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From the NS archive: Blood sports

23 July 1949: If it is killing and giving pain that you object to, you had better give up trying to live.

By Clive Bell

Here the English art critic Clive Bell writes about the lack of “rational arguments” on both sides of the blood sports debate. As he understands it, the philosophical reason for condemning blood sports is that they give pleasure, and it is this that gives ethical significance to the action. “If it is killing and giving pain that you object to, you had better give up trying to live,” he writes – walking through a field, for example, it is impossible not to maim some insects. But enjoying it is different. Bell shoots game and admits that “a part, not all, but a part of my pleasure in shooting is derived from killing”, but he protests the charge that he takes pleasure in giving pain. After all, a sportsman wants to kill his bird, not wound it and leave it to endure a “lingering death”.

People who read the papers and listen to the radio will not have forgotten a discussion, provoked by two privately sponsored Bills, concerning the morality of blood sports and the propriety of making them illegal. And of such people a good many I dare say were struck, as I was, by the lack on both sides of rational arguments. Though striking, this deficiency was by no means surprising, seeing that sentimentalists – and in their own way sportsmen are apt to be as sentimental as beast-lovers – seldom find it necessary to give intellectual support to their emotions. I use the term “beast-lover” by way of protest against the misuse of the word “humanitarian” applied to people who apparently care more for brutes than for human beings.

When Macaulay said that “the Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators” he meant to poke fun at the Puritans, and he did – excellent literary fun: as a philosopher, he was paying them a compliment. The only philosophical reason for condemning blood sports is that they give pleasure, and that the state of mind of a man or woman taking pleasure in killing is bad. A most reputable – in my opinion the most reputable – school of ethical thought holds that human states of mind alone are good or bad in themselves. And most, though perhaps not all, philosophers of this school would hold that the state of mind of a human being taking pleasure in killing was bad. To say that the state of mind of one who kills is necessarily bad is as absurd as to say that it is necessarily good. The state of mind of a professional butcher who is killing a pig without pleasure or pain to himself is as innocent as that of a professional footballer. It is the pleasure that gives ethical significance to the action.

If human states of mind alone are good or bad as ends, the pain and fear felt by the quarry (incidentally we know very little about what animals do feel; we argue from analogy, and arguments from analogy are to be received with caution), the pain and fear, I say, philosophically considered, are of no importance save as means. Let us agree that they are means to bad in so far as they are means to bad state of mind: in themselves they are insignificant. You do not agree? Then you must take the consequences. Arguing from analogy, we infer that animals slaughtered for food feel pain and fear – in my time I have given a hand at a pig-killing. Very well, reply the beast-lovers, we will be vegetarians. But men of science have said – I know they will say almost anything – that vegetables are as likely as animals to feel pain, that lettuces positively wince when they are being cut for a salad. It may be so: what is certain is that you cannot walk through a field without killing or maiming insects and perhaps some reptiles, worms, grubs, caterpillars. Think of national rat week, and the campaigns against mice and lice and fleas; to say nothing of such small deer as are put to a lingering death by disinfectants. No, if it is killing and giving pain that you object to, you had better give up trying to live. If blood sports are wrong, it is not because of the pain but of the pleasure. Human states of mind, which alone are good or bad as ends, are what matter in this argument.

Sportsmen, unless they happen to be particularly honest, will say they do not take pleasure in killing, that it has nothing to do with their enjoyment. I must speak for myself. I have ridden to fox-hounds and followed a drag; I have shot most British game-birds and practised at clay-pigeons. I shall not pretend that I found the drag as exciting as fox-hunting, though the galloping and jumping were better. And, seriously, will shooting-men maintain that, were clay-pigeons to be sprung from the most unlikely places, in the most beautiful surroundings (a point invariably stressed), offering a variety of difficult shots (most of which I should miss), will they maintain that pulverising these evasive objects would give at all the same thrill as that given by bringing down a pheasant? I will not. A part, not all, but a part of my pleasure in shooting is derived from killing; and it is not a pretty pleasure.

