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Foxhunting - a bloody outrage or just good sport?

Sally Millard, event coordinator, reports on the recent LM hunting debate

Of all the things that people could get excited about today, why is it that foxhunting has aroused such passions? If they agreed on nothing else, the speakers at the LM debate all thought that foxhunting was probably not the most significant problem facing us at the turn of the century. But nevertheless, there we all were, thrashing out the issues on a wet Thursday evening in October. So why does foxhunting cause so much concern?

For Richard Ryder, former chairman of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), and Mike Huskisson of the League Against Cruel Sports, the demand for a ban on hunting with hounds is a straightforward moral issue. 'Quite simply, in my opinion', as Ryder put it, 'foxhunting is wrong, because it is cruel. To chase and terrify an animal is for most of us an offence. Why should a few people with double-barrelled names and red coats be allowed to get away with such behaviour, when for the rest of us it would be a criminal offence?'.

But for Roger Scruton, philosopher and keen hunter, foxhunting is no more cruel than keeping cats to control the mice population, or terriers to control rats. However, he did recognise that people do not hunt merely in order to control foxes. 'It is because people with double-barrelled names like myself and my neighbour Gerard Collingbourne take pleasure in the activity, and this is offensive to people like Ryder. Other people's pleasures often are. Nevertheless, there is no reason why you should ban something just because people take pleasure in it.'

Mike Huskisson insisted that he was not averse to people enjoying themselves - within limits. 'I've got no problem with people with red clothes and double-barrelled names having all the fun they like. What we are saying is that we should take the animal out of the hunt.' While hunting hounds are presently trained to hunt down foxes, they could be trained to hunt down anything. 'They could hunt me, follow any scent you care to teach them. Take the animal out of the hunting field, allow people to ride over the fields with hounds, but chasing a man.'

It seemed that the debate about foxhunting was really about whether people should be allowed to take pleasure in things that others are offended by. This is why Mick Hume, LM editor and a self-confessed 'modern man', who does not hunt and has no great passion for the countryside, could argue that he is 'vehemently opposed to the idea of banning hunting'.

For Hume, 'The issue of contention is not the protection of foxes'. It is 'really a statement about people, and what kind of society we want to live in. The most compelling argument in favour of banning hunting with hounds is that hunting has no place in a civilised society. But we have to ask what people really mean when they use the term civilised society.

'When the anti-hunt lobby use the term in this context, they actually mean a sanitised society. One in which life has been cleaned up to suit their tastes, with its passions cooled and its pleasures made safe. A sanitised society leads inevitably to an intolerant society, as those in authority seek to stigmatise and maybe punish whatever views or actions they are uncomfortable with, whether that is hunting, smoking or recreational sex.'

Ryder said that he would 'defend the rights of citizens to do anything that does not cause suffering to other people or animals, but there cannot be a civil right to torture, nor can there be a civil right to kill for sport. There is no civil right to abuse children, no civil right to abuse animals. Some people enjoy rape, serial murder. Are you going to argue that these people have a civil right to rape or murder?'.

But for Hume, 'A civilised society has to be based on the treatment of individuals as adults with moral autonomy, with the right and respect to judge for themselves the difference between right and wrong'. He agreed that this went with the rider that they do no harm to others, 'so long as we don't stretch meanings to say that it should cause no offence to others. Nobody has the right not to be offended. If hunting offends you, that's life'.

Scruton was at pains to point out the distinction between arguing for a particular morality and imposing it in legislation. 'There are many things that I believe are immoral which I wouldn't want to impose upon people by law. I think that abortion, which is the killing of a human being in its most innocent, unprotected state, is a sin, but I don't think that I have a right to forbid it.'

Huskisson thought otherwise. 'Can we impose our morality on other people? Well I think we can. If the state, if society is not prepared to stand up for defenceless creatures, then what will it stand up for? If we're not prepared to draw the line and say you can't go cockfighting, you can't go dogfighting, where will we set the law? We have to push forward the bounds of legislation to take out foxhunting. It's cruel bullying, its unnecessary.' A man from the RSPCA in the audience spelt out the argument even more bluntly, insisting that they had to prevent people from foxhunting because 'we are the guardians of morality'.

So are we not to be allowed to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong? As Hume argued, 'far from defending the civilised idea of individuals with moral autonomy, many of the arguments against hunting undermine it. Those who compare the way foxes are treated with child abuse reduce us to the moral equivalent of animals. And if we are not being treated like pets, we are being treated like children, as the authorities seek to ban what they disapprove of for our own good, in the way we would take sweets away from naughty toddlers'.

As the discussion developed, it became clear that many in the anti-hunting lobby did indeed see foxes as the moral equivalent of humans. 'Foxhunting does harm others', said Ryder. 'It causes great stress and suffering to foxes, which is quite unnecessary. And if foxes are not part of the moral group, then why not? Some consider humans to be superior to animals, but humans are animals. The weight of scientific evidence is that we suffer exactly, or very similarly to foxes, and they suffer very similarly to us.'

The scientific validity of Ryder's argument was challenged by some of the audience. Helene Guldberg, psychologist (and LM co-publisher) argued that while some physiological reactions may be similar in humans and other animals, the actual experience of pain was very different, so that foxes or deer could not be said to 'suffer' in a human sense. For Scruton, 'we are animals, but we are animals with a conscience. We actually make moral judgements'. For Hume, the distinction was straightforward. Animals do not have consciousness, whereas we do. 'When foxes themselves start organising against hunting, then I might join them in that fight.'

Summing up, an outraged Richard Ryder decried the 'speciesism' of his opponents. 'Speciesism is analogous with racism and sexism. Where there is evidence of pain it should carry equal moral concern, whether it is a cat or a human being. Just as we should say that pain matters equally whether it is a black person or a white person, or a man or a woman.' Since he had the last word, none of those present was able to express their evident disquiet at his attempt to equate the experience of women or black people with that of foxes.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Ryder and Huskisson are so keen to see the government legislate to ban hunting with hounds if they see the chasing of foxes across the countryside as morally equivalent to racism. For them, protecting foxes from hounds takes precedent over allowing people to pursue a sport they enjoy. And this is despite the fact that they accept foxes will be killed by other means.

If Huskisson and Ryder are prepared to sacrifice people's freedom to hunt on the basis that foxes need protection, unfortunately some of those in the foxhunting lobby are also prepared to sacrifice freedoms that they don't approve of. For example, the Countryside Alliance takes the position of being against the right to roam.

For Hume, opposing a ban on foxhunting has to be 'part of a broader defence of freedom'. Unlike Scruton, he said, 'I entirely support a woman's right to abortion. A couple of years ago I interviewed Roy Jenkins, who was the home secretary when the Abortion Act became law. He told me, unprompted, that he saw the question of a woman's right to abortion in exactly the same way as he saw the right to hunt - as a question of individual freedom that others should not be allowed to encroach upon. It is a worrying sign of the times that the views of such an establishment figure as Lord Jenkins should now be considered "libertarian nonsense" by the New Labour government and its allies'.

Mick Hume, LM editor

Richard Ryder, past chairman of the RSPCA

Mike Huskisson, League Against Cruel Sports

Roger Scruton, writer and philosopher

Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000



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