The Ethics of Hunting – The Failings of the Burns Report

by Andrew Linzey

1.1 Public discussion concerning the future of hunting in the United Kingdom has centred on the Government’s own commissioned Report of the Burns Inquiry into Hunting with Hounds (London: HMSO, June 2000) [hereafter, ‘Burns’ or ‘the Report’], yet consideration of the ethical issues was specifically excluded from the remit of the Inquiry, and (to my knowledge) none of the Burns Committee have qualifications in moral philosophy or theology. These two facts are remarkable given the fact that hunting is widely regarded as a moral issue and opposed largely on moral grounds.

1.2 Few reports on contentious issues, however, can be entirely free of value judgements, and the Burns Report is no exception. It makes a range of judgements concerning the economic, social, and welfare aspects of hunting, all of which have implications for future legislation. It does so, however, without an explicit, or considered, ethical framework. It offers, at numerous points, opinions and prescriptions with a greater or lesser degree of argumentation but, of necessity, fails to confront major moral issues. The result is that the Report, for all its admirable qualities, encourages ethical avoidance, which in turn leads to ethical obfuscation.

2.1 In the first place, it makes no attempt to situate concern for animals historically. We are not provided even with a brief sketch of the movement for animal protection in Britain, how it evolved, what it was trying to achieve, and the influences, both social and political, which have propelled the issue of animals to political centre stage. While we are provided with detailed explanations of hunting, and lengthy expositions of its putative social, economic and cultural importance, not one insight is offered into the social and political history of animal protection and its contemporary significance.1

3.1 Secondly, there is no attempt to explain or understand the philosophy or goals of the humanitarian movement which emerged in the nineteenth-century and its effective continuance to the present day in contemporary debates about the rights or wrongs of how we treat animals. Someone reading the Report and new to the issue could be forgiven for failing to see what the fuss was all about, since nowhere does the Report even note the philosophy of animal protection, which has become such a significant feature of contemporary ethical debate. There is now an increasing, even voluminous, amount of literature on this topic, which is now universally regarded in the western world as a moral problem. Arguably, no other moral issue has received such sustained and detailed philosophical consideration especially during the last 30 years.2 The Burns Report nowhere helps us to understand the contemporary moral debate and precisely what the issues of justice, welfare and rights are all about.

4.1 Thirdly, while Burns rightly defines animal welfare as ‘concerned with the welfare of the individual animal’ (para 6.12; p. 109; my emphasis) it then offers a reductionist conception of animal welfare as ‘a scientific discipline, which has developed rapidly in recent years’ (para 6.9; p. 108). Whilst it is true that there is a scientific aspect, concern for animal well-being is as old as the Pre-Socratic philosophers (who in some instances anticipated contemporary philosophical discussion).3 In many periods throughout the history of philosophy one finds an undercurrent of concern for animal well-being. Most of the celebrated names in philosophy and theology — including Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Berkeley, Kant, Leibniz, Rousseau, Herder, Schopenhauer, Bentham, Mill, and Neitzsche — have at various times, and sometimes at length, explored fundamental questions about the nature of animals, including their capacity for reason, language, self-consciousness, soul possession, and the nature of our rightful use of power over them.4

Animal welfare certainly did not begin with the first empirical studies in the early Seventies; the RSPCA was founded in 1824 and even before then there was a sizeable body of thought — philosophical, ethical, historical, social, political and theological on this topic. By limiting animal welfare to its scientific aspect, Burns is able to subsequently posit uncertainty and unclarity in a range of matters where no precise scientific evidence obtains. The Report accepts, for example, that there is ‘a large measure of agreement among the scientists that, at least during the last 20 minutes or so of the hunt, the deer is likely to suffer …’ (para 6.31; p. 112), but then maintains that, ‘The available evidence does not enable us to resolve the disagreement about the point at which, during the hunt, the welfare of the deer becomes seriously compromised’ (para 6.33; p. 113). In other words, even scientific agreement is not sufficient, there must be demonstrable evidence of suffering at each significant stage of hunting. This is such a high standard of evidence that one wonders whether comparable cases of cruelty to domestic animals or cases of cruelty to children could possibly meet it. It opens the door to a kind of agnosticism in the face of evident physical suffering that is socially and morally regressive.

4.2 Fourthly, no less unsatisfactory is Burns’ method in dealing with animal welfare issues. Consider this paragraph, for instance:

We also consider that it is important, in examining the arguments about the welfare of animals subjected to hunting, not to judge them in isolation. In our view, this means not only considering the relative welfare advantages and disadvantages of different forms of culling — assuming that there is a need to kill the animal concerned — but also taking into account of what we know, and can reasonably assume, about the extent to which they would be likely to be used in practice in the event of a ban on hunting (para 6.11; p. 109).

4.3 No arguments are adduced in favour of the first statement, or for the second. Burns is welcome to its point of view, but without argument or evidence it remains just that. In fact, the approach to the question is far from neutral. It will not go unnoticed that it has been a favourite argument of hunters that taken as a whole hunting inflicts less suffering than other methods, or less than the suffering that wild animals might occasionally endure in their natural state, and Burns simply takes over their perspective without qualification, or even an attempt at argument. But it is at least questionable whether this is a satisfactory method of proceeding, and for two reasons. The first is that it assumes that all such killing is in principle justifiable (precisely what needs to be determined) and, secondly, it assumes that all such (legal) practices are on a level pegging morally (which is precisely the point that needs to be determined). It is, to say the least, a question begging procedure. Consider, for example, how satisfactory it would be for a dog owner to justify his or her cruel treatment of a domestic dog by reference to the possible or actual lives of abandoned, neglected or abused dogs that live on the streets. Proper moral analysis, on the other hand, requires attention to, inter alia, the object, intention, motivation, and consequences of a specific act regardless of what may or may not be done by others.

