More on the Scruton/TLS Debate

18th March 2010

Below is my (currently unpublished) contribution to the TLS debate:

As a colleague of Andrew Linzey, I found Roger Scruton’s review of Why Animal Suffering Matters shocking in its disregard for animal suffering and philosophically vague and inept.

Scruton’s language is often unjustly disparaging. He calls a hadith by Muhammad “no more obviously bogus than the rest of them” despite the fact that there are at least two highly respected collections of hadith. He talks of “pests” as if this word referred to an innately undesirable species of animals rather than any species whatsoever whose existence some humans–but certainly not all–find bothersome.

In objecting to Linzey’s notion of respect for an animal, Scruton mentions conservationists who believe that it is right to kill individual animals for the sake of the habitat that is needed by the species.” Under natural conditions animals do not destroy their own habitat. If they did, one wonders how animals could have existed for millions of years without the aid of humans. Perhaps these “conservationists” Scruton is referring to are hunters who like to elevate their image by calling themselves conservationists.

Scruton refers to controlling “one species (the grey squirrel for instance) for the sake of another (the red squirrel).” Apparently, Scruton is unaware that the overwhelming evidence, published in scholarly journals, reveals that trying to preserve red squirrels by controlling grey squirrels is useless. Even when large numbers of grey squirrels are killed, the red squirrel simply cannot compete. Certainly it is unethical to control one animal in an attempt to preserve another when the goal cannot be achieved.

According to Scruton, Linzey “ignores most if not all that philosophers have said concerning the concept of person” and lacks a “clear metaphysical   position concerning the nature of human beings and the distinction between moral agents and others.” Scruton then mentions Aristotle, Aquinas and Kant for whom “this distinction is … foundational to our understanding of the moral life.” These comments ignore the fact that Linzey emphasizes that only humans are moral agents. In this respect Linzey agrees with Aristotle, Aquinas and Kant. Where he differs from these thinkers is in his understanding of what this moral agency requires of us.

It is understandable that Scruton would want to praise these philosophers, but more precision is needed for surely he does not endorse all their ethical ideas. Aristotle, for example, justified slavery, arguing that it was a natural state, just as it was natural for women to be ruled by men. Aquinas saw the natural order in a similar manner adding   that this order is due to divine providence. Aquinas repeats that women are   inferior to men and that according to scripture, women were made “not as a helpmate,” to men, but merely as a helper “in generation.” Aquinas thus reduces the being of a woman to nothing more than a biological function. Kant’s view of the moral life is also not without problems. He held that one could not tell a lie even in an attempt to save another’s life.  In discussing a faithful dog, Kant said the dog deserved to be rewarded but if the dog was shot no harm is done to the dog because the dog cannot judge, but clearly if one deserves a reward and it is not given, an injustice is done whether or not one recognizes it.

In sum, Scruton does not give us any convincing reasons to reject Linzey’s views.

Priscilla N. Cohn