sure of is that no experiment is ever duplicated, or careless, or done for mere teaching’s sake or as a substitute for thinking. Knowing how often, in every other sphere, pseudo-work proliferates in order to fill time and jobs, and how often activity substitutes for thought, and then reading the official statistics about vivisection, do you truly believe we do make sure? (The National Anti-Vivisection is at 51 Harley Street, W.1.) 

Our whole relation to animals is tinted by a fantasy—and a fallacy—about our toughness. We feel obliged to demonstrate we can take it; in fact, it is the animals who take it. So shy are we of seeming sentimental that we often disguise our humane impulses under ‘realistic’ arguments: foxhunting is snobbish; factory-farmed food doesn’t taste so nice. But foxhunting would still be an atrocity if it were done by authenticated, pedigreed proletarians, and so would factory- farming even if a way were found of making its corpses tasty. So, incidentally, would slavery, even if it were proved a hundred times more economically realistic than freedom.

The saddest and silliest of the superstitions to which we sacrifice animals is our belief that by killing more of them we ourselves somehow live more fully. We might live more fully by entering imaginatively into their lives. But shedding their blood makes us no more full-blooded. It is a mere myth, often connected with our myth about the savoir vivre and sexiness of the sunny south (which is how you managed to transform me into a frustrated British virgin in Florence). There is no law of nature which makes savoir vivre incompatible with ‘live and let live’. The bull-fighter who torments a bull to death and then castrates it of an ear has neither proved nor increased his own virility; he has merely demonstrated that he is a butcher with balletic tendencies.

Superstition and dread of sentimentality weight all our questions against the animals. We don’t scrutinise vivisection rigorously—we somehow think it would be soft of us to do so, which we apparently think a worse thing to be than cruel. When, in February of this year, the House of Lords voted against a Bill banning animal acts from circuses, it was pointed out that animal trainers would lose their jobs. (Come to think of it, many human trainers must have lost theirs when it was decided to ban gladiator acts from circuses.) No one pointed out how many unemployed acrobats and jugglers would get jobs to replace the animals. (I’m not, you see by the way, the sort of killjoy who wants to abolish the circus as such.)

Similarly with the anthropomorphism argument, which works in both directions but is wielded in one only. In the same House of Lords debate, Lady Summerskill, who had taken the humane side, was mocked by a noble lord on the grounds that were she shut up in cage she would indeed suffer from mortification and the loss of her freedom, but an animal, not being human, wouldn’t. Why did no one point out that a human in such circumstances, dreadful as they are, would have every consolation of the human intellect and imagination, from reading books to analysing his circumstances and writing to the Home Secretary about them, whereas the animal suffers the raw terror of not comprehending what is being done to it?

In point of fact, I am the very opposite of an anthropomorphiser. I don’t hold animals superior or even equal to humans. The whole case for behaving decently to animals rests on the fact that we are the superior species. We are the species uniquely capable of imagination, rationality and moral choice—and that is precisely why we are under the obligation to recognise and respect the rights of animals.

©Brigid Brophy 1965

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