Princess Michael of Kent’s recent unthoughtful observations about animal rights were the occasion for a piece in last week’s Sunday Times, written by Charles Clover. He’s the author of a most important book, The End of the Line; How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We Eat, but the very modest claims to significance of this particular article were indicated by its title: ‘With One Wild Pot Shot Princess Pushy Fells Our Animal Rights Folly’. Clover’s argument, or journalistic drift, was that allowing rights to animals – which he absurdly formulated as “the doctrine that animals deserve the same rights as humans”, and then as “treating animals like humans” – would lead to more suffering than it saved, even to the animals. But his case was really that of the haves throughout history, namely that we humans had so much to lose in convenience and pleasure (he lists it all) by conceding such rights, that “we should tip our fur hats to Princess Pushy for making us think twice”: a vulgar conclusion to a very slight piece of writing.
Therefore the article wouldn’t be worth mentioning, except that its time and place are reminders of a glorious anniversary. It was on 10 October 1965 – almost exactly fifty years ago, then – that the novelist Brigid Brophy wrote her momentous article ‘The Rights of Animals’ for that same newspaper. “The relationship of Homo sapiens to the other animals”, it began (establishing at once the Darwinian collective which Clover noticeably avoids conceding), “is one of unremitting exploitation.” Then, in a manner which must have astonished her readers, she flew at the subject, and at all that it entails of weakness and wickedness in human character. Her piece had none of the columnist’s flourishes or (of course) the man-to-man worldliness with which Clover euphemizes the subject. In particular she spoke unequivocally about vivisection, “the only one of these matters” – as she said in a later essay – “to raise a moral dilemma at all.”
It was not, for her, an insoluble dilemma: “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.” There, in its parentheses, is the true and durable rationale for subjecting other species to experimentation: our being able to get away with it. The arrogance, cowardice, and essential scoundrelism of vivisection are hit off in that aside.
Brigid Brophy’s Sunday Times article was a prospectus of the animal subject as it was about to become – as indeed she prompted it to become: not the former miscellany of cruelties, calling for particular remedies, but a single story of systematic wrong requiring a fundamental change of mind and conduct. And that was how the subject appeared in the 1971 book of essays Animals, Men and Morals, a book which can be traced back to her Sunday Times article, and which was in its turn the founding text of the modern animals rights movement. It was edited in Oxford, and most of the contributors had Oxford connections, including Brigid Brophy herself (St Hilda’s, 1947). Her chapter is mainly about vivisection, and constitutes a thorough deconstruction, in plain and dispassionately accurate English, of its politics, sociology and psychology. Like George Bernard Shaw, she sees, living on in vivisection, the ancient superstition of expiatory sacrifice, with the animals, as ever, paying our price. More largely, she sees in vivisection man’s timorous refusal to grow up and become what we really are: “the species uniquely capable of imagination, rationality and moral choice.” We catch exactly what she means when Charles Clover writes, “why should human beings have obligations towards animals if animals don’t have obligations to humans or to other animals?”
In fact that 1971 essay provides an answer to Clover’s bluster about rights, and Princess Michael’s too, supposing they do raise a serious question. For it starts by analysing one of the classic statements of human rights, the American Declaration of Independence, and showing that it is founded on exactly that essence of our nature – the sentience that impels us to seek pleasure and shun pain – which is in fact the property of all animal life. Hence Brigid Brophy’s beautifully absolute statement of the case (quoted on all VERO’s leaflets): “Once we acknowledge life and sentiency in the other animals, we are bound to acknowledge what follows, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
This was Brigid Brophy’s conviction throughout her writing life. In fact her first published novel, Hackenfeller’s Ape (1953), had already expressed it in the witty and subversive story of a monkey confined in Regent’s Park Zoo and marked down for an even worse confinement in a space shot. And the conviction was part of a wider faith in liberation – of women, of sexuality, of all that was unwillingly subject to arrogated authority. She was a dauntless, highly original and intelligent woman, whom everyone that values freedom – their own and that of all who can enjoy it, including the other animals – should remember with love and gratitude.
[The photograph of Brigid Brophy is kindly provided by Kate Levey. Quotations from ‘The Rights of Animals’ are taken from The Extended Circle (see ‘Victorian Attitudes’ below), and other quotations from ‘In Pursuit of a Fantasy’, Animals, Men and Morals, pp.125-45.]