“Can they suffer?”

I was only recently introduced to Jeremy Bentham.  Perhaps because he was the author of a piece that criticized The Declaration of Independence, or that I avoided philosophy in college – but his name was never one I came across in my education.  The quote I read (to be used in another post) led me to learn more about him, and to run across the quote that I am posting here and that inspired the title.

For those as unaware as I was, Jeremy Bentham was born in 1748 and died, at the age of 84, in 1832.  It turns out that Mr. Bentham was an early advocate for the rights of women, homosexuals, and animals. He was a prolific writer and I ran across many quotes that resonated.  But, for obvious reasons, this one stuck out.

“The day may come when the rest of animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why 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 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 they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

― Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation

Apparently he argued in other places that if the lack of reason or speech were sufficient to cause pain in animals, then it was a small step to feel the same was acceptable with defenseless infant humans.  He promoted a philosophy of creating happiness and reducing suffering.  As with all people from a bygone era, his views will look flawed through our modern lens – but put in their time and context, I find them surprisingly humane.

Much has changed since the time of Mr. Bentham – although the arc toward justice has been bending oh so slowly.  The rights of the human groups he advocated for are still often tenuous, and animals are generally still seen as property.  But the arc has been bending for humans and animals even in my own lifetime.  It seems a low bar that Mr. Bentham set for us – “Can they suffer?”  It is up to us to try to see that they don’t.

Be good to everyone!


2 thoughts on ““Can they suffer?”

  1. I just finished penning a blog post on William Godwin and imagine my surprise and happiness in finding another post on another utilitarian philosopher posted tonight as well! Bentham is a fascinating philosopher and while I have difficulties with some of his theories on surveillance, his optimism and belief in promoting the happiness of the majority (including animals) is always admirable. Thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that there are Bentham ideas I don’t subscribe to, but that is likely true if one digs into anyone’s philosophies. But I love learning of people from the past with enlightened views. I look forward to reading your post!

      Liked by 1 person

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