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Guest Post: The Immorality of Fox Hunting

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Catia Faria, PhD Candidate
Department of Law, Universitat Pompeu Fabra

In 2004, the Hunting Act banned fox hunting with dogs from England and Wales. More than ten years later, 80% of Britons still believe that it should remain illegal. Strictly speaking, the Act did not establish an absolute ban on fox hunting with dogs (or the hunting of other wild mammals) but rather a conditional prohibition, filled with many exemptions.

In spite of how loose the current law already is, Prime Minister David Cameron recently proposed a new relaxing amendment to the Act. If it had been approved, the change would have shown a complete disregard for the animals involved. It would have also deviated British law from the moral path followed by its own people. The plan to relax the ban has now been postponed. Not based on the strong moral reasons against it, but because conservatives realised they couldn’t win the vote.

The only relevant discussion here is an ethical one: Is (fox) hunting an immoral practice? If so, shouldn’t the government uphold the ban? It seems that no sound way of understanding ethics can leave room for the huge amount of harm caused by fox hunting. This is a practice whose only aim is to provide hunters with some entertainment. This would still be so even if we set aside the harm these animals suffer by being deprived of their lives. Even a minimally stringent moral view would consider it unjustified to cause such severe suffering to animals merely for the sake of trivial human interests.

At any rate, it’s worth taking a look at the main arguments put forward by supporters of the amendment.

(i) The countryside argument

A recurrent argument draws on the alleged difference between ‘town’ and ‘countryside’ human-animal relationships. In the countryside, some say, humans respect animals as much as other people (and arguably more). They just happen to respect them in a very different way. Since relationships between animals and humans in the countryside are so different from the relationships animals and humans maintain in urban environments, they give rise to irreconcilable ways of understanding our moral obligations towards other animals. The argument is not specific to fox hunting. It is also popular among supporters of other equally harmful practices involving animals, such as bullfighting.

The problem it faces is obvious. If animal interests are morally relevant, then we have reasons to refrain from killing and causing suffering to them, irrespectively of geographical considerations. Just as we consider geographical distinctions between urban and rural areas irrelevant to our moral obligations towards humans. This is not to say that in urban areas nonhuman animals are not caused significant harms. In fact, they are. This is merely to say that similar harmful practices in rural areas are equally unjustified.

(ii) The tradition argument

Another frequent argument is based on an appeal to tradition. Fox hunting may cause suffering and death to animals. Yet, some say, it’s a part of British culture and should thus be preserved. There’s no need to be a philosopher, however, to realise what’s wrong with this reasoning. The fact that British people (or in fact a very tiny fraction of them) have been engaged in this for generations does not imply that it’s a morally justified practice. Our current hostility towards widespread injustices in the past precisely shows that acting morally has often required breaking with established customs. In fact, this does not seem controversial at all when judging foreign traditions that affect animals, such as, again, bullfighting or religious slaughter, among many others. If we believe even in the smallest possibility of moral progress, then questioning entrenched traditions appears to be a necessary part of it.

(iii) The conservationist argument

One of the most common arguments offered against the ban relies on conservationist considerations. The main exemption to the current law is actually based on a conservationist rationale. Hunting is permitted whenever it can be shown that it pursues the aim of so called “pest control”. There is, it is claimed, an overpopulation of foxes and by keeping their numbers under control, fox hunting becomes a necessary instrument for wildlife management.

The first difficulty with this argument is that it relies on false data. The countryside is not crowded by foxes. This is so much so, that in fact some hunters are breeding them so as to provide an excuse for the killing. But even if fox numbers exceeded the environment’s carrying capacity, there would still be other, less harmful methods of bringing their numbers down, whenever that would be justified for the sake of their own interests or the interests of other wild mammals. That could be achieved, for instance, through contraception or sterilization.

