Moral Maze

After 27 years on air, BBC Radio 4’s discussion programme The Moral Maze has at last got round to the animals, with an episode titled ‘Veganism and Animal Rights’. The advertised formula for this programme is “combative, provocative and engaging debate”. The journey not the arrival, then: that is, it aims to make a showy fight of things amongst the four panelists, not to reach a finished position – as, for instance, Radio 4’s more intellectual Agree to Differ does. But a position of some sort may be reached all the same, and it certainly was in this episode: “We’re all riddled with inconsistency”; “Most of us haven’t got a leg to stand on”; “Human beings are all over the place, aren’t they?” In this case, then, it turned out not to be a maze at all. Faced, for instance, with the acknowledged “unspeakably disgusting” practice of industrial farming, the panelists knew the way out (it was in their title anyway); they just haven’t yet taken it.

That “all over the place” was the voice of Matthew Taylor, director of the Royal Society of Arts and also the excellent chair of Agree to Differ – accordingly an intelligent and judicious contributor. Not speaking very elegantly here, perhaps, but then the discussion is a hustled one: “shouty talking over each other”, someone on Twitter calls it. Ideally the more or less expert ‘witnesses’, whom the programme invites along each week, would bring order and, even more usefully, knowledge to the scene, but this is not quite how it happens. Probably the programme is “engaging” (at least in the sense ‘harassing’ or ‘tormenting’) partly because of this absence of controlling information: “No mention of … !” seems to be a common exasperated complaint online.

Thus the first witness on the present occasion, the self-styled ‘Angry Chef’ Anthony Warner, was presumably invited as an expert on the rights and wrongs of food. But although strongly opinionated he had no moral or other case to offer. In fact his repeated assertion (there’s a lot of repetition in The Moral Maze, a disheartening indication of how we commonly do think and argue) was that this primary business of eating, which conditions all we are and do, is a non-moral activity: “guilt and shame have no place in starvation-textthe world of food.” I recall Ronald Sider’s eloquently titled book of 1978, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. There’s morality enough there, and it would have been helpful to have had someone on The Moral Maze to point out the contribution which the meat and dairy diet, as pioneered in the West, makes towards that continuing age of hunger in other parts of the world.

At the other end of the programme, the fourth witness was an animal rights philosopher, Professor Mark Rowlands. Wouldn’t he bring some intellectual order? No: he got cornered and harried by the programme’s least articulate but most belligerent panelist, Claire Fox, brandishing that weakest of all intellectual enforcers of animal-abuse, ‘contractarianism’. The notion is that animals have no moral claim on us because they aren’t themselves ‘moral beings’: i.e. that morality is a contract, and only contract-makers like ourselves, who bring moral responsibility to the table, can participate. This most reductive and unconvincing thesis, straying into ethics from its proper home in political theory (where the philosopher Thomas Hobbes originated it), could surely be shot down by a professional philosopher? Or rather, in this case, put right, because in fact there is an improved version of contractarianism for which Rowlands himself is a leading spokesman. He even regards it as “a strong – and perhaps the best – case for the moral claims of non-human animals” (see his book Animal Rights: Moral Theory and Practice, 2009, p.118).  He twice called the unreformed contractarianist argument “strange”, which I suspect is a professorial hint to a student to try again, but there’s no time for such gentilities in The Moral Maze, least of all with Claire Fox. And the professor’s mild academic joke, querying whether humans are right to think even themselves morally responsible, was simply trampled by her.

Vivisection had come onto the scene with the third witness, Dr Bella Williams from Understanding Animal Research. In Dr Williams, the new ‘Concordat’ style of PR – conciliatory, un-strident – was very much in evidence, impressing chairman Michael Buerk (“absolutely splendid”), but exasperating Claire Fox (“a disaster for medical research if that was the strongest proponent”). But the fact is (or “is is”, as Claire Fox habitually says) that a moral case for vivisection is impossible to put well, since the actual and originating rationale for the practice is simple expediency. Giles Fraser – “priest and polemicist”, as the chairman introduces him – put the familiar but effective Martian question to Dr Williams: would it be right for superior aliens to experiment on us? There was a fascinating silence of two seconds or so, but the vivisector’s answer has to be yes, and Dr Williams reluctantly gave it. Giles Fraser, for whom perhaps this trope was new, expressed astonishment: “A big wow!” And he said of her evidence “I don’t think you agree with your own position [i.e. that it’s morally right to use animals in research] … You’re basically saying there’s no morality in it at all.”

And yet animal research is, so Michael Buerk said when he introduced Dr Williams, “the ultimate example of prioritizing our interests over those of animals”: he meant, and she agreed, that all the other abuses are patently unnecessary, and accordingly indefensible, whereas this one at least claims to respond to an authentic need. If this case fails, there’s nothing left.