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Sportsmen, I suspect, are mostly disingenuous when they protest that they take no pleasure in killing, and that to shoot with a gun or a camera would be all one to them. But they are right when they protest vehemently against the charge, too often made in the heat of controversy, that they take pleasure in giving pain. People who say that are either ignorant or dishonest. No sportsman, qua sportsman, takes pleasure in giving pain, though he may do so in his capacity of lover, husband, parent, administrator or magistrate. Anyone who has enjoyed a lovers’ quarrel, or watched an incompetent schoolmaster at work or a civil servant dealing with “applicants,” knows that in giving pain there can be a great deal of pleasure. But is there a sportsman alive who had not rather kill his bird than wound? A sportsman hates to prick a bird, and still more to leave one that is hard hit to die a lingering death. To avoid doing so he will lose time and temper looking for a runner; whereas, if he enjoyed giving pain, he ought to be revelling in the thought of present and future suffering. It may be fair to say that for the sake of his pleasure in killing he is willing to take a chance of wounding, and that such a state of mind is not to be commended. To say that he takes pleasure in giving pain is to talk nonsense – and worse.

If, as approved philosophy maintains, human states of mind alone are valuable as ends, the question of happiness or unhappiness of the hunted is irrelevant to a philosophical discussion. Nevertheless, in arguments about sport the question is raised, and generally, in my opinion, receives a thoughtless answer. In the first place, it is well to remember that, were it not for hunting and shooting, the majority of foxes and game-birds alive at this moment in the British Isles would not have been born. As for the fox, had squires and farmers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries taken no pleasure in pursuing him, probably, like the wolf, he would have become extinct; while, so numerous are the natural enemies of pheasants, partridges and grouse that man, for his own amusement of course, protects these birds.

Game must be “preserved.” Thus, the question that would present itself to a thoughtful fox or pheasant is much the same as that which presents itself to thoughtful men and women – Do I wish I had not been born? “I do” is a perfectly reasonable reply; but suicide statistics suggest that it is one few people can give honestly. The lives of most foxes, game-birds and human beings are, so far as we can judge, a mixture of pain and pleasure, with an unhappy ending. (To hear some spoil-sports talk you might think there was nothing in life but the ending.) It is to be observed, moreover, that the natural end of a human being – especially in an “institution-ridden” State – bad as it may be, is not so bad as the natural end of a bird. Townees, and most modern crusaders come from the towns, have no notion of what an old bird suffers. Its natural end is often hastened by persecution from the younger males of the species and generally accomplished by a spell of hard weather during which the patriarch dies, slowly, of cold and hunger.

From this fate the sportsman saves as many game-birds as he can. Indeed, it may be said that when game is reared, as well as being preserved, the life of the cock-pheasant approximates to that ideal held up to our admiration and envy by ancient poets and philosophers. Born in security and comfort, well fed, well housed, well tended, the young bird, on the threshold of maturity, is sent out to enjoy the ease and beauty and abundance of mid-summer and autumn. His enemies are destroyed or kept at a distance. He is monarch of all he surveys. He knows not hunger nor fear nor winter; for when the leaf falls he falls. Those whom the Gods love die young. As for the hens that survive, they are protected and nourished during the lean months, and in the spring enjoy the attentions of handsome, albeit inconstant, husbands; later they may or may not find happiness in raising a family; when their powers begin to fail they are delivered from the horrors of a natural death.

Such considerations, comforting though they may be to sentimentalists on either side of the argument, do not, of course, make the state of mind of one who is taking pleasure in killing any better; and the question remains – Should we attempt to eliminate bad states of mind by prohibiting the means? Should we attempt to make people virtuous – or what we are pleased to consider virtuous – by Act of Parliament? Neither philosophy nor sentimentality is wanted here, but tolerance and common sense. Consider the activities which, in the opinion of many high-minded reformers, are direct means to bad states of mind: drinking, smoking, gambling, fornicating. There are people who would make all these illegal for the one and only valid reason anti-blood-sportsmen can adduce for making hunting and shooting illegal, i.e., that they are vile pleasures, or, philosophically speaking, means to bad states of mind.

To the Puritan’s list let me add a few on my own account. I consider bad the state of mind of one revelling in the crooning of crooners, or, for that matter, of one taking pleasure in many of the films, plays, novels, songs and picture-papers now in vogue; I consider vile the state of mind of orators or publicists striving to provoke race or class or national hatred, and not much better the state of those who enjoy reading or listening to them; I am far from sure that I can approve the state of mind – of my friend the editor of this journal when he is writing, and enjoying writing, a leading article – always supposing that it is possible to enjoy such activities. Shall I then agitate for the suppression by law of these means to so much present and potential ill? Or shall I stick to the motto which, though you may think it comes oddly from a sportsman, is the motto of all civilised men and women: Live and let Live.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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