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ANIMAL RIGHTS DEBATE
Posted 1 April 2001
Animal Aid director Andrew Tyler debated animal rights in a recent issue of The Ecologist magazine with Professor Roger Scruton.
The debate takes the form of a series of six letters. You can read them all here...
Dear Andrew Tyler
Many people now take the view that the human species is not entitled to the dominion that it has so far asserted over all other species. They express this by saying that animals, like us, have rights. Hence many of the things that we do to animals are morally indefensible. I find myself agreeing with the conclusion, but not with the premise. The attribution of rights to animals seems to me to be a radical departure from the norms of moral argument; if taken seriously it would undermine our ability to make the important decisions that we now must make if animals in general, and wild animals in particular, are to enjoy a sustainable future.
The debate is not a trivial one. Advocates of animal rights are currently attempting to bankrupt a firm (Huntingdon Life Sciences) which uses animals for medical research; they have succeeded in banning fur farming in Britain, and are now hopeful that they can ban hunting with hounds. They intend, if successful, to ban shooting and angling, and no doubt there are those among them who would like to impose a strict regime of non-interference in the entire animal kingdom, whether the rest of us want it or not.
This intransigence is an inevitable result of the belief in rights. If I believe that you are denying someone his rights - to life, limb, property or freedom - then I am absolutely entitled to interfere on the victim's behalf. Rights may be relinquished - but only by the person who possesses them, and only if his action is entirely voluntary. The purpose of the concept of a right is to establish, around each individual, a sphere where that individual alone is sovereign. Hence your right is my duty, and if I disregard your rights I both wrong you and also do what is wrong.
Why should we have such a concept? Surely, because we wish to live in a condition of mutual freedom and mutual respect. The concept of a right derives from legal ways of thinking, and serves as the individual's shield against oppression. All calculation stops at the threshold where you are sovereign, and it is to mark out this threshold that we deploy the concept of a right. Some philosophers believe that there are both positive rights - which are laid down by a legal code - and natural rights - which are inherent in our condition as rational agents. And it is this idea of a natural right that is invoked by those who argue for the rights of animals. Natural rights are those like the rights to life, limb and freedom, the violation of which is tantamount to a declaration of war.
Let us suppose that animals do have rights; what follows? Surely, the very least that follows is that it is wrong to kill them, to eat them, to keep them as pets, to make them suffer in any way that is not to their individual benefit - and wrong in just the way that it is wrong to do any of this to a human being. That is what the activists say they believe. But do they really believe it? Are they prepared to say that my attempts to rid my barn of rats are tantamount to mass murder? That people who keep cats are complicitous in serial killing? That my keeping a horse in his stable is a case of false imprisonment? That my digging the garden involves the negligent slaughter of innocent worms, beetles and moles? Which activities involving animals would be permitted, and on what grounds?
But there is a more important consequence of rights-talk from the environmental point of view. To invoke rights is to accord absolute respect to the individual, and to give him precedence over collective calculations whenever his vital interests are at stake. Hence the sick, the deformed, and the genetically impaired have just the same rights as the healthy and the strong. If animals have rights you have no more right to kill a sick, wounded or genetically impaired individual than you have to kill its healthy companion. All attempts at managing wildlife populations by encouraging healthy breeding and eliminating the carriers of diseases would be ruled out on moral grounds. It would also be morally impossible to intervene in nature to re-establish the ecological balance - say by culling an over-abundant predator population, by controlling parasites and pests, or by capturing animals and moving them to favourable breeding grounds.
Of course, if we lived in virgin forests as hunter-gatherers (itself morally impossible for the animal rights activist), we could reasonably assume that the ecological balance would restore itself over our footsteps. But we do not live like that. The environment is now our concern, something to be managed and restored by human ingenuity, and no longer able to restore itself unaided. To believe in the rights of animals we should have to relinquish that task, and allow animal populations to find what niche they can in the human sprawl. Good for rats and crows perhaps; but not for apes or fish or songbirds.
