Nonsense upon stilts. Animals are the last great "victim class". Edward Skidelsky finds the arguments for animal rights sentimental, self-serving and intellectually unsound

Animal Rights and Wrongs

Roger Scruton <em>Metro, 206pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 1898309191


"Animal liberation", claims Richard Ryder, "is possibly unique among liberation movements in the extent to which it has been led and inspired by professional philosophers." The case for animal rights is ethical, not economic, so it is natural that its defence should fall to philosophers. But, despite such highbrow leadership, the reasoning of the animal rights movement has been generally poor. Arguments are plucked from a whole variety of intellectual traditions - utilitarianism, natural rights, Christianity, Marxism, eastern mysticism - with little regard for consistency. Francis of Assisi, Jeremy Bentham and Buddha have been posthumously co-opted by the cause. This intellectual sloppiness is tolerated because the covert appeal is to the heart, not the head. Provided that the heart is in the right place, any old argument will do.

Peter Singer, who is generally re-garded as the intellectual leader of the animal rights movement, has remained faithful to the utilitarianism of his influential 1975 tract, Animal Liberation. Classical utilitarians argue that all human beings are entitled to an equal consideration of interests, because all are equally capable of experiencing pleasure and pain. Singer simply extends this argument to animals. Animals with a central nervous system should be considered on an equal basis with humans, because they, too, are able to experience pleasure and pain. In the great "felicific calculus", they are each to "count for one and no more than one".

On its own terms, this argument is elegantly conclusive, and this is, no doubt, one reason for its appeal. But what an impoverishment of moral reasoning it displays!

Over the past three decades, philosophers have come to appreciate that the sources of obligation are far more complex and specific than is recognised by classical utilitarianism. We are bound, from the moment of birth, by ties of gratitude and sympathy. These ties forbid us to treat all humans - let alone all sentient beings - on equal terms. Put crudely, we don't "owe" them all the same. To put a stray dog on the same footing as your brother, simply because both are sensitive to pain, would be not only eccentric, but also wicked. For these and other reasons, utilitarianism has fallen out of favour among philosophers. However, it continues to be the main ideology of the animal rights movement. Ah well, if the heart is in the right place . . .

The utilitarian calculus lacks popular appeal, as well as philosophical credibility, and perhaps this is why Singer and others deck it out in the trendier idiom of "rights" and "liberation". Animals are the last great "victim class". They must be redeemed from exploitation, defended against discrimination, liberated from "speciesism". The purpose of such language is to make the old progressive heart beat faster. With so many of the former battles now won, activists are casting around for new opportunities to arouse moral indignation. Animals are perfectly suited to gratify our desire for moral pathos. Unlike humans, they cannot refuse our solicitude.

What Singer, Ryder, Hilda Kean and others forget is that the rhetoric of rights derives from a tradition directly opposed to that of classical utilitarianism. Bentham called natural rights "nonsense upon stilts"; and, from his point of view, he was correct. To possess a right, one must be a member, or at least a potential member, of a community of consent. A morality of rights is grounded in freedom and rationality, these being the attributes that allow a person to give or withhold consent. If you believe, with Bentham, that the basis of morality is not freedom or rationality, but the central nervous system, then any talk of rights - let alone animal rights - is bound to appear "nonsense upon stilts".

When challenged by Kenan Malik in a recent debate in Prospect magazine, Singer immediately retracted the word "right", claiming that he was using the term merely as "shorthand for the kind of protection that we give to all members of our species". But, as Malik subsequently pointed out, to grant someone a right to x is by no means the same thing as to protect that person against not-x. A right is an active possession, not a passive bequest. It is something you can assert or forgo; something you can defend or relinquish. Animals cannot fight for their rights, still less can they forgo them. To grant rights to animals would be to empty that term of what little meaning it still possesses.

