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Roger Scruton, the foxhunting philosopher has written a new book on Animal Rights and Wrongs. He talked with Anja Steinbauer about Kant, duties and pet rabbits.
Before we talk about the philosophical issues involved in the discussion of animal welfare, may I ask you whether you had any personal experiences relating to animals which have motivated you to write this book or informed your judgement, or is this purely the distanced work of an ethical theorist?
A loaded question! I hunt, which is the thing that first made me take an interest in all this; obviously there is an argument about hunting which has put these issues into the public domain. I never saw anything morally wrong with hunting but I realised that many people did and still do. So I concluded that I ought to look into the arguments and see exactly how I should approach the matter. That started me off. Partly because of hunting I live in the country and keep animals. I keep horses, and have started to have close relations with the neighbouring animals, including the wild animals: foxes, badgers and all the other things you have to learn to deal with for the sake of good husbandry. This is recent, I have to say. Only in the last ten years has it all been thrown at me: the huge question of how in general one should relate to these other creatures, the great differences between creatures, and the great differences in our relations with them.
In recent years, far more books have been published about ethics than about any other field of philosophy, many of them addressing moral problems which we are faced with either for the first time – such as genetic engineering – or of which we have only recently become aware. Among the latter are the questions relating to our responsibility to the natural environment, and to animals. In your work you mention thinkers such as Peter Singer and Tom Regan who first brought these issues to the general attention. This debate, though it has been around since the 1970’s, is sufficiently recent to be still in need of further basic clarification. In writing your latest book, what was the distinct contribution that you wanted to make?
Naturally I’ve read Singer and Regan and the other people who have got involved in this issue, and related issues like the environment, as you mentioned. I was struck most of all by the lack of any metaphysical basis for their ethical views. Everything was conjured out of a hat, usually a utilitarian hat, although in the case of Tom Regan all kinds of hats seem to be used. But in none of the thinkers I read was there any real attempt to address the issue of what constitutes the difference between human and animal life and also the similarity between them. Or is there no relevant difference? And given that the tradition of moral philosophy which I think is the most respectable in the modern world, namely that initiated by Kant, and taken further by Hegel in his Phenomenology of Spirit, is fundamentally metaphysically based, I thought this was a culpable oversight. It really is necessary for a philosopher either to say why that tradition is irrelevant or to produce an alternative which makes it irrelevant. And there isn’t in the existing literature any attempt to do either of those things. My book is addressed partly to the professional philosopher but also to the general reader, so I don’t go into all the ins and outs of the metaphysical questions. But I do try to make clear that there are radical metaphysical differences between human beings and animals which partly explain, even if they don’t justify, the differences in treatment that we mete out.
In your introduction you state that much of the confusion concerning the ethical aspects of animal welfare has a ‘metaphysical cause’. What does this mean, and how can we overcome this confusion?
Metaphysical confusions are very difficult to overcome and the best solution is not to have them in the first place. One of the purposes of religion, after all, is to keep metaphysical confusions out of your life. Religion acts as an impenetrable barrier to metaphysical confusion. The only problem is that if you start asking too many questions about it, it produces more confusion of its own. But it’s the lack of that religious basis in modern societies which makes it impossible to keep this metaphysical confusion at a distance. So we have to try and think through the question of what makes us moral beings: why is it that you and I question what is right and what is wrong, whereas a dog or a worm doesn’t ask that question. Kant would say that it is because we have transcendental freedom, as he calls it, which gives us the absolute right and also the absolute duty to choose what to do on the basis of reason alone. And he develops that metaphysical picture in the greatest work of philosophy that exists, the Critique of Pure Reason and also in the Critique of Practical Reason. Ultimately, however, it’s not possible to accept Kant’s theory, at least in the form in which he puts it. But it is possible to reconstruct it in a form which is acceptable to somebody who lives in our post-Darwinian world. We can make a distinction between animals that have choices and animals which just have desires. We are of the first kind. We can make a distinction between pure practical reason, when we are thinking in terms of right and wrong, and applied practical reason, when we are talking in terms of utility. These distinctions depend upon the possibility of a certain kind of moral dialogue. And that’s what I try to spell out. I argue that this distinguishes our situation and that of the animals: unlike them we make choices, have values and long-term hopes, judge and are judged, and – as a result of all this – see the world in terms of right, duty and responsibility, and not just in terms of desire and need.