Dear Roger Scruton
You betray some panic over the inroads made by animal advocates. You complain that taking seriously the concept of animal rights represents a radical departure from 'the norms of moral argument', as though those often sterile, centuries-old 'norms' adequately serve us now or ever did. Your notion of the absolute sovereignty of the human individual is a picture book romance, a conceit that has as much substance as candyfloss. More on this later.
You're panicked about the campaign successes relating to Huntingdon Life Sciences (a morally, scientifically and near-financially bankrupt company); about the fur farming ban; and about further ambitions in the direction of bloodsports. These successes do not arise because animal rights people have doped the nation's drinking water - but out of a rational objection to pointless animal abuse and a rejection of the flimsy justifications offered by those who orchestrate those abuses. The successes have come, notwithstanding a national media that, in the main, ardently promotes the status quo and which characterises effective dissent as mad and dangerous.
In such a climate, animal rights campaigners cannot possibly impose anything on the majority. Yet recent opinion polls show that most people oppose bloodsports, that vegetarianism is increasingly popular and that even opinion about animal experiments is finely balanced, despite ceaseless promotion of vivisection by the powerful scientific establishment, backed by government.
These poll showings indicate incipient, rather than grounded, support for the rights argument. It is the ambition of people like myself to encourage people into thinking further and acting accordingly - for example, into foregoing the enfeebled products of intensive animal farming and voicing opposition to vivisection - a practice that is a scientific nonsense, as well as an abuse of power, given that research data obtained from animals cannot be reliably applied to human beings.
I referred earlier to your invocation of the absolute sovereignty of the human individual. You say that this 'sovereignty' can be relinquished only voluntarily by the holder and that we are collectively bound (as individuals) to defend each other's rights. Where in the world, ever, has this seminar-room notion ever been played out? Western armed forces recently bombed Baghdad, killing many innocents, because Saddam's regime wouldn't accede to inspections of its weapons facilities. I publicly objected. Did you? The street children of Rio are shot dead, with government complicity, because they interfere with the tourist trade. A multinational pharmaceutical company arranged for a number of children to stand in a field in Egypt and be sprayed with an experimental pesticide so that it could collect toxicity data.
These are not unrepeatable travesties. This is the way of the world. The status quo is corrupt. The mighty trample the weak. Greed is rewarded. Decent sentiments are ever present but they are not sufficiently nurtured and celebrated by those at the commanding heights.
Yes, the notion of rights for human beings does exist thanks to centuries of struggle by oppressed groups. But while they are sacrosanct in the minds of some philosophers and in worthy pan-national Declarations, they truly exist only for so long as, and to the extent that, the subject groups can defend them.
Though they are deserving of them, non-human animals have precious few rights, even in theory. In law they are property. There are certain rules about how we may exploit, kill and consume animals. But protection for animals stops at the point where we, as the exploiting species, are seriously inconvenienced or deprived of profit or pleasure.
The modern animal rights movement is concerned to address this situation and demonstrate that, just as commercial, cultural and intellectual life thrived in Britain after we gave up trading in Africans, so there is a positive future without exploiting animals.
You must appreciate that ours is a practical movement. Our heads are not up our fundaments. We seek, first of all, to demonstrate what is often denied: that hundred of millions of animals every year in Britain alone are unwarranted victims of human commerce and culture - and that this occurs because animals have the status of mere objects. We promote ways of living that eschew the flesh, secretions and skins of animals. We repudiate the trade in 'pets' (give a home to a sanctuary animal instead!) and oppose leisure pursuits that depend on harrying and/or demeaning other species. While it is impossible in this imperfect world to live an immaculate life, the first principle should be: do as little harm as possible.
Let me now deal with this nonsense about 'human ingenuity' being needed
to ensure a sustainable future.
This has come to mean scapegoating a range of 'alien' or commercially inexpedient species (from grey squirrels to badgers) for our own reckless excesses. The record shows that we fail when we try to poison and shoot our way to environmental harmony.
The record also shows that the only rational approach to take is to curb our own destructive appetites and to concede actual territory to non-human animals - not least to those from whom we are able to extract no obvious, or immediate advantage.
