This quote from Jeremy Bentham is a foundational statement in the philosophy of animal rights. Traditionally, the moral status of animals was often determined based on their capacity to reason or communicate in a way similar to humans.
Many philosophers and thinkers argued that since animals lack these capacities, they do not have the same moral status as humans, and thus it is permissible to treat them in ways that would be considered unethical if done to humans.
Bentham challenges this view by suggesting that the ability to suffer – not the ability to reason or communicate – should be the determining factor in how an entity is treated ethically. This is because suffering is a fundamental aspect of sentient experience that we seek to avoid. If an animal can suffer, then it has a vested interest in not being made to suffer, and we should respect that interest.
Bentham’s perspective has been influential in the development of animal rights and welfare movements. It has helped to shift the conversation from a focus on cognitive abilities, which can vary widely among different species, to a focus on the capacity for suffering, which is more universally shared among sentient beings. This shift has contributed to increased recognition of the moral consideration owed to animals.