[Ed. Note: Please also read Linking Faith and Animal Rights, Why You Should Care About the Faith-Based Arguments For (And Against) Animal Liberation.]
By Gracia Fay Ellwood on The Peaceable Table
A certain percentage of people do evil with no apparent compunctions, but a great many intend to be decent, caring folk. In their innermost being, probably unknown even to themselves, all are far better than what they do with their forks in support of the evil system that entraps them. With the help of the Spirit of God, they can become free from that system, so that their actions more and more show who they really are.
The Mansfield Judgment
In 1769 a customs official named Charles Steuart, from the British colony of
Massachusetts, took with him to England one James Somersett, an enslaved African
he had purchased in Virginia. Steuart was not pleased when Somersett escaped in
1771. He recaptured his "property" that November, and put him in chains aboard
the ship Ann and Mary, bound for the colony of Jamaica, where Steuart intended
to sell him. But Somersett's godparents, Mary Cade, Thomas Marlow, and John
Walkin, asked the Court of the King's Bench for a ruling of habeas corpus,
claiming that their godson's re-enslavement was not legal.
The case attracted much attention in the press, and by the time of the
hearings, Somersett had no fewer than five legal counsel. One of them argued in
effect that slavery is incompatible with what it means to be English, entailing
that when Somersett set foot in England he became a free man. After weeks of
deliberation the judge, William Murray, earl of Mansfield, gave his decision in
the ex-slave's favor. Although Mansfield based his decision on legal
technicalities, he made it clear that slavery was "odious" and could only be
maintained under "positive law" supporting it, which did not exist in England.
This so-called Mansfield Judgment was to be influential in the campaigns, over
the next sixty years, to abolish the British institutions of kidnapping and
holding African humans in chattel slavery.
Introducing the Honor Code
Two important themes are discernible in this case: an awareness of atrocious
injustice, and a sense that (national) honor requires a correcting of that
injustice. The latter theme is the topic of a major book by philosopher Kwame
Anthony Appiah, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. Appiah, who grew
up in Ghana, was educated in England and now teaches at Princeton, analyzes the
part that conceptions of honor played in four revolutions of varying moral
weight: the ending of the duel, the freeing of Chinese women's feet, the
abolition of Atlantic slavery, and the contemporary campaigns against the
"honor" murders of women in Pakistan and other middle-eastern countries. (He
mentions factory farming, together with still other social evils, in passing,
suggesting that issues of honor may have a part in ending it as well.)
Despite having prevailed for hundreds of years (footbinding for nearly a
thousand), the first three of these evils each fell within about a generation.
The moral objections to them were already known, says Appiah; the main thing
that was different was the conception of honor.
Appiah's analysis of honor shows it to be complex; the word applies not only
to the respect shown to those in the upper ranks of a hierarchy just because of
the class in which they were born, but also the esteem granted those who meet or
exceed the standards of their class or category. This dual meaning implies that
a person can both be honorable and be shamed at the same time for closely linked
reasons. (An example might be Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, who is proud of
his status as a gentleman of wealth and aristocratic lineage, but also deeply
ashamed because, as Elizabeth Bennet tells him, his behavior has been arrogant
and disdainful, and thus not gentlemanlike.) A form of honor--dignity--can be
claimed by all human beings, including those of low class or poor achievement.
From Honor to Shame
Different but linked aspects of honor stand out in the three successful
revolutions. The duel was an institution in which aristocrats defended their
honor against the perceived insults of others of their class, thereby flaunting
both their (supposed) manliness and their ability to get by with a crime
punishable by death among the lower orders. But the duel's days were numbered
when social and political power began to shift from the hereditary aristocrats
to the middle class. When bankers, or--even worse--linendrapers' assistants took
to dueling, the institution began to seem ridiculous, and fizzled out. Thus what
the condemnation of its irrationality and deadly violence and could not achieve
was brought about by laughter.
Similarly, for centuries Chinese footbinding was associated with upper-class
status; despite occasional protests against its cruelty, it was so crucial to
social acceptability that without it a woman was not thought to be marriageable.
Becoming more and more widely adopted did not make it seem ridiculous, perhaps
because in essence it served not to assert a man's power, but to imply a woman's
disempowerment: a woman with tiny, deformed feet literally could not go her own
way. What caused it to fall was not an internal shift of power so much as a
broadening, so to speak, of the cultural conversation. During the mid-nineteenth
century, China's proud sovereignty was breached by the West, and forced to
accept humiliating trade arrangements. Western ideas also entered more quietly,
through resident Westerners, especially missionaries--both women and men being
particularly influential in condemning footbinding--and young Chinese men who
returned from studying in universities like Cambridge or Harvard. Finding that
Westerners considered bound feet grotesque, those who cared about their country
increasingly felt that the "golden lotuses" were not a woman's pride but China's
shame. In such an atmosphere the institution could not long survive.