(iv) The argument from painless death

Regardless of all this, some who may not be quite familiar with dog hunting claim that even though foxes are killed, they die in a comparatively painless way. This is far from being true. Not only do foxes suffer severely, but they also experience tremendous levels of distress caused by the dog chase. Usually, the moments previous to death include persecution, flight for their lives and the stress associated with capture. Finally, the struggle ends violently, often including disembowelment while still conscious. In addition, these animals are further harmed by losing their lives and by being thus deprived of all the good things that may have otherwise happened to them. If this is so, then all hunting should be unconditionally forbidden by law and not only certain ways of hunting wild animals.

(v) Slippery slope

Some people worry that banning fox hunting will unavoidably lead to the legal prohibition of other equally harmful practices involving nonhuman animals. First, the prohibition would be extended to include other uses of animals for entertainment. Eventually, though, it would also include the use of animals for food. Indeed, once we acknowledge that practices that cause suffering and death to nonhuman animals (e.g. foxes) are immoral, we will most probably extend our concern beyond particular practices and particular species of animals.

Usually this argument is answered by showing there is a fundamental difference between the exploitation and killing of animals for pleasure and the exploitation and killing of animals for food. Nevertheless, it is false that animal derived food products are nutritionally necessary. A vegan diet is just as healthy. Therefore, animals exploited for food are also killed for pleasure. However, that should not be used as a reason to preserve fox hunting. Quite the opposite. If many of our practices regarding nonhuman animals lack proper moral justification, then banning them is what we should do. I yearn for a world in which at least 80% of the population supports that as well.

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19 Comment on this post

  1. “The only relevant discussion here is an ethical one” – I think this needs to be established. The author seems to imply that the immorality of an action is sufficient to require that it be outlawed; if this principle is true at all then it is certainly not obviously so.

    “If animal interests are morally relevant” – another considerable ‘if’. The rest of the article is constructed on the assumption that they are indeed relevant – and relevant in a particular way – yet the author does not even seem to consider that this might be a principle for which justification is required. When most ethical objections (and this is an ethics blog, after all) to the author’s conclusion are likely to involve questions over the precise moral status of non-human animals, this may appear to be a material oversight.

    1. Hi sedm1809,

      You’re right that the immorality of an action may not be sufficient for it to be outlawed. Yet the discussion of which immoral actions must be declared illegal is also an ethical one. It’s quite uncontroversial that at least some actions that cause significant and unjustified harm to other humans should be forbidden. If we’re not speciesist, the same should follow for nonhuman animals.

      Of course, you are disputing that animals are morally considerable. Indeed, in this post I’m assuming they are, as it has been extensively argued elsewhere (e.g. almost in all my previous posts).

  2. Indeed from a perspective where animals have moral rights, fox hunting, as well as using animals for food is obviously immoral. This is not however how all peoples moral intuitions work. For some killing an animal is as morally relevant as turning off a computer. So far in all societies the majority of people accept using animals for human ends and this fact in combination with democracy will ensure these practices will continue for a long time. Also most give value to the continuation of cultures they were brought up in. If cultures were rationally chosen on moral grounds then this might be different as well.

    1. Hi Ionizer,

      Your description about how our moral intuitions work and how our societies are organized is more or less accurate. However, from a normative point of view nothing can directly follow from it. Our task should be to critically examine existing moral intuitions in order to determine which are justified and which are not. Also, if necessary, to change them. There are compelling reasons to believe that such is the case regarding traditional moral intuitions about nonhuman animals.

  3. It ought to be obvious that any comment on any law in Britain, can not be detached from the nature of the state and society which produced it. Nevertheless the post takes the legal system for granted, as so often with comparable prohibition issues such as abortion, prostitution, or FGM. So it might be worth restating the obvious.

    The United Kingdom is a nation-state, which implies it is home to a nation with shared values, a national language, a national culture, and a national law. Like many other nation-states, it fails to live up to the implied nationalist standard, and it has for instance a separate legal system in Scotland. In general, however, the national unity is taken for granted. Wrongly, because the United Kingdom itself is the product of historical circumstances, and not an absolute necessity, and that goes for its national unity too, including the unity of law, values, government and culture. So there does not have to be a Hunting Act at all, and indeed no other country has a 100% identical law. There does not have to be a British parliament to make this law, or any other law.

