What about the pilchard?

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So "the natural party of government" again has the red boxes in its clutches. Labour rode into power on the back of the British bulldog. But in Millbank and Islington, the traditions of old England aren't everyone's plate of gnocchi. Amid a crowded legislative programme, if not in the current parliamentary session, it also means to ban hunting. The "New" proletariat for Labour, once tribunes of the horny-handed sons of toil, is the poor foxy-woxy.

Peter Singer, the Australian utilitarian philosopher and prominent anti- hunting guru, declared in a recent newspaper article: "Fish are often losers in the animal rights debate," a claim underlined by the article's accompanying graphic of a none-too-chipper-looking trout impaled on an angler's hook.

Singer's world is not that of the tiger smooching over offal, or the whale gulping krill. His vision is of nature defanged, and of humans as its moral equal, except where being "human" involves doing what comes naturally to carnivores.

Singer regrets the vogue for discussing animal welfare in terms of rights. Like all fundamentalisms, the animal jihad has spawned its schismatics, like the philosopher Tom Regan, who to Singer's indignation makes his case in precisely these terms. Singer understandably balks at talk of pilchard rights, of sloth suffrage, and so on down the sub-human menagerie to the staphylococci and gonococci. No one much cares for a crab-louse.

Denizens of the jungle - the lion tugging innards from its still-conscious prey - remain happily ignorant of these fictions. Where their rights come from, what justifies them, how they're exercised - all this remains dark.

Instead of rights, Singer advocates utilitarianism, reckoning pains and pleasures in a big sum. It is, however, an imprudent animal-fancier who decides matters thus. You can get an awful lot of steaks out of a cow, and much else besides; utilitarians have to weigh the joy of beef against the pain of slaughter.

But this util-talk of weighing, or of calculation, is idle bombast. Nobody knows how to do the sum, and utilitarians who claim otherwise are deluded or mendacious. This problem is mitigated, though, if the suffering of the abattoir can be eliminated. We can do this by exploiting the knack - at which humans are uniquely proficient - of killing things painlessly. This is more than can be said for the misnamed animal kingdom, which witnesses a savagery unknown to the late Emperor Bokassa.

Singer quotes Jeremy Bentham's question: "Can they suffer?" as the test of moral consideration. But then there's nothing wrong with animal slaughter, as long as it's painless: Singer can eat his fishcake and have it, his conscience salved by the thought that he is only doing what he should. Why settle for less when you can have it all?

Utilitarianism is ill-placed to chose between individuals' preferences. Indeed, the more crazed in their bloodlust people become, the stronger the utilitarian's reasons for propitiating them: utility monsters, devouring all in their maw, jeopardise Bentham's demand that each should count for one and none for more than one. There may be those - and which utilitarian will censure them? - whose penchant is for animal slaughter, but whose tender consciences forbid them to refrain from consuming its unavoidable by-product, however unpalatable. On the other hand, vegetarians such as Adolf Hitler and Alan Clark MP, grimly masticating their nut-roasts, stint themselves to no good utilitarian purpose.

Singer has dilated on cases like Washoe, the chimp who supposedly learned the rudiments of a vocabulary. Dog-owners will know their charges to be capable of no less. My own Belgian shepherd, only too eager at other times to savage a passing bunny, or rip the postman's arm from its socket, is a veritable Fowler in discriminating the niceties of "walkies", "milk", and "din-dins".

Anyway, basing moral assessment on similarity to Homo sapiens betrays a dangerously humanistic bias. Why not take bestial behaviour as our guide, abandoning the quest to detect kinship in every wombat or baboon? Then we could sanction cannibalism, slaughter, incest - in short, the whole gamut of behavioural disorders known to ethology.

The first edition of Singer's book Animal Liberation included an appendix entitled "Eating for liberated people" with a set of meatless recipes, to press an appeal to the belly where that to reason had failed. Many of us, who judged this the finest part of the book, and used the recipes extensively, were disappointed to see it removed from subsequent editions. I always found, however, that the recipes could be improved by the addition of some beef-mince, and that dripping made a relishable alternative to the cooking agents Singer recommends. My free recipe-sheet, Professor Pete's Meat Treat, is available on request.

Singer deplores "blood-sports" like fox-hunting and angling (but not boxing). This at least goes one step beyond Labour, which remains keenly aware that millions of voters pass their weekends at the end of a line and hook. Unfortunately, Singer misses the most compelling argument against fox-hunting; it's a lamentably inefficient way to kill foxes.

Automobiles slay four times more than the oafs in pink. So the best way to contain them is to build more roads. Many more animal deaths - the lambs, chickens and other livestock massacred - will be avoided in the long run.

At the risk of labouring the point, this is an argument for animal welfare: a fox in a hen-run can decapitate 20 birds in a short evening's work. My late uncle Stan was adept at dispatching the culprits with his pitchfork.

Animal welfarism is largely a metropolitan fad; the left's decline has made the animal mullahs tribunes of a new, conveniently dumb, proletariat. RSPB membership is seven times that of British Amnesty.

A number of fantasies combine in animal activism. The first is that nature is, uncomplicatedly, nice. Singerism offers a politics of ease, with beasts made the mouthpiece for their human champions' rancour at loss or dispossession. A second is that it is possible to keep a morally clean sheet. But politically the question is not equality, but economy of effort; sooner or later politicians have to decide whether Rwandans or trout matter more.

The third delusion, pervasive in much activism, is the belief, implicit in the rhetoric of anti-"species-ism", that the situation of animals resembles historical struggles for human emancipation. Finally, there's the illusion that we could have a perspective on our relations with animals which was other than a human perspective.

Politically, fox-hunting is a red herring, re-staging the old red-in- tooth-and-claw class politics as a Blue Peter appeal. This is bad news for our political culture, though of a piece with the vacuo-politics of Blairism. Never mind. The future promises new gastronomic adventures. The ostrich-burger is a fact of life in good supermarkets; a butcher near my home specialises in squirrel-meat.

It's sometimes said that we shouldn't eat meat, because we should regard animals as aesthetic objects, or as fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth. But it's hard to see why seeing animals as fellow Earthlings, or appreciating them aesthetically, should stop us eating them. Indeed, the pleasure afforded by meat-balls or cassoulet is one form which this appreciation can take.

Should we worry more about the morality of eating meat than lions do? To the carnivore we can say, as to the gazelle-guzzling jungle cats: bon appetit!

The writer is Lecturer in Philosophy at Sussex University.

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