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Animal rights in the 18th century

The white-backed woodpecker is threatened with extinction in Sweden. What rights does it have?
Image from Rudbeck, Fogelbok (Bird Book).

The 18th century saw a rise in the sensitivity to and respect for animals as living creatures. People loved to mirror themselves in the animal world, and the fable was extremely popular. The upper crust displayed a love of animals, with numerous portraits of a beloved horse or dog, and love poems to parrots, finches, and lapdogs were common.

Among farmers the relationship was no doubt crasser, dominated by the utility of the animal. But the primeval tradition of giving cattle individual names also testifies to a more personal relationship with animals. Out on his country property at Hammarby, Linnaeus had given his cows original names like Summer-Rose, Fair-Cheek, Star-Rose, Lily, and Blossom.

The philosopher Descartes had been of the opinion that animals were soulless automatons. This conflicted with long-held notions and general experience, but the concept rang true to some naturalists. Olof Rudbeck and other scientists experimented on living dogs and cats.

One of those in Scandinavia to go the farthest in giving animals their rights was the Dane Laurids Smith (1754–1794). He was a philosopher, clergyman, and author, and even though he attracted a lot of attention during his lifetime for his original ideas, he has long been a forgotten thinker. Nowadays his main work from 1791, Attempted Systematic Treatise on the Obligations of Humans toward Animals, stands out as highly topical.

”No Swedish monster animals”
Newpaper headline from the debate about genetic manipulation of animals.

The book testifies to a great respect for animals and represents an attempt to create an understanding for their humane treatment, two hundred years before our contemporary debate about animal transports and genetically manipulated super-steers.

Laurids Smith believed that God had endowed both humans and animals with the right to enjoy life in their own manner. “Both animals and humans actually and immediately exist to enjoy happiness through their existence, and anyone who willfully and without necessity and higher purpose disturbs, destroys, and obliterates the happiness of humans or animals violates the right to enjoy bliss given by God to every living thing.” He expands the commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself” to embrace animals as well. “It is thus likewise our direct covenant to do what is right by animals, just as it is our duty to do what is right by our fellow human beings.”

  However, this does not mean that we cannot eat animals or use them as beasts of burden and the like. According to Laurids Smith, it can be concluded that animals can serve as food for humans since our stomachs are designed to digest meat.

What matters is how we consume meat, whether meat is really needed or is simply a luxury. “It’s different to exploit animals beyond our basic needs for food and other uses, wasting and abusing them for show and gluttony.”

The stewardship of animals, according to Laurids Smith, entails extra responsibility for humans since they have deprived animals of their freedom. This makes it especially vital that animals be kept well, that is, that we provide good barns and good fodder.

Midbøe, Hans, ”Laurids Smith” i Det Konglige Norske Videnselskabers Selskabs Forhandlingar, bd. 40 1967.

Thomas, Keith, Människan och Naturen (Stockholm, 1988). Smith, Laurids, Försök till en systematisk afhandling om menniskans pligter emot djuren (Sv. översättning Stockholm, 1799).

Sörlin, Sverker, Naturkontraktet: Om naturumgängets idéhistoria (Stockholm, 1991).

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