Posted this morning on Nick Clegg’s new website for finding laws that people want repealed. If you have not yet done so, go there and vote!
“On any question where there is genuine and widespread moral disagreement, a liberal society should leave the decision of the answer to the conscience of the individual, provided that the decisions of one set of people do not have a serious adverse effect on another set of people. The hunting question is one such case. Indeed, it should be an easy case to decide, because the provision does not apply.
There are two lines of attack implicit in anti-hunting argument and rhetoric. The first is to emphasise the death of the animal in order to suggest that hunting is transparently cruel, and that any enjoyment of it springs from a delight in cruelty. This undermines the notion that there is genuine moral disagreement: it is not moral to delight in transparent cruelty. However, anyone who takes the time to get to know some hunting people will see that they do not delight in cruelty, and that their moral stance on this question is born of virtue and not of vice. Hunting people are people too and it is implausible to paint them all as devils.
The second anti-hunting argument attempts to modify the provision in the statement of liberal principle given above. The argument, as found most famously in Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, is that animals experience suffering as much as human beings and that the rights and protections of human beings should therefore be extended to animals, modified by the degree to which animals are capable of experiencing pleasure and pain. There are two problems with this line of attack, one practical and one philosophical. The practical problem is that, like many utilitarian arguments, it leads to some odd conclusions (the abolition of meat, a hope that carnivores will die out, and so on). The philosophical problem is that animals are not in fact normally included in our conception of a liberal society, which is not itself based on utilitarianism. The question of whether they should be, to the extent that hunting is banned, is a question of genuine and widespread moral disagreement.
The history of the twentieth century contains many examples of the reduction of suffering by the breaking down of oppressive power relations: women’s liberation, ethnic minority civil rights, gay rights, and so on. These have been victories of liberal principle over factional interest. It is tempting for the liberal to see every matter in which there is a stronger and a weaker party as another such case. But in the case of hunting, the power relation is only the key consideration if the animal is included in the provision in the first paragraph above. Whether animals should be so included is a question on which it is possible for liberals to disagree. Tempting though it always is for those in power to attempt to spread their own ethics to the rest of society by the use of the law, no true liberal, meeting a virtuous opponent whose differing views have no dangerous or unpleasant effect on other members of society, would act to impose his own moral view.”