Talk of "animal liberation" is even more absurd than talk of "animal rights". The notion of collective liberation is vaguely Marxist in origin, and thus still further removed from the tradition of classical utilitarianism, but that doesn't stop Singer and others from using it. But how exactly would you go about liberating a herd of dairy cattle? Or a domestic cat? Relations between human beings and animals are necessarily unequal, in virtue of our hugely superior intelligence. Our species is master of all others, and has been for many millennia. For domestic and farmyard animals, the only realistic choice is either to exist on terms dictated by us, or not to exist at all. This is now true even of wild animals. Lions and tigers are permitted to indulge their traditional way of life in subsidised, patrolled enclosures, so as to provide entertainment for tourists and wildlife photographers. These enclosures are, in effect, vast zoos. There is something sad about all this, but how could it be otherwise? Humans have won the struggle for power; all that remains for us, as Ryder himself admits, is to be "magnanimous in victory". "Animal liberation" is a phrase without meaning.

But here we touch on the real appeal of the animal rights movement, which has nothing to do with utilitarianism or any other philosophy. It is guilt - the guilt of the victors. We cannot restore to animals the fierce independence that we have taken from them, and so we console ourselves with the fantasy that we can "defend their rights" or "liberate" them. Having deprived animals of their truly animal nature, we now wish to endow them with a spurious human nature. The name for this is sentimentality; indeed, sentimentality is the general name for emotions that have their origin in guilt. Sentimentality inevitably hurts its object. The minks that were "liberated" from a fur farm by protesters last year will have to be shot, because they have no place in the environment that we have created. We should accept that animals can never be anything more than our dependants, and should treat them as kindly as possible within the terms of this relationship.

This paternalism is in the tradition of all three monotheistic religions. God grants Adam "dominion" over the animals. Our power over nature is constitutional, not autocratic. Animals are placed under our rule, but we are not free to do with them as we want. The erosion of religious belief - and, with it, the restraint implicit in the term "dominion" - is partly responsible for the current disorder in our relationship with animals. On the one hand, we believe that nature exists purely to serve our ends, or at least this is the belief implicit in practices such as battery farming. On the other hand, we console ourselves with the fantasy of animal rights. Sentimentality and cruelty, as it has often been pointed out, go hand in hand.

Roger Scruton, in his helpful book Animal Rights and Wrongs, adopts the word "piety" to describe the traditional belief that nature is not merely to be used for our own purposes, but has a value in and of itself. Piety can sound faintly nauseating; I once heard the Russian Orthodox priest Anthony Bloom describe one of his former parishioners as "appallingly pious". Scruton indulges in some appalling piety of his own, especially in the appendix on fox-hunting. For a more authentic sense of piety before nature, you have to read Gerald Manley Hopkins's superb sonnet that begins "The world is charged with the grandeur of God".

But what would a sense of piety before nature imply in practice? Karen Armstrong tells an amusing story in her recent book The Battle for God. In the 1930s, a group of religious Zionists approached Rabbi Karlitz with a query. They wanted to farm the Holy Land in accordance with the Torah. Did this mean that they should let it lie fallow every seventh year, as the law enjoined? In modern conditions, such methods clearly had no economic justification. The rabbi replied that this was precisely the point. "The sabbatical year was designed to celebrate the holiness of the land, to make Jews aware that, like all sacred objects, it was essentially separate from the needs and desires of individuals. The land was not to be exploited by Jews for their own benefit, milked for increased productivity, or subjected to cost-effective projects."

This is a nice illustration of the meaning of piety. To act with piety towards nature is to treat it as an end in itself, to place it beyond all considerations of rational self-interest. But the story also indicates the limitations of piety. Piety is not only a religious attitude; it is also an attitude defined by the observances of a particular religious tradition. What is pious to an Orthodox Jew is merely eccentric to a Christian. It is not clear that piety, as a guide to action rather than a mere sentiment, can survive the decline of organised religion. Scruton appeals to a generalised concept of piety, one that is not merely ecumenical, or even specifically religious. But can such a thin sense of piety generate anything more than sub- Wordsworthian raptures on "the unfathomable mysteries that surround our coming to be and our passing away"? To rectify our relationship with the animal kingdom, we need something tougher than bad prose.

Edward Skidelsky's reviews appear monthly in the NS

This article first appeared in the 05 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Driving back to happiness

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.