5.1 Fifthly, Burns minimises the reality of suffering. There is ample evidence that mammals experience not just pain, but also suffering, that is, stress, terror, shock, anxiety, fear, trauma, foreboding as well as pain, and that only to a greater or lesser degree than we do ourselves. Animals and humans show a common ancestor, show similar behaviour and have physiological similarities. Because of these triple conditions, these shared characteristics, it is perfectly logical to believe that animals experience many of the same emotions as humans. Logic tells us this and we do not need scientific data to believe in the suffering of animals. In fact, the onus should be on those people who try to deny that animals have such emotions. They must explain how in one species nerves act in one way and completely differently in another. They must explain why we believe that a child who cries and runs away from us after we have stamped on his or her foot is unhappy while a dog who behaves in precisely the same manner is said to present us with insufficient information for us to believe that the dog is unhappy. In the words of Konrad Lorenz, ‘The similarity [between humans and animals] is not only functional but historical, and it would be an actual fallacy not to humanise.’5

Indeed, as early as 1872 Darwin devoted a whole book to The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals in which, incidentally, he details the emotional responses of, inter alia, dogs and foxes.6 But since then there has been a wide range of scientific, especially ethological and epistemological findings on animal learning, tool making and self-consciousness. One of the founders of the field of animal cognition, Donald R. Griffin, argued in 1992 that, ‘What scientific understanding can provide is evidence against the notion that all animals are incapable of suffering and therefore totally undeserving of sympathy.’7 And David DeGrazia is his authoritative study published in 1996, concludes:

The available evidence, taken together, suggests that many species of animal — indeed, there is some reason to think, most or all vertebrates — can experience anxious states of mind … Additionally, given the close — probably overlapping — relationship between fear and anxiety, it is reasonable to conclude that these animals can also experience fear. Supporting this proposition is the fact that all vertebrates have automatic-nervous systems and limbic systems, which contain the basic substrates of anxiety and fear. In conclusion, the available evidence suggests that most or all vertebrates, and perhaps some invertebrates can suffer.8

And yet evidence of sentiency (roughly defined as the capacity for sense perception and suffering) and comparable emotional response is never given the weight that it deserves, indeed Burns seems to give it no more weight than another ‘opinion,’ for example:

It has been argued that, in view of what is known about the fox’s ecology and social systems, the hunted fox, whether being pursued by hounds or being dug out, is bound to experience fear and distress, but others dispute this, arguing that this simply amounts to anthropomorphism and that there is no evidence to support this assertion’ (para 6.42; p. 115; my emphases).

5.2 Burns does note that two post mortems of foxes from the University of Bristol reveal that death ‘was caused by massive injuries’ (para 6.46; p. 116) other than to the head and neck, and accepts that the killing of the fox ‘is not always effected by a single bite to the neck or shoulders by the leading hound …’ (para 6.49; p. 117). But the Report concludes that: ‘There is a lack of firm scientific evidence about the effect on the welfare of a fox of being closely pursued, caught and killed above ground by the hounds’ (para 6.49; p. 117). Comparable treatment of a domestic dog would not need ‘firm scientific evidence’ since it is widely understood that a number of dogs biting and killing a cornered dog would be considered cruel in the extreme. Anyone who asked for ‘scientific evidence’ in this case would, legitimately, be an object of mirth. Dog-fighting of course is illegal in the United Kingdom.

5.3 The Report concludes that, ‘We are satisfied, nevertheless, that this experience seriously compromises the welfare of the fox’ (para 6.49; p. 117). But this is an ambiguous and unsatisfactory phrase, as indicated by the dictionary definition of the word ‘compromise,’ namely, a ‘settlement of a dispute by mutual concession.’ This is a highly reductionistic way of describing a cruel death by disembowelment, unless it was intended, perhaps in an unforeseen way, to have political connotations. It certainly does not mean ‘cruel,’ as Lord Burns himself makes clear in a subsequent debate in the House of Lords: “Naturally, people ask whether we were simply implying that hunting is cruel but in true Sir Humphrey style were not prepared to say so clearly. The short answer to that question is no. There was not sufficient verifiable evidence or data safely to reach views about cruelty.”9 One wonders whether there will ever be the kind of evidence which would finally satisfy Lord Burns on this matter, or whether any such evidence could ever be provided either in the case of humans or animals. Since, however, prosecutions against cruelty to domestic animals are successful, one can only posit that the standard of evidence that Burns requires is simply not met in most criminal or civil cases. In fact, as we noted, there is ample evidence that all mammals experience suffering and to suppose that being chased for prolonged periods, disembowelled whilst alive, or baited by dogs, is other than cruel is to be pusillanimous before the facts.

5.4 Under this section, one other point needs to be made. Burns repeatedly asserts that foxes, hare and mink die ‘in seconds.’ For example: ‘In a proportion of cases it [death of the fox] results from massive injuries to the chest and vital organs, although insensibility and death will normally follow within a matter of seconds once the fox is caught’ (para 6.49; p. 117). Again in relation to hares: ‘…death and insensibility will normally follow within a matter of seconds …’ (para 6.67; p. 120). But these assertions mask the point that just one second of excruciating pain while being torn apart by dogs is morally objectionable, let alone many. But how do we know that it is only a ‘few’ seconds and not, five, ten, fifteen or many more? (It should be noted, in passing, that the Government’s own Farm Animal Welfare Council supported a ban on religious slaughter on the grounds that such slaughter rendered the animals liable to suffering for an average of 17-20 more seconds than traditional slaughter.)10 Again, we have an example of how Burns, in the absence of the scientific evidence it says is essential to make firm judgements, conjectures only to minimise the gravity of animal suffering. In fact, however, Burns accepts that in the case of hares there can ‘sometimes be a significant delay [unaccountably unquantified] … before the “picker-up” reaches the hare and dispatches it (if it is not already dead)’ (para 6.68; p. 120). And, moreover, in the case of deer there is scientific agreement that the animal may be liable to suffering for at least the last 20 minutes of hunting. Even given these minimal figures, distinct from the suffering caused through the chase itself in the case of foxes, mink and hare, or through the activity of digging out, we have good reason to posit a cruel and certainly less than instantaneous death.

