Duty and the beasts

August 9, 1996

Thanks to BSE fears over food have rarely been greater. But they have not been matched by an outcry over the fate of the cattle destroyed. Are concerns about the welfare of animals and the philosophy that assigns them rights in decline? Aisling Irwin reports

The good looks that go with bovine youth and vigour cannot save them - around a million cattle are to be slaughtered over the next year because of the threat of mad cow disease. Many people feel unease about this slaughter. But that unease has not been transformed into protest. And this is one of the striking features of the BSE crisis: there have been no animal welfare groups sticking up for the cattle.

Does this, as the moral philosopher Roger Scruton has argued recently, reveal great logical inconsistencies in the animal rights movement, exposing the "vaporous nature of human sentimentality"? A cow is not diminutive or furry so it does not win much human concern. A veal calf, on the other hand, is blessed with big, wistful eyes.

Professor Scruton slammed animal rights last month in a new paper and in the pages of The THES. He supported ritual slaughter, fox-hunting and angling. He criticised the battery farm and the veal crate. But what is really interesting is that he, a mainstream moral philosopher, should have taken the time to do so. Perhaps he was expressing a popular mood. Are people becoming fed up with animal rights?

Powerful forces may be weakening the public's sympathy for animal welfare. Professor Scruton harnessed one of these: environmental concerns. With a twist, concern about the environment becomes synonymous with concern for the countryside; this quickly transmutes into a desire to preserve the rural heritage. Suddenly, the conservation of age-old traditions such as fox-hunting and keeping a natural balance by culling deer and squirrels have become the essence of the environmental agenda and a neat opposition to animal activism.

Another force competing for public sympathy is biotechnology. Genetic manipulation promises humans health and wealth, much of it drawn from the raw material of animals. These bounties provide a sore temptation to forget about animal suffering.

This trio of forces - environment, biotechnology and animal welfare - could cause major battles in future. One person who argues that welfare concerns will lose out is Keith Tester, professor of sociology at Portsmouth University. He argues that inconsistencies in our concern about animals, such as that highlighted by Scruton, result from the fact that we are not really concerned about them at all. In fact, the underlying concerns are remorselessly human: fears for the quality of food, or that damage to the environment will have nasty repercussions for humans.

Tester argues that public horror about BSE is in fact distaste at the realisation that our food is industrially, rather than naturally, produced. That is why there are protestations about cattle feed rather than about cattle slaughter.

He explains last year's veal calf protests in the same way. The residents of Shoreham, where many of the exports took place, were really protesting about the pollution of their pretty environment. Little England then defined its Englishness by pitting itself against French insensitivities to animal welfare.

Welfare concerns will continue to appear inconsistent, Tester predicts. While protests about factory farming will increase because of food fears, protests about medical research that uses animals will die of confusion because of the potential benefits to Aids sufferers and the like.

But elsewhere in academia there are rebuttals of the idea that animal philosophy is in a fragile state. Many animal philosophers have interpreted Scruton's manifesto as a sign of the strength of the subject. They are pleased that he feels sufficiently ruffled to speak out.

Dan Cohn-Sherbok, rabbi and professor at the University of Kent, says that the discipline's strength is demonstrated by the way in which it has seeped into undergraduate syllabuses. "It is coming much more up the agenda, particularly in courses dealing with ethics which are often issue-oriented". The subject, he says, resonates with other topical issues such as abortion, euthanasia and genetic engineering. Only last week similar issues were raised by the destruction of 3,000 embryos.

"If you are going to talk about the status of the foetus, the embryo, the 'innocents', inevitably you are going to move into other areas". It is all part of a sensitivity to vulnerable groups, he says.

But the subject's appearance on a few courses in practical ethics hardly demonstrates a fervour as great as that which accompanied animal philosophy in the 1970s. It was then that Peter Singer published Animal Liberation, in which he argued that animals should be included in human moral calculations because they can suffer, and that moral decision should be utilitarian - causing the least amount of suffering overall. Singer did not argue for animal rights. During the same era, Richard Ryder coined the term "speciesism", implying that to discriminate against animals solely on the basis of their species was as unfair as gender or racial discrimination.

