Bloomsbury Food Library-Structure and Agency in the Antislavery and Animal Liberation Movement
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Eating and Believing
Eating and Believing

David Grumett

Dr David Grumett is Research Fellow in Theology in the University of Exeter, UK. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Rachel Muers

Dr Rachel Muers is Lecturer in Theology in the University of Leeds, UK. She is author of Keeping God’s Silence: Towards a Theological Ethics of Communication (Blackwell, 2004). She also edited The Modern Theologians (Blackwells) together with David Ford. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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A Continuum, 2008

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Structure and Agency in the Antislavery and Animal Liberation Movements

DOI: 10.5040/9780567678140-ch-013
Page Range: 198–216

The use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life.[1]

To those, of course, who are convinced that flesh-food is a necessity of human welfare, it is vain to suggest that it will form no part in the future dietary; that is a matter which time alone can decide.[2]

I, like many other people in the modern Western world, am a vegetarian, on the grounds chiefly of moral objection to the suffering and killing of animals that meat production involves. Vegetarianism is, for me, a core moral belief, from which commitment to certain kinds of action and inaction straightforwardly follows. When I reflect on the horrors perpetrated by the animal-exploiting industries, and the non-necessity of their products for health and well-being, I vividly experience the moral imperative that drives my vegetarianism. And yet, at moments of metareflection, I realize that the condition of my holding the beliefs and commitments that I do is the existence of vegetarianism as an established social practice with many other adherents. I did not discover the empirical facts of animal exploitation through first-hand inquiry, and I did not work out the moral issues through independent analysis and reasoning. Without the exhortation and example set by others, I would have had no reason even to consider whether I should become a vegetarian. If I am honest with myself, I will acknowledge that, had I been born one hundred years earlier—when vegetarians were tiny in number and considered to be freakish aberrations—it is highly unlikely that I would have become one. The (practically) necessary preconditions of my choosing vegetarianism are the existence of sets of ideas and practices, and empirical knowledge, that have been pioneered, worked out, discovered and made respectable, by others before and independently of me. Vegetarianism is a movement—a social movement—the beliefs, attitudes, aims and practices of which provide me with reasons, arguments, evidence and resources for thinking about and being vegetarian. Independent moral reflection on the justness of our society’s practices and institutions is, of course, important, but as Durkheim said,‘most of our ideas and tendencies are not developed by ourselves, but come to us from outside’.[3]

On the one hand, then, vegetarianism is a paradigm case of exercising the powers of moral agency in critical reflection, moral choice, decision and will. It is such a clear paradigm because in most instances it involves a diametrical change of perception of practices that one had been brought up to regard as unexceptionably in order, and which are enthusiastically endorsed by the vast majority of one’s co-citizens, including moral, religious, scientific, medical, legal and educational authorities. But, on the other hand, the availability of vegetarianism as a viable set of practices (including ideas about animals’ moral status, mental and emotional capacities and the empirical conditions of their exploitation) cannot itself be conjured up through an individual’s moral agency. The possibility of becoming a vegetarian depends on the pre-existence, in social and cultural ‘space’, of a set of ideas, attitudes, aims and practices, that one might come to embrace and choose to adopt.

The point that I am trying to make about the intersection and interdependence of ‘moral agency’ and ‘social structure’ can be illustrated via the master example drawn upon by Anthony Giddens in his ‘theory of structuration’.[4] Language exists prior to, and outside of, the consciousness of each, and arguably all, of its users. The form of this existence is a structure, or set of structures, of rules that constitute the semantics, grammar and syntax of language. Through our speech-acts we, as individuals, exercise our linguistic agency. We endeavour to say what we want to say, availing ourselves of the infinity of possible meanings that language provides for us through its rules for the use of its words and combinations of those words into sentences, statements and propositions. Thus the condition of us being able to exercise our individual linguistic agency is that there be structures of rules (which are themselves sustained by ongoing social practice) on which we can draw for the medium of our meaning-productions and interpretations. I am suggesting that what holds for linguistic agency holds also for moral agency. In order for us to be able to make meaningful moral choices and decisions, and to seek to live in accordance with those choices and decisions, there have to be socially established and sustained moral practices, such as vegetarianism, that we can choose to adopt.

Reflecting on the moral practice of vegetarianism, an obvious question to be considered is: What are the reasons, grounds and arguments for being or becoming a vegetarian? Unsurprisingly, this is the question that preoccupies most of the philosophical and theological literature on the treatment of animals in modern society. It is, if you like, addressed to, and considered by, people in their capacity as moral agents. In this chapter, I shall attempt to address some questions that lie on the ‘structural’ side of the structure-agency dichotomy, or dialectic. The main question to be asked is: Under what social and historical conditions did the movement for vegetarianism and ‘animal liberation’ arise, and what are the conditions for its success? I am also going to engage in some speculation on the future prospects of vegetarianism and animal liberation. What I am seeking is a kind of philosophical history, or historical-materialist (in the Marxian sense) analysis, of the conditions and developmental trends of vegetarianism and animal liberation. To help me in this quest, I will be looking at the explanatory perspectives of some leading historians of the antislavery movement. If the institutionalized exploitation of animals bears any comparison with the institutionalized enslavement and exploitation of human beings, as I, along with Aristotle, believe it does, then there may be some lessons to draw from the antislavery movement that will be of relevance to animal liberation. I want to emphasize that I shall not be making any normative comparisons between slavery and animal exploitation; my focus will be on explanation of the origins and efficaciousness of ideas, and the social agency that takes up the ideas and acts on them.

