From piety to a cosmic order

October 4, 1996

It would be a mistake to dismiss Roger Scruton's recent arguments on animals and their lack of rights as narrow and partisan, argues David Wiggins. Indeed they come in a framework that offers the prospect of a better debate.

In the recent pamphlet Animal Rights and Wrongs (Demos 1996), Roger Scruton puts the conservative or country outlook about animals on to a freshly considered basis, first in mental philosophy, the inquiry into the nature of the life, consciousness and awareness exemplified by ourselves and by animals, and then in moral philosophy, where Scruton expounds a position that puts together (in a way one might discuss on another occasion) elements from Kant, Hume and our ordinary moral consciousness. Interestingly, the emergent position, already strongly condemnatory of factory farming, is wide open to critical development - indeed so wide open that it may in the end be unrecognisable to ordinary conservative thinking.

Such applications of mental and moral philosophy will not have the character of theorems in geometry. But, if the argument were imaginatively and sensibly conducted, if the participants were prepared to ask whether they could live the convictions that they were about to shout from the roof-tops, then the concerns that emerged might have a power to unite thinking people. They might. But what would this require of the disputants?

First and foremost, perhaps, the willingness to deploy the full range of moral and political ideas available to us, and the willingness to respect their distinctness. Here, by considering in detail the idea of "a right", Scruton has made a serviceable beginning - first in the pamphlet and then in subsequent refinements (THES, August).

If the notion of a right is to have any content then it is best for "X has a right not be treated thus and so" to count as conveying a special and distinctive ground for its being wrong to treat X in that way. Compare the way in which Mary's ownership of that book grounds or explains the claim that it would be wrong to deprive her of it. Ownership, being the earliest kind of right, is still a useful abstract model of what is so special about the general concept. It is also a model of that which it presupposes, namely a community of persons who can recognise one another as owing to one another, and being owed by one another, various, however minimal, things, not least a duty to negotiate conflicts of interest.

What would it be like for animals to have full membership of such a community? In the National Gallery in London, one plausible answer to this question is vividly illustrated in a panel by the 15th-century painter Sassetta. A wolf terrorised the inhabitants of Gubbio. By the intervention of St Francis, an agreement is drawn up with the wolf and ratified in the presence of a notary. The inhabitants provide the wolf with food and the wolf ceases to molest the inhabitants.

This charming but unbelievable legend strikingly illustrates Scruton's answer, which is that we have to draw on the many grounds other than rights for condemning cruelty to animals. But how to determine the membership of the "moral community"? Does Scruton want to say that mental defectives, infants, senile persons, etc lie outside it? If so, does that mean that it is permissible for us to treat them as we wish? Countless correspondents ask this question.

In the pamphlet Scruton referred to "marginal human beings". In his article of August he emphasises instead that the thing that matters most in the case of infants, imbeciles and others is their human form. Whatever their disabilities, these are full members of the human kind. What is special about the human kind? Its characteristic members bear duties and responsibilities, negotiate and so on. From these typical members we take the mark of the kind. To the others "we extend the shield we consciously extend to each other, and that is built collectively through our moral dialogue".

Note that, if we do extend this shield, then these people are members, making the real problems they do make.

Controversies about animals and the environment also need to deploy a wider range of ideas. It is not as if any one idea could disburse everything that was needed for their resolution. And here, perhaps, Scruton's most important new contribution to pluralism is his attempt to remind his readers of something that he calls by the name of piety.

In Scruton's pamphlet piety is an idea he applies, by way of example, to the task of understanding better some of the things that were disregarded in the sequence of events that led up to BSE. The disposition of piety; a disposition at odds with rationalistic calculation, but still available to us, ought, at the outset and long before the advent of BSE, to have prompted human beings to stop short before feeding to cows, which live and thrive on pasture, the dead remains of their own and other species. Scruton takes the example as a vivid illustration of the reasonableness of feelings whose basis lies in the prerational but which fit us to flourish and find our purposes in a natural world not of our own making. There is an interesting and unexpected convergence here between Scruton's claim and the conceptual deficit that John Adams, the author of the remarkable study Risk (UCL Press, 1995), finds in officially received ways of making choices under conditions of ignorance.

