Hunting foxes and catching mice

21st August 2008

Invariably behind with my reading, I have only just read Roger Scruton’s memoirs Gentle Regrets (New York: Continuum, 2005). Scruton has the unusual distinction of being a right-wing intellectual, a professional philosopher, and an avid foxhunter. I was naturally interested to see what justification he could offer for his participation in this ‘sport’.

At first it appears that Scruton has actually understood the moral argument: ‘Those who hunt do so because they enjoy the sport. Enjoyment is not an evil in itself, but to enjoy an activity at the expense of an innocent animal, knowing full well that the animal is suffering, is immoral, so say the opponents of hunting. Even if it is true that hunt followers take no pleasure in the suffering of their quarry, their pleasure is bought at the expense of suffering, and this is wrong.’

So how does Scruton answer what he accepts as a ‘serious and challenging’ objection? He continues: ‘However, a moral argument must be consistent if it is to be sincere. The pleasure taken by cat-lovers in their pets (who cause 200 million painful deaths each year in Britain alone) is also a pleasure bought ‘at the expense of’ animal suffering. The RSPCA, which moralizes volubly against hunting, shooting and fishing, keeps quiet about cat-keeping, for fear of offending its principal donors’.

But the analogy cannot withstand examination. I happen to keep cats, and I hope they derive pleasure from my company, as I do from theirs. But pleasure isn’t principally why I keep them; I keep them because they do not give pleasure to others – specifically those who abuse, ill-treat, and abandon them. In fact, three I have not chosen to look after at all – they have chosen me, and arrived because they were hungry and had no other home. People in this situation have only three choices: hand them over to the local sanctuary (and thus pass on the responsibility), leave them to starve, or take care of them.

The analogy might have credibility if I had deliberately bred my 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, I arranged regular meetings so that I could accompany and encourage them in hunting. But since I, like other cat keepers, do none of these things, the analogy is obviously false. As moral agents, humans are not responsible for what non-moral agents may do naturally without their direct help or encouragement. What the cat does is due to an innate behaviour that under different circumstances is necessary for the cat to survive, whereas foxhunters have no such excuse.

Scruton continues that: ‘To my mind this [not opposing cat keeping] is clear proof that the moral judgements so fervently expressed are not in fact sincerely held’. Questioning the sincerity of one’s opponents is always a low argument, and a sign of a weak case.Hunting with dogs in the UK was (thankfully) banned in 2005, but with the likely election of the Conservative Party in the near future, pledged to a free vote on hunting, we shall doubtless have to confront such obfuscations masquerading as argument all over again.

Andrew Linzey