Vegetarianism, animal rights and social progress

Throughout the ages the occasional philosopher, theologian or other public figure has objected to the killing of animals for food. There were critics in Ancient Rome and Greece.[5] Schopenhauer was a notable, though irresolute, critic, and so, more forcefully, but still irresolutely, were the classical Utilitarians, Bentham and Mill.[6] In many cases, the critiques were an aspect of religious or aesthetic beliefs and practices, and were often part of a more general non-conformist lifestyle. The word ‘vegetarian’ came into being only in the mid-nineteenth century; prior to that, people who abstained from meat-eating went by the epithet ‘Pythagorean’, and their dietary practice was known as a ‘vegetable regimen’.[7] These linguistic practices reflect the status accorded to those who practised and advocated vegetarianism— they were perceived as effete sentimentalists, eccentric cranks, or just plain mad, and were ostracized, ridiculed and marginalized.[8] Their practice and counsel was regarded as obviously unworthy of serious consideration. We (including most vegetarians!) would no doubt respond in much the same way to advocates of fruitarianism in our own society. Disregard and disdain was also the fate of Henry Salt and his Animals’ Rights (1894), which was perhaps the first sustained attempt to consider animals as full moral patients in and of themselves.[9] Although not written by an academic philosopher, Salt’s little book is surprisingly philosophically literate, carefully reasoned, empirically well-informed and comprehensive, covering agricultural, sporting and experimental uses of farm, domestic and wild animals. Yet what little attention it did receive from professional philosophers was dismissive and condescending. J. S. Mackenzie, for example, opined in philosophy’s premier ethics journal that ‘if Mr. Salt’s view is to be pressed to its logical conclusion, we ought to speak of the rights of nettles, sponges and oysters, as well as dogs and horses’.[10] Salt himself acknowledges that ‘many of my contentions will appear very ridiculous to those who view the subject from a contrary standpoint’.[11]

The long history of indifference to the appeals of the sharpest critics of animal exploitation, and the irresolute complaints of otherwise progressive social critics, was revolutionized in the 1970s with the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (widely acclaimed as the foundational text for the animal liberation movement), closely followed by Stephen Clark’s The Moral Status of Animals, and Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights.[12] Although these works added nothing fundamentally new to what was achieved in Salt’s much earlier work, they did bring modern philosophical sophistication in argument and analysis, and extensive empirical exposé, to the cause.[13] In the wake of these studies, the philosophical literature on human attitudes towards, and treatment of, animals has become an established sub-field of philosophy and a respectable topic in philosophical ethics. Moreover, in the (Western) world outside academia, vegetarianism and anti-vivisection are now mainstream, albeit minority, causes, and questions on animal rights and welfare are visibly disputed in the public sphere and political arena.

The foregoing potted history of the formation of vegetarianism and animalrights-consciousness reveals three noteworthy features. First, that vegetarianism and criticism of animal exploitation has a very long history. But second, until roughly the last quarter of the twentieth century, vegetarianism was practiced only by ‘exceptional or unusual individuals’ (often ‘the intellectual, the artist, the philosopher, the visionary’) and was ‘a stance which accentuated and dramatized that individual’s distinctiveness’.[14] And third, until very recently, much of what criticism of animal exploitation there was, was partial, limited and irresolute. Only in a very few exceptional cases did criticism take the form of attributing inherent moral status to the subjects of the institutionalized practices. This is a pattern that will be seen also to characterize the history of opposition to slavery.

The 1970s marked a watershed in the history of concern for the plight of animals. The modern animal liberation movement is a social movement for abolition, and it is only since its onset that vegetarianism has attained mass appeal and respectability.[15] But why did it take so long for such thoroughgoing moral criticism, and a social movement to carry it, to emerge? And why did it take so long for criticism of animal exploitation to be taken seriously, as moral argument and objection worthy of serious consideration? Why and how did that transformation occur at the time it did?

Few philosophers have sought answers to these questions. Singer, along with most other philosophers who have addressed the topic, paints a picture of moral progress, encapsulated by the metaphor of the ‘expanding circle’, which he takes from the nineteenth-century historian W. E. H. Lecky. The idea is of a circle demarcating the community of morally considerable beings, the boundary of which has over time expanded to encompass ever greater sections of humanity, eliminating the exploitative and disrespectful treatment of individuals that was based solely on their birthplace, religion, skin colour, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Singer looks forward to further expansion of the circle so that an individual’s species will come to be seen to be as arbitrary for morally discriminatory treatment as we now recognize race, gender, etc., to be. According to this picture, then, the reason that liberationist criticism of animal exploitation did not arrive until the late twentieth century is that earlier people either lacked essential moral concepts (‘rights’, ‘justice’, ‘equality’, ‘personhood’, etc.), or failed to understand the full range of application inherent in their meaning.[16] Earlier people are thereby depicted as morally primitive in their ability to comprehend the true demands of morality, or as lacking specific ‘moral knowledge’. Realist moral philosophers maintain that members of slaveholding societies failed to see the moral awfulness of what was there to be seen, and conversely, that abolitionists’ opposition to slavery came from their coming to see ‘the evil of that institution’.[17] Bernard Williams labels such developmental pictures, which he regards as beguiling but naïve,‘progressivist’.[18] The progressivist belief that we moderns are ‘morally superior’ (more averse to cruelty and arbitrary discrimination, and more acute in its perception) is deeply embedded in popular, as well as academic, consciousness, and is hard to resist.

The progressivism embraced explicitly or implicitly by most animal liberationist philosophers tends to bestow on ideas and arguments a belief in their inherent power of persuasion as a function of their truth value. This attitude conveys the belief that, once the ideas and arguments have been developed and refined to a sufficiently potent degree of persuasiveness, they will become efficacious unless thwarted by prejudice, closed-mindedness or conservatism. Thus Singer talks of prejudice, habit and self-interest, as the chief obstacles that sound argument must overcome.[19] In much of the literature on animal rights and welfare, liberationists and their critics operate in an ahistorical context, wherein they place their intellectual faith in what Jürgen Habermas reverentially calls the ‘unforced force of the better argument’.[20] And, it must be said, the very best liberationist philosophers, such as Clark, Singer, Regan and Salt, tend to present past philosophical and religious thinkers as somewhat mendacious, callous or hypocritical, with regard to their views on the ontological and moral status of animals. It is common to see a presentation of epistemic authorities, from Aristotle, through Aquinas, up to Descartes (especially!) and Kant, combined with the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition, depicted as a history of error and duplicity against which the liberationist arguments of the author will shine forth. In terms of the structure-agency dualism, then, liberationists operate mainly on the ‘agency’ side, that is, they more or less tacitly attribute to ideas and arguments an autonomous power of persuasion that is essentially transcendent of the social, cultural and material conditions of their production and reception.

