Debating with Scruton in the TLS

4th February 2010

As one might expect, the foxhunting philosopher, Roger Scruton, penned a spirited review of my book Why Animal Suffering Matters. It appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 6 January, 2010. I am used to criticism of course, but it is disturbing to see how Scruton feels free to mispresent the argument of the book. See here.

I decided to respond, and my reply appeared in the TLS via the letters page on 27 January. See here.

Since my reply was edited by the TLS, people might like to see my full reply below:

When a foxhunter, who writes spiritedly against animal rights, is given a copy of Why Animal Suffering Matters to review one might expect a partisan review, even a ferocious attack, but that shouldn’t absolve Roger Scruton of the responsibility of presenting the arguments of the book fairly.

Scruton says: “Linzey does not really tell us why animal suffering matters …” Not so. It is true that, historically at least, many philosophers and theologians have claimed that moral concerns apply only to the human species, but the question is: can that position be rationally sustained? The first long chapter (pp. 9-42) devotes itself to an examination of the six main differences – including rationality, language, moral agency – between humans and animals that have been used to justify differential moral treatment. I show that, with only one possible exception, none of these justify regarding animal suffering as less important, indeed the reverse. For what these differences incidentally reveal are a set of considerations that should make such suffering rationally compelling: animals cannot give or withhold their consent, cannot represent or vocalise their own interests, they are morally blameless, and are largely vulnerable and defenceless before us.  Scruton doesn’t take the trouble to engage with the central argument, or even attempt to describe it.

Moreover, despite Scruton’s attempt to cast me an as a misanthrope, the central argument is that weaker vulnerable humans as well as animals deserve more, not less solicitude. Thus, as I conclude: “The issue of animals cannot be divorced from a wider discovery of those considerations that should equally apply to vulnerable human subjects” (p. 167).

Scruton pretends to agreement by saying that I argue “persuasively that animals should not be treated as mere instruments for our purposes, and that it is not permissible to impose heavy burdens on animals for some small human gain”, but then, illogically, goes on to defend hunting for sport and fur farming for adornment purposes. And subsequently adds: “And why is it so sinful to breed animals for their outer layers, and not for the stuff inside?” While not defending traditional slaughter, the answer is given at length in the book that confining free-ranging fur bearing animals in small, barren environments which cause abnormal behaviours, including infanticide, stereotypies and pelt-biting indicate prolonged suffering. That is not my opinion; it is the judgement of the Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare of the European Union.

Scruton claims that: “Whether fox-hunters are to be condemned for sins that cat-keepers somehow avoid is a matter that is in no way settled by Linzey’s arguments”. In fact, I go out of my way to explain that “Animals are not moral agents and are not therefore responsible for their actions, whereas human beings are both” (p. 84). The analogy might have credibility if cat-keepers deliberately bred cats so that they might hunt, and laboriously trained them for this purpose, actually preserving their prey for easy hunting (as foxhunters sometimes do with foxes), and if, moreover, cat-keepers arranged regular meetings so that they could accompany and encourage them in hunting. But since cat keepers do none of these things, the analogy is obviously false.

Scruton says that I should “at least have consulted the literature, from Plato and Xenophon to Turgenev, Sassoon, Masefield and Ortega y Gasset, devoted to the place of hunting in a virtuous life”.  In fact, I have regularly anthologised representatives of both sides of the debate in my co-edited collections: Animals and Christianity: A Book of Readings (1989), Animal Rights: A Historical Anthology (2004), and in my Other Nations: Animals in Modern Literature (forthcoming, 2010), which specifically includes a section on hunting with selections from Hemingway and Turgenev. Moreover, together with Priscilla Cohn, I consider Ortega’s defence of hunting in our contribution to another collection: The Link Between Animal Abuse and Human Violence (2009), and point out that blood, for Ortega, is an essential part of the hunt. If the “blood flows abundantly … it intoxicates, excites, maddens both man and beast …”. Ortega asserts that such “intoxication aroused by the sight of blood” is one of the ingredients of a hunt without which “the spirit of the hunt disappears”. Hunting [for Ortega] “is the only normal case in which the killing of one creature constitutes the delight of another”.

Does Scruton really want to maintain that such delight characterizes a virtuous person, who should be held up as a model? Perhaps so, since Scruton himself is not opposed to bullfighting. Enjoying the suffering of sentient beings or engaging in activities that inevitably cause suffering, whether unwanted or not, are both morally reprehensible.

Scruton writes: “What happened to Mill’s famous argument in On Liberty that the coercion of the criminal law can be justified only in order to prevent us from harming others, and never in order to force our compliance to a moral code?”  He appears to have overlooked that Mill was an early supporter of the then SPCA, which sought to prosecute cruelty, and that he explicitly included harms to animals within his utilitarian calculus. Mill wrote: “Granted that any practice causes more pain to animals, than it gives pleasure to man; is that practice moral or immoral? And if, exactly in proportion as human beings raise their heads out of the slough of selfishness, they do not with one voice answer ‘immoral’, let the morality of the principle of utility be for ever condemned” (my emphasis). No, Mill does not go far enough in my view, but the notion that he would oppose all attempts to legislate against cruelty is unfounded.

Scruton writes: “The sad thing is that Linzey either doesn’t see, or doesn’t care, where the use of this kind of argument [from public morality] is leading. He is right to want to protect animals from people. But people also need to be protected from people, not least from the prigs and puritans who dislike their way of life.” Scruton’s view that a way of life involving cruelty is a private matter that should be immune from legislation was best expressed by a Times leader in 1800. Commenting on the failure of the first bill to outlaw bull-baiting, the newspaper was adamant that the attempt was misconceived since “whatever meddles with private personal disposition of a man’s time or property is tyranny direct”. If the Times and Scruton had their way we would still be tolerating bull-baiting.

In fact, I “see” exactly where my argument is leading, and I state it repeatedly in the book. It is leading to the abolition of the institutionalised infliction of suffering on animals – and that is the (modest but, admittedly, far-reaching) aim of the book. A world in which animal cruelty goes unchecked is also a less morally safe world for human beings.

Finally, calling people who disagree names (“prigs and puritans”) is no substitute for argument.

Andrew Linzey