6.1 Sixthly, although the rationale for hunting is frequently stated, we are provided with no such account in relation to animal welfare. (The chapter on Animal Welfare is one of the shortest in the Report and consists, inter alia, of a range of repetitious statements and little argument). By focussing simply on the scientific aspect of animal welfare, the Report provides an incoherent account of why animals may be thought to matter morally. It is not enough to say that animals should not suffer or that suffering is wrong, what is needed is an account of why that is so. Only when this case has been made can we fully appreciate the strength of the moral obligation to avoid harm. It is important to understand that this sensitivity has strong rational foundations. As I have written elsewhere:

6.2 It is important to spell out precisely why animals should be regarded as constituting a special moral case, or as having a special claim on our attention. When analysed impartially we can see that there are a range of considerations that are peculiarly relevant to animals and also to some vulnerable human subjects. For example:

Animals cannot give or withhold their consent.
The point is obvious but it has considerable moral significance. It is commonly accepted that ‘informed consent’ is required in advance by any person who wishes to override the legitimate interests of other. The absence of this factor requires, at the very least, that we should exercise special care and thoughtfulness. The very (obvious) fact that animals cannot agree to the purposes to which they are put increases our responsibility and singles them out (along with others) as a special case.

Animals cannot represent or verbalise their own interests.
Again the point is obvious but it has serious moral implications. Individuals who cannot adequately represent themselves have to depend upon others to do so. Burns writes that, ‘Because it is not possible to ask an animal about its welfare, or to know what is going on inside its head, it is necessary to draw up some indicators which enable one to make a judgement’ (para 6.10; p. 108). In fact, many animals show quite plainly that they are afraid, threatened, and so forth. But because they cannot communicate in words, we often ignore their cries, their avoidance behaviour, and their clear signs of stress. Scientific knowledge certainly helps, but it should not mask the point that it is precisely the animals’ inability to communicate with us — at least in a straightforward way — which should invoke in us an increased sense of obligation and mark them out as a special case.

Animals are morally innocent.
Because animals are not moral agents with free will, they cannot — strictly speaking — be regarded as morally responsible. That granted, it follows that they can never (unlike, arguably, adult humans) deserve suffering, or be improved morally by it. Animals can never merit suffering; proper recognition of this consideration makes any infliction of suffering upon them particularly problematic.

Animals are vulnerable and defenceless.
They are wholly, or almost wholly, within our power and entirely subject to our will. Except in rare circumstances, animals pose us no direct threat, constitute no risk to our life, and possess no means of offence or defence. Moral solicitude should properly relate to, and be commensurate with, the relative vulnerability of the subjects concerned.

6.3 The key point to note is that these considerations make the infliction of suffering and death on animals not easier— but harder to justify. Perhaps the best analogy is the special solicitude now rightly extended to weaker members of the human community, for example, newly born infants or young children. It is, inter alia, their sheer vulnerability, their inability to articulate their needs, and their moral innocence, that compels us to insist that they be treated with special care and protected from exploitation. But, if this argument is sound, it applies to sentient mammals as well.11)

7.1 Seventhly, in the light of the above, we are now able to articulate the moral dimension that Burns fails to address. Hunting offends two basic moral principles. The first is that it is intrinsically wrong to deliberately inflict suffering on a sentient mammal for purposes other than its own individual benefit (for example, in a veterinary operation). This, I submit, is the most satisfactory definition of ‘cruelty.’ Historically and legally, the term ‘unnecessary suffering’ has been used and in its time may have had its pragmatic uses. But with hindsight, we can see that this term involved the problematic implication that there are ‘necessary’ cruelties, or that cruel acts could be morally licit. What follows ineluctably from the above considerations for moral solicitude is that there are certain prima facie acts against the vulnerable, the innocent and the defenceless (both human and animal) which cannot be other than morally unconscionable, and the deliberate infliction of suffering is surely one of them. We do not speak, for example, of ‘necessary rape’ or ‘necessary torture’ or ‘necessary child abuse,’ and neither should we do so in the case of the deliberate infliction of suffering on animals.

7.2 It is sometimes argued that hunters simply imitate the ‘cruelties of nature.’ But this view is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of moral actions. Animals are not moral agents and are not therefore responsible for their actions whereas human beings are both. Free will is absolutely basic to the notion of morality. Without choice, there is no morality: we do not blame someone for doing something that s/he could not help doing. We may not like the action, but we do not morally condemn. The so-called cruelty of nature, however, is not based on choice. If the lion does not kill the antelope the lion starves and dies: the lion has no real choice. On the other hand, foxes, deer, hares and mink are not threatening our survival. Our choices clearly fall within the realm of morality. There is thus a fundamental distinction between the accidental or non-intentional harming of animals or humans (for example by an earthquake) and the deliberate, intentional infliction of harm by moral agents. It is the deliberate infliction of suffering by moral agents who can and should know better which is central to the moral objection to hunting.

