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