Jeremy Bentham was a lawyer and philosopher noted in animal rights circles for stating that the capacity for suffering is the essential characteristic that entitles animals to equal consideration.
Bentham (1748 - 1832) was a professor of law at Oxford University and a leading nineteenth century philosopher. He was a member of a circle, called the Philosophical Radicals, that influenced social and political change in England. Most people might remember Bentham for working out the principle of utilitarianism: that your action is right if it increases the happiness, pleasure and good of the greatest number of people. Bentham is famously much quoted in animal rights and animal welfare circles for stating (albeit in a footnote):
"The question is not can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer?" (Bentham, J. 1789. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Chapter xvii.)
He is saying the capacity for suffering and not any other criterion is the essential characteristic entitling an animal to equal consideration of moral interests.
The remains of Jeremy Bentham on view in a cabinet at University College, London. Photo: Michael Reeve.