7.3 For this and other reasons, it is ludicrous to present the argument about the morality of hunting simply in terms of individual liberty as if liberty was absolute or properly unfettered. Those who now argue that banning hunting constitutes a tyranny against personal liberty have to explain the use of the same argument to justify gross cruelties in the past. For example, commenting on the failure of the first Bill to outlaw bull-baiting in 1800, The Times was adamant that the attempt was misconceived since ‘whatever meddles with private personal disposition of a man’s time is tyranny direct.’12

8.1 Nowhere does Burns consider the possibility that the deliberate infliction of suffering is intrinsically objectionable. By failing to do so, he fails to understand the basic moral case against hunting. But there is also a second, even more fundamental principle, namely, that it is intrinsically wrong to deliberately cause suffering for the purposes of amusement, recreation, or in the name of sport. It is sometimes argued that not all hunters enjoy the pursuit of their quarry and that may be true. But that hunters are involved in a collective activity that has the definite and deliberate aim of harrying a living creature to its death (which in the process causes suffering) is indisputable.

8.2 Here we reach, perhaps, the most unsatisfactory part of the Report. Burns accepts that ‘pleasure’ is a motivation for hunting (para 5.22; p. 86), that ‘hunting is itself partly a social event’ (para 27; p. 10; my emphasis), it refers to surveys which indicate that ‘farmers in the Midlands often cite sport as a reason for killing foxes’ (para 5.11; p. 84; my emphasis), and it recognises that in the event of a ban on all forms of hunting ‘farmers would lose the benefit of a recreation they value,’ (para 3.75; p. 67; my emphasis), and it further recognises that hare hunting and coursing ‘are essentially carried out for recreational purposes’ (para 5.94; p. 102; my emphasis), but it does not consider the moral implications of any of these admissions. Burns also accepts that hares are ‘maintained at high levels for shooting and hunting/coursing purposes,’ (para 5.93; p. 101 and para 7.32; p. 131) and also that hundreds, perhaps thousands, are actually transported for this purpose, (paras 7.27 – 7.29; p. 130) but lamely notes that, ‘In the case of hare hunting and coursing it is difficult to disentangle the conservation efforts made in the interests of hunting and coursing from the game management (such as predator control) undertaken in the interests of shooting hare and other game such as partridges and pheasants’ (para 7.18; p. 127). However difficult it may be for Burns to ‘disentangle,’ the unmistakable implication is that hares are preserved only so that they may be killed by hunting and coursing.

8.3 The same is also true in the case of foxes where artificial earths are provided. Burns, to its credit, censures such activity and argues that, ‘The active use of artificial earths, with a view to hunting, is inconsistent with the stated objective of controlling fox numbers through hunting’ (para 9.27; p. 150). Burns notes that the Countryside Alliance saw nothing morally objectionable about this practice and sought to justify it.

8.4 We cannot avoid the evidence, then, that animals, such as foxes and hares, are preserved for hunting. No other reading is possible of these admissions. What does not seem to be appreciated here is that preservation — far from being simply an ‘inconsistent’ activity — vitiates the entire case for ‘control.’ And without such a case, hunting is revealed for what it is — the pursuit of a live creature purely for the purposes of sport. For if, as is often alleged, the ‘kill’ is a practically irrelevant issue for those who enjoy hunting, indeed they even dislike the very thought (we are assured), why cannot such enjoyment be found in drag or bloodhound hunting (where the ‘kill’ is not the object)? The only conceivable answer is that those who go hunting do so because they enjoy and take pleasure in the pursuit of a live animal to its death. Burns notes that, inter alia, the appeal of drag hunts is less because they ‘do not have the same “rhythm” as a typical foxhunt’ (para 829; p. 140), but the question must be asked: What ‘rhythmic’ difference is there save that of specifically enjoying the prolonged and cruel chase of a sentient creature? The case against hunting is nowhere better summarised than by the frank admission by Baroness Mallalieu: ‘Hunting is our music, it is our poetry, it is our art, it is our pleasure.’13

8.5 As a sideline, Burns castigates those involved in illegal coursing suspecting that they ‘do so for base motives and have little regard for animal welfare’ (para 9.40; p. 153). It is striking that Burns claims to know, as it were from the inside, what the motivation of illegal hare coursers must be, but since what is done by illegal coursers differs little substantially in practice from legal coursing, and since from the animals’ standpoint the end result is identical, we might ask why such perspicacity and moral indignation is not displayed equally in the direction of legal coursers as well.

9.1 It is important to understand why taking pleasure from the cruel death of an animal is nothing less than morally evil. In order to do so, we need briefly to give some account of some of the major theories of normative ethics. Roughly, they can be divided into three: (1) Deontological theories which hold that there is an objective standard of right and wrong and that there are duties incumbent on each individual, some of which are absolutely binding. (2) Virtue theories which hold that the standard of right or wrong consists in acts or behaviour likely to promote individual virtue or the ‘virtuous life’ — specifically the classical virtues, such as prudence, justice, courage and temperance. And (3) utilitarian theories which broadly hold that the best consequences will be those that include the greatest possible balance of pleasure over pain. These theories differ in the account given of our obligations to animals, but the important thing to note is that all these theories, and their classical and modern exponents, would draw an absolute line at taking pleasure from cruelty.

