Simon Blackburn: Tally-ho and rot ye, sir

We may dislike cruelty, but we enter deep water when we seek to ban it

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I have never been offered the opportunity to hunt, although from what I have read I think I should rather enjoy it. But we have to remember that even in the 19th-century bible of hunting literature, Mr Sponge's Sporting Tour by R S Surtees, there is the tremendous curse Lord Scamperdale directs at poor Mr Sponge, who has just knocked him off his horse: "Rot ye sir! Hanging's too good for ye! You should be condemned to hunt in Berwickshire for the rest of your life." It does sound pretty grim.

I have never been offered the opportunity to hunt, although from what I have read I think I should rather enjoy it. But we have to remember that even in the 19th-century bible of hunting literature, Mr Sponge's Sporting Tour by R S Surtees, there is the tremendous curse Lord Scamperdale directs at poor Mr Sponge, who has just knocked him off his horse: "Rot ye sir! Hanging's too good for ye! You should be condemned to hunt in Berwickshire for the rest of your life." It does sound pretty grim.

Pity now the poor moral philosopher, generally supposed not only to have definite and heartfelt views that need imposing upon others, like those vibrant voices on "Thought for the Day", part of Radio 4's Today programme, but also - unlike such voices - to have reasons for them. In addition, such people are supposed to be strong on consistency, and on facts - again, utterly unlike earnest men and women who are invited to Downing Street in socks and sandals - men and women of faith.

My view on the fox-hunting ban is certainly hostage to quite a lot of reasons and facts. But also sentiments. I like animals, up to a point and in their place. Or even a little out of it: I once saw a fox dozing on the roof of a pub in central Oxford and thought it a cheering sight. I would have been distressed if a posse had come tantivying down the high street and disturbed the fox. But then I would have been distressed if someone had lamped or gassed or snared or trapped it. I am neither a rabbit nor a chicken, yet if I were I might well have thought differently.

I also like the countryside, and admire anyone who can extract pleasure from our sleet and rain and endless winter mud. I am more of the Gore-Tex persuasion than the Barbour, and since attaining the age of reason I have never sat on a horse, but I absolutely worship the bravery of anyone who does. And having them jump over stone walls, on these huge creatures that bite at one end and kick at the other, seems a natural and beautiful way to cull the older and weaker members of the land-owning classes, before they become too much expense to the National Health Service. A different sentiment, to which I admit, is dislike of the Puritan streak in English life, the sanctimonious and illiberal, the killjoys and those who ban, the class warriors and single-issue fanatics, who get their kicks from hunting hunters.

These, as I say, are sentiments, but pray do not discount them too quickly. For just as a religion is no more than a cult with an army, so in these areas a reason is no more than a sentiment which you demand from others - a sentiment that makes you thump the table, or go red in the face.

For those who like facts, there are lots of them in the admirable Burns report on hunting. One I enjoyed is that in spite of its glorification of manly military virtue, self-discipline, Sparta and all that, Germany banned hunting on horses with dogs in 1936. This puts new Labour in rather strange company, I should have thought - what could there possibly be in common between the House of Commons now, and Germany in 1936? A consequence, incidentally, is that equestrian sports of all kinds have become far less democratic in Germany than in France or Britain, and are predicted to contract in the same way here, as pony clubs and point-to-points and the general co-operative rural bonhomie that hunts engender, fade away. Unless, of course, they can keep going, perhaps with de-fanged hounds.

Lord Burns concluded, on the basis of the best scientific evidence, that being hunted is stressful, and does diminish the welfare of stags and foxes, not to mention hare and mink. That sounds plausible. I certainly do not think we should fall for the "Johnny fox is a gentleman and enjoys it" line, any more than we fall for the corresponding line from soldiers, policemen and footballers on gang rape. But then I also suppose that at least mink and foxes, if not stags and hares, thrive on diminishing the welfare of other animals. And in any case most animals, including human beings, find their welfare diminishing when they are about to die, or even when they just fear they are about to die, whether from natural or human causes. Death would not be so bad if you did not have to live up to it. Voluntary euthanasia would help counteract some of the worst losses of human welfare, but it is still illegal. Here is where consistency begins to bite. Diminishing animal welfare is not itself a crime, or fishing and sport angling would undoubtedly go the same way as hunting. And how many hunt saboteurs keep domestic cats? Cat-owners hunt by proxy, and their pets are said to kill about a quarter of a million birds a year, more than 15 for every fox killed by a hunt. Lord Burns is also silent about whether getting transported to an abattoir diminishes welfare, but hazarding that it does, one might ask whether the same warriors eat meat or wear leather, or one might indelicately raise the issue of whether they wear make-up and deodorants. If so, fie upon them, just as fie upon them for keeping warm, or even worse, transporting themselves around the countryside, diminishing the welfare of future foxes and hares who will pant and broil under global warming, if they are not simultaneously freezing as the Gulf Stream goes kaput.

Cruelty is a powerful word for a nasty thing, and one to be used in many good causes. Unfortunately, it is ambiguous: causing unnecessary suffering or distress is a start, but that captures the cat-owner who would surely resist the word; delighting in unnecessary suffering or distress is a good second, as when people enjoy bear-baiting or wreaking revenge upon perpetrators of crime, or as we now do it, upon legally innocent people who happen to look like them.

But there is no reason to think that this description applies to people who hunt in general. Hunters surely get excited at lots of things - any man old enough to have salivated over Jane Fonda riding away in the film Cat Ballou knows the potential of a good seat - but I do not suppose they relish the distress of the fox. Although, even if they did, while the moralist might well sigh, the legislator might pause. Big Brother, or "Celebrities Eat Dirt" (or whatever it is called), seem more degenerately akin to the sanguinary pleasures of the Roman circus than do the primeval excitements of the chase, yet one hears few parliamentary voices raised against them.

So I mourn what we are losing. I hope that Scamperdale's eloquence is echoed by many metaphorically unseated masters of foxhounds this weekend, as they imagine themselves addressing a simpering Mr Blair: "You pestilential son of a pantry maid, unsightly sanctified idolatrous coppersmith! You think because I'm an English Lord and can't swear or use coarse language that you may do as you like, well, rot ye, sir!" Quite right, too.

Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His book 'Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed' will be published in the spring by Allen Lane

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