"Piety". Has Scruton chosen the best word? Presumably he uses it because for the Romans pietas, directed towards parents and ancestors, was a cousin of religio and religio carried with it ideas of dread, of respect for the order of nature lying largely outside human knowledge or control, of reverence for the divine - a feeling inseparable from the fear that Romans took to be knit within us of nefas, the infraction of the divine law. The trouble with "piety", though, is that these resonances are no longer available to many people. Nor are they dialectically helpful, glossed just as they stand, when trying to reach the mind of anyone who derides the unease that Scruton thinks ought to have restrained us from rearing cows on feed made from dead cows and sheep, or who simply does not feel any sense of loss in the desecration of places. To build a car park within five miles of Stonehenge or make a road all the way to the temple at Bassae - numinous sacred places, can it help to say? - lest those anxious to see things should need to proceed on foot or be forced to carry the disabled thither by litter! Nefas! we cry. But at precisely the point where one most needs the idea of the sacred, in confrontation with someone of an utterly rationalistic cast of mind, there alas, the idea of the "sacred" is most impotent.

Perhaps it would be a modest beginning to try to confront those who resist the sort of considerations that Scruton assigns to piety with the full implications of their willingness to see the natural order and the palimpsest inscribed upon it by the efforts of all our human predecessors refashioned anywhere or everywhere in the image of our desires. To put it another way: do we wish to make our values answerable to our desires, or our desires answerable to our values?

Here there is a distinction to be made that is critical to environmental philosophy. Human values might be values that are validated as such by our scale - a scale it is not the environmentalist's or the traditionalist's business to propose that we transcend. Or they might be values that relate specifically to human interests or the interests of our moral community. As Bernard Williams points out in Making Sense of Humanity, these two construals do not come to the same thing. There exist countless values that human beings recognise which are not, in the second sense, human values. Consider the grandeur of the northern sky, the purity and utter alienness to us of the wilderness or its animals, the sublimity of Cheddar Gorge or Victoria Falls. Such things speak to us and their existence affects us powerfully - but without any reference to human interests. Unless we grasp this we shall degrade or domesticate them.

Back to Scruton. He has proposed a scheme in which there is room for Williams's distinction and room for neglected as well as familiar ethical and environmental ideas. Within such a scheme, conflicts of value and differences of opinion might be arbitrated, without antecedent certainty of the outcome, and human beings might reasonably see themselves and animals as having their places in a natural order that is simply a given. Critics can apply the scheme in their own way. Or they can try to discharge the same conceptual responsibilities in another way.

"A natural order". At this point the animal rights theorist will prick up his ears and ask: Does not Scruton's "piety" idea precisely restore the idea of animals having a right at least equal to our own to occupy the earth and lead lives of their own (not of our) choosing? Perhaps it does. But let it be noted that the order that comes into question here is a cosmic order, which then impinges through religio on our moral consciousness (or had better do so if the human race is not to perish in a paroxysm of attempted omnipotence). It is not a moral order that can of itself induce a moral community of all sentient beings between whom there can then be relations of duty or reciprocity. Of course, Buddhists, vegans, vegetarians and others might propose such a community. And Scruton's last THES statement on these questions suggests that he knows full well that, when sincere, lived out and followed through in all their exigency, such proposals must command respect. They do not admit of disproof. But in order to prevail, these views must mobilise new ethical and conceptual focus.

The strength of Scruton's initiative lies not so much in the particular shape that he has given to a country or conservative position on animal matters. It lies in the fact that he has placed questions about animals in a wider framework of thought and feeling, and shown, by example, the transforming effect of trying to think about these questions in the light of a more accurate, more closely observed description of the acts and intentions of people who live by the rural economy.

David Wiggins is Wykeham professor of logic at the University of Oxford.

Roger Scruton's view

The sources of morality emerge from four roots: the "calculus of rights and duties", the feelings of sympathy, the attitude to vice and virtue, and "piety". But rights belong only to creatures of a kind that may form "moral communities" established by dialogue and negotiation, in which the sovereignty of the individual is mutually recognised. Since animals lack the mental capacity to do this, they do not have rights. Our conduct towards them must therefore be governed by sympathy, the ethic of vice and virtue and piety. If we accept this then much that is regarded as right eg, factory farming) ought to be condemned, while much that is condemned is morally acceptable (eg hunting and the raising of animals for meat).

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