9.2 Representatives of each theory are adamant. Immanuel Kant, who explicitly opposed ‘cruelty for sport,’ held that, ‘He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men’ whereas ‘tender feelings towards dumb animals develop humane feelings towards mankind.’14 St. Thomas Aquinas (not known for his enlightened views on animals) similarly posits that the purpose of scriptural prohibitions is ‘to remove man’s thoughts from being cruel to other men, and lest through being cruel to animals one becomes cruel to human beings.’15 And even within utilitarianism, it is worth noting that among its main historical exponents, John Stuart Mill was an early supporter of the (then) SPCA, and Jeremy Bentham was expressly opposed to hunting. Indeed, Bentham famously wrote of animals that, ‘The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? but Can they suffer?’16

9.3 It is therefore odd to see a vague, non-principled utilitarianism utilised (perhaps unconsciously) throughout the Report as if the rightness or wrongness of hunting could be determined by general appeals to usefulness alone, and as if a utilitarian calculus would unambiguously approve of hunting. The kind of loose utilitarian talk, so much in vogue today, which supposes that any demonstration of useful ends justifies any means would be abhorrent to classical theorists. A utilitarian uses the Principle of Utility to judge which actions are right, which actions produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This calculation of pleasures and pains ‘applies to the whole sentient creation’ according to Mill. He also said, ‘According to the Greatest Happiness Principle … the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people) is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments.’17 James Rachels, in commentary, explains that for a utilitarian, ‘what matters is not whether an individual has a soul, is rational or any of the rest. All that matters is whether he is capable of experiencing happiness or unhappiness — pleasure and pain.’18 Thus for a classical utilitarian the pain of animals must always be taken into consideration when coming to a moral decision. Certainly the death of any animal and its pain would outweigh the pleasure achieved in hunting and one would thus have to conclude that hunting cannot be morally justified. And, moreover, the taking of pleasure in pain or the making a sport of it would deserve the highest kind of moral censure.

9.4 Unsurprisingly, Peter Singer, perhaps the leading contemporary utilitarian ethicist, is resolutely opposed to hunting and asserts that, “The trouble is that the authorities responsible for wildlife have a ‘harvest’ mentality, and are not interested in finding techniques of population control that would reduce the number of animals to be ‘harvested’ by hunters.”19 Suffice to say, it would take a tortuous calculation to justify recreational hunting by reference to orthodox utilitarian theory.

10.1 Of particular importance is the united view expressed by classical theorists that cruelty has anti-social implications. It was this awareness that drove the humanitarian movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to oppose bull-baiting, bear-baiting, cock-throwing (throwing sticks at a cock) and cockfighting, and why practices, such as bull-fighting, and rodeos were made illegal in this country. If one looks at the early debates concerning animal protection, two rationales are frequently prevalent: Cruelty is unjust to other creatures, and also harms the perpetrator by diminishing his or her humanity. Consider, for example, the celebrated preamble to Lord Erskine’s famous Cruelty to Animals Bill in 1809: ‘…the abuse of that [human] dominion by cruel and oppressive treatment of such animals, is not only highly unjust and immoral, but most pernicious in its example, having an evident tendency to harden the heart against the natural feelings of humanity.’20

10.2 This latter claim was, at the time, largely rhetorical. It was simply assumed, in accordance with classical moral thinking, that this must be so. But there is now an accumulating amount of evidence linking violence and abuse of animals to other forms of violence, abuse, or anti-social behaviour. One recent authoritative work maintains that: ‘Violence directed against animals is often a coercion device and an early indicator of violence that may escalate in range and severity against other victims.’21 This does not mean of course that all those who abuse animals will subsequently perpetrate antisocial or violent behaviour. There is no simple cause and effect. Rather cruelty to animals seems to be one of a cluster of potential or actual characteristics held in common by those who commit violent or seriously anti-social acts. It is worth noting that mental health professionals and top law-enforcement officials in the United States consider cruelty to animals a warning sign. The American Psychiatric Association, for example, identifies animal cruelty as one of the diagnostic criteria for conduct disorders, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation uses reports of animal cruelty in analysing the threat of suspected and known criminals.

10.3 Nowhere does Burns even ask whether hunting might have adverse consequences for the wider society. The unexamined and un-argued assumption throughout is that the various utilities — social, and cultural and economic — all point to the justifiability of hunting. But there are other, admittedly less immediately tangible, factors on the other side that should, in the course of any proper evaluation be considered, for example: the loss of moral respect for animals manifest by the various activities of hunting, the instrumentalist attitudes to nature encouraged by treating animals merely as objects of sport, the acceptance that cruelty is a ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ way of life in the countryside, and the spiritual poverty in regarding animals as merely means to human ends. Not least of all, we should not overlook the capacity of human beings to become desensitised through habitual exposure to practices which involve suffering and violence to animals. This has been, as we have seen, a frequent concern of philosophers and moralists. The question has to be faced: What example of respect, or rather disrespect, for animals is learnt through hunting? John Locke, writing as early as 1693, maintained that the education of children must abhor any tolerance of cruelty since ‘the custom of tormenting and killing beasts will, by degrees, harden their minds even toward men; and they who delight in the suffering and destruction of inferior creatures, will not be apt to be very compassionate or benign to those of their own kind.’ Specifically when unchecked, ‘unnatural cruelty is planted in us; and what humanity abhors, custom reconciles and recommends to us, by laying in it the way of honour. Thus by fashion and opinion, that comes to be a pleasure, which in itself neither is, nor can be any.’22

11.1 That there is a public moral interest in preventing cruelty has in fact already been established, and not only by the pioneering bills against cruel sports. Burns writes of the potential incompatibility of a ban on hunting with the European Convention on Human Rights that: ‘If it were the case that private life is interfered with, the issue of a legitimate objective i.e. the protection of morals) seemed to the Committee to be crucial.’ That question seemed to the Committee to turn on two key factors: first, whether hunting with dogs is viewed as inherently or necessarily causing suffering; second, whether, if it was so seen by members of the public or Parliament, this could constitute sufficient “moral” grounds in the absence of objective, scientific evidence’ (para 10.11; p. 159). The idea that ‘objective, scientific evidence’ is required before the UK Government could act in a matter deemed to be in the interests of public morality is extraordinary, especially if it presupposes Burns’ own method of calculating suffering. But the point is in one sense irrelevant, since the Government has already legislated against fur farming precisely on the grounds of public morality. As Elliott Morley, the (then) Parliamentary Secretary to the (then) Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, explained in the House of Commons:

Morality is important when it comes to the treatment of animals. I shall repeat our view on the morality of fur farming. Fur Farming is not consistent with a proper value and respect for animal life. Animal life should not be destroyed in the absence of sufficient justification in terms of public benefit. Nor should animals be bred for such destruction in the absence of sufficient justification. That is the essence of our argument for applying morality to a Bill of this kind, and for justifying it under article 30 of EU regulations.23

11.2 Given that this legislation has now become law, it seems that we have already passed the Rubicon to which Burns refers, even without ‘objective, scientific evidence’ (at least of the kind that Burns supposes). To my knowledge, no European challenge has been made, nor is one likely to succeed. The questions that need to be answered, then, are these: If there is sufficient justification for the Government to legislate on the grounds of public morality to prevent the needless destruction of fur farmed animals, including foxes and mink, shall not the Government likewise legislate — and on precisely the same grounds — to ban the causing of suffering to foxes, mink, deer and hare in hunting and coursing? If public morality requires ‘a proper respect’ for the value of animal life, on what grounds could one legislate to protect fur farmed foxes and not hunted ones? And since the issue of cruelty in hunting is as much, if not more, clear-cut than in the case of fur farming, how could the Government avoid the charge of inconsistency by not proceeding with a ban on hunting?

12.1 Finally, we come to the issue of ‘control.’ Some utilitarians might be amenable to the argument for control if there were good evidence in favour of it, namely, if there were overwhelming advantages and few or no disadvantages, and if there were no alternatives. But what is clear from the Report is that, even if there is a case for control, Burns does not make it. It is astonishing how, when it comes to issues of establishing suffering Burns requires the highest ‘scientific’ standard possible, whereas the ‘need’ for control is almost entirely unargued and rests largely on the repeated perceived need for such control:

[Upland areas] … where there is greater perceived need for control … (para 35; p. 12; my emphasis). Many farmers too would no doubt feel they had suffered a financial loss if hunting was banned (para 3.56; p. 62; my emphasis).

[Farmers] … would feel that they had suffered an economic loss since a free “pest control” service would have been removed: they would expect more predation of lambs, poultry, piglets and game birds…’ (para 3.75; p. 67; my emphasis)

Although foxes are widely perceived to as a pest …’ (para 42, p. 83; my emphasis). It is clear, however, that the great majority of land managers do consider it [foxhunting] necessary’ (para 5.37; p. 90; my emphasis). Not everyone accepts that it is necessary to manage the fox population: some argue that it would be satisfactory to rely on self-regulation. In most areas of England and Wales farmers, landowners and gamekeepers consider that it is necessary to manage fox populations … (para 5.37; p. 91; my emphasis)

[Upland areas] …where there is a greater perceived need for control …’ (para 5.43; p. 91; my emphasis)

12.2 It needs hardly to be said that there is a world of difference between perceived and actual needs; similarly needs, feelings and expectations do not establish facts. That Burns, to its credit, so prefaces its remarks on so many occasions indicates the dearth of actual, let alone ‘scientific,’ evidence.

12.3 And when analysed in terms of the contribution of hunting to the control of each relevant species, the results are startling. The ‘overall contribution of foxhunting’ is ‘almost certainly insignificant in terms of the management of the fox population as a whole’ (para 5.36; p. 89). On deer, Burns maintains that there is ‘virtually unanimous agreement’ that red deer populations need to be culled (though, again, no evidence is supplied) but hunting with dogs accounts for only about 15% of the annual cull apparently required in the relevant region (para 5.48; p. 92). On hares, Burns is frank that, ‘No-one argues that legal hunting or coursing has an appreciable effect on hare numbers’ (para 5.89; p. 101). On mink, Burns again accepts that ‘the contribution made by mink hunts to the control of mink populations nationally is insignificant’ (para 5.117; p. 106). All in all, then, the contribution of hunting and coursing to the perceived need for control of foxes, hares, and mink is non-existent or negligible, and even in the case of deer the contribution remains slight (in terms of overall numbers). Given the widely canvassed view that hunting can be justified solely by reference to control, we are compelled to conclude that such a claim lacks foundation.

12.4 Much has been made of Burns’ view, in the event of a ban on fox-hunting, that: ‘In upland areas, where the fox population causes more damage to sheep-rearing and game management interest, and where there is a greater perceived need for control, fewer alternatives are available to the use of dogs, either to flush out or for digging out’ (para 5.43; p. 91). Defenders of hunting have seized upon these lines as a potential lifeline to justify the continuance of fox-hunting and even, less logically, other forms of hunting and coursing as well. Opponents of hunting, at least of a utilitarian kind, might be presented with a poser if it could be shown that the need for fox control in a particular region was established beyond doubt and that it had some overwhelming advantage and that it was the only available means of doing so. But, in reality, not even one of these conditions applies as closer reading of the Burns report reveals. To begin with, Burns is disarmingly frank about the weakness of the case for lamb predation by foxes:

It is not easy, however, to establish with any certainty how serious a problem fox predation represents. Predation is not usually witnessed; it is not always possible to distinguish between the killing of healthy lambs and scavenging dead or dying ones; and other predators, including domestic dogs, also kill lambs. (para 5.12; p. 84)

