Andrew Linzey: Dismantling our prejudices about 'dumb brutes'

From a lecture given by the Oxford theologian to a conference on animal sentience at King's College, London
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"We have no duties of charity, nor duties of any kind to the lower animals, as neither to stocks or stones." The Jesuit Joseph Rickaby's comments, written in 1889, might have been a little extreme even for his age, but they do represent, in a stark form, the negative western attitude towards animals.

Rickaby's position can be traced back to Descartes, who likened animals to machines - beings with instinct but no mental life. Swallows, he supposed, simply operated like clocks. Sadly, Cartesianism has not been limited to religious believers. Behaviourist ideology, so common in the 20th century, only allowed for descriptions of learned behaviour, so notions of thought and feeling in animals were jettisoned as "unscientific".

It has taken us a long time to rescue animals from such powerful misdescriptions. That mammals are capable not only of physical pain, but also mental suffering, including, shock, fear, trauma, foreboding, stress, and terror is now well documented in scientific research (often at the expense of the animals themselves). But prejudices die hard. Our language still betrays our denigration of "dumb brutes", "wild beasts", and other "sub-humans". One cannot be but bemused by the reference in the Book of Common Prayer to the "brute beasts that hath no understanding".

Those who represent the cause of animals are similarly misdescribed as "sentimentalists" or "anthropomorphisers". Accusers seem unaware of the admonition of Konrad Lorenz: "The similarity is not only functional but historical, and it would be an actual fallacy not to humanise." The pro-hunting Baroness Mallalieu trivialises my own academic post at Oxford as "carrying out research into whether animals have souls".

But Rickaby got one thing right. If it is justifiable to cause suffering for sport, he deduces, it must be even more so for "all that conduces to the sustenance" of humans. Causing suffering for amusement is the least justifiable thing we do, yet it is the most politically protected.

To anyone acquainted with moral philosophy, pro-hunting arguments are dazzling in their peccability. Commentators focus on the loss of jobs, but employment, by itself, can't determine whether something is morally right - if it could, we would still have slavery. Hunters conserve hedgerows and woodlands, we are told. In fact, preserving the habitat (and sometimes even the species) of animals one wants to hunt is no more than enlightened self-interest.

Nature itself is cruel, it is claimed. Well, nature has never (thank God) been a moral textbook, and neither can it relieve us of our responsibilities as moral agents. Rabbits don't have wedding ceremonies but that's no reason why we shouldn't (if we want to).

But hunting controls wild animals, it is insisted. But the contribution of fox -hunting to control is - in the one much neglected word of the Burns Report - "insignificant". And the same is concluded of mink and hare hunting too.

We are informed that the subject is "unworthy of... Parliament when so many other subjects of great national importance" deserve our attention. Such was the view of William Windham, Tory MP, in his speech against the abolition of bull-baiting in 1802.

And the arguments haven't changed much either. Banning hunting, the media expostulate, would be illiberal. The Times forcefully argued that "whatever meddles with private personal disposition of a man's time is tyranny direct". That was the conclusion of its editorial in 1800 against the first attempt to ban bull-baiting.

Hunting has become the test of whether we are morally serious about cruelty. Is it really worth the aggro? It took 10 Bills over a period of 35 years to abolish bull-baiting. Who could say that Britain is not a better place for it?

The Rev Professor Andrew Linzey is Senior Research Fellow, Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, and author of 'Animal Theology', published by SCM Press