The Philosophy of the Oxford Group: Vegetarianism & Animal Rights

The Oxford Group consisted of intellectuals associated with the University of Oxford, but their impact on the animal rights movement extends far beyond the famous British university city.

Jan 12, 2024By Catherine Dent, MA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English Literature
philosophy oxford group vegeterianism animal rights

 

To borrow a comparison drawn by Peter Singer himself, the Oxford Group, like the Bloomsbury Group before it, was an informal group of like-minded individuals – though the impact they had was profound. The members of the Oxford Group were united by a shared interest in the burgeoning animal rights movement and would go on to forever shape how we view and treat nonhuman species. Here, we will take a closer look at the group’s origins, members, inspirations, and legacy.

 

How Was the Oxford Group Formed & What Were Its Aims?

brigid brophy writer activist
Photograph of Brigid Brophy, via Edinburgh University Press Blog

 

The Oxford Group (also known as the Oxford Vegetarians) was formed between 1969 and 1971 by a group of intellectuals, all of whom had some form of connection with the University of Oxford. At first, the group was made up of postgraduate students, most of whom (including Rosalind Godlovitch, John Harris, and David Wood) were reading philosophy, as well as Michael Peters, a postgraduate sociology student.

 

The group met to debate their shared interest in animal rights and together coalesced their own moral philosophy around their concern for nonhuman (as well as human) welfare. The group resolved to edit a collection of essays, and they got the writer and animal rights activist Brigid Brophy (whose writings had been a source of inspiration for the group) to agree to contribute to the collection. Moreover, Brophy suggested they first approach the publisher Michael Joseph, who put forward the idea that members of the group – as well as more established voices in the animal rights movement – should contribute to the essay collection as well.

 

oxford university city
Photograph of Oxford, via Experience Oxfordshire

 

The group, however, was more interested in editing – rather than contributing essays to – the collection. Therefore, Harris and Godlovitch instead approached the British publishing house Victor Gollancz, which agreed to publish the book, and Animals, Men and Morals, which came out just a few months later in 1971.

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Members of the Oxford Group went on to produce scholarly works that helped further the animal rights cause by calling into question the assumptions underpinning humans’ treatment of animals. The group was also politically active in the pursuit of furthering the animal rights cause, protesting against blood sports and animal testing.

 

Who Inspired the Oxford Group?

ruth harrison animal machines
Front cover of Ruth Harrison’s Animal Machines, via Biblio

 

One of the key inspirations for the Oxford Group, as mentioned previously, was Brigid Brophy. As a child, Brophy had been encouraged by her father to read works by authors he admired, from John Milton to George Bernard Shaw, who was himself a vegetarian. Aged fifteen, she won a place to study classics at Oxford University, though she did not end up taking her degree. Instead, she worked as a shorthand typist and shared a flat with a former university friend near London Zoo.

 

Though she married the art historian Michael Levy in 1954, theirs was an open marriage, and Brophy went on to have relationships with the novelist Iris Murdoch as well as poet and fellow animal rights activist Maureen Duffy. Brophy and Murdoch met when Brophy’s debut novel, Hackenfeller’s Ape (1953), beat Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net (1954) to win first prize for a debut novel at the Cheltenham Literary Festival.

 

Centering on a captive ape whom scientists plan to send into outer space and drawing on her experience having lived in close proximity to London Zoo, Hackenfeller’s Ape established Brophy’s reputation as a novelist and inspired the members of the Oxford Group. Her article “The Rights of Animals,” written upon invitation and published by the Sunday Times in 1965, also further helped stimulate discussion around the burgeoning animal rights movement.

 

One year before the publication of Brophy’s “The Rights of Animals” came Ruth Harrison’s Animal Machines, a scathing critique of factory farming that also fuelled the Oxford Group. Harrison’s book led the British government to set up a committee to investigate the welfare of farm animals, which in turn produced the “Branbell Report,” in which the “five freedoms” (the five key aspects of the welfare of animals under human control) were first outlined.

 

The Legacy of the Oxford Group

andrew linzey animal ethics law
Front cover of Animal Ethics and Animal Law (2023), edited by Andrew and Clair Linzey, via the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics

 

While the publication of Animals, Men and Morals was not met with the response the Oxford Group had hoped for, members of the group still went on to change the way we think about the treatment of nonhumans. Stephen R. L. Clark, who at the time was a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, for instance, went on to publish The Moral Status of Animals in 1977. He was also involved with the think tank Boyd Group and served on the UK government’s Animal Procedures Committee from 1998 to 2006.

