For all creatures great and small

July 26, 1996

I agree with Roger Scruton on some things - the absurdity of much modern art, for example - but when he deals with the subject of animal rights he is guilty of an absurdity of his own (THES, June 28). To be precise, he argues that "it makes no sense to confer rights on creatures who are insensible of the benefit and who have no conception of duty, responsibility or justice".

Infants, some handicapped human adults and those who are in a coma will also fall into this category - are they to be deprived of rights? Will Professor Scruton be happy to surrender his rights (for example to proper nursing care) if he has a stroke that damages those parts of his brain which process his "conception of duty"? His awareness of pain and distress might still be operative.

To be fair to him he has moved a considerable way towards the animal rights position. Indeed he has come about 90 per cent of the distance. But he retains 10 per cent so that, unlike Godiva, he can ride to hounds wearing a philosophical fig leaf. Not a particularly plausible fig leaf, indeed, rather an embarrassingly transparent one, but a fig leaf of sorts. Commendably, he wishes his behaviour to be consistent with his ethics but is more prepared to contort the latter rather than to change the former.

The British resistance to the idea of rights is partly historical (the revolting Americans and revolutionary French had espoused the concept) and partly a misunderstanding.

We are talking, in the case of non-human animals, of a passive moral right (not to be caused pain) and not an active or legal right (the right to vote, for example, or own property). To have one set of moral rules for our species and a different lot for all the other painient species is pre-Darwinian and inconsistent. Such speciesism is no more rational than racism or sexism. Professor Scruton argues that I base my ethics "on the wrong basis or from no basis at all" - but what is wrong with painience as a moral base?


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