But whatever the merits of progressivism as a rhetorical or polemical strategy, it is out of keeping with the prevailing acceptance of a broadly ‘structurationist’ stance in contemporary social and political theory, and compatibilism in modern philosophy. Guided by this structurationist/compatibilist ethos, one would look for the causes, conditions and context of emancipatory ideas and arguments in order to account for the historicity of their emergence and effectiveness, while acknowledging that they are not merely determined effects of their environment, but are causally efficacious too. This is precisely what the aforementioned historians of the antislavery movement have done in attempting to explain how and why serious opposition to slavery arose when and where it did, and the conditions of its eventual success.[21] I shall endeavour to show both that the history and culture of attitudes to slavery, and historians’ strategies for explaining its eventual abolition, might shed light on the origins of, and prospects for, the animal liberation movement.

The emergence of the antislavery and animal liberation movements

Richard Sorabji avers that ‘the modern debate on the treatment of animals has, in fact, reached the same point as the ancient debate on slavery’.[22] I think this is not quite right, and suggest instead that the modern (post-1970s) debate on the treatment of animals is far more advanced than the ancient ‘debate’ on slavery, such as it was, was. The proper point of comparison for the modern debate on animals is with mid-eighteenth-century Britain and America. It was there and then that a serious, organized, body of opposition to American and British colonial slavery, and the Atlantic slave trade, emerged. With the arrival of that movement came not just critical ideas, but a wider social movement with the agency to ensure that those ideas would be taken seriously, debated and, eventually, put into action. Some prominent historians of slavery regard this development as a ‘momentous turning point in the evolution of man’s moral perception’ and the inception of a new ‘humanitarian sensibility’.[23] Prior to this, the institution of slavery had simply been taken for granted as an inevitable and natural feature of the social world. The received view was that slavery was technologically, economically and socially, necessary for the maintenance of the society’s way of life, and its abolition had always been ‘almost literally unthinkable’.[24] Members of slave-owning societies could no more imagine a tolerably decent way of life without the institution of slavery than people today can imagine life without the institution of money.

Notwithstanding the perceived necessity of slavery, qua institution, the fact that slaves, qua individuals, endured pain, suffering and misfortune had not gone unnoticed: ‘In every slave regime some people were morally perceptive enough to recognize that slaves suffered’; ‘prior to the eighteenth century . . . humanitarians expressed compassion for the misfortune of individual slaves’; ‘free people in the Greek world were able to see what an arbitrary calamity it was for someone to become a slave’.[25] Even so, ‘for two millennia after Aristotle, the suffering of slaves continued to be perceived as nothing worse than a regrettable but necessary evil’.[26] The majority of people, though, either did not consider the question of slavery’s justness, or thought the institution positively virtuous (both for the slaves and the whole community).

Exactly the same pattern can be seen in the case of animal exploitation. Until the 1970s, the idea that institutionalized practices utilizing animals for food might be abolished was also ‘almost literally unthinkable’. For most of the history of animal exploitation, the use of animals for food, clothing and experimentation has been assumed to be necessary for a decent way of life. The majority of people have not thought, and still do not think, even of there being a question to be considered over the justness of using animals for food, experimentation, etc. (though nowadays everyone knows that such questions are raised). Most of those that have considered this question have concluded that the practices are entirely justified. As with slavery, there is a deep-rooted cultural assumption that our use of animals is simply the utilization of their design function (making food out of them is what they’re for)[27] and that this is good for them (they are given life that they wouldn’t otherwise have, and fare better than they would in the wild).[28] But there is considerable sentimental concern over cruelty and unkindness towards animals, exemplified by a tradition of well-supported campaigns, originating in the Victorian era, to ban ‘cruel’ sports. There is instinctive sympathy and empathy from many nonvegetarians for the plight of some particular animals, such as, for example, the vivisection or live export of ‘cute’ and ‘cuddly’ animals (calves), brutally killed seals or whales, hunted foxes or abused pet-animals. It is also widely recognized that factory farm animals and laboratory animals endure severe pain, distress and unnatural confinement.[29] However, as with slavery, most of the concern is directed at abuse of practice, not the practice itself, hence these pangs of sympathy and empathy sit side-by-side with securely entrenched belief in the necessity and justness of the practices.[30]

There are, then, remarkably common themes running through the history of attitudes towards the acceptability and justification of slavery until its abolition, and animal exploitation to the current day. First, in both cases the institutions have been perceived as necessary, natural and inevitable features of the societies hosting them, and the possibility of doing without them has been ‘almost literally unthinkable’. Second, notwithstanding this certainty on the necessity of the institutions, the fact that the individuals utilized by the institutionalized practices endure suffering of various kinds has always been noticed and articulated by some radical critics. And third, until the formation of the liberation movements, these critics have been regarded as deviants, and ridiculed and marginalized by their peers.

By the nineteenth century, the antislavery movement had become an abolitionist movement, increasingly attracting wide popular and respectable support, and thereby shedding its image as the plaything of dangerous subversives, utopian dreamers, eccentrics and mavericks. And now that prominent philosophers, scientists, novelists and other celebrities speak for animal liberation (or just particular causes such as vegetarianism or anti-vivisection) there is evidence that the animal liberation movement has begun to move in the same direction.

Given that there have been critics (albeit marginalized deviants) of the institutions of slavery and animal exploitation for some two millennia before the emergence of social movements with the organization and commitment to campaign effectively for reform and abolition, questions that demand answer are: Why did it take so long for that development, and why did it occur where and when it did? What was it about the social conditions of these movements that proved conducive to their emergence? Slavery was, of course, formally abolished, at least in the Western world, around the middle of the nineteenth century, that is, about a century after the emergence of the first thoroughgoing institutional criticism of it. The antislavery/abolition movement is, therefore, a paradigm example of a successful movement for radical societal transformation. That being so, if we can find out how it worked, we may thereby gain insight into the emergence, and future prospects, of the animal liberation movement.