At most the predation of uncertain origin amounts to about 2% and predation on piglets, just about as uncertain, amounts also to the same small percentage though, even here, there has been, we are told, ‘no systematic study of this problem’ (para 5.16; p. 85). When it comes to game birds, we are assured that, ‘In the absence of [presumably any] fox control a substantial number of birds would be lost before the start of the shooting season’ (para 5.17; p. 85), but no figures are actually specified or is there any evidence of independent research. Unsurprisingly, Burns speaks, entirely rightly, of a perceived need for control for whatever this ‘evidence’ amounts to it falls short of anything approximating a case of necessity. This is reinforced by what is subsequently noted about the highly problematic nature of control (see 12.6), and the recognition that overall the contribution of fox-hunting to control is in any case ‘insignificant.’ Although Burns argues that that there are ‘fewer’ alternatives to fox-hunting in upland areas — that is not the same as saying there are none, or that fox-hunting is the only one.

12.5 One obvious point concerning the proposed justifiability of killing foxes for ‘game management’ purposes should be made. To kill birds for sport will strike many as objectionable, but to add to this the killing of foxes simply because one wants to kill them oneself appears doubly objectionable. If I have understood the argument correctly it goes like this: One kills one kind of creature only because it is perhaps decreasing one’s pleasure in killing another. The reasoning that attempts to justify this kind of hunting would have to be grotesque.

12.6 Those who wish to turn Burns’ tentative statement into a justification for the continuation of fox-hunting really have not understood the requirements of a proper assessment of a moral issue. Even in utilitarian terms to subject animals to a prolonged chase and a cruel death requires much, much more in terms of moral justification. It is insufficient to point to perceived need; in utilitarian terms, any control would need to pass a series of moral tests, including genuine necessity, evidence of a direct threat, proven use, unavailability of non-lethal methods, as well as humaneness.

12.7 What also needs to be borne in mind is that the general case for control of any of the relevant species (with the possible exception of deer) is still remarkably weak. This is because, as Burns notes, there are a number of highly complicating factors which beguile the whole issue. The first and most obvious is that nature is an essentially self-regulating system; animals breed in relation to the food and environment available. Secondly, as Burns notes, there is no obvious ‘equilibrium level’ (para 2; p. 82) for each species; it is now held by many that populations rise and fall as a matter of course. It is believed that animal populations cycle just as trees, grasses and, in general, plants cycle. Thirdly, killing (‘culling’) does not necessarily ‘control’ any species since the species itself compensates for any dent in its population. Scientists talk of compensatory reproduction. This is a well-known phenomena; many animals compensate for losses by breeding at an earlier stage, having bigger litters, and so forth. As Rory Putman explains:

If population levels are lowered artificially, the density-dependent brake on population growth is released: reproduction increases, mortality declines. Lack of selectivity in the cull … may also exacerbate the pest problem by disrupting the social structure and organisation of the pest. This may have two consequences: a further increase in population density, and an increase in damage caused because the animals display abnormal behaviour in response to a distorted social structure.

Again: ‘… we have repeatedly stressed that most natural populations respond to reduction in numbers by increased productivity.’24 Fourthly, as Burns notes: ‘Culling does not necessarily produce a proportional decrease in abundance or damage … It is therefore important to distinguish between attempted and achieved population control, and to bear in mind that a reduction in the population does not necessary translate into a pro rata reduction in the perceived problem’ (para seven; p. 82). With so many fundamental qualifications, the case for control needs a great deal more ‘expert,’ ‘scientific’ (as well as moral) scrutiny.

13.1 Given the weakness of the case for control by hunting, it is astonishing that society should have tolerated it as long as it has, especially since comparable acts against domestic animals are illegal. That society has tolerated it, and that people who hunt so vehemently support it, says something about the mechanism of moral rationalisation that bedevils all attempts to think clearly and impartially about the morality of our treatment of animals. Since we now know that the case for control by hunting is negligible, we can only logically suppose other motives are in play, be they social, cultural, or sheer pleasure seeking. It is the recognition of this latter factor, namely pleasure seeking, that above all makes hunting so especially morally abhorrent. We may recall Macaulay’s famous rebuke that the Puritans objected to bull-baiting, not because it hurt the bull, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. But the Puritans were only half-wrong. Both the pain of the hunted and the pleasure of the hunter should equally concern us morally. Both constitute an offence which is so grave and so deep that abolition is the only moral course open to us.

13.2 Jane Ridley, herself a hunter, in her notable social history titled Fox Hunting begins her first page with the words: ‘Fox hunting isn’t strictly necessary.’25 Given this admission, and the many others in Burns about control, preservation and recreation, it is not difficult to understand why hunting has become such a totemic issue for all concerned with the right treatment of animals. It is true that some real gains have been made for animal welfare even during the centuries in which hunting for sport has been practised, and it is also true that the making of all legislation invariably involves some inconsistencies both in the fields of human as well as animal welfare. But sometimes legislative inconsistencies are so great that they rebound upon us, and once we become aware of them, it is difficult not to be seized by the need for urgent rectifying change. Such, I submit, is the case with our, as yet, only piece-meal abolition of cruel sports. For how can we, logically, pursue a progressive animal welfare agenda, even making the case for the enlightened treatment of animals where some genuine human interest is involved, while those who gratuitously hunt creatures to a cruel death do so with legal impunity? Reasonable people may reasonably disagree about where we should draw the line in our treatment of animals, but hunting mammals for sport is the clearest example of the least justifiable, and the most objectionable, of all current practices in the United Kingdom.