Although it is very difficult for us of course to make any statements about the constitution of the animal mind.
It is, but I think this is one area in which philosophers have made progress. Small progress. Descartes famously thought that animals don’t have minds, because they are not conscious – they are a kind of machine. Descartes was not happy with that thought but he didn’t know what to put in the place of it. I think philosophy of mind, since it started taking an externalist vision of the subject, seeing the human mind from the outside, has come to accept that the mind consists of various levels of development not just evolutionarily but also metaphysically. There are animals that just have sensations, like molluscs and so on, and there are animals that also have emotions; furthermore there are animals that have beliefs and learning and so on. There is a hierarchy of mental capacities, and this fact can be made relatively clear even to the non-philosophical reader, who may be persuaded to agree that there is a qualitative step,or a transition from quantity to quality, when you finally pass from the world of animals into the moral sphere. We have entered that sphere; most animals that we deal with haven’t. There are dubious cases like elephants and dolphins and chimpanzees, but as I say in the book, the very fact that they are dubious is proof of this distinction, not a refutation of it.
So what are the consequences for the way we should treat animals? You quite rightly say that under religious systems as far as we can tell animals are excluded from the community of ends in themselves, in that they are not moral beings themselves. But what does this mean for our treatment of them?
This is a good question. How we ought to treat animals depends first of all on the relationship we have with them. And our relationships with animals are not all of one kind. I distinguish three generally different kinds of relations, although there are more than those three. There is first of all our relation with pets, who are promoted to honorary membership of the moral community so to speak. They are an exception, in a sense a perversion, and a temptation too. Then there is our relation with animals that we keep for our uses, where we have a clear duty of care but we are not trying to establish quasi-personal relations. Then finally there is our relation with animals in the wild. My argument is that we have duties to animals in all these three areas but they are of a different kind depending on the structure of the relationship.
And why does the relation of these animals as moral clients to us as moral agents, why should that determine their ‘rights’?
I think it’s a general principle that your obligations even in the human sphere depend upon the relations with the recipient. For instance you have a duty to look after your children which is different from any duty you have towards other people’s children, because they are yours. And the structure of this relationship of dependency determines the kind of duties involved. Until we are clear about our spheres of responsibility, we have no conception of what our duties are. And the same is true with animals. I have a responsibility to my pet dog, which I don’t have to some starving dog in India. Or to take a more obvious example, my pet rabbit. I could feed that rabbit to the hungry fox in the field. But that would be doing a very great wrong, because that rabbit is entirely dependent on me for its well-being. But it is not a great wrong to allow other, wild, rabbits to breed in my field and be eaten by the fox. These are commonsense observations but it is very important to be clear about them and keep to the distinctions also clear. Otherwise we end up thinking of wild animals in the way that we do of our pets, as many people do, and this is not, I argue, beneficial to the wild animals themselves.
Even in the human realm, as you say, it makes sense to treat those closer to us with greater care and to assume more obligations towards them. But in the human realm there is this underlying structure of humans all being ends in themselves and therefore there is a certain standard we can’t transgress. In the animal realm there isn’t such a structure in place…
Yes, I make this point by saying that in the human realm, the realm of moral beings, there is a calculus of rights and duties whereby we regulate our affairs. This means that we attribute to each other rights and therefore sovereignty over our lives; hence there are certain things we cannot do to each other unless with consent. And we bargain with each other on the strength of this. Each person occupies the privileged position defined by his rights and works out his duties towards others accordingly. And this means that we have a way, which animals don’t have, of getting through life by negotiation. Law is one expression of this. So too is the moral law – I think Kant was right about that. This negotiation from a position of sovereignty is something that animals cannot do. It is why their lot is a tragic one. It is also something that makes life for us so wonderful, that we can negotiate our passage through the world of strangers and take pleasure in each other. Animals either have to be intimately together in a herd or else they are objects of alarm and fear to each other.
The title of your book Animal Rights and Wrongs suggests, and this also emerges as part of your argument in it, that animals don’t have rights, in the way in which human beings do, though we, as moral agents, can do right or wrong by them. Could you explain to our readers in what sense this applies?
I want to say that when people refer to animal rights, either they are making a mistake about the nature of animals, or they are using this word ‘rights’ in a very loose way to refer to our duties towards animals. If animals really have rights in the way that we do, then they have to be fully part of the moral realm, the realm of negotiation. Therefore, they must be accorded not only the benefits of morality, but also the burdens, which are huge. Cats would have to be treated as serial killers, for a start. And we don’t want to inflict the penalties on them that that would imply.