 

Richard Ryder’s essay on experimenting on animals, included in Animals, Men and Morals, was later worked into a longer piece titled Victims of Science. He was also active within the RSPCA in a bid to convince the organization to condemn fox-hunting and went on to become the RSPCA’s chairman.

 

Approaching the topic of animal rights from the perspective of Christian theology, Andrew Linzey made a unique contribution to the (otherwise irreligious) Oxford Group. In 1976, he went on to publish Animal Rights: A Christian Assessment and, thirty years later, founded the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. Linzey has published widely on the issue of the treatment of animals from a theological stance, arguing that “[a]nimals are God’s creatures, not human property, nor utilities, nor resources, nor commodities, but precious beings in God’s sight.”

 

In 1977, Ryder and Linzey also organized the first international conference centering on animal rights: the Cambridge Conference on Animal Rights at Trinity College, Cambridge.

 

The Australian philosopher and author of the provocative 1972 essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Peter Singer, arrived in Oxford in 1969 – the very same year the Oxford Group was formed – along with his wife, Renata, to undertake a PhD in philosophy.

 

oxford university balliol college
Photograph of Balliol College, via the University of Oxford

 

A year after his arrival, he met Richard Keshen, a member of the Oxford Group, and the two attended a series of lectures given by Jonathan Glover on free will, determinism, and moral responsibility. Following one of these lectures, the two went back to Keshen’s college, Balliol, to continue their discussion of the lecture over lunch. There, Keshen chose a salad over the spaghetti dish on offer, as the spaghetti sauce contained meat. Singer asked Keshen why he had done so, and Keshen informed him of the treatment of farm animals slaughtered for meat.

 

Over the coming months, Singer met Rosalind and Stanley Godlovich, who were prominent members of the Oxford Group and had convinced Keshen and his wife, Mary, to become vegetarians. Singer and his wife then read Ruth Harrison’s Animal Machines, a study of the practice of factory farming, as well as an article by Rosalind Godlovitch that had been published in the academic journal Philosophy and was being adapted for the printed essay collection that was published by Victor Gollancz in 1971.

 

This reading helped convince Singer that abstaining from meat consumption was a moral imperative, and he has been a vegetarian since 1971. In 1975, he published Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, now widely considered a foundational text of the animal liberation movement. He has credited the tepid response received by the Oxford Group’s Animals, Men, and Morals with spurring him on to write his own scholarly work in the field of animal rights. He also contacted the New York Review of Books to pitch a review of Animals, Men and Morals, which, once it was printed, helped boost the profile of not only the book but of the animal rights movement in the United States.

 

peter singer philosopher
Photograph of Peter Singer, via University Center for Human Values (Princeton)

 

Another prominent animal rights theorist who came into contact with the Oxford Group after visiting Oxford in 1973 was the American philosopher Tom Regan. He went on to publish The Case for Animal Rights a decade after first encountering the group. In this influential study, Regan puts forward the idea that nonhumans deserve rights just as humans do, as their lives have inherent value to them. That is, Regan argues that humans and nonhumans alike share the experience of being the “subject-of-a-life.” In doing so, he argues against the notion that value can only be ascribed to human life because of our advanced rationality by pointing out that we (rightly) continue to ascribe value to the lives of infants or those with learning disabilities who are not capable of such rationality.

 

animal rights movement
Photograph of an animal rights protest, via World Animal Foundation

 

While the Oxford Group may have been relatively short-lived as a collective, its individual members have gone on to not only radically alter how we view nonhumans as fellow sentient beings but have also pioneered real, tangible changes in the treatment of animals, be that through pre-existing organizations (such as the RSPCA) or by founding their own. Moreover, their work has gone on to influence those who were either only tangentially associated with the group or who only learned of it afterward through the members’ continued work in the field of animal rights. Though the animal liberation movement (as it was then known) was generally considered a niche topic in the late 1960s and early 1970s, today it is an important part of academic study, being taught in philosophy and cultural theory classes around the world, for which we have the Oxford Group to thank.

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By Catherine DentMA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English LiteratureCatherine holds a first-class BA from Durham University and an MA with distinction, also from Durham, where she specialized in the representation of glass objects in the work of Virginia Woolf. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and spending time with her rescue dog, Finn.