Herbie taught me, then I ate him

Roger Scruton is sure that animals have no rights. He proves this to Andrew Brown
Roger Scruton believes that the best way for an animal to die is normally to be killed by a larger animal. That is as quick as possible, and almost by definition less painful than the lingering death from starvation and disease which awaits most predators. This is an insight to provoke thought if you let it, so the first thing I asked him was whether his argument from size makes whales the most miserably constituted of all the animal kingdom.

"That's a very good point. In fact I am sure that it is the reason reason why, quite irrationally, people consider the hunting of whales to be intrinsically cruel, as our own government said it is at the International Whaling Commission. The animal rights position has great plausibility because of the size of the victim. Yet as Moby Dick shows - and it's interesting that the greatest American novel is also a great vindication of whaling - the whalers themselves make a distinction between virtuous and vicious ways of killing whales. And people who try to solve the question purely by reference to the whale ignore the fact that there are whole human communities that are dependent on it. So you end up with very deleterious human outcomes and possibly very deleterious ecological outcomes."

Saying this, he had risen to pace around his farmhouse, and now paused for a moment, groping for an ecological argument. "They eat a hell of a lot of plankton," he concluded. There is no length to which he will not go in his lust to hunt the the sacred cows of modern thought.

Tall, springy, upright, his red hair sprinkled with grey, he walked with me across the fields of his small Wiltshire farm to where his hunters, George, Sam and Rollo, grazed. They appear in the foreword to the pamphlet: "I am indebted to creatures who have no idea of the fact", writes Scruton, along with "the nameless carp in the pond across the field, the cows next door, and Herbie, who has now been eaten."

So I asked about Herbie. He was a lamb, belonging to the farmer next door, who was savaged by a fox, rescued and nursed back to health. He became something of a family pet; though this did not stop him being killed and eaten when his time came. This, said Scruton, was an illustration of the proper attitude towards domesticated animals. In a state of nature, the savaged Herbie would have died horribly from his injuries. That he lived was an illustration of the wider fact that many of the animals in the world today are only alive because humans have bred them and safeguarded them from predation, starvation and disease. "From all these calamities, animals gain relief and protection, when we decide to offer it," argues his pamphlet. "But this offer is not made without a motive, and we should work to keep that motive alive.

"By eating meat, drinking milk, wearing leather and furs, even by shooting and angling, we may, if circumstances are right, reinforce the desire to alleviate the unkindnesses of nature. And if it be said that we do so only to replace them with unkindnesses of our own, let it also be said that there is a moderation and control in human unkindness of which nature knows nothing."

The slightly ponderous, carefully measured rhetoric of his pamphlet is not at all the way he speaks. In some ways the writing is clearer. But it quite misses the fun of the man. Most philosophical arguments about how we should live give the impression that they are conducted by people who wouldn't know fun if it jumped them over a five-barred gate. Scruton is not like that. He believes contact with nature is proper to people, and so he lives mostly in the country; not the wilderness, but the green English country. At the bottom of his fields is a pond, stocked with carp. I thought when first he said this that they were ornamental, but no, they are ordinary, carp-coloured carp, which he allows serious anglers to fish for. He eats the results.

Although he understands that the huntsman and the fisherman are often sincerely concerned to minimise the suffering of the animals they pursue, he does not think that suffering should be the yardstick of our response to animals. "It is not enough to suffer to gain rights. You can only have rights if you are a person." Animals, he says, obviously have beliefs and feelings, but they cannot have rationality.

I told him about a conversation I had had with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, an American who has trained chimpanzees to be more proficient in symbolic language than anyone had thought possible. I had asked her whether she had ever offered her pupils a sign for "beautiful", or for "God", and she said that she never had, but she might in future, for she had come to believe they might have a use for them. This did not seem to him interesting, because it could only tell us whether chimpanzees were capable of becoming rational beings. It told us nothing new about the definition of a rational being, which he had already sorted.

"Language is what allows us to see our own interests as only one among many. The calculus of rights and duties which emerges from this is what really distinguishes us from animals and makes us persons.

"Animals have no right to be treated in one way rather than another. But it is still wrong to treat them in certain ways. It is wrong because only a cruel or cowardly or vicious person could do it."

This is not, he says, an absolute test of behaviour. Cruelty, or callousness, is a hard quality to pin down. "We have a conception of what is or is not cruel. But it varies from context to context. In war non-callous people do things which only callous people could do outside wartime. Decent people can disagree about what is or is not callous, as they do in the case of angling, or hunting. But when this happens, the law should not take sides."

That does not mean the law should never take sides. He gives the example of bear-baiting, or dog-fighting, which he says, are rightly outlawed because parliament concluded that the pleasure taken in them was necessarily sadistic, in a way which is not true, for example, of angling. "If there were a sport, exactly like angling except that the fish were lifted from the water and then tortured with hooks to the amused shrieks of the bystanders, we should regard it in quite another moral light from the sport of angling." Although he is in no doubt that catching fish must cause them considerable pain and fear, he points out that this is not the purpose of the exercise. "The suffering involved is necessary in that it could be avoided only by destroying the sport."

However, he refuses to express an opinion on bull-fighting because, he says, he does not know enough about the facts of the case. Even the other great Spanish animal sport of chucking donkeys off church towers does not seem to him wholly unredeemed. It is not, after all, such a terrible death for the donkey. It may be better than dying of natural causes. Better even for humans, perhaps, than dying of something natural like cancer.

For it is one of the distinctivenesses of Scruton's approach that he almost finds it easier to justify battery farming than medical experimentation. He is not keen on either. Yet battery farming at least goes to feed people. Medical experimentation serves often to prolong life wrongly. "In comparison with the average farm animal, a human being has a terrible end. Kept alive too long, by processes which nature never intended, we can look forward to years of suffering and alienation, the only reward for which is death - a death which as a rule comes too late for anyone else to regret it."

There is in that rhetoric more than an echo of the faith in nature which he generally distrusts. The animal rights movement he regards as a polluted form of religion. "There is a deficit of real religion in the modern world, but no drying up of the fund of religious emotion. So we get in the animal rights movement a kind of intemperate collective urge towards the final solution of an ethical problem."

The effortless goading in the use of "final solution" gives one a glimpse of how he became famous. He would not treat a bull with the maddening contempt he can bring to his human opponents. Yet he sympathises with what he sees as the religious roots of the animal rights movement. "One of the reasons for it is a revulsion from a wholly exaggerated sense of our own importance."

This attitude, for him, is an example of "piety: an impression of our smallness and an impression of the other thing's greatness" An arm swings around to encompass the whole valley we stand in. And then he finishes in a great flourish that is an entirely characteristic mixture of showing off and showing us the world: "To lose this feeling of piety would put us in conflict with our own species-nature or species-being as Marx calls it. Our position as modern people is very complicated. I don't deny that. We are, a great many of us, sceptical towards religious doctrine, but this doesn't suffice to extinguish the source of religious feeling. That is one reason why we have to be clear about the issues where this conflict comes to the surface. The worst thing that can happen to us is when people allow religious feeling to flare up in a non-religious form. That explains Nazism and Communism; and I would see something of that in the animal rights movement ."

'Animal Rights and Wrongs' by Roger Scruton is published today by Demos, pounds 7.95