Appiah makes a case that honor was also involved in the movement to end
British involvement in slavery. William Wilberforce, the devout Evangelical
statesman who led the campaigns in Parliament for decades, pointed out that
slavery was incompatible with Britain's claim to be Christian, and was thus a
blot upon its honor. For an individual to be preoccupied with his own honor was
selfish, unworthy; but concern for national honor could enable one to get beyond
himself and sacrifice for the greater good, thus wielding moral power.
Furthermore, group honor as basic human dignity was a particular issue in the
involvement of the working classes in the anti-slavery movement. Many voices
compared the abuses and exploitation workers suffered with those undergone by
slaves. A sense of identification took root: like the slaves, workers were
mistreated and held in contempt because they labored. But workers increasingly
came to hold that labor deserves respect. Workers in northern manufacturing
cities competed with one another by city to gain the greatest number of
signatures on petitions to Parliament and pledges to boycott West Indian sugar.
And Parliament began to accept the idea that they had to listen to the "lowly"
instead of only talking down to them.
Regarding Appiah's insightful discussion of present-day campaigns against the
"honor" murders of women in Pakistan and other countries, it is noteworthy that,
as with the anti-slavery campaigns, activists claim their nation's religion as
ally, so that the widespread flouting of its principles is a source of shame.
There is broad (if not entirely unanimous) agreement, in Pakistan and elsewhere,
that honor murders are incompatible with Islam, one of whose central assertions
is "Allah is compassionate." Another similarity is a broadening of cultural
conversation, facilitated by the Internet, leading to an alliance between the
victimized class and women in other countries. As British workers identified
with abused slaves, foreign women today see their own dignity being assaulted by
the evil practice.
Basic Dignity and the Light
When honor (as catalyst for change) is understood as the basic dignity of all
persons, we are not far from the central Quaker conviction that there is an
Inner Light, or That of God, in everyone. Of course, universal dignity may also
have somewhat different bases, e.g. the Jewish and Christian belief that all
persons are created in the image of God, or the conviction of our country's
founding fathers of a self-evident truth that all men [sic] are created equal.
But let us briefly pursue the implications of the Light as the source of a
changed conception of honor that may hasten the moral revolution that we seek.
Early Friends were in fact much concerned with the meaning of honor. They
lived in a society polarized by class, in which people of lower classes (as were
most of them) were expected to bow and doff their hats to richly-dressed
aristocrats, addressing them by title. But on the basis of their experience of
the Divine Light as one in all persons and conferring true honor on all, Quakers
rejected such practices, keeping their hats on, using only the title "Friend"
(derived from John 15:15, "No longer do I call you servants . . . but I have
called you friends"). This rejection of titles essentially continues today. The
presence in every person of the equalizing and unifying Light was, and is, also
the basis for Friends' refusal of exploitation, war, and other forms of
violence. In the last few decades Friends have increasingly come to affirm the
presence of the Light throughout the cosmos, and many other spiritually aware
people as well are affirming that human treatment of nature must change
radically. But for most, this expanded vision has obviously not yet materialized
into a stance of nonviolence toward animals.
Honor and the Revolution for Animals
Readers of PT may not all think in terms of the Divine Light present in every
heart, but most probably agree that both animals and people are due the respect,
or even reverence, that would be appropriate for those in whom the Light dwells.
How might this conviction help us communicate better with the unconvinced?
The way the duel ended--by being shown as embarrassing and ridiculous--is not
the way for us to take. Many meat-eaters already see vegetarians as looking down
on them from their moral high ground and holding them in contempt, or accusing
them of dark deeds. In fact they are born into a system that does make them
complicit in terrible cruelties to animals, whether knowingly or not; and
informing them of these unwelcome facts is a necessary part of our message. But
it must be presented in ways that will awaken their compassion. Trying to shame
them for their complicity would in most cases make them more defensive.
It is more profitable to stress the positive sides. The general view
justifying the status quo--that a "food" animal is a dimwitted, lumpish object,
identical to every one of "its" kind--must be corrected by information
supporting animals' basic dignity. Such information is increasingly available
thanks to ethologists and other observers: animals are complex and sensitive
beings, capable both of pleasure and of terrible suffering; many are capable of
It is also good to stress the basic dignity of the human beings we are addressing. They are bearers of the Light, or of the Divine Image; they have the potential for manifesting gleams of the divine love to "the least of these." A certain percentage of people do evil with no apparent compunctions, but a great many intend to be decent, caring folk. In their innermost being, probably unknown even to themselves, all are far better than what they do with their forks in support of the evil system that entraps them. With the help of the Spirit of God, they can become free from that system, so that their actions more and more show who they really are.