Decent Conduct toward Animals: a Traditional Approach - Sharing the Same World
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy


Stephen R. L. CLARK

C: Sharing the Same World

Chesterton argued, in the essay mentioned above, that vegetarians and vivisectionists were, paradoxically, guilty of the same offence. Both, he said, ignored something that we could immediately see and feel, for the sake of something that we did not, could not, know.

It is not a human thing, it is not a humane thing, when you see a poor woman staring hungrily at a bloater [a smoked herring], to think, not of the obvious feelings of the woman, but of the unimaginable feelings of the deceased bloater. Similarly, it is not human, it is not humane, when you look at a dog to think about what theoretic discoveries you might possibly make if you were allowed to bore a hole in his head. Both the humanitarian’s fancy about the feelings concealed within the bloater, and the vivisectionists’ fancy about the knowledge concealed inside the dog, are unhealthy fancies, because they upset a human sanity that is certain for the sake of something that is of necessity uncertain. The vivisectionist, for the sake of doing something that may or may not be useful, does something that certainly is horrible. The anti-Christmas humanitarian, in seeking to have a sympathy with a turkey which no man can have with a turkey, loses the sympathy he already has with the happiness of millions of the poor.

Because we do not know what a turkey’s life is like, for the turkey, so Chesterton argued, we should not weigh that unknown life against the enjoyment that its flesh provides at Christmas. We are certain of the enjoyment, and wholly ignorant ‘whether by feeding him slowly and killing him quickly for the needs of [our] brethren, [we] have improved in his own solemn eyes his own strange and separate destiny, whether [we] have made him in the sight of God a slave or a martyr, or one whom the gods love and who die young’. Chesterton expresses no such doubt about the misery we would cause by ‘sticking pins in him for fun or sticking knives in him for scientific investigation’. We can be sure when we are causing obvious misery, but have (he says) no grounds for thinking that his death is an evil, in his sight or in God’s.

Chesterton spoke for traditional opinion, but perhaps he did not quite appreciate what tradition had, not long before, suggested. ‘In the late medieval and early modern period, most towns had a rule making it compulsory to have a bull baited before it was slaughtered by the butcher.’ And so far from its being right to kill such creatures quickly, it was supposed that they must be killed slowly. Those who argue nowadays that there is no reason to respect the pains or pleasures of ‘animals’ rarely realize what practices have already been outlawed. The eighteenth century had seen a transformation especially in English attitudes to animals. At the beginning, ‘the pious agricultural projector John Beale told Robert Boyle that when he was a child he would skin live frogs "in sport to see what shift they would make when flayed."’ By the end, ‘a dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate predicts the ruin of the State.’ What had been a minor theme in moralizing circles had grown strong enough to outlaw all manner of cruelties and carelessness. ‘Bull-baiting was prohibited in Birmingham in 1773 and was in retreat elsewhere before the century was over. The first attempt (in 1800) to prohibit it by statute was vehemently opposed, but in 1822 it was made illegal on the public highway and in 1835 it was banned altogether.’

There are certainly limits to the protection guaranteed by law. That it is wrong to hurt, but not wrong to kill, an animal is widely agreed in liberal circles. If it were true, we would have no reason to despise those householders who kill their dog because they wish to go on holiday. If it were true, there would be an excuse (at least) for killing every animal we see – since any of them would otherwise suffer hurts we could have prevented. We may indeed, as Chesterton suggested, have rather little notion of how ‘good turkeys’ live, or what counts as a ‘good life’ for a turkey. But even Chesterton (especially Chesterton) would have found it difficult to argue that modern turkeys, propagated by artificial insemination, intensively reared and slaughtered by machine, were living ‘good turkey-lives’. We may also wonder whether the domestic dog is living as good canines would or should, and still be confident of recognizing gross ill treatment. William James proposed that everything that was ‘heroic’ in the dog would leap to suffer at the hands of experimentalists if it could only realize the good end that they pursued. But even if that wildly implausible thought were true it does not follow that we should demand the sacrifice.

There is some truth in Chesterton’s suggestion that humans and turkeys are ‘ships that pass in the night’, whose interests and ideas are entirely opaque to each other. ‘A turkey is more occult and awful than all the angels and archangels.’ But it is not so obvious that every animal inhabits an entirely other world than humans. ‘A world’ is composed of everything that a particular creature, or creatures of a particular kind, pay attention to: its constituent parts aren’t merely ‘objective’ entities, but identified from early on as friends, or prey, or predators, or useful rocks or routes. Each world is structured by the creature's emotional state, and filled with memories and meanings. No doubt a lamppost is an entirely different thing for a human being and a domestic dog. No doubt even the most complete cooperation between shepherd dog and shepherd rests on very different concepts of what is going on. No doubt, as Chesterton observed, only human beings really notice that they resemble other creatures, and so differ from them even in their similarity. ‘The fish does not trace the fish-bone pattern in the fowls of the air; or the elephant and the emu compare skeletons.’ But the similarity of form and action is still real. It is evident that we can ‘do things together’ because we often are doing the same things. We live, as Vicki Hearne has put it, in ‘the same moral universe’.