Though introduced as a priest, Giles Fraser was not putting an explicitly Christian point of view. Claire Fox, however, did claim to be putting what might be regarded as religion’s philosophical opposite: “As a humanist, I think animals are useless unless humans make use of them”, she said; “I am a humanist, and animals are beneath us.”

Humanism, then: traditionally it has been aimed at severing humans from gods, dogmatic religions, and all the other means and excuses by which we might evade the responsibility for our own situation and future. In particular, it asks humans to give up the privileged status provided for us by supernatural fictions (as humanists consider them), and to come to terms with what our best guide to knowledge, i.e. science, has shown: that we are part and product of the natural world, homogeneous with all the other life in it. Humanism ought, therefore, to be an animal rights position, though certainly not the only one. At any rate, one of the originators of modern animal rights thinking, the novelist Brigid Brophy, was a signatory to the 1973 Humanist Manifesto. In fact she considered anthropocentrism to be one of the superstitions from which humans urgently needed to free themselves; she mockingly called it a “special revelation”.

Claire Fox’s version of humanism severs us not from gods and their like, or not only from them, but also from the rest of nature. Another word for it, which Ms Fox threw in at one point, is ‘exceptionalism’, a most dangerous and unpleasant concept which one would suppose had been permanently discredited by the twentieth century. To substantiate her vision of man as the solitary value in the world she used a curiously politicized and unscientific zoology, habitually speaking of the other animals as “a species”: “an animal is a completely different species … an inferior species.”

I thought at first that Claire Fox’s pugnacious contempt even for welfarism in our relations with other animals (she called factory farming “a wonderful step forward for humanity”) might be a role gamely adopted by her in order to keep up the programme’s “combative” format. But having learned a little about the Institute of Ideas, of which she is the director, and its hostile attitude to environmental values in general, I see that she meant it all. From her point of view, the violence of factory farming is not just permissible; it’s desirable, as evidence and actuation of human ascendancy. To think animal suffering important in the way our own is, and in fact to see our own suffering as a useful guide to what they feel, “reduces us to lumps of meat”. More generally, to concede rights to animals is “anti-humanist”.

This is a very ugly version of humanism, for which happily I can find no authority in the statements of the main humanist organisations. The International Humanist and Ethical [nota bene] Union, for instance, which regards itself as the “umbrella group” for the national organisations, speaks in its foundational statement of “an ethic based on human and other natural values”. It specifically reminds humanists that “other animals deserve moral consideration too!” I think that the exclamation mark is probably a sign of recognition that humanism has been slow to come to terms with nature, and is still uneasily disorganised on the subject, just because its vis-a-vis has traditionally been the supernatural. But that phrase “other animals”, acknowledging our proper context as humans, is by itself sufficient to put Claire Fox’s version outside the mainstream. Her ideology is not really humanism at all: it’s simply speciesism, raised from a convenient wrong into an ideology. The best name for it would be human-racism.

All the same, this episode of The Moral Maze was a welcome (at times even entertaining) broadcast. It did not bring anything new to the subject; in fact I think that everything in it, good and bad, had already been accounted for in Brigid Brophy’s momentous Sunday Times article of 1965, ‘The Rights of Animals’. But at least it evidenced that the vegan case “has traction”, as Michael Buerk (not known as a friend to animal rights) admitted in his opening remarks. The very great importance of the vegan case, both as a work of moral reasoning and as a growing presence in contemporary attitudes, was plainly shown. True, most human beings are still “all over the place”, hypocrites in the matter, as Giles Fraser said of himself. Animals will continue to pay a terrible price for that. But morality is always further along the road than practice, and at least this programme suggested that the majority of us are on the way or know we ought to be.

 

Notes and References:

The episode of Moral Maze was broadcast on Wednesday, 2 August. It can be heard again here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08zcbv5. For more about The Moral Maze, see the VERO post for 10 May 2016. The episode of Agree to Differ which treated vivisection, and brought together VERO’s patron Richard Ryder and Professor Tipu Aziz, is available for hearing again here (though I couldn’t get it to work this time): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04fc70m

The “special revelation” quotation is from Animals, Men and Morals, ed. Godlovitch and Harris, Gollancz, 1971, pp.126, in Brigid Brophy’s chapter entitled ‘In Pursuit of a Fantasy’. There’s more about Brigid Brophy and the Sunday Times article in the VERO post for 11 October 2015.

The 1973 Humanist Manifesto (there have been other more recent formulations, of course) can be read at https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/manifesto2/ The International Humanist and Ethical Union statement is online at http://iheu.org/humanism/what-is-humanism/

The Institute of Ideas and its background is featured in a long but quite entertaining article by Jenny Turner in London Review of Books, 8 July 2010, here: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n13/jenny-turner/who-are-they

 

 

 

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