The debate flourished. Singer's manifesto was swiftly thought to be insufficient. The American philosopher Tom Regan showed that utilitarianism could justify any atrocity against animals if benefits accrued to a sufficiently large number of humans. Regan's solution was to confer "inherent value" on animals, giving them an inviolability that could not be cancelled out by the mass interests of others. Thus came the idea of animal rights.

The ensuing years, says Kate Rawles, lecturer in philosophy at Lancaster University, have been spent usefully, debating and refining these concepts and "quietly getting on with it". "There hasn't been a time in Britain when there has been a greater interest in animals," she says.

The question of "rights" has been a major part of this debate - a useful polemical tool but also a damaging one. The philosopher Mary Midgley says: "It is rather depressing how the term 'rights' has been made an idol. There are serious objections to it which have been made over and over again."

Yet no progress is being made, she says. One side argues that rights are eternally wedded to duties. Animals cannot have a sense of duty so they cannot be awarded rights. The other side argues that we exonerate babies, the retarded and the senile from duties so we can do the same for animals. The first side replies that these are exceptional cases and good moral philosophy is not made out of exceptions.

Yet Regan, principle culprit for the rut of the rights debate, says Midgley, has refused to compromise, because of the American obsession that moral issues should all be phrased in terms of rights. Rawles says: "The bottom line is what counts as acceptable treatment of animals. You can have that conversation without mentioning rights."

Controversy has also grown around Singer's assertion that differences between humans and other animals are morally irrelevant since suffering is the only basis for moral decisions. Philosophers have questioned whether animals feel pain: how much pain they feel and whether that pain really is morally relevant.

Michael Leahy, one of the few philosophers to write against animal liberation, has argued that animals feel minimal pain. From the pain in a middle-aged man's chest will spring fears about death and about the welfare of his family. The physical aspect, the only aspect we share with animals, is minor in comparison.

The capacity for suffering has remained a powerful yardstick for the treatment of animals. But there is plenty of debate about how humans and animals differ, and whether those differences are morally relevant. Most thinkers no longer believe that there is a fundamental difference based on the fact that humans were created in the image of God while other animals were not. Other dividing lines have survived better, such as the capability for language.

Leahy uses Wittgenstein to argue that animals cannot think, except in some primitive way that is a distortion of the word "think". Devoid of language, animals are without the tools of human thought and as such are so primitive that they begin to slip out of moral relevance.

Scruton, however, thinks that the philosophers have missed the fundamental problem of "kind" - "what is the kind to which we belong by virtue of which we have the moral identity that we have?".

Scruton is deeply critical of the past 20 years of animal philosophy. He recently immersed himself in the literature before writing his paper: "I was appalled by its shallowness, especially that of Peter Singer and Tom Regan. Singer is obviously a very eloquent writer but his conception of morality is an unreconstructed utilitarian one. That has been so exploded by serious moral philosophers that I am surprised that anyone takes it seriously."

Tester argues that philosophers have become entrenched in their debates and are talking past each other. Animal welfare philosophy, he says, has "lost its passion". But perhaps he ignores the vigour with which a handful of extraneous debates have infused the animal philosophy world.

The first is the rise of the question of humans' relationship with the natural world, environmental philosophy, which Midgley believes has been good for animal philosophy. Environmental philosophers have searched for a way of attaching value to trees, stones and ecosystems - value that is irrespective of the value that humans have for them. The concept of "intrinsic value" has become more reputable as a result. Such an achievement has made it far easier to construct an animal welfare philosophy.

Another great recent injection of energy to the animal debate has come from observations of primates - for example of chimpanzees by Jane Goodall. Relating human behaviour to its genetic origins and finding the precursors of it in other animals has closed the gap between the species even more. Midgley says the result is that "animals can no longer be excluded simply by definition. We are much more aware of how like us they are". There is a framework which "makes it more obvious that we are part of a much larger whole".

Animal welfare philosophy, Midgley argues, has reached a new maturity. There has been a gradual change in people's moral structure from which "the deliberate infliction of suffering is something that we now object to. The only thing that is consistent with the kind of morality that we have today is to treat animals better. I am convinced that the natural way for this debate to go on, if it is conducted fairly, is for there to be a steady diminution in the use of animals".

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