    There is therefore no need for a population which is so clearly divided on this issue, to expend so much energy to create yet another political compromise on hunting, which will be rejected by a substantial section of the population as soon as it is ready. It ought to be blindingly obvious that the British population have no ‘shared values’ about hunting. It simply is not an appropriate matter to deal with, using the legal uniformity which the nation-state model demands.

    Local choice on prohibition is the obvious answer in this case. There are 326 single-tier and lower-tier local authorities in England alone, and all of them could make their own decision on fox hunting. Some are urbanised and unsuited for hunting with hounds anyway, but the voters can still have views on the issue. In fact we know that opinion is split geographically, with the most support for fox hunting in the rural areas where it is practiced.

    I think it is time to recognise that argument on prohibition of fox hunting is a waste of time, and that no satisfactory compromise will ever emerge, and that no procedure exists that will produce one. The first four categories of arguments listed by Catia Faria involve disputed and politically sensitive values, and we know that political communities can not simply erase value differences. I know that localising prohibition will not satisfy opponents of fox hunting who seek a national prohibition, but if that is a serious issue for them, then they need to think about why they are incapable of reaching a satisfactory consensus on values with their fellow citizens.

    1. “I think it is time to recognise that argument on prohibition of fox hunting is a waste of time, and that no satisfactory compromise will ever emerge”

      This seems to imply firstly that attitudes never change, and secondly that compromise should in fact be sought.

      “There are 326 single-tier and lower-tier local authorities in England alone, and all of them could make their own decision on fox hunting”

      Other than the practical difficulties with this (are fox hunts *really* going to stop at MP constituency or local authority boundaries???), it’s worth noting that surveys suggest that more people oppose than support fox-hunting even in rural areas. So the outcome would, for the most part, be the same.

      More generally, one could argue that there are plenty of differences in opinion between different local areas of the UK. Why stop at fox-hunting? If one local authority wants to bring back hanging, then should they be allowed to? How about differences in gay rights? Education? Immigration? Health? Differences in values around these are possibly even more divided than fox hunting.

  4. “But even if fox numbers exceeded the environment’s carrying capacity, there would still be other, less harmful methods of bringing their numbers down, whenever that would be justified for the sake of their own interests or the interests of other wild mammals. That could be achieved, for instance, through contraception or sterilization.”

    For me the best argument for reducing fox numbers is that foxes cause harm to other animals (both in the wild, and on farms).

    If indeed it is the case that there are too many foxes then contraception or sterilization seems like the best solution. The question then is whether such a contraception exists, and if not then how much resources it would take to develop, and how successful they would be. It doesn’t seem to be the case that fox hunting does a particularly great job at reducing numbers, so it seems likely contraception or sterilization could be much more successful.

    1. Hi Matt,

      Yes, I think you’re right. Regarding your concerns regarding contraception and sterilization for foxes, there are feasible methods to do so. With enough effort they could be implemented, as it has previously been done for example with fox vaccination (via food baits).

  5. “Therefore, animals exploited for food are also killed for pleasure.”

    This is where you lose huge numbers of potential allies, and underline why vegans should best keep their noses out of this debate, if they genuinely wish to end fox hunting.

    I’m a contented carnivore and I disapprove of fox-hunting, because it’s a cruel recreation that serves no defensible purpose.

    Meat, however – as foxes instinctively know – is an excellent food source and I have nothing at all against hunting and farming carefully selected animals for food, as long as humane farming, hunting and killing methods are employed.

    1. Given the scale of animal agriculture, it seems pretty likely that more suffering occurs even on ‘humane’ farms, than arises from hunting foxes.

