April 24, 2019KR BlogBlog

Animal Rights Versus Human Rights: Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Paula Casal’s “Animals and Accommodation,” and David Hume’s “Of Justice”

In “Animals and Accommodation,” Paula Casal stresses that she is not an anti-speciest. According to her definition of the term, neither Anna Sewell nor David Hume would fit this description either. In “Of Justice,” Hume categorically denies animal rights; and although Sewell acknowledges human rights in Black Beauty, her true focus is on the well-being of animals.

In Casal’s argument against the exoneration of cultural minorities from anti-cruelty legislation for religious reasons, “Animals and Accommodation,” she clarifies that she is not basing her argument on anti-speciest claims. She identifies an anti-speciest as someone who “claims that when deciding how to distribute burdens and benefits between different lives it is a serious moral vice, akin to racism, to take species membership into consideration. Instead, every case should be decided on its merits by appeal to each individual’s characteristics.”

In “Of Justice,” Hume delineates justice as a means to mutually beneficial cooperation in society. In this model of fairness, he posits the assumption that animals have no rights as a way of focusing his argument. He states that if there were “a species of creatures intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment,” then, “our intercourse with them could not be called society.” He further defines his conception of justice as a means for egalitarian collaboration in society by showing that animals would have no place in that society because they are inferior. Thus, in proving his justice thesis, he reveals his position on animal rights.

In Black Beauty, Sewell uses an animal protagonist as a mouthpiece for her denunciation of animal abuse. The novel is written from the perspective of Black Beauty, a horse that is deeply concerned with justice. When he joins a new horse community, he defines it as good because there is no “oppressed or ill-used creature.” Sewell does connect her animal rights argument to human rights. When a local boy gets in trouble for abusing a horse, Black Beauty overhears one stable hand telling another that it “served him right…he used to swagger about and bully the little boys.” In this way, Sewell bridges the human-animal rights gap by implying that cruelty to animals often extends to humans.

Furthermore, Sewell concedes that humans experience injustice as well. Her concession comes in the form of “Seedy Sam,” a cab driver that drives his horse too hard. Normally, Sewell portrays anybody who infringes on animal rights as a villain, but she is particularly lenient with Sam because he has a hard life. He is the only offender in the book who gets an opportunity to defend himself. He says, “’Tis a mockery to tell a man that he must not overwork his horse, for when a beast is downright tired there’s nothing but a whip that will keep his legs agoing—you can’t help yourself—you must put your wife and children before the horse.”

Moreover, after Sam utters this statement, Sewell doesn’t follow it with a counterargument from an animal advocate as she usually does. Instead, the Governor says: “You’ve beaten me, Sam…for it’s all true… It is hard lines for man, and it is hard lines for beast.” What’s so striking about this section is that it demonstrates the intersection between human and animal rights. In this way, Sewell encompasses the perspective of the opposition in her debate.

Yet, in spite of her acknowledgement of the human perspective, Sewell ultimately takes the animals’ side in the matter of social justice. When Black Beauty’s friend Ginger is telling her life story, she relates that after awhile she came to the conclusion that “men were my natural enemies, and that I must defend myself.” In addition, when Black Beauty and Sir Oliver, a horse with a docked tale, are discussing the morality of deforming animals in the interest of fashion, Sir Oliver declares: “Why don’t they cut their own children’s ears into points to make them look sharp? Why don’t they cut the end off their noses to make them look plucky? One would be just as sensible as the other. What right have they to torment and disfigure God’s creatures?” Sir Oliver espouses Sewell’s fundamental argument: that many humans treat animals in an unjust manner in which they are not allowed to treat other humans and that this must be stopped.

According to Casal’s definition, because Sewell is most concerned with animal rights, and Hume with human rights, neither can be classified as anti-speciests. This means that Casal, Hume, and Sewell all give priority to a certain species in the quest for social justice. This may not be such a bad thing since anti-speciesism appears to be a flawed take on justice. In anti-speciesism, Casal notes that since “each case should be judged on its individual merits, the interests of individuals with greater capacities may be granted far more weight than the interests of less capable individuals.”

Casal recognizes that anti-speciesism can lead to the favoring of more powerful beings. Between Hume and Sewell, it is Sewell that seems to have the right idea. With Black Beauty, she transcends the pitfalls of both anti-speciesism and speciesism because unlike Hume, who denies the existence of animal rights, Sewell acknowledges human rights while making animal rights her principle concern.