It is indeed exactly this possibility on which defenders of our present practices have sometimes traded. They have been at pains to claim, for example, that horses, hounds and people are all engaged in the same enterprise: joyously pursuing a worthy prey. Even the fox or the deer, it is sometimes supposed, delights in what is happening. Fighting dogs or cocks are displaying martial courage and the love of glory. Chesterton himself suggested that ‘in sport a man goes into a wood and mixes with the existing life of that wood; becomes a destroyer only in the simple and healthy sense in which all the creatures are destroyers; becomes for one moment to them what they are to him – another animal’. That is one reason why he finds vivisection an intolerable evil: that the animal cannot grasp what is going on (though it is bound to realize that something is). Even those like Windham, who (as Secretary for War and Member of the British Parliament in the early 1800s) opposed the introduction of animal-welfare legislation which would ban cock-fights, bull-baiting, bear-baiting and whipping donkeys to death, would probably not give uniform, personal approval to all such ‘cruelties’. It is one thing to cut off a dog’s feet, one by one, on the excuse of seeing whether he would fight as hard and well, and quite another simply to set a healthy dog against a bull so as to give both contestants a chance of glory. Maybe neither act should be ‘against the law’, as Windham thought, but only the latter could have any conceivable claim to be a ‘noble’ or defensible endeavour.

Is even that much ‘noble’? It is true that in most social species we can identify familiar ways of living. Parents defend their offspring, and maybe adults in general will defend their troops. Males show off their prowess, often in opposition to other, competing males, and are variously possessive of ‘their’ females or ‘their’ territory. Social animals also cooperate to defend themselves, or to hunt down their prey. The young play with each other, and any complaisant adult. Each creature is likely to know its place within the troop – to know, that is, who can be trusted or who should be avoided. Troops and individuals mark out their territories, paths and nesting places. We recognize familiar emotions in them all (lust, rage, fright and affection for example), and can tell that some dominant animals are courteous and others brutal. Some animals defend their territory, while allowing separate territories to other individuals or pairs; others attempt to make the whole troop reside within their very own territory, and so permanently at a disadvantage. Hunters and farmers recognize these ways, and take advantage of them. In doing so they may genuinely admire the courage and skill of animals who defend their young: in killing the wild boar, perhaps, they do him honour as a ‘noble foe’, doing no more than a decent boar should do. Alternatively, of course, we might appreciate the boar’s ‘nobility’ enough to spare his life. Either might be a sane response. What isn’t sane would be to blame or punish or despise the boar for fighting back, while seeking every way to infuriate him more. Nor, I suggest, can it be sane to organize a fight for no better reason than to enjoy the fight.

Someone might reply as follows: ‘But if it is an exercise of virtue to fight bravely, and "happiness" (in the human case, eudaimonia) is the exercise of virtue, must it not be right to engineer occasions for the display of virtue, irrespective of any other results from fighting? Those who fight merely to obtain external goods are less than virtuous: true virtue lies in action for the action’s sake, as being noble. The truer nobility, of course, lies in the human agent, for only human beings aim at "the noble or the beautiful", but animal agents offer an image of that good and a stimulus to virtue.’

On most occasions any such excuse for setting animals against each other, or for using hounds and guns to hunt down harmless animals, is obvious hypocrisy. The Roman audiences that applauded murder in the gladiatorial arena were not made more courageous by the sight, even if they learnt to harden their hearts so far as not to faint, or weep, or flee. The gladiators were not there to show their courage, even if they – and their unarmed victims – were ‘courageous’. Their goal was not nobility, but survival. The audience was not there ‘to be noble’, but to satisfy desire. The only audience that even might learn virtue in such an arena would be one that itself must face the perils it invented – and learning virtue would disown the games.

Are Bull-Fights the exception? Do bulls display nobility, or something close enough to pass? Do matadors? The claim must be that human beings and bulls are here combined to exercise heroic virtue. The fight demands spectators, but would still go on, and still be virtuous, if there were no audience at all. The audience is there to honour virtue, not to be entertained. That honour is hypocritical unless the audience itself is thence encouraged to some similar acts of courage, in the arena or elsewhere. The claim that this is so is perhaps not entirely plausible. Nor is it entirely plausible that desperate and angry bulls are showing the same virtue that they might have done as defenders of their herd. Their actions are taken out of any context where they might do good, or earn the affection of their cows or the deference of other bulls. Nor is it entirely plausible that matadors are risking life and limb for nothing but the glory of being virtuous, or that they would seek to exercise their craft even if they gained no honour, or fortune, from it. Maybe the enterprise was once a way of training cavalry, but modern matadors aren’t military heroes. Maybe going hunting was once a necessary part of a citizen’s education, so that an armed militia could be quickly formed to fend off invasion or government oppression: it is very unlikely that this is now the case.

But the chief Aristotelian obstacle to this proposal – that we should engineer wars and slaughter for the sake of exercising courage (and similarly engineer disease and poverty for the sake of exercising charity – of a sort) - is that the exercise of virtues of this sort is not what Aristotle thinks the highest human life. The gods – or the saints in heaven – do not act justly, courageously, generously or soberly, as though there were occasions when they might instead be vicious. The exercise of moral virtue is dependent on there being evils to withstand, and no one virtuous would engineer those evils merely that there be an excuse for action. The higher virtue, which should condition our appreciation even of the moral life, is wisdom, and its exercise is theoria: that is, the joyful contemplation of the beautiful. Those who practise ‘the knowledge and contemplation of God in the beauty and in the goodness of creatures’ live the better life.

That beauty and goodness may often reside in the heroism of a wild bear defending her young, or the maternal care of a hen gathering her chickens under her wings. But one day heroism will no more be needed, and the underlying virtue now displayed in such fierce ways will have a kinder outlet. ‘They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord.’ Until that time, no doubt, mere contemplation of God’s beauty may be less than is required: we must also, somehow, help to make beauty out of evil – as ‘coworkers with the Lord’, in John Paul’s phrase. But this is – emphatically – not to conclude that we should or may ‘do evil, that good may come’: there are already enough evils in the world for us to display our heroism or generosity or justice in transforming them, without attempting to engineer displays of a specious virtue.

Go on to Part D: Reason, Honour and the Opened Eye

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