The morality of creature comfort

July 11, 1997

How humans treat animals is a question of our duties towards them not of their rights, argues Mary Midgley

Every few months, there is a loud splash when a bold inhabitant dives into some academic or political pool to ask how we should treat animals. Roger Scruton's article (THES, June 28 1996) followed a pattern much used at present by philosophers who are deeply ambivalent about the subject. He combined a simple, dogmatic point about forms of moral argument (Animals have no rights) with a substantial moral proposal disconnected from it and not simple at all - that we should abandon intensive farming, but allow hunting and angling to continue unchecked.

In practical terms, he was recommending an unparalleled revolution in our treatment of animals. His proposal would reduce farming once more to its prewar dimensions, destroying the huge industry which has grown up meanwhile. He declared, surely rightly, "Our first duty to the animals that we rear for food is to provide them with a fulfilling life. Sympathy and piety both speak against the battery farm and the veal crate." Cutting these populations to the number that we could provide with a fulfilling life would immensely reduce the mass of animal misery that we now cause.

So why did so many of Scruton's readers see his piece as hostile to the interests of animals? Because he began with a sharp, contemptuous attack on the notion that animals could be said to have rights. His real topic was the word "rights" itself, which causes endless trouble in this and other debates. Once "rights" has been made central to the argument, as it has been repeatedly of late by many theorists, we have to get it out of the way before saying anything directly about the animals. The trouble is that, in common speech, to say that someone has no rights on a matter is to say that they have no claim at all. Political theorists use the term much more narrowly, linking it closely to the "social contract". They see rights as holding only between contracting members of a particular civic society.

This approach works quite well so long as we are only dealing with the mutual duties of a set of voters who are rational adult citizens, reciprocating benefits within an enclosed "moral community". Outside the civic market-place we run into trouble. Have children got rights? Some contract-theorists simply say: "No. If we help children we do so only because we are charitable and compassionate." More often, theorists treat children as honorary rights-bearers because they are potentially rational voters.

This will not wash for retarded adults, and is a ludicrously indirect way of explaining even our duties to children. We disapprove of people who boil babies not because babies are potential voters but because they are sensitive beings. Accordingly, contract theorists tend to end up resting the rights of such humans simply on species-loyalty. But this is now being questioned.

Even within our own society, many of our duties are not contractual. Outside it, things get worse. What about "human rights"? Many scholars object to this term on the contractual grounds that cause trouble over animals. People in general, however, seem to accept and use it effectively, because of its imperative force. They understand the violation of human rights to mean: "This goes beyond the limit. This is something that should not be done to anybody anywhere, never mind about the differences between cultures." That is surely something we need to be able to say. Yet we do not share a social contract or possibly even a "moral community" with the Tibetans or the Chinese or the Afghans.

More strikingly still, what about the environment? We cannot conveniently say that the Antarctic and the rainforests have rights. This word, which suggests standing up and speaking in a law court, is quite unsuitable for them. But that does not mean that attention to them is not imperative.

It is impossible to restrict morality to what can be explained in contractual terms within a closed "moral community". Trying to do so is part of the Enlightenment project of turning human society from a top-down hierarchy into a democratic structure to which all citizens contribute. The network of rights is our political background, but only a background. For most of our activities the question "have you a right to this?" does not arise. We use other forms of moral thought and language. Insistence on raising questions about rights distorts ordinary moral business by invoking the cruder methods of the law.

However, in the United States, where the constitution has given the notion of rights special importance, many feel this is the only appropriate language for discussing any serious moral question. Some moralists insist on using the language of rights in pressing the claims of animals. In particular, the great ape project, recently launched to rescue gorillas, orang-utans and chimpanzees from abuse and extinction, demands that we extend human rights to them.

Here is an interesting question about the importance of words. The apes' situation is a real emergency. But can the linguistic lever of insistence on "rights" get them the help they need? Many people are so used to associating "rights" with humans that controversy can veer away from the apes themselves on to familiar debates about the meaning of contracts.

Paradoxical appeals like this sometimes shake up language in a way that eventually changes moral attitudes. But it is a slow business. For immediate needs, campaigners do better to shout for particular practical proposals rather than insisting on this abstract, litigious word-shift.

Debates about the word "rights" are a red herring in discussions about animals, a displacement activity invoked to help us avoid seeing the odious confusion of the gap between our theory and our practice.

This parallels the moral contradictions surrounding early industralisation. Western society drifted into a dependence on industrial conditions which appalled the public conscience when they became widely known, yet which went on expanding in response to the profit motive. Similarly, during the past 50 years food producers have quietly developed animal-keeping techniques which make a lot of money by entirely denying the fulfilling life that Scruton mentions. When forced to understand how they actually work (as in the case of BSE) we do not doubt that we disapprove of them. The particular moral language that we use, whether involving rights or not, makes no serious difference to this disapproval because these things stink from every point of view. The difficulty is disentangling our society from its dependence.

But there are also philosophical difficulties. We can ask "why do these things matter?" when we start on the topic, without first haring off after rights.

Scruton says that "morality has four related but distinguishable roots in the human psyche" among which he puts first "the calculus of rights and duties". But this is not a root but a product, part of the form morality takes when finally shaped. It has no special primacy. Similarly his third root, "the distinction between vice and virtue" is also part of that final form of morality, conceptually linked with ideas about rights and duties. By separating these things, the utilitarians encouraged lazy philosophers in the bad habit of setting various aspects of morality against each other, duties against consequences, feeling against reason, and supporting them, like football teams, by rival "moral theories". The phrase "the roots of morality", however, naturally refers to the distinct kinds of motive.

Here Scruton is right. He says that our duties to animals arise from his other two roots of morality which are "sympathy and piety", meaning by "piety" respect for the order of nature. These are genuine, central moral motives. But they have long been somewhat subordinated by contractual thinking. That has made us slow to articulate concern about animals as part of our official morality. It is why some people are still embarrassed by it and react by starting a treadmill of arguments about ideas like rights.

Finally, what about hunting? Scruton is right that hunting is less bad than intensive farming in that it lets creatures live their natural lives before they die. It affects far fewer creatures than either farming or experimentation. But the trouble is that hunting is sport, for whose existence (as he very honestly says) "pain and fear are necessary". Is such sport tolerable? Charles Darwin, a passionate shooter of birds in his youth, thought not. When he grasped this point, he gave up shooting. There are always other sports to turn to.

Mary Midgley is a moral philosopher and author of Beast and Man and Animals and Why They Matter.

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