Environmental and animal rights arguments have been around for millennia. Justin Begley, phisopher and historian of ideas, combines different disciplines to study different philosophers' thoughts on animal rights.

Animal rights were a popular topic already in ancient Greece, in 17th century England and during the debate on vegetarianism in the 18th century, points out Justin Begley, philosopher and historian of ideas.

“I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. I was ambitious about playing football competitively until I was 18 or 19. At the time, I thought I wanted to be a professional midfield player, not an academic. Many in Finland have been surprised that I didn’t choose ice hockey. I played it sometimes during breaks at school, but not seriously.”

We had a lot of books at home, and I realised I particularly enjoyed history, literature and philosophy.

I’m quite competitive and I like physical activities, but I was also drawn to football because of its other elements. At the top level, it’s an intensely team focused and very strategic sport. You have to constantly stay focused and understand where the other players are on the field. Decisions have to be lightning fast and intuitive. There’s always room for improvement, both as a team and as an individual.

Sports are one part of my background. But I was a quiet child and also liked to read a lot. From a young age, I would read everything I could get my hands on, from scientific textbooks to the Bible. We had a lot of books at home, and I found I was particularly interested in history, literature and philosophy. My mother worked for an NGO, and my father taught economics.

Eventually, books became more interesting to me than football.

I went to the University of Toronto to study literature and philosophy. When it became too difficult to balance academic studies with my ambitions for football, I made the decision to quit my athletic career. The books were just a little more interesting.

After completing my master’s, I moved from Toronto to Oxford to work on my doctoral degree. I found a good topic which allowed me to combine my interests in history, philosophy and literature: I wrote my dissertation on the works of Margaret Cavendish, a 17th century thinker. She was a marginalised author, who published nearly twenty books, mainly on philosophy.

Many philosophers find my multidisciplinary dissertation to be too historical, and literary scholars consider it too philosophical. Sometimes the borders between disciplines at universities seem artificial to me. The works of early authors in particular can be misunderstood if they are only studied from the perspective of a specific discipline. Authors in the 17th century would often merge issues and styles, which we would now consider to represent different disciplines.

The ideal for scholars of historical periods, at least up until the 17th century, should be to read everything that was being written at the time. This would give the scholars a much better grasp of the period and the research topic than if they were to isolate an individual issue.

This would of course require a lot of work, but it is possible. Or it would be, if we didn’t have to spend the first eight years of our studies before specialisation learning the entire philosophical or literary canon from ancient times to present day. Personally, I would like the studies to be structured on the basis of historical periods from as early on as possible.

I looked up the poetic, historical, scholarly, religious and philosophical texts that Cavendish had read, and tried to read all of them myself.

I used Margaret Cavendish as a way to understand her time. I looked up the poetic, historical, scholarly, religious and philosophical texts that she had read, and tried to read all of them myself. I wanted to get an overview of the general philosophical events, discussions and debates of the time.

During my dissertation process I discovered how extensively early discussions and debates have been ignored, and how much they have to offer our contemporary debates.

Margaret Cavendish thought that everything that is alive can have some level of sensitivity and rationality.

For example, during Cavendish’s time, life and matter were thought of as being on a hierarchical scale of nature: from God, to angels, humans, animals, plants and matter. However, Cavendish thought that matter itself could be considered to be alive at a fundamental level. She thought that everything that is alive can have a basic sensitivity and rationality.

An esteemed writer of the time, Francis Glisson, had similar ideas, so Cavendish was not entirely an outsider. Due to her thinking, Cavendish was less anthropocentric in her treatment of animals and plants than many others of her time.

In contemporary academic debates, similar ideas about animals have become interesting again, but few know about the historical debates and arguments surrounding the topic. While Cavendish’s thinking may seem modern, even Aristotle had similar ideas.

Arguments for and against vegetarianism were aired already in the 18th century.

Cavendish led me to the topic of relationships between animals, humans and plants. Next, I intend to study 18th century arguments and debates for and against vegetarianism. At the same time, I will be able to combine the different disciplines that I’m interested in by studying arguments based on health, religion or philosophy.

I’ve realised that as far back as we can go in terms of literary sources, we can find highly sophisticated and complex moral discussions on the treatment of animals and the environment. Vegetarianism and animal rights were already a topic of discussion in ancient Greece.

If we were more familiar with these early texts, they could help boost our contemporary debates, as many of our current arguments were comprehensively discussed already 2000 years ago.

Why did I become interested in the early modern period? I first became fascinated by the period when I realised what kinds of thinkers were alive at that time: Newton, Locke, Hume, Boyle … and that’s just England. After that, I was drawn to the diversity of methods that the thinkers of the time used to present their arguments and react to Descartes in particular.

I try not to use terms such as the scientific revolution, but people in the 17th century did things very differently from previous generations. Issues collided in new ways, with irreversible consequences.

As a researcher, I didn’t want to confine myself to a single philosopher and to look at everything through their eyes. For me, Margaret Cavendish was a path into her time; I wouldn’t consider myself a follower of hers. I believe that researchers of many of the bigger names, such as Descartes or Hume, do in some way identify as their followers.

Researchers studying a more marginal person are more resistant to having their opinions merge with the thinking of their research topic.

I try to access the intentions of the writers I study: why did they write in the way they did?

I’m more interested in the interactions between thinkers than the individual thinkers themselves. Methodologically speaking, one of my main influences is Quentin Skinner, an intellectual historian. Like Skinner, I try to access the intentions of the writers I study: why did they write in the way they did? How do the texts connect things and why? I try to get behind all of this.

This is to say that I don’t study historical arguments to necessarily influence contemporary thinking, or try to shape historical arguments in a way that they could tell us something about how a particular discipline developed, for example.  I just try to find out what happened during the period that I am researching.

Research into interesting but largely ignored thinkers is becoming more and more common. This is a good development. We’re expanding the circle of who we consider to be great thinkers and making our image of history clearer.”

Helsinki University Humanities Programme, HUH, 2017–2020 aims to expand research networks in the field to produce high-quality joint publications.

This article was published in Finnish in issue 10/18 of Yliopisto magazine.

Justin Begley

Post doc