Capitalism and the transformation of slavery from necessary to intolerable evil

How is the mid-eighteenth century ‘turning point in the evolution of man’s moral perception’ regarding slavery to be explained? What was it that transformed the centuries-old attitude of regarding slavery as being, at worst, a ‘necessary evil’, into—for antislavery critics—an ‘intolerable evil’? Although slavery had been a feature of very many societies throughout the ancient, medieval and modern worlds, the British, other Europeans and their colonists took it to an unprecedented level of intensification and productivity by commercializing the supply of slave labour and industrializing its organization in production. Some eleven million captured and enslaved people were transported from Africa across the Atlantic to the Americas between the mid-sixteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, and most of this traffic occurred in the last two centuries of the trade, which was then dominated by Britain and America.[31] The whole enterprise, including capture, transport, ‘seasoning’ (‘disciplining’ for the local conditions of labour), and brutal treatment, produced an almost unimaginable death toll and incalculable suffering. The slave economies of the New World were self-reproducing, expansive systems that thrived on virgin lands where the environment was especially hostile to Europeans. ‘Plantation agriculture’, Davis tells us, ‘resembled factories in the field and, with its carefully structured gang labour, anticipated in many ways the assembly lines and agribusiness of the future.’[32] In sum, those New World economies ‘rank among the most thoroughgoing capitalist societies of which we have record’.[33]

The modern slave economies were thus built, organized and sustained through thoroughgoing implementation of the principles of industrialization and freemarket commercialism. Conversely, industrialization and commercialization outside the New World were driven and funded by the slave trade and slave production: ‘Profits from the New World slave system made a significant contribution to British economic growth and investment in manufacturing.’[34] In a word, the origin, success and longevity of New World slavery was causally entwined with the emergence and consolidation of capitalism as the dominant worldwide social, economic and political system. Yet it was bourgeois members of the modern capitalist state that instituted the antislavery movement, and their politicians who eventually translated its aims and will into legislative and political action, enforcing the abolition first of the slave trade and then of slavery itself. The antislavery movement was formed and led by people with strong religiously motivated objections to slavery, especially Quakers. Indeed, according to Davis, ‘it would be difficult to exaggerate the central role Quakers played in initiating and sustaining the first antislavery movements’.[35] They brought ‘decision, commitment, and most important, organization’ to the hitherto rather diffuse, abstract and irresolute antislavery sentiment. However, these Quakers were also leading members of the bourgeoisie (in industry, shipping, banking and commerce), and at the vanguard of the capitalist mode of production. In case one should think that there is something intrinsic to Quaker thought and practice that is incompatible with supporting or tolerating slavery, it should be noted that Quakers had previously been actively involved in slave holding and slave trading.

Some old-school Marxist historians argued that slavery was simply put to the sword by the imperial capitalist powers at the point at which it had become unprofitable, costly to maintain, and a hindrance to economic progress. But this proposition is almost universally rejected by historians nowadays, as the above quotations indicate. There is even a respected view that slavery was dismantled in an act of ‘econocide’ while at the zenith of its profitability.[36] Thus it appears at first sight that the motivation of antislavery campaigners was purely moral, and that in agitating for an end to slavery they were acting against self-interest and the economic interests of their class. The notion that antislavery protest was purely morally motivated is certainly the popular view, fuelled by official representation (witness media reporting on the bicentenary of the British Parliament’s abolition of the slave trade). On this view, the critical impetus came from the religiously inspired moral acuity of a select band of altruistic, saintly individuals, and the implementation of their critical vision was, in the words of W. E. H. Lecky, ‘among the three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the history of nations’.[37] Such a view is a prime example of ‘progressivism’ and ‘the expanding circle’, where critical ideas promulgated by ‘moral entrepreneurs’[38] drive out moral backwardness, prejudice and entrenched interest. More importantly, to think of critical ideas in this way—as independent, transcendent forces floating above the social, economic and material conditions of their bearers—makes the relation between developing capitalism and the antislavery movement seem contingent, fortuitous and accidental. A structurationist orientation will have us look for a more substantial, causally efficacious, connection.

The key observation which may help explain the connection between capitalism and the Quaker-led antislavery movement is that campaigners were in fact rather questionably selective in the forms of economic oppression against which they railed. What they did not object to was the awful conditions that many formally ‘free’ labourers in their own society, including very young children, were effectively forced to endure in the newly industrializing factories, mines and mills, and in domestic and agricultural service. Davis states the point starkly, averring that ‘it was by no means clear that the British working class were less victimized than West Indian slaves’.[39] Thus the (genuinely) benevolent abolitionists empathized with, and found morally intolerable, the plight of slaves in distant places, and yet saw nothing morally problematic in the rapacious industrial and market operations in which they themselves were directly implicated. On the contrary, in response to the objections of pro-slavery conservatives who gleefully pointed to the apparent inconsistency, many abolitionists drew a sharp distinction between the evils of enslaved bondage in the New World, and the virtues of ‘free’ labour in capitalist states and societies. Slavery, the abolitionists maintained, entailed the buying and selling, and property ownership, of human souls, and forcing the slave’s body to work through direct physical violence; whereas under capitalism, the worker was free to choose where, when and for whom he worked.[40] Abolitionists were thus able to uphold the contractual relation between worker and employer as the natural and ordained condition of production. With the aid of this contrast, slavery was depicted as an unnatural imposition of violence and confinement on beings who were, by their God-given nature, essentially free and rational.

Davis maintains that the abolitionists’ rationalization and valorization of ‘free’ labour relations was duplicitous, though not (generally) consciously so. He contends that antislavery protest served a number of positive functions for the protesters and their social and economic class: it enabled them to develop a sense of virtue and moral consciousness, and it helped to legitimate and valorize the conditions of production and trade that their class was endeavouring to establish in circumstances of anxiety over social disorder and revolution. Davis acknowledges that the ideational origins of antislavery thought emanated from religious convictions and a certain amount of Enlightenment philosophy, but points out that for these ideals to be actualized, antislavery arguments had to win acceptance from ‘political and social elites otherwise obsessed with the fear that social reform would open the gates to revolution’.[41] Upholding the dichotomous distinction between the iniquitous barbarity of slavery, in contrast to the natural virtue of ‘free’ labour, had the effect of managing these fears and of establishing and consolidating the newly developing capitalist relations of production.

