• Alison Stone

Frances Power Cobbe and the invention of animal ethics

Until recently women were omitted, indeed systematically excluded, from the history of philosophy, few if any women figuring in the Western canon of great philosophers. This not only gives the false impression that philosophy has been a men-only affair; it also distorts our view of the history of many philosophical debates. A case in point is animal ethics, which is often thought to have originated with Peter Singer in the 1970s. Actually our moral duties to animals were already hotly debated in nineteenth-century Britain, and one of the central participants in that debate was Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904). From the 1860s until her death, she published dozens of essays on animal ethics in the leading journals of the time, and her ideas were very widely known and discussed.

Cobbe’s first article on the topic was ‘The Rights of Man and the Claims of Brutes’ in 1863. She held that we have a fundamental duty to promote the happiness and reduce the sufferings of all sentient beings. However, she argued that because human beings are moral agents our claims come before those of animals, so long as the claims concern real and serious human wants. For instance, she thought that humans need meat to survive, so that we may legitimately harm and kill animals for this purpose. But we may not legitimately harm animals for the sake of merely trivial desires, gratuitously, or out of selfish and cruel impulses. And we may only harm animals so far as is strictly necessary to satisfy our real wants. She admitted that these principles might sound trivial – but, she replied, they had significant consequences in regard to vivisection, i.e., scientific experimentation on living animals. The practice was then well-established in some European countries and was gaining ground in Britain. At the time, vivisection was unregulated and often performed without anaesthetics or clearly defined research goals. This alarmed Cobbe, who concluded that a principled framework specifying human duties to animals was needed. Under her framework, scientists may legitimately experiment on animals only so far as is strictly necessary to find out new truths with definite medical benefits – she classed such experiments as satisfying a real want. And scientists may only inflict pain when doing so is strictly necessary for this purpose, otherwise anaesthetics must always be used.

Cobbe believed that these principles should form the basis of laws to regulate animal experimentation. She campaigned for such legislation, founding the Victoria Street Society in 1875 to orchestrate the campaign – it still exists, now as the National Anti-Vivisection Society. She drafted regulatory legislation which her supporters presented in parliament that same year. Following stiff opposition from powerful scientists (including Darwin) and several rounds of negotiation and lobbying, the Cruelty to Animals Act was passed in 1876, a compromise between Cobbe’s originally proposed Bill and the alternative designed by her opponents. Under the 1876 Act painful experiments on animals were only permissible if they advanced knowledge, were performed by a licence-holder, and used anaesthetics unless doing so would defeat the purpose of the experiment; licences were granted by a scientific committee with all experimental premises liable to occasional inspections. The Act, which gave Britain the most stringent regulatory system in the world at the time, remained the basis of British law on scientific use of animals right up until 1986.

Some would have seen this as quite an achievement, especially in an era when women could neither vote nor public office – but not Cobbe. For her, the legislation was so watered-down compared to her initial proposals that it amounted merely to a charter for vivisectors to continue with business as usual. She decided that the only option was to prohibit vivisection absolutely, for which she now campaigned, eventually founding a new organisation, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (it too still exists, now called Cruelty Free International – you may recognise its logo).

Cobbe continued to argue against vivisection on a philosophical basis. Just a few of her many arguments were that:

  • There are no compelling reasons to think that higher animals feel pain any less than humans;

  • Ranking animal suffering and happiness as less important than those of humans is merely a new form of ‘race-selfishness’ – i.e., what would later be called ‘speciesism’;

  • Many of the supposed medical benefits of these experiments are no benefits at all –medical practitioners are merely foisting unneeded interventions upon people to make a profit;

  • The defence that animal experiments maximise long-term overall happiness is flawed because it prioritises merely hypothetical, long-term happiness over actual, present happiness;

  • Vivisection is part of a science-dominated culture that is indifferent to values and moral concerns;

  • As to why vivisection should be prohibited absolutely, Cobbe now argued that experimenting on animals even with anaesthetics is wrong because it requires the scientist to cultivate an attitude of dispassionate curiosity, stifle their feelings of sympathy and compassion for their fellow-creatures, and treat ‘a living, conscious, sensitive, and intelligent creature as if it were dead and senseless matter’.

You can imagine the barrage of sexist abuse that Cobbe faced from much of the scientific and medical establishment. Accused of being a hysterical and sentimental old woman, she turned the charge on its head: ‘I do not in the smallest degree object to finding my appeals treated as womanly. I claim, as a woman, the better right to be heard in such a cause than a man’. It is a great shame that she has been left out of the history of animal ethics, even by feminist animal ethicists. Cobbe deserves to be recognised as one of the founding figures of the field, and she did a great deal to make the world a better place for non-human animals.

If you want to learn more, please check out my Frances Power Cobbe: Essential Writings of a Nineteenth-Century Feminist Philosopher!

Alison Stone

Professor in Philosophy at Lancaster University


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