      Thus, even if ‘huge numbers of potential allies’ are lost, meaning the continuation of fox-hunting, this harm could well be outweighed by the good of a few people becoming vegan.

  6. “this harm could well be outweighed by the good of a few people becoming vegan.”

    Statistically this is obvious nonsense. Humans evolved to rely on animal protein for sustenance and we are likely to do so for as long as we need food at all. It’s far more important for large numbers of meat-eaters to continue to lobby for humane farming practises, than it is for a tiny handful of phobics to indulge their chosen eating disorder.

    1. What do you mean by ‘statistically this is obvious nonsense’? What ‘statistics’ are you referring to?

      I’m not sure what our evolutionary history has to do with this; just because a particular behaviour was part of our history doesn’t mean it must always remain so. At least in wealthy countries there is now good access to non-animal sources of protein in many areas.

      I think you’re plausibly right that it would be better “for large numbers of meat-eaters to continue to lobby for humane farming practises” than for a few people to go vegan, but your initial objection was about fox-hunting versus veganism, not humane farming versus veganism.

  7. The intrusion of vegans into the fox-hunting debate is one aspect of the bigger problem of the intrusion of vegans into the general animal welfare debate. Vegan groups like PETA ensure that many important animal welfare concerns are inevitably dismissed as “weirdo extremism”. These people are not going to go away so it’s important for people with a more normative perspective on human/non-human relationships to stand up loudly for progressive ethics in regard to our treatment of animals.

    1. Is your problem with veganism as a whole, or with the manner with which certain vegan groups conduct themselves?

      Plenty of things we now accept as normal would have originally been viewed as ‘weirdo extremism’. It doesn’t seem obvious to me why the existence of vegans would make it harder to improve animal welfare. In fact, it could make it easier:

      If you are trying to shift public opinion and you *don’t* have anyone demanding more rights and major improvements for animals, then those seeking to make small improvements will be the ones advocating the “weirdo extremist” position (there’s no-one *more* extreme than them). But if there is a group that is demanding bigger changes, then those who are asking for small improvements may appear more reasonable and acceptable to the public in comparison.

  8. Matt Sharp is correct to point out, that abandoning national uniformity of law has wider implications. In fact Catia Faria is talking more about the law, than about fox hunting. What does she actually advocate here? A law prohibiting fox hunting with hounds on the territory of England and Wales, more precisely the retention of an existing law in its current form.

    This law prohibits certain people from doing something which they want to do. As such, it is comparable to anti-smoking laws, anti-prostitution laws, anti-pornography laws, and not least to alcohol and drug prohibition laws. The people who advocate such prohibitions usually believe that they are doing the right thing, that the prohibition will benefit society, and perhaps help the individuals concerned to live better lives. On the other hand, many of these individuals don’t want to stop smoking, drinking, watching porn, and so on. The values cited for or against individual prohibitions vary, but invariably there are conflicts of values.

    Although the issues get enough attention, academic ethics has failed to come up with a procedure for reaching political compromise in such cases. What I would expect from Catia Faria, is that she gives some thought to the political realities. Although the British voter in general may oppose fox hunting, the Conservative Party traditionally supports it, and has a democratic mandate to relax the law. There will probably be some fox hunting with hounds once again, and that will of course offend people who feel strongly about the issue. Many people will want to have it comprehensively banned. And perhaps in 5 years time a new government will indeed do that – yet then perhaps another Conservative government will reverse that again, in 10 years time.

    So what is the alternative to this going round in circles, where one section of the population is always dissatisfied, and so many are deeply offended by something which they find abhorrent? And yes, that certainly applies to issues such as gay marriage, immigration, abortion, the death penalty, and so on. It is not enough to dismiss the pro-hunting lobby as motivated by ‘trivial human interests’. They don’t think so, and cite heavyweight values such as tradition and national identity in defence of their position. We certainly can’t regard abortion and the death penalty as trivial preferences.