Haskell also identifies capitalist relations of production as the crucial vehicle by which antislavery action was mediated. The mechanism postulated by his explanation differs from that of Davis’s explanation. For Haskell, the activating factor was not ‘class interest’, but the experience that the leading members of the antislavery movement underwent in virtue of their participation in the capitalist mode of production. The driving force of this mode of production and distribution was the creation and extension of markets in goods and services, with the legal guarantee for all citizens to participate as free and equal contractors. From their experience of playing the rules of this economic game, the leaders of the antislavery movement acquired new modes of social discipline, and learnt to plan for the effects of their actions over extended expanses of time and space. Haskell conjectures that experience of participation in market relations had a crossover effect on their perception of remediable social evils. In learning that their actions could have long-range and long-term consequences in the domain of economic activity, antislavery leaders thereby acquired a social technology for intervening in the course of human affairs. This experience changed their perception of slavery. Previously it had been seen as a natural and inevitable institution; now, the abolitionists had learnt to see it as a socially constructed system of artificial bondage and arbitrary brutality. And because they saw it as a socially constructed system, antislavery leaders could also see it conversely, as an institution amenable to social deconstruction. For the morally scrupulous abolitionists, slavery had become not just an unpleasant condition that some unfortunate people suffered in faraway places, but an intolerable social evil for which they and their co-citizens bore responsibility.

For Haskell, what distinguished the antislavery campaigners from the preceding normative consensus over the rightness or acceptability of slavery was not more advanced moral sensibility, moral knowledge or moral understanding. Haskell maintains, in line with Williams’s anti-progressivism, that modern people’s moral capacities do not differ significantly from those of the ancient Greeks: ‘People who lived before the eighteenth century were about as insightful and capable of moral choice as people are today.’[42] Davis concurs with Haskell, remarking that ‘presumably men of the mid-eighteenth century were no more virtuous than men of earlier times’.[43]

What did set the antislavery campaigners apart from their predecessors, in Haskell’s view, was the cognitive change that they had undergone as an effect of their participation in capitalist relations of production. This ‘cognitive’ change affected not the ethical content of the moral rules that campaigners embraced, but their understanding of the scope of application of the moral rules accepted by virtually everyone, that is, their understanding of to whom society’s moral rules should be applied, and in what circumstances. Haskell argues that the scope of application of moral rules is a function of social convention, and it is this that sets the parameters of people’s sense of moral responsibility, that is, the forms of suffering for which people hold themselves responsible, and in which they recognize themselves as causally implicated. Unlike moral sensibility itself, the conventions of moral responsibility do change. They change according to people’s understanding of their practical ability to make a difference to forms of suffering. In undeveloped societies, responsibility stretches no further than to other closely related and connected people. Although the parameters of responsibility have shifted considerably in the modern world, there are, and always will be, limitations to what people can reasonably be expected to feel responsible for: ‘the limits of moral responsibility have to be drawn somewhere and . . . the “somewhere” will always fall far short of much pain and suffering that we could do something to alleviate’.[44] Extreme poverty in underdeveloped countries, for example, generates vast quantities of pain, suffering and untimely death for wholly innocent victims. Everyone knows this, and every morally decent person regrets that it is so, and has what Haskell calls ‘passive sympathy’ for the victims.[45] Even so, most people perceive themselves as having no responsibility for intervening, believing that relief of this suffering is simply beyond their capacity. Thus, as with the ancients and early moderns vis-à-vis slavery, recognition of, and sympathy with, the suffering of individual victims coexists with an inability to perceive any personal responsibility for them being and remaining in that sorry condition.

In summary, although Davis’s and Haskell’s explanations differ with regard to the particular mechanisms cited, of more relevance for my purposes is the extent of their agreement. First, they agree that the ‘condition of possibility’ that enabled the emergence of a serious abolitionist movement was generated by the simultaneously developing capitalist mode of production. And second, while both acknowledge the authenticity and effective moral agency of those that propelled the antislavery movement, they agree that it was the social and economic conditions in which that movement functioned that enabled its leaders to do what they did, not any advance in moral thinking or refinement of moral sensibility.

Vegetarianism and animal liberation: future prospects

Around the turn of the nineteenth century, the use of animals began to be transformed through their incorporation into an industrial process of food production and experimental data-gathering.[46] Since then, capitalist factory food production (‘agribusiness’)[47] and laboratory science consume the lives of billions of animals annually. And yet, as with slavery, the very economic system that intensified their utilization to an industrial level of exploitation has also, I shall argue, generated the enabling conditions of morally driven institutional criticism and a concomitant liberationist movement.

It is no coincidence, in my view, that the antislavery and animal liberation movements emerged shortly after the use of slaves and animals underwent intensive processes of industrialization. Although the holding and trading of slaves, and the keeping and killing of animals for food, has been practised since the beginning of historical time, the industrialization of these practices in the eighteenth and twentieth centuries represented a profound qualitative transformation of their history. In the case of slavery, this is not, as such, to say that industrialization made the practices ‘more inhumane and oppressive’—although, mindful of Davis’s warning not thereby to ‘romanticize’ preindustrial versions, there is surely some warrant for this evaluation.[48] Many victims of preindustrial slavery undoubtedly did suffer grievously, but there is something about the intensification of the methods of transport (in particular, the horrors of the ‘middle passage’ crossing), and the plantation system of labour discipline and organization, that displays the evil of slavery at its starkest.[49] In the case of animal utilization, being made‘more inhumane and oppressive’ probably does appositely evaluate the consequence of its industrialization. While I do not say that the sheer scale and intensity of slave and animal exploitation under capitalist forces of production is by itself sufficient for the practices to become perceived as intolerably unjust (it obviously wasn’t, and isn’t), I do suggest that it comes close to constituting a necessary condition for that perception.

