Some of the pet dogs in our street in North London have become disturbed by the rising number of urban foxes lurking in the bushes, mating noisily and raiding the bins in our back and front gardens. They make the dogs bark – and bark and bark – which in turn has aroused the ire of their owners and, even more, of those living nearby. The situation resulted in a very interesting discussion a few months ago via email between the street’s residents. It showed that opinion on the foxes was sharply divided. Some neighbours saw these animals as vermin in need of control. Others maintained that the foxes have every right to exist and should be left alone to live their lives among us.

This use of he word “right” started me thinking about the whole idea of wild, or feral, animals possessing (or even needing) moral rights, such as the right to live in any particular habitat e.g. my road in North London. Do they in fact hold any of the moral rights we take for granted as belonging to ourselves – the rights to life, freedom, equality before the law and so on?  The more I thought about it the less easy I was with the idea of extending human rights to wild animals.

Looking at the natural world it’s difficult in any case to see how those rights could operate. Darwin showed that natural life is governed by the drive to breed and perpetuate the species. Neither success nor failure in this has anything to do with morality: nature (and the natural food-chain) is morally neutral and rights free.

When the urban fox killed our pet guinea-pig Mimi both animals had been behaving instinctually. Mimi escaped one night from her hutch in the garden, not thinking of the possible consequences. Only if she had been able to foresee that she might fall victim to the vixen could she have considered any moral dimension in what might happen. When getting a good breakfast for herself and her cubs the vixen had no moral qualms about Mimi’s right to exist, and Mimi did not expect (or hope) that she might. Moral rights were at no stage relevant to the situation.

A guinea-pig does not reflect on the consequences of its actions, and nor does it compare these to what happens as a result of other creatures’ actions towards it. This lack of foresight, of expectation, is one of the key indicators of the difference between ourselves and wild animals, and yet expectation is essential in all moral systems if they are to operate effectively. As social creatures our behaviour tends to be regulated according to how we think others expect us to behave. At the same time we have our own parallel expectation of reciprocity (do as you would be done by). Neither of these expectations is found in a fox or any other feral creature so that seeking to extend human rights to such animals is essentially little different from dressing your dog or cat in human clothing: it’s unnecessary, sentimental, demeaning – and above all deluded. 

Animals that we breed, keep and exploit for our own purposes, and hunt frivolously in the wild, are a different case – and a different discussion. I hate the exploitative cruelty of factory farming as much as I loathe the irrational demand for elephant tusk and rhino horn. But the moral question to ask here is not what rights are inherent in battery chickens and white rhinos? It is: does the exploitation of them, our gross and greedy distortion of their natural lives, disgrace and ultimately endanger us?

These are not trivial matters. Humans may descend from wild animals, but society is founded on the distinction between us and wild nature and it is impossible to imagine human survival without that distinction being maintained. At the same time, as a result of our self-consciousness and social organization, we are in a position to intervene in nature to a substantial and increasing extent. As humans we cannot do without the morality of reciprocal rights: it regulates our relations with each other and makes society possible. Towards nature, the rhino as well as the urban fox, we need a different kind of moral sensitivity: let’s call it care.


Posted on November 29th, 2017


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