The History of Animal Rights is a History of Human Rights
By Global Vegans
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Despite the recent popularisation of the vegan lifestyle, veganism is anything but a contemporary idea!
Nevertheless, only in recent centuries can we see the beginnings of an organised animal rights movement - one that more or less reflects the idea of veganism we know today. Interestingly, when we consider some of the most prominent pioneers of this, something else becomes clear: many of them were also keen social justice advocates.
This begs the question: did widespread conversations about the rights of animals initially stem from those about the rights or welfare of humans? This isn't an illogical train of thought. After all, humans tend to ascribe ‘human’ thoughts and emotions to non-human animals - a concept known as anthropomorphism. As individuals and communities began to think more about the ethics of treating other people unfairly, it makes sense that an objection towards the unfair treatment of animals would soon follow.
The earliest pioneers of veganism
Animal and human rights have always intertwined, but this isn’t by accident. For this, we can thank the people who have shaped and shifted the vegan movement. This includes the following five people, who are generally considered to be some of the most prominent early advocates!
Al-Ma'arri (c. 973 – c. 1057) (1)
Al-Ma’arri’s world views may have been controversial at the time, but they were certainly governed by the belief that everyone - human and non-human - should have the right to live free from suffering. He communicated this through his poems, with I no longer steal from nature (2) containing a poignant message:
Do not unjustly eat fish the water has given up,
And do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals,
Or the white milk of mothers who intended its pure draught
for their young, not noble ladies.
Roger Crab (1621–1680) (3)
Crab stopped eating meat for religious and spiritual reasons and later gave up eggs and milk as part of his quest to become morally perfect. He was also a pacifist, and like many early pioneers of veganism, strongly opposed violence.
Johann Conrad Beissel (1691–1768) (4)
Like Crab, Beissel held spiritual motivations for avoiding meat, fish, eggs and dairy. Another key proponent of social justice issues, he founded the Ephrata Community to help people in the local area get a valuable education and break the poverty cycle.
James Pierrepont Greaves (1777–1842)
James Pierrepont Greaves was a ‘sacred socialist’ who lived his life with one clear mission: to reform society through the advocacy of spiritual renewal. This belief guided his foundation of Alcott House, a utopian school where members were taught about astrology, pacifism and vegetarianism. (5)
Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888) (6)
A philosopher and teacher, Alcott was another progressive thinker. He advocated for many of the justice issues modern-day activists now campaign for, including veganism and anti-pollution environmentalism. He also revolutionised many teaching methods and served as the namesake for James Pierrepont Greaves’ Alcott House school!
It’s clear to see why many of these early pioneers of veganism were, in fact, vegan. They were compassion-led thought leaders, each eager to challenge the status quo - a quality that many modern vegans embody today!
The beginnings of modern veganism
We cannot discuss the interconnected history of animal and human rights without considering the two people who arguably played the most significant role in the formation of modern veganism: Donald and Dorothy Watson. In 1944, Donald and Dorothy coined the term ‘vegan’ and founded The Vegan Society, which is still one of the world’s most prestigious vegan organisations to date! (7)
Like many of the people credited with shaping the animal rights movement, Donald was a staunch pacifist. He and his siblings even became conscientious objectors during the Second World War. This was a bold move for the time, and perfectly encapsulates his opposition to violence towards animals and humans.
Like Dorothy, many women were instrumental in the widespread promotion of animal rights messaging. Elsie Shrigley, Eva Batt and Fay K. Henderson each played a vital role in the formation and operation of The Vegan Society. (8) It’s unclear whether they knew this at the time, but these unassailable trailblazers were helping to dismantle some of the common patriarchal notions existing in western society.
We can also thank modern philosophers, such as Tom Regan, for continuing to rally against the unethical treatment of animals and humans. In his essay, The Case for Animal Rights, Regan ultimately argues that if animals could communicate like humans (for instance, if they could contractually agree on their rights) then society could no longer justify its exploitation of them. (9)
Modern-day veganism and its future
Living in a hyperconnected world has made it near impossible to ignore the injustices faced by animals and humans everywhere. With the rise of social media and the globalisation of news, we can no longer hide from the ethical and sustainable consequences of our decisions. Given this, it’s unsurprising that veganism is more popular than ever before.
Today, many leading vegan activists are also social justice advocates, and vice versa. From Angela Davis to Greta Thunberg, we can see the animal rights movement progress before our eyes. The futility of trying to compartmentalise the behaviours and struggles of both human and non-human animal species is summed up perfectly by leading anthropologist Dr Jane Goodall:
‘We have found that after all, there isn’t a sharp line dividing humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. It’s a very wuzzy line. It’s getting wuzzier all the time as we find animals doing things that we, in our arrogance, used to think was just human.’ (10)
If the history of animal rights is a history of human rights, then we’re excited to see what the future holds for both areas of activism. As a society, we are becoming more educated, empathetic and ethically-driven - and this can only mean positive change is coming.
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1. "Al-Ma’Arri | Biography", Encyclopedia Britannica<https://www.britannica.com/biography/al-Maarri> [Accessed 28 March 2021].
2. "Al Ma'arri", Humanistictexts.Org<https://www.humanistictexts.org/al_ma%27arri.htm> [Accessed 28 March 2021].
3. "Today In Vegan History: Roger Crab, Pioneering Civil War Veggie & Prophet Dies, Stepney, 1680.", Past Tense<https://pasttenseblog.wordpress.com/2017/09/11/today-in-vegan-history-roger-crab-pioneering-civil-war-veggie-prophet-dies-stepney-1680/> [Accessed 28 March 2021].
4. "George Conrad (Johann) Beissel", Geni_Family_Tree, 2018 <https://www.geni.com/people/Georg-Beissel/6000000004018964988> [Accessed 28 March 2021].
5. “History of Education Quarterly”, vol. 41, no. 4, 2001, pp. 578–580. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3218272. Accessed 28 Mar. 2021.
6. "Bronson Alcott | American Philosopher And Educator", Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021 <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Bronson-Alcott> [Accessed 28 March 2021].
7. "History", The Vegan Society<https://www.vegansociety.com/about-us/history> [Accessed 28 March 2021].
8. "The Women Pioneers Of The Movement: Rarely Out Of The Shadows - Vegfestuk", Vegfestuk, 2021 <https://www.vegfest.co.uk/2019/09/01/women-pioneers-movement-rarely-shadows> [Accessed 28 March 2021].
9. Tom Regan, "The Case For Animal Rights, By Tom Regan", Animal-Rights-Library.Com, 1985 <http://www.animal-rights-library.com/texts-m/regan03.htm> [Accessed 28 March 2021].
10. Jane Goodall, "Transcript Of "What Separates Us From Chimpanzees?"", Ted.Com<https://www.ted.com/talks/jane_goodall_what_separates_us_from_chimpanzees/transcript?language=en> [Accessed 28 March 2021].