Nevertheless, despite the scale and intensity of industrialized slavery and animal exploitation, the compulsion of the perception, for those who had or have it, that these are natural, necessary and inevitable practices that are integral to personal and social well-being, and constitutive of the society’s ‘way of life’, cannot be overemphasized. In both cases, critics were or are faced with the commonsense view that an attack on the legitimacy of these institutions is also an attack on the central values of individual freedom and the rights of property ownership, and that moves towards abolition would fatally undermine social, cultural and economic order. As Davis observes, defenders of slavery ‘accuse[d] antislavery writers of undermining the foundations of all authority’, and Salt points out that ‘the numberless animal products on which our “civilisation” depends’, is ‘so interwoven with the whole system of society’ that it seems to nearly everyone that this utilization ‘can never be discontinued until society itself comes to an end’.[50] We have seen how antislavery protesters set about subverting the received perception that slavery was natural, necessary and inevitable. Animal liberationists have, non-coincidentally, deployed very similar strategies.

The whole history of slavery and animal exploitation, and every other form of society-wide exploitation, shows that appealing to moral principles and obligations alone simply does not work, and cannot reasonably be expected to work. What animal liberationists have to do—the sine qua non of success—is to persuade people that the major animal-utilizing practices and their products are neither natural, nor necessary, nor inevitable. As noted above, the use of animals for food production and knowledge accumulation is deeply embedded in the culture and institutional structure of modern society, and it is widely assumed that this usage is essential for the sustenance of human life, health and well-being. Animal liberationists maintain that this is not a natural necessity, but a socially constructed need. The vast quantities of meat and other animal products consumed in modern-day society are not, they insist, required at all for the maintenance of human health and well-being, and are, moreover, positively detrimental to it. Unlike the pre-1970s criticism that emanated from maverick, socially marginal critics, the animal liberation movement, just as the antislavery movement was, is led by respectable bourgeois citizens (philosophers, scientists, physicians and celebrities). Liberationists are thus able to invoke an impressive array of scientific, medical and other empirical findings and authorities to support their claims about the non-necessity of animal products, and the healthful, and wider environmental, benefits of alternatives.

We saw previously that a key feature of antislavery strategy was to uphold and celebrate the naturalness of wage-labour, in contrast to the perversion and socialconstructedness of slavery. This is also a key feature of animal liberationist strategy, where the adverted naturalness of vegetarianism, and its moral, spiritual and bodily virtues, play the contrastive role that wage-labour did in antislavery argument. There is much emphasis in animal liberationist campaigning (and also in that of moderate reformist, non-vegetarian, organizations such as the Compassion in World Farming Trust) on the repression and distortion of animals’ natural species-characteristics in modern factory farming systems, and on the extreme suffering that these inflict. Images of animals being kept and transported in artificially lit environments, where they are so confined and restricted that they can barely move at all, are somewhat reminiscent of the awful conditions on slave ships. Antislavery activists condemned slavery for its imposition of social and environmental conditions that frustrated and stunted the natural, essential speciescharacteristics of human beings; animal liberationists condemn modern food production for the same reason. But at the same time as condemning the cruelty, oppression and inhumanity of factory farming, animal liberationists commend—‘valorise’ and ‘legitimize’, to use Davis’s concepts—an alternative way of life (vegetarianism) that is both emancipatory for animals, and more conducive to the overall well-being of humans. They are aided in this quest by the productive and distributional prowess of the capitalist mode of production.

The fact that vegetarianism is mainstream in much of the Western world[51] owes much to the capitalist-fostered production, marketing and distribution of the goods and services that make it such a viable option. Nowadays there is hardly any animal-derived food product that cannot successfully be simulated from nonanimal sources, such as, for example: soya or wheat-based milk, cream, yoghurt, cheese or meat (steaks, burgers, sausages, bacon, etc.). These products not only look and taste like the animal-derived original, but are much lower in saturated fats, while being nearly as high in protein, and no more expensive. There are also synthetic alternatives to fur and leather that are virtually indistinguishable from the animal-derived equivalent. Consumer choice is greatly enhanced by producers who ‘increasingly label a wide range of manufactured goods as “suitable for vegetarians”’.[52] Thus the technological capacity, and the commercialism, of the capitalist mode of production makes widely available a vegetarian way of life that is accessible, healthy, affordable and not unfashionable.

The current state of animal liberation is perhaps at a comparable stage to that of the early antislavery movement—the ideas and arguments are discussed in the public sphere, but many criticisms and objections are partial; there are heavyweight supporters,but also a lot of ridicule from equally heavyweight,establishment quarters. In terms of personal action for the cause, abstention from meat consumption is somewhat reminiscent of antislavery protesters abstaining from sugar consumption. The‘structurationist’orientation that I have been illustrating through my discussion of leading historians’ explanatory accounts acknowledges the important role played by ‘moral entrepreneurs’ in forming and leading abolitionist antislavery movements, both in gaining popular support (in mass petitions), and ruling class acceptance (in the British Parliament). Considering the depth and extent of its institutionalization, if animal exploitation is to go the same way as slavery, it will also require the three interlocking forces of moral entrepreneurialism, popular support through consumption practice, and eventually, governmental decree and enforcement. But state action will only happen if there is mass popular support for vegetarianism and liberation, and if, in its transcendent role of pursuing the public good over sectional interest, the state deems it to be in the wider public and environmental interest.

The argument of this essay has been that what rendered slavery abolishable was not moral insight into the fundamental rights of human beings, nor recognition of the equal worth of all human creatures made in God’s image, nor empirical revelation of slave suffering, nor discovery of the sameness of mind, emotion and sentience shared by slave and non-slave alike. It was, rather, change in social and economic practice that enabled some especially critical people to see that slavery could be dismantled and replaced with something better—something more natural, namely, self-ownership and freedom of contract. They would not have been able to see this were it not for the economic opportunities afforded by the capitalist mode of production. The idea of intrinsic human right and equality is not a necessary cause for the abolition of slavery, but one of its consequences. On reading the philosophical animal liberation literature, one might think that its quest is just to establish the correct moral concepts and to argue soundly and validly for their proper, unbiased application. The crux of my claim in this chapter is that the ideas and injunctions of liberationists have been effective, to the extent that they have, only because they have been able to claim the non-necessity of animal utilization and its replaceability by plausible alternatives that the capitalist mode of production has made possible and developed. Counterfactually, if it were not possible, or were very costly, to lead a vegetarian life, the idea of animal rights and liberation would never have taken hold (it would have been ‘the sentimental path of an impossible humanitarianism’),[53] and would have remained, as before, the ineffectual utterance of eccentrics. If my analysis is correct, the future prospects for an end to animal exploitation comparable to the end of slavery in the Western world will depend on further persuading the majority of people that there are better, viable alternatives to the utilization of animals for food and knowledge accumulation. The historical irony is that the very social system that has turned animals into a massively exploited resource has also generated feasible, plausible and attractive alternatives to that exploitation. A widely accepted moral principle is that ‘ought implies can’. If people are convincingly shown that, and how, they ‘can’, the ‘ought’ has a chance of following.[54]



[1] Aristotle, The Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 17.