1.Essential reading should include: Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes to Nature, 1600-1800 (London: Allen Lane, 1983), especially chapters 1-4; James Turner, Reckoning with the Beast: Animals, Pain and Humanity in the Victorian Mind (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), Richard D. Ryder, Animal Revolution: The Struggle Against Speciesism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), and Hilda Kean, Animal Rights: Political and Social Change in Britain since 1800 (London: Reaktion Books, 1998).

2. Perhaps the best single guide to recent thought is Marc Bekoff (ed), Encyclopaedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1998). And for guides to the literature, see Charles R. Magel, Keyguide to Information Sources in Animal Rights (London and New York: Mansell Press, 1989) and, more recently, John M. Kistler, Animal Rights: A Subject Guide, Bibliography, and Internet Companion (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000).

3. See, Richard Sorabji, Animal Minds and Human Morals: The Origins of the Western Debate (London: Duckworth Publishing, 1993).

4. For 60 extracts from all these thinkers and many others see, Paul A. B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey (eds), Political Theory and Animal Rights (London: Pluto Press, 1990).

5. Konrad Lorenz, letter to L. Williams, Man and Monkey (London 1967), p. 54; cited and discussed in Stephen R. L. Clark, The Moral Status of Animals (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 38f.

6. Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals [1872] (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press) (Reprinted from the authorised edition of D. Appleton and Company, New York and London, n.d.), see pages 121 and 124.

7. Donald R. Griffin, Animal Minds (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press), p. 251; see also the pioneering work by Bernard E. Rollin, The Unheeded Cry: Animal Consciousness, Animal Pain and Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), and also these articles: Margaret Rose and David Adams, “Evidence for Pain and Suffering in Other Animals” in Gill Langley (ed), Animal Experimentation: The Consensus Changes (New York; Chapman and Hall, 1989), M. Zimmerman, “Behaviour Investigations of Pain in Animals” in I. J. H. Duncan and V. Molony (eds), Assessing Pain in Farm Animals (Luxenbourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Community, 1986), C. J. Yierck and B. Y. Cooper, “Guidelines for Assessing Pain Reactions and Pain Modulation in Laboratory Animal Subjects,” Advances in Pain Research and Therapy 6 (1984): 305-22, and E. M. Wright, K. L. Marcella and J. F. Woodson, “Animal Pain: Evaluation and Control,” Lab Animal 9 (1985): 20-36.

8. David DeGrazia, Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 123. Chapters 4-7 survey and analyse the latest empirical evidence about animal consciousness and sentiency.

9. Lord Burns, Debate on the Hunting Bill, Hansard, 12 March, 2001, p. 533.

10. Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), Report on the Welfare of Livestock when Slaughtered by Religious Methods (London: HMSO, 1985), see pp. 19f.

11. These paragraphs 6.2 – 6.3 (with some revisions) are taken from the booklet, Andrew Linzey, The Ethical Case Against Fur Farming: A Statement by Academics, including Ethicists, Philosophers and Theologians (London: Respect for Animals, 2002), p. 4.

12. The Times (editorial), 25 April, 1800, cited in A. W. Moss, The Valiant Crusade: The History of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (London: Cassell, 1961), p. 14.

13. Ann Mallalieu, “Hunting Is Our Music,” in Brian MacArthur (ed), The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Protest (London: Penguin Books, 1999), p. 468; my emphasis.

14. Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics — Duties Towards Animals and Other Spirits [1780-1] trans by Louise Infield (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), pp. 239-41; extract in Clarke and Linzey, ibid, pp. 126-127.

15. St. Thomas Aquinas, ‘Summa Contra Gentiles,’ translated by Anton C. Pegis, Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (New York: Random House, 1945), Vol. II, pp. 220-224; extract in Clarke and Linzey, ibid, p. 10.

16. Jeremy Bentham, “An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation” [1789] in A Fragment on Government and An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, ed by Wilfred Harrison, 1823 edn (Oxford: Blackwell, 1948), pp. 411-412; extract in Clarke and Linzey, ibid, p. 136.

17. John Stuart Mill cited and discussed in James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Third Edition (Boston: MacGraw-Hill, 1999), p.p. 97-98; my emphases.

18. Rachels, ibid, p. 103.

19. Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, Second Edition, (New York: Random House, 1990), p. 234.

20. Lord Erskine, Debate on the Cruelty to Animals Bill, Hansard, 15 May, 1809, p. 558. I am grateful to Dr Chien-hui Li of Wolfson College, Cambridge, for this reference.

21. Frank R. Ascione and Phil Arkow (eds), Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, and Animal Abuse (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1999), Preface, p. xvii. The collection is the result of a multidisciplinary symposium of people professionally concerned with social work, child protection, domestic violence, as well as animal protection.

22. John Locke, “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” [1693] in The Works of John Locke in Ten Volumes, Tenth Edition (London, 1801), Vol. 9, pp. 112-115; extract in Clarke and Linzey, ibid, pp. 119-120.

23. Elliot Morley, Debate on the Fur Farming Abolition Bill, Hansard, 15 May, 2000, p. 76.

24. Rory Putman, The Natural History of Deer (New York: Cornell University Press, 1988) (in the Natural History of Mammals Series, published in the UK as the Helm Mammal series, ed by Ernest Neal), pp. 171-172.

25. Jane Ridley, Fox Hunting (London: Collins, 1990), p. 1.


I am indebted to Dr Priscilla Cohn, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Penn State University, for her generous assistance with this paper. Evidence presented to the Public Hearings on Hunting in London, 9-11 September, 2002, arranged by DEFRA (Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) of the United Kingdom Government. The Hearings were intended to consider the evidence for and against hunting prior to the Government’s own Bill on this subject.

© Copyright, Andrew Linzey, 2002