The notion of a right, I suggested, is an expression of the sovereignty that human beings claim over their own lives, and is only doubtfully applied to creatures who do not understand moral ideas, and who have no conception of their duties. You dismiss this as a 'seminar-room notion', without, however, proposing any alternative definition. The only intellectual enlightenment that I can glean from your response is that animals have rights because you say so. But you don't tell me which rights, which animals, or what this permits or forbids us to do to them. I would ask you again whether the killing of a rat is murder? If not, why not?
You seem keen to attribute 'panic' to me, which makes it sound as though you were offering not arguments but threats. I am far from disputing the claim that people abuse animals, but if this is to give grounds for condemnation we need to be much clearer than you are prepared to be about the nature of moral judgement. You ridicule my reference to the norms of moral argument, but your reply would be a mere tissue of self-serving emotion if it did not have a moral base. By attributing rights to animals you are making a moral judgement: but I contend that you are making it in the wrong terms, and that the consequences of doing so are intellectual and moral confusion.
You say that it is 'nonsense' to suggest that human ingenuity is needed to ensure a sustainable future. But, however badly we have managed things up to now, there is still no doubt in my mind that the answer is not no management at all but better management. I believe that the animals on our farm are in a more sustainable equilibrium since we shot the magpies and crows that were eating the young of other birds, that the cows are more healthy since we got rid of the rats (not by poisoning, I hasten to add), that the voles and the carp have a better deal since the mink-hounds came. You may disapprove of these forms of management, but without them there would be very little bio-diversity here above the level of insect-life, and that too needs management. Even in your Vegan utopia, crops would have to be protected from pests, and bio-diversity maintained by intervention.
Of course, if animals have rights then everything I have just described is morally wrong - indeed, morally impossible. You may think that, but since you have given no argument for it, and since I believe that the consequences of laissez faire would now be bad not only for us but for animals too, I reject your conclusion. It is good to feel sympathy for animals, to protect them and to do what you can to provide for their needs. But this does not alter the fact that it is we who do these things, because we live in a world that we control. To relinquish that control is merely to opt out of our principal responsibility. And it will not benefit the animals, even if it makes us feel good about them.
Of course animals are not 'mere objects'. They are sentient beings, towards whom we have real obligations. I sympathise with your aversion to the trade in pets, partly because I think it encourages people to see animals as persons, and so to degrade both themselves and their pets. And like you I would like to see more territory conceded to the animals. But this conceding of territory would be a form of management too, with people making all the important choices, and interfering to maintain things when pests, diseases or forest fires become a threat.
How odd! I set out an unequivocal case for non-violence against people and animals and you suggest I'm offering you 'threats'. Perhaps you've been reading too many Daily Telegraph leader columns - or writing them.
The panic I detected seemed to be rooted in your unease at the way the world is changing beneath your feet. The old conceits are fast unravelling - eg that killing animals for pleasure, money, or out of expediency is somehow a noble project.
The rights I would accord non-human animals are the rights not to be killed by humans - except unwittingly or in self-defence. Also, freedom from torture and exploitation. Those rights would extend to all species, which on the balance of the evidence, are sentient. I'm not concerned to judge and police other species in regard to their dealings with each other. Those who attempt such things have shown they have neither the requisite competence nor the vision. Besides, while some animals might kill others, they don't have our species' capacity for grandly choreographed, industrialised destruction.
Is killing a rat murder? Rats usually proliferate because people provide unguarded food sources. I know many animal rights people who farm, run factories and other businesses and are able to discourage unwelcome animals by non-violent means. Killing is lazy and nearly always futile: the vacuum left by the slain animal is filled by another, unless preventive measures are taken. So yes, killing a rat is unwarranted and immoral. But apply the term murder and, because of cultural conditioning, people react rather than think. So I wouldn't use it. But consider this: if someone encourages another to kill my child, most people would see that as aiding and abetting a murder. But what if a person publicly endorses a policy of aerial bombing that kills children (all of them sovereign, according to your formulation) thousands of miles away. Is that also aiding and abetting? My answer is yes, but distance and cultural bubblewrap get in the way.
The case I've set out rests on a simple guiding principle, which I've already enunciated: do as little harm as possible. That is the test I would always apply, whilst appreciating that none of us can tread the earth without doing some damage.