You do write about animal welfare not only in philosophical books but also in the newspapers – you have published very widely. What would you ideally like to achieve? A change in public awareness of the issue, or perhaps a change in legislation, or is the theorizing about these matters what is important to you and then others can implement it or not?
I have enjoyed theorizing about this issue because it is virgin territory for me. But to be quite honest I would much rather be thinking about problems in the theory of music. I was woken from my dogmatic slumbers by people like Peter Singer, and also by the animal rights movement and the threat that it posed to my way of life. And not only to my way of life but to my neighbours’ way of life, because I live among farmers. Some of them of course are hunters as well, but the lives of all of them are under threat from adverse legislation, often motivated by confusions about animal welfare. So the reason that I write in the newspapers is that I do want to influence public opinion.
Can we just briefly come back to this issue of hunting? In the light of what you have said about the ethical theory behind your ideas, how do you then justify hunting?
The question “how do you justify hunting?” to me is like “how do you justify marriage?” You can criticise hunting, as you can criticise the institution of marriage, but to someone who is into it, it is so obviously a legitimate and fundamentally peaceful way of interacting with the animal kingdom that you can’t see what is wrong with it. Of course there is suffering involved, not in the death so much, because death from a pack of hounds is more or less instantaneous, but in the pursuit. There is on average nineteen minutes, they say, of running, and therefore of fear. Now that is a lot, though perhaps no more than wild animals experience on a daily basis. However, for the most part the animal gets away, since hunting is governed by an ethic of fair play, like fishing, and this gives the fox the best opportunity to save himself. People say that hunting is wrong because it involves taking pleasure in the sufferings of an animal. I would say that hunting is no different from fishing, eating meat or shooting: you take pleasure in the activity, but not in the suffering, which you try to minimize. I recognise hunting is a highly controversial case. In the end you must simply point out to people that when there is a substantial disagreement about a moral question you shouldn’t legislate one side of it only.
So in the sense that the fox – I suppose that we are talking about fox hunting – belongs to the third group of animals, animals of the wild in terms of remoteness and closeness of course they are the farthest away, so our moral obligation is the smallest to them.
I would say that our moral obligation is not towards the individual but towards the species. We still have a duty to maintain habitats and not drive other species to extinction.
But it would be wrong, say, to hunt a cat?
If it was a tame cat, yes. But a wild cat, no. Certainly if you had a reason to… and people do, after all. If there really were serious threats posed to livestock by wild cats, and there have been, then it would be perfectly reasonable to hunt them.
Finally, let me say how much I enjoyed reading your book as a rigorous philosophical work concerning a current problem of humanity. I was, however, surprised to read a short internet review of your book which concluded with the following statement: “…the book is, more subtly, an English philosopher’s patriotic contribution to the current debate about Englishness.”
Yes, I was surprised by that too. I think it has nothing to do with Englishness. But I did write another little book – a personal memoir on hunting – which is about Englishness as well, so perhaps they confused the two. And maybe the underlying point is this. Our country, more than any other country in Europe, identifies itself through the countryside. Indeed the English countryside is the only icon of national identity which is publicly acknowledged and permitted. The common law, Parliament and the monarchy are controversial. But the countryside stands at a higher level and is untouchable. In that sense the book is well timed. Our countryside is threatened by a lack of understanding of the relations between those who maintain it and the animals among which they live. Episodes like the BSE crisis show that people have not understood the nature of cattle farming, or its vital connection to the rural community and therefore to the landscape. Landscapes are man-made. Ours was made by mixed farming and field sports, and both are threatened by the pressure for ‘animal rights’.
So does this mean that being English and being in the situation that you are, you are just better equipped to identify the problems, or does it perhaps mean to a degree that the ethical statements that we make about animal welfare may be culturally relative?
They are certainly culturally influenced. The English are famous for their kindness towards animals on the whole, in comparison with other European nations. To that extent this kind of argument is more likely to interest people in England than it would in Spain or Italy. I’m not a cultural relativist, nevertheless. I think that in the end moral truths are truths for everyone.
I think I agree. Professor Scruton, thank you for this interview.
• Animal Rights and Wrongs by Roger Scruton is published by Metro Books at £12.99 ISBN 1900512815