Talk on the wild side

June 28, 1996

Animals can be eaten, worn and hunted and it is a misguided morality that assigns them rights, argues Roger Scruton. The religious worldview, which sees humanity as the high point of God's creation, and all other creatures as subservient to human purposes, no longer commands widespread assent. A long train of intellectual influences, from the Enlightenment to modern genetics, has led to the prevailing view that our species is superior only in its power, and not in its God-given authority.

People have therefore begun to worry about our relations to other animals, and to ask themselves whether we really have the right to exploit them as we do, for food, clothing and recreation. This moral question should not be regarded as an eccentric obsession of the movement for "animal rights"; on the contrary, it is a pressing imperative that has emerged in the postmodern landscape, and one with which all serious people should now be concerned.

It seems to me that those who have addressed the question in recent years - including such well-known writers as Peter Singer, Richard Ryder and Tom Regan - have begun their examination either from the wrong basis, or from no basis at all. It makes no sense to confer rights on creatures who are insensible of the benefit, who have no understanding of how to claim rights for themselves or to accord rights to others, and who have no conception of duty, responsibility or justice. It is absurd to describe our attitude to animals as "speciesist" - thereby implying a systematic form of unjust discrimination - when the privileges that we accord to human beings derive from their nature as moral beings, and not from their membership of the human species.

The moral argument must begin in metaphysics - from an exploration of the minds of animals, and the ways in which they resemble or differ from the minds of human beings. And the answer to the moral question about whether we have the right to exploit animals as we do must be sensitive to the many differences between the animals themselves, and to the many different relations between animals and humans. We have duties towards our pets, and towards other animals who depend on us for their well-being, which we do not have towards the pets of others, nor towards animals in the wild. The answer to the moral question will therefore vary with the circumstances. Those who think that it can be answered by noticing that animals suffer, and by applying some kind of utilitarian calculus to include their sufferings in the general audit, will find themselves wedded to paradoxical judgements.

The animals with which we are in daily contact - dogs, cats, horses and so on - are vitally different from us. Unlike them, we make free choices based on the conscious evaluation of alternatives. We assess and criticise one another's actions. We offer reasons for doing or not doing what another proposes. We exert over our lives a sovereignty which we require others to respect, and which we must respect in turn. In short, we are moral beings, with rights, duties, responsibilities and a general accountability to our kind. It is not easy to give a philosophical theory of the moral being without leaning on traditional religious conceptions. Nevertheless, I believe it can be done, and that, once the theory is given, we will see how misguided is a morality which assigns rights to the lower animals.

Moral judgement is a device through which we attempt to live by agreement with our fellows - whether friend or foe, intimate or stranger. Through the calculus of rights and duties we settle the terms of debate, and make negotiation, rather than force or fraud, into the means for resolving social conflict. A right is an interest that cannot be overridden without its owner's consent. We assign rights in order to protect the sovereignty of the individual. Until this protection is offered, the individual cannot be sure that negotiation is the wisest social strategy. But rights imply duties and responsibilities, which are the price of moral membership. Non-human animals are not, and cannot be, members of the moral community. Indeed it is cruel and ultimately senseless to treat them as though they were. The attempt to broker our relations with other species through concepts of rights and duties will lead inevitably to a breakdown of all cordial sentiment between us and them.

Nevertheless, there are moral constraints which apply to our dealings with animals. Morality has four related but distinguishable roots in the human psyche. First comes the calculus of rights and duties, not always recognised under that name, but exemplified in any durable community. Second comes sympathy and its specific form of benevolence. Sympathy is the motive that draws us into the community and makes it natural and rational to think in moral terms. Third is the distinction between vice and virtue - between the motives we despise and those we admire. Finally there is the motive which I call, following the Roman usage, piety - the disposition to recognise our frailty, and to acknowledge that we did not create the world but must receive it as a gift.

Although animals stand outside the moral community, they are nevertheless objects of moral concern. They make claims on our sympathy; we can distinguish virtuous and vicious ways of dealing with them: and piety requires that we abandon any title to deal with them purely as instruments or things.

But there is no single answer to the question of how we should treat the lower animals. Everything depends on the relation between us and them. Towards pets, for example, we have assumed a duty of care, in the very act that removes their capacity for independent life. We should treat pets as honorary members of the moral community; towards which we have special and individual duties. Thus I have a duty to my dog that I do not have to yours; when both dogs are threatened, it is mine and not yours that I first must save.

There are those who believe that it is wrong to eat animals. But I can find no grounds for this belief. After all, it is not necessarily wrong to eat human beings, provided they are already dead. 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. On the other hand, pigs, cattle, sheep and poultry reared in the right conditions are legitimate food. Indeed, it is arguable that we ought to eat them, since they depend for their very existence upon our doing so. Our second duty towards such animals is to provide them with a death involving no unnecessary pain. There is a problem, however, concerning what "unnecessary" means. The pain of ritual slaughter is necessary, if the animal is to be judged to be "clean" by those who are destined to eat it. Is this a sufficient excuse for ritual slaughter? I am inclined to think it is.

The case of wild animals is more problematic. They are as much objects of sympathy as any animals within our immediate sphere of responsibility; but we have assumed no individual duty of care towards any of them - to suppose otherwise is to suppose that they are no longer wild. I propose four principles for dealing with animals of this kind: we should strive to maintain the balance of nature upon which these animals depend; we are entitled nevertheless to interfere in the balance of nature to safeguard our own interests (for we too are part of the natural order); we should consult the interests of all animals involved (including humans); and any suffering that we cause should be the minimum necessary to our ends, and never an end in itself.

It is important to test such principles against controversial cases. The most obvious is angling. I dismiss the suggestion that fish feel neither fear nor pain. The capacity for pain and fear belong to the software and not to the hardware of an organism. Nevertheless anglers do not enjoy the fear and pain that they cause and are (or ought to be) kind to their quarry whenever this is possible. At the same time pain and fear are necessary for the existence of the sport. Its existence is justified by taking into consideration all the interests involved - those of the anglers, those of the fish, whose environment is protected in order that they should be hunted, and those of other species who depend upon a lively human interest in clean and thriving waterways. One could imagine a sadistic sport in which fish are extracted from the water and tortured with hooks, to the delighted squeals of onlookers. Morally speaking, such a sport is at the opposite end from angling, even though to the fish themselves there may be little discernible difference. Almost everything depends, in such a case, on our sense of the dividing line between innocent and vicious pleasures.

Similar considerations apply to fox hunting, which has the interesting feature that the pleasure involved is not experienced by humans only, but also - and to a far greater extent - by hounds and horses. This does not mean that foxes can be pursued anyhow. It only means that there are forms of the sport which can be engaged in by upright people acting in morally permissible ways.

At the same time, for various reasons, angling and hunting will always be controversial, and the question arises whether there should be legislation to ease the conscience of those who have qualms about their continued existence. Legislation must proceed from a basis of a complete understanding of the practice, and from a recognition that, where there is serious moral disagreement, and vital human interests are at stake. The law should not take sides. Angling and hunting could be compared to ritual slaughter. A minority pursuit engaged in by people who have no moral qualms about it should not be criminalised merely because a majority, without knowing why, disapproves of it.

Roger Scruton is a visiting professor at Birkbeck College, University of London, and former professor of philosophy, Boston University.

Animal Rights and Wrongs by Roger Scruton is published next week by Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London EC4.

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