The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian group founded in 1973


In pursuit of the uneatable

An English Jesuit, writing at the turn of the last century, drew a distinction between the "wanton cruelty" of doing anything to "vex or annoy a brute beast for sport" and the blameless practice of "causing pain to brutes in sport", on which no shadow of evil rested. "Nor are we bound to make this pain as little as may be" (Joseph Rickaby, quoted by James Gaffney in Animals on the Agenda, SCM 1998). Rickaby's general argument about brute beasts was that, "not having understanding and therefore not being persons", they could be used by humans with no more care than "sticks and stones". His one exception, it seems, grew out of a concern for the moral risk to humans from practising sadism on animals. But for this lapse, Rickaby might have achieved the unreachable goal of complete consistency on the subject of animal welfare.

There is, of course, little merit in being consistently wrong, however irritating might be the alternative ragbag of sentiment, half-truth and fudge. Today's theological consensus is that our respect for the created world imposes on us an obligation to conserve and nurture other species; but it usually stops short of proposing universal veganism. The truth, though, is that our claim to care for other animal species is seriously compromised as long as a large proportion of the human race eats meat, wears leather, benefits from scientific advances based on animal experimentation, builds furniture out of forest hardwoods or drives too fast along country roads at dusk. There has been an increase in sympathy for animals, but still too few are prepared to act on it. Rickaby would have been justly scornful of the now common view that is based on fur: if the fur is still attached, the animal deserves our protection; if the fur is detached, the animal is an ingredient.

Lord Burns has helped the fox-hunting debate by introducing harder facts, for instance that more foxes are already controlled by shooting than by hunting. But his central definition of concern, that hunting "compromises the welfare" of the hunted animal, is so wide a definition that it can be applied, arguably, to the slaughter of any animal, by any means. It is the perception of this inconsistency that has so inflamed the hunting debate. The ethical argument simply shifts to the next criterion, that of necessity, and this introduces a scale of values based largely on individual judgement. Thus, at present, the majority in this country believes that the killing of animals for food is justified. A similar majority believes that hunting for sport is wanton cruelty. But there is no watertight door between the two issues. Meat-eaters should be aware that animal welfare arguments will leak into other ethical areas nearer to their hearts.

Church Times: Comment (16/6/2000)

Reproduced with Thanks.

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