[2] Henry S. Salt, ‘The Rights of Animals’, International Journal of Ethics 10 (1900), pp. 206–22 (220) .

[3] Émile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method (New York: Free Press, 1982), p. 51 .

[4] Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (Cambridge: Polity, 1984) .

[5] See Richard Sorabji, Animal Minds and Human Morals: The Origins of the Western Debate (London: Duckworth, 1993) ; and Daniel Dombrowski in this collection.

[6] See Henry S. Salt, Animals’ Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress, http://www.animal-rights-library.com/texts-c/salt01.htm (originally NewYork: Macmillan, 1894), p. 17 , on the irresoluteness of Schopenhauer and Bentham, for example: ‘“We deprive animals of life”, says Bentham, in a delightfully naïve application of the utilitarian philosophy, “and this is justifiable; their pains do not equal our enjoyments.”’ Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (London: Cape, rev. edn, 1995), p. 207 , notes that ‘towards the end of the eighteenth century, the right of animals to some degree of consideration was beginning to be accepted’, but that ‘even the best’ of those leading the way ‘stop short of the point at which their arguments would lead them to face the choice between breaking the deeply ingrained habit of eating the flesh of other animals or admitting that they do not live up to the conclusions of their own moral arguments’. This, he laments, is ‘an often-repeated pattern’.

[7] Alan Beardsworth and Teresa Keil, Sociology on the Menu: An Invitation to the Study of Food and Society (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 222 .

[8] Tom Regan, Defending Animal Rights (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000), pp. 1, 133 , observes that, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, ‘the distinguished American neurologist Charles Loomis Dana argued that animal advocates suffer from a mental illness; zoophil-psychosis (love of animal psychosis)’, and that a 1909 Science article averred that ‘antagonism to vivisection is a form of incurable insanity’. See James Gregory, in this collection, for popular representations of Victorian vegetarians.

[9] Salt, Animals’ Rights.

[10] J. S. Mackenzie, review of Henry S. Salt, Animal Rights, Considered in Relation to Social Progress, International Journal of Ethics 26 (1916), pp. 567–68 (567).

[11] Salt, Animals’ Rights, p. 1.

[12] Stephen Clark, The Moral Status of Animals (Oxford University Press, 1977) ; Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983) .

[13] An innovative feature of Singer’s empirical methodology is that much of his documentation is derived from publications produced by the animal-utilizing industries themselves, for their own purposes. See Singer, Animal Liberation.

[14] Beardsworth and Keil, Sociology, p. 223. Consider the words of the brilliant sociologist Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 102, written in the early 1930s: ‘There are even . . . [people]. . . to whom the sight of butchers’ shops with the bodies of dead animals is distasteful, and others who from more or less rationally disguised feelings of disgust refuse to eat meat altogether. But these are forward thrusts in the threshold of repugnance that go beyond the standard of civilized society in the twentieth century, and are therefore considered “abnormal”.’

[15] I use the term ‘animal liberation’ quite widely, to cover a range of positions, from the advocacy of radical reform, to the advocacy of abolition—primarily, the abolition of practices that utilize animals for food and vivisection. I mainly use ‘vegetarianism’ for the ethically motivated refusal to consume meat, including those (vegans) who refuse to consume any animal-derived product. However, vegetarianism is also widely practised for a variety of other, non-moral, reasons (reasons not based on the idea of moral duties owed directly to animals). The reality is complex, for it is suggested that ‘about 37 percent of animal rights activists are not vegetarian and 85 percent . . . of vegetarians are not motivated by animal rights’. Brian Klocke, review of Donna Maurer, Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment?, Contemporary Sociology 32 (2003), pp. 340–41 (340) , citing Maurer. David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 21–22 , explains that similar complexity and cross-cutting degrees of radicalism and particularism beset use of the terms ‘antislavery’ and ‘abolitionism’.

[16] Richard Kraut, review of Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity, Ethics 105 (1994), pp. 178–81 (180) , argues that the ‘modern rejection of slavery’ depends on having the concept of ‘human rights’.

[17] Nicholas Sturgeon, ‘Nonmoral Explanations’, Philosophical Perspectives 6 (1992), pp. 97–117 (98) .

[18] Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) .

[19] Singer, Animal Liberation, pp. xiii–xiv.

[20] Jürgen Habermas, Justification and Application: Remarks on Discourse Ethics (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1993), p. 163 .

[21] See The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation, ed. Thomas Bender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) , which brings together a series of critical articles, originally published in The American Historical Review, that constituted what has become known as ‘the antislavery debate’.

[22] Sorabji, Animal Minds, p. 219.

[23] Davis, Problem of Slavery, p. 42; Thomas Haskell, ‘Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility, Part 1’ The American Historical Review 90 (1985), pp. 339–61 .

[24] Thomas Haskell, ‘Responsibility, convention, and the role of ideas in history’, in Objectivity is not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), pp. 280–306 (294) .

[25] Thomas Haskell, ‘Convention and Hegemonic Interest in the Debate over Antislavery: A Reply to Davis and Ashworth’, The American Historical Review 92 (1987), pp. 829–78 (849) ; Davis, Problem of Slavery, p. 82; Williams, Shame, p. 112.

[26] Haskell, ‘Responsibility’, p. 302, original italics.

[27] Note that this belief survives perfectly happily in secular form, long after its explicit theological formulation has disappeared.

