I am no animal rights activist and I do not believe that animals should be accorded rights equal to human rights. But that is not to say that they do not possess rights in some degree.
Morality and the concept of a right, whether enshrined in law or not, stem, I believe, from our human capacity to empathise with other humans as well as with creatures less mentally complex than we are. We know what it is for others to feel pain, to be denied freedom or opportunity, to have ambitions thwarted, and I believe we naturally confer rights on animals to the extent that they are mentally complex, and we can imagine and empathise with animal life.
We grant no rights to machines (so far), nor to simple organisms such as amoeba. We dispose of most insects without sentiment, but we live with and near many animals that are capable of pleasure, of anticipation, of pain, anxiety, and other forms of suffering. If we inflict suffering on animals there must always be justification, and, by and large, law and human convention reflect this.
As a child, of course, I killed insects without qualm, though I never pulled the legs off spiders or, as one boy at my school did, ate them alive. But as an adult I have become ever more squeamish about suffering and the casual extinction even of insect life. I would rather show a wasp the way to an open window than squash it against the pane.
Killing, and indeed any ‘use’ of animals for human purposes, always needs justification and must always, whenever possible, avoid suffering. We may kill animals when our own lives are threatened, when our well-being is threatened (by disease-carrying insects, for example), for food, perhaps even to enable the development of important medicines, but always with the intention of reducing suffering to a minimum, and always taking account of each animal’s differing capacity for suffering. Sometimes nothing will justify extreme mistreatment.
But killing for pleasure is always wrong. There is no right to pleasure, and the denial of pleasure is not suffering, so there is no calculus that delivers justification by giving balancing weight to suffering on the one hand, and the denial of pleasure on the other.
Which brings us to Cecil and the ‘trophy-hunting’ habits of the rich and powerful.
Killing for sport, which is killing for pleasure, without any other justification, is always wrong. Granted, it may sometimes be a minor wrong, such as when fish are killed but not eaten by anglers. Fish are complex and often beautiful, but the mental life of fish, their capacity to suffer, is of a lower order than the mental life of primates (and lions). We cannot easily imagine, in fact, what it is like to be a trout, or a bat, but we can, to a great extent, imagine the perceptions, feelings and mental life of a lion, of a chimpanzee. We share enough, behaviourally, with such creatures to imagine their suffering, their capacity for pleasure and their zest for life in general.
So, what about Walter Palmer?
My first difficulty with this Minnesota dentist, paradoxically, is to imagine his mental life, and the mental life of trophy killers generally. I cannot understand why anyone would want to kill something beautiful, if it poses no threat. It seems as bizarre to me as if an art collector would buy great paintings in order to shred them.
I presume it must be about dominance, about self-esteem, but it is not as if the killing of Cecil were some primal conflict between man and nature, a struggle for survival, a case of a puny biped pitted against a powerful carnivore on equal terms. No, these are stage-managed killings, unequal in their starting conditions, and utterly predictable in their result.
I have, for decades, argued with one of my very best friends about fox-hunting and I am not entirely sure of my position. There is something that is always distasteful about taking pleasure in killing, but I am not sure if that is always enough to disqualify it. It seems to me that it is a technical question as to whether a) foxes must be killed for the greater good, and b) killing them by hunting them with dogs is as humane as any other way. But justification there must be. Killing foxes for sport and pleasure alone is wrong.
But the hunting of large, complex, beautiful (and often endangered) creatures merely for ‘sport’ cannot be justified and should be outlawed. Never mind that some ‘conservationists’ might justify controlled hunting through the money it raises for preservation. That end does not justify the means. To my mind it is always wrong, and must be forbidden.
Provincial dentists must find some other way to feel big and powerful.