The case you've set out against animal rights, it seems to me, rests on a pernicious conceit. It is that the world's flora and fauna benefits from human beings' 'stewardship'. The stewardship you favour involves identifying various problem species and slaughtering them; and identifying other species as having utility (cattle, sheep, cows, chickens, pheasants) and producing them in vast numbers, then killing them for food or sport.
The world resulting from such stewardship is polluted, over-heated, and
unequal. It is locked into an unsustainable food production system that
produces diseased animals and has seen the death of forests, the uprooting
of thousands of miles of hedgerow, the prolific use of toxic chemicals
and the imperilling of numerous species of songbird, mammal and fish,
as well as a host of wildflowers and other plant life.
One of your favourite themes is that animals are not part of a 'moral community'. They are undeserving of rights because they have no duties or responsibilities. Clearly, you have much to learn about the richness of animal culture - of animals' powerful social bonds, their capacity for grief and sensual pleasure, their ability to think strategically and work co-operatively. The magpie feels no duty towards you, but then why should he? You want him dead.
Rights protect the individual, not the species. By attributing rights to animals, therefore, we tie our hands when it comes to the great environmental questions that now confront us. You think that our hands ought to be tied: since animals have rights, then all culling, even of the diseased and the dangerous, is morally impossible.
You believe that animals have the 'right not to be killed by humans', but you do not judge and police other species. Presumably therefore you don't believe that a mouse has a 'right not to be killed by a cat'. I take this to show that all this talk of rights is so much hot air. What you are really describing is the duties of humans, not the rights of animals.
You refer to the 'richness of animal culture', and (in certain cases) this is an apt description - even of the rats in our ditches (which do not proliferate because we leave unguarded food, as you would like to believe). But that does not imply that animals organise their lives by moral principles, or that they blame and condemn each other as we do (and as you do preeminently), or that they settle their disputes by judgement and law. It is because we respond to the call of duty that we can be, and ought to be, stewards of our environment, and not just one competing species among many.
The world is polluted and over-heated not because of stewardship but because of bad stewardship. If everybody thought as you do, this would, I believe, simply entrench the position of humanity as the dominant species, while leaving all others to fend for themselves in a constantly dwindling habitat. It is fair enough to live by the principle 'Do as little harm as possible', in a world that is in a state of ecological balance. But that is not our world. I would prefer to say, when it comes to questions of the environment, 'Do as much good as possible'. That may mean also doing harm, and not only to rats.
You equate culling with 'stewardship' and still fail to acknowledge the mess we've made in this area. You suggest, instead, that all will be remedied by a bit of sensible tweaking.
Fewer mice - and birds - would be killed by cats if cats weren't mass produced for the pet industry. I don't believe, in any case, that you are remotely concerned about crimes against mice by cats. Your concern is that the extension of rights to animals would mean a curtailment of the freedom that people of your disposition currently enjoy to exploit and kill.
I clipped a book review you wrote for The Times in December 1996. The volume, by a 'pious Catholic' and public school Classics master, described the author's 'sporting' exploits in Cumbria. You wrote approvingly of his 'defiant celebration of the act of killing fish and birds in quantities that far surpass his gastronomic capacity I find nothing strange' you declared, 'in the fact that these activities should be the high point of someone's life, and the object of powerful religious feelings.'
You tell me that your objective is to 'do as much good as possible'. Is this an example?
The movement for animal rights is another chapter in the history of social progress movements that has included the abolition of human slavery and the enfranchisement of women and the 'lower orders'. That Animal Aid recognises the continuity of such struggles is evidenced by the Living Without Cruelty Exhibition we staged in March 2000. Oxfam, Amnesty, World Development Movement, and Fairtrade Foundation were among the participants.
The animal rights movement is inclusive of anyone whose goal is a new, fairer deal for animals. Our view is that it is better to go part of the way towards a cruelty-free lifestyle than obstruct the way forward with blinkered and inconsistent hostility.
Roger Scruton has claimed that a review he wrote for The Times of a book on hunting and shooting was misquoted in the debate you've just read. We maintain that his words and meaning were conveyed entirely accurately. See for yourself. Here's Scruton's letter of complaint and The Times review itself.