[28] See Wilbert Moore, American Negro Slavery and Abolition: A Sociological Study (New York: Third Press, 1971) , for strikingly similar common defences of New World slavery, and Aristotle, Politics, for their classical formulation.

[29] In the case of slavery, Haskell calls this ‘passive sympathy’ (‘Responsibility’, p. 300)—one has sympathy for the unfortunate victims, but their plight is perceived to be beyond possible remedy.

[30] Much of the humanitarian sympathy for slaves came ‘when their masters violated local standards of decency’. Haskell, ‘Convention’, p. 849.

[31] ‘Between 11 and 12 million Africans (plus or minus 20 percent) were imported to the New World.’ Of these, a staggering 9.9 million were transported in the years 1701–1870. Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 160, 162 .

[32] David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 6 .

[33] Howard Temperley, ‘Capitalism, Slavery and Ideology’, Past and Present 75 (1977), pp. 94–118 (98) .

[34] David Brion Davis, ‘A Big Business’, The New York Review of Books , 11 June 1998, pp. 50–53 (51) .

[35] Davis, Problem of Slavery, p. 215.

[36] Seymour Drescher, Econocide: British Slavery in the Age of Abolition (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977) .

[37] Quoted in Davis, Problem of Slavery, p. 453.

[38] Howard Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (New York: Free Press, 1973), pp. 147–63 .

[39] David Brion Davis, ‘Reflections on Abolitionism and Ideological Hegemony’, The American Historical Review 92 (1987), pp. 797–812 (801) .

[40] The contrast was to be made much more perspicuously by Karl Marx, who depicted slavery as a condition under which the human person is bought, sold and owned, in contrast to capitalism, under which all individuals are legally guaranteed ownership of themselves and the freedom to sell only their labour-power for a contracted period of hire.

[41] Davis, ‘Reflections’, p. 798.

[42] Haskell, ‘Convention’, p. 858.

[43] Davis, Problem of Slavery, pp. 41–42.

[44] Haskell, ‘Capitalism’, p. 355.

[45] Haskell, ‘Responsibility’, p. 300.

[46] It is interesting to note that the idea for the assembly-line manufacturing technique pioneered by Henry Ford for the motor industry ‘came in a general way from the overhead trolley that the Chicago packers used in dressing beef ’. Henry Ford, My Life and Work (London: Heinemann, 1924), p. 81 . By the end of the eighteenth century, the Union Stockyards of Chicago were ‘slaughtering and processing some 200,000 hogs a day’. Daniel Pick, War Machine: The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 180 . Pick describes the nineteenth-century slaughterhouse as ‘a perfectly engineered, centralised, hygienic meat location, catering to the needs of millions’ (p. 180). Marx proclaimed with rhetorical flourish in a letter to Engels of 7 July 1866: ‘Is there anywhere where our theory that the organisation of labour is determined by the means of production is more brilliantly confirmed than in the human slaughter industry?’ Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence, 1846–1895 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1936), p. 209 .

[47] Davis describes plantation slavery as ‘factories in the field’ (see earlier quotation) Modern industrial agriculture, especially in the form of the notorious ‘factory farm’, sucks the field and its denizens into the factory. An indication of the scale of factory farming can be seen from such figures as the following: ‘the current livestock population [in the US] consumes more than seven times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire US human population’. Carol Morris and James Kirwan, ‘Vegetarians: Uninvited, Uncomfortable or Special Guests at the Table of the Alternative Food Economy?’, Sociologia Ruralis 46 (2006), pp. 192–213 (209, n. 3). A recent UN report states that ‘the livestock sector is . . . responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport’. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, prepared by Henning Steinfeld et al. (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006), p. xxi.

[48] Davis, ‘Big Business’.

[49] Just as ‘Auschwitz’ has synecdochically come to represent, and to concentrate the mind on, the Holocaust as a whole, so the Atlantic slave-ships have come to stand in a similar part-whole relation to slavery as an institution. There is much controversy over the putative ‘uniqueness’ of the Holocaust. Some of the most compelling reasons for the uniqueness thesis reside in the Holocaust’s fusion of modernity, civility, rationality and technology, with incomprehensible barbarity, viciousness and irrationality. It is, arguably, this mix that makes the Holocaust peculiarly our problem, and motivates its categorization as a unique event, that is, the Holocaust, an event that transcends all the many ‘mere’ genocides that pepper the history of our species. And it is this mix, I suggest, that also marks out industrial slavery (and industrial animal exploitation, for some) as something categorically different in the history of the institution.

[50] Davis, Problem of Slavery, p. 266; Salt, Animals’ Rights, p. 25. For an illustration of the extent of contemporary societal embeddedness of animal exploitation, consider the impact of Foot-and-Mouth disease in Britain. Although not a serious ailment as such (it ‘usually lasts for two to three weeks before the animal recovers naturally’, BBC News, 14 September 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6930899.stm ), its economic ramifications are catastrophic, imperiling not just the livelihood of those working in the industries directly affected, but the whole economy. During the last major British crisis in 2001, management of the disease required the combined efforts of the Government, media, science, medicine, the police and even the armed forces. Some of the more immediately observable effects included: the postponement of a national government election; constitutional crisis; strained international relations; restrictions on trade, movement and travel; and public access to large areas of the countryside being revoked. Further outbreaks of the disease in 2007 were deemed sufficiently threatening to warrant management by the Civil Contingencies Committee (COBRA), which is the Government’s highest level decision-making council that deals with threats to national security from war, terrorism, civil disorder, etc.

[51] Actually, vegetarianism is much more widely practiced in Britain and the United States (to a lesser extent) than other countries. Interestingly, this too is mirrored in the antislavery movement, which was led by campaigners in Britain and the northern United States. Britain, of course, dictatorially imposed the abolition of the slave trade internationally, and then led the way with emancipation in its colonies.

[52] Morris and Kirwan, ‘Vegetarians’, p. 202.

[53] Salt, Animals’ Rights, p. 25.

[54] Thanks to Francesco Guala, Michael Hauskeller and Katharine Tyler for their helpful comments and discussion.