Pepys, Phyla & Philosophy: A History of Animal Welfare Law in the UK (Part One) by Corrina Lewis

This is the first in a series of posts focusing on the history and philosophy of UK animal law, containing a brief overview and looking at some of the people whose ideas have shaped the view of animals that informs our laws today.

Throughout history humanity has drawn some fairly arbitrary lines between different animal species when choosing friends, foes, and food. Cats were worshipped in ancient Egypt, dogs have been our companions for thousands of years, yet other species such as fish and chickens have not been so lucky.[1] Cheese-burying scribbler Samuel Pepys exemplifies this long-standing selective empathy. Pepys was very fond of certain animals, but loathed others (even within a single species).[2] He was both fascinated and disgusted by the animals that he encountered throughout his life, choosing to go out of his way for some, but actively hating others.[3] His respect for animals seems to have been based on the notion of comparative intelligence and the human-like qualities they displayed, rather than seeing animals as a sentient beings in their own right. This was not unusual for the time and even today, when despite acknowledgements of animal sentience, human actions are often performed with assumptions of superiority.

From Pepys in the 1600s through to the mid-1800s, relevant laws have mainly focused on animals as commodities, not on their welfare. These rules governing the lives and treatment of animals were shaped by influential philosophers such as Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, and Rene Descartes.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

The influence of Aristotle on philosophers who would follow him many centuries later is undeniable.[4] He viewed the universe as being eternal and made up of a number of distinct forms of life, known as the Great Chain of Being, which was composed of hierarchical links, all the way from rocks right up to God.[5] Aristotle observed that plants have a vegetative soul (placing them near the bottom of the chain), as they only grow and reproduce; a capability possessed by any being with life. Animals therefore share the vegetative soul, but also have movement, sense, and memory, meaning that in addition they possess a sensitive soul. Above the sensitive soul in Aristotle’s hierarchy is the rational soul, which defines the human being, as he considered humans to not only possess the qualities of the vegetative and sensitive souls, but also to be capable of reason, thought, and reflection.

Aquinas (1225-1274)

Aquinas, who interpreted Aristotelian ideas from a Christian perspective, was particularly influential when it came to the religious aspects of viewing non-human animals.[6] He merged his teachings with the Catholic faith, quoting Genesis 9:3 in his most famous book, The Summa Theologica: “Everything that moves and lives shall be meat to you.”[7] Early Judeo-Christian traditions held that animals were distinctly inferior to human beings and were worth little if any moral consideration for two reasons: humans have souls and animals do not, and humans have reason and animals do not.[8] Natural law – a moral theory of jurisprudence, most closely associated with Aquinas – sought to discern universal traits in human nature and in doing so disregarded any idea that animals deserve moral recognition due to our hierarchical standing and therefore dominion over them.[9] It could be argued at this point that Aquinas’ theistic belief that God manufactured animals in order to serve human purposes was a way to justify humans eating meat. Aristotle’s teachings (from which Aquinas drew much inspiration) clearly expressed that as animals lacked the higher rational soul, the award of supremacy would dictate that lower animal life was created only to serve human needs, therefore giving humans the licence to kill a being created by God. According to Aquinas, the “life of animals…is preserved not for themselves, but for man.”[10]

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Closely linked to such religious reasoning are theories developed by enlightenment philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that animals have no will and no inherent capability for decisions. In other words, animals lack agency and autonomy. According to Kant, humans should still use animals as we see fit, not because of religious doctrine, but because we are inherently better than them. Essentially, Kant’s theory seeks to look beyond the religious paradigm in order to find a more satisfying answer to the complex question of how we should relate to animals. Unlike Aquinas, he did not use his perception of animals and their lack of capacity as an excuse to treat them poorly, rather he suggested that humanity as a whole has an indirect duty to animals. It is indirect in the sense that it is mostly a duty to ourselves to treat animals humanely, for once we are cruel we may become less human ourselves.[11] Kant’s argument then, is not based on a moral recognition of animals, rather it is concerned with the protection of the human identity.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650)

Whilst Kant believed animals are lacking in autonomy and rationality, others, such as Rene Descartes (often named the father of Western philosophy and influential to the likes of Kant) did not even credit animals with a consciousness, believing therefore that we can treat animals as we wish, for animals cannot feel pain (even though they may act as though they do), they simply react to stimuli. Descartes surmised that animals are driven solely by biology and are slaves to it, such that no other desires influence a non-human animal’s actions. This led to the conclusion that animals are not in need of compassion or welfare. This school of thought in particular has been a difficult one to shake, continuing to fuel more philosophical debate and inform scientific theories throughout the 20th century.[12]

So where did this leave the status of animals following on from the period known as the age of enlightenment? The conclusion to be drawn is that the moral status assigned to animals was negligible; they only exist to serve human needs. According to Aquinas’ logic, we are allowed to do whatever we want with animals, because God says so. Kant suggested that we can do whatever we want with animals, but should not because humans owe it to themselves to be kind to lesser beings. Does this particular idea stretch to vivisection? Vivisection is far from a kindness to lesser beings; the use of animal experiments to satisfy scientific enquiry has historically been necessary though, and so does the end justify the means? Descartes’ view of animals as soulless, senseless automata would surely “absolve man from the suspicion of crime”.[13]


[1] Jaromir Malek, The Cat In Ancient Egypt (University of Pennsylvania Press 2000) 13

[2] Samuel Pepys, Diary, From 1659 To 1669, With Memoir (Nabu Press 2011). 11 September 1661

[3] ibid 15 January 1660, 28 January 1666, 4 April 1662

[4] Aristotle made significant and lasting contributions to nearly every aspect of human knowledge, from logic to biology to ethics and aesthetics. ‘Aristotle – Ancient History’ (HISTORY.com, 2018) <https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/aristotle> accessed 6 August 2017.

[5]Great Chain Of Being’ (Newworldencyclopedia.org, 2018) <http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Great_Chain_of_Being> accessed 20 September 2017.

[6] Andrew Linzey and Tom Regan, Animal And Christianity (Wipf & Stock 2007) 124

[7] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Christian Classics 2000) 5010

[8] Genesis 1:28

[9] Michael D. A Freeman, Lloyd’s Introduction To Jurisprudence (Sweet & Maxwell/Thomson Reuters 2008) 79

[10] St. Thomas Aquinas, “No Friendship with Irrational Creatures” in A.B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey (eds) Political Theory and Animal Rights (London: Pluto Pr. 1990) 102-105.

[11] Immanuel Kant, Peter Heath and J. B Schneewind, Lectures On Ethics (Cambridge University Press 2001) 178

[12] Peter Carruthers, The Animals Issue: Moral Theory In Practice (Cambridge Univ Pr 1992) 6

[13] Nuno Franco, ‘Animal Experiments In Biomedical Research: A Historical Perspective’ Animals (2013) 3(1) 238–273

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