    I don’t claim that spatial alternatives provide an answer in every case. In fact fox hunting with hounds is a special case because it is inherently limited to rural areas, and its traditional supporters are concentrated there. It is important, however, to realise that there are alternatives to the current model, where the whole nation has to conform to the preferences of the government in power.

    1. Hi Paul,

      Indeed it’s quite obvious that even in the same country people hold different moral beliefs. Though true, that does not affect my argument. It might have been relevant if my aims had been related to applied political theory, such as institutional design. Nevertheless, my aims are those typical of moral philosophy, that is, to establish whether X is justified. My conclusion here is that fox hunting isn’t and that like other practices that cause significant harm to human beings, it should thus be legally forbidden. This is what distinguishes fox hunting from some of the practices you mentioned (e.g. smoking or drinking alcohol).

  9. Not only fox hunting, any kind of animals hunting and killing should need to be prohibited. To know the importance of animals presence in the nature, there is not required any absurd arguments at all. We kill animals for getting needed vitamins for our body and most time for pleasure. Science says, we can get our required vitamins from vegetables, by being vegan. For this we don’t require to be carnivorous, and to kill animals. As well as various kinds of incurable diseases are also free with eating this animal meat, which is not my main concern at all.
    Preservation of nature along with her animals is pretty much inevitable for the survival of human generation. So, in a sense to preserve animals interest is to save our human interests whether it is morally viewed or not. It is natural fact. Nobody can deny it. We should have to keep our nature as it remains. We know, we have to use our nature and different beings in it but we have to use this nature in such a way that we don’t violate it’s ecosystem. Otherwise we human beings have to fall victims to this violation which is created by us. So, harm to any animals and in total harm to nature must be banned by applying law and upheld animals interest for the sake of saving humans interest.

    1. Hi Jishu,

      I agree with you that any kind of hunting should be prohibited though we might disagree on the reasons why. In my view, we should refrain from hunting animals and prevent others from doing so because of the harm caused to the animals themselves. That is, for the animals’ sake and not because it is instrumentally valuable for the well-being of humans or for environmental reasons of any kind.

  10. If Catia Faria’s views on harm to animals were standard in Britain, there would be no fox-hunting. So where is the discrepancy? The main reason why fox hunting continues, is probably that those directly involved see only a very minor harm to animals, insufficient to override their preference for hunting, and the perceived benefits. The hunt is a social event in rural areas, it is indeed a form of tradition, some see it as part of their national identity and culture, even if only in a small way. For the millions who don’t hunt themselves, but oppose a ban, the motives are probably more political: conservatism, nationalism, ruralism, libertarianism, with a significant ‘anti-left’ element.

    This is relevant because although Catia Faria says that her aims are those of moral philosophy, not institutional design, she proposes a law. In doing so, she is not talking about the hunt itself, but about the law on hunting, which is itself a political issue. The point is that the voters are divided, perhaps not exactly 50-50, but divided enough to ensure that a definitive ban on fox hunting in Britain is unlikely in the medium term. Simply stating that ‘animals should not be harmed’ does not alter that political and social reality.

    I suggest that Catia Faria gives more thought to the legal model that she proposes. And that is: that England and Wales should have uniform laws prohibiting or permitting certain things over the whole national territory, disregarding the objections of those who disagree with the law. In the case of fox hunting in Britain, this model will probably result in a de facto re-legalisation of the hunt, leaving hunt opponents as the disadvantaged group. It does not have to be that way: there are alternatives.

    The standard liberal response to an ethical issue which divides the population is: “put it through the democratic process and see what comes out”. That is what happened with fox hunting, and the present outcome is that the hunt is not fully prohibited in England and Wales, which is effectively the same as ‘not prohibited’. The liberal approach takes no account of those who genuinely oppose fox-hunting. Many people not only regard it as wrong, but are emotionally distressed by the suffering of the foxes, and the cruelty of the hunters. Liberals shrug their shoulders at this distress: “you are free to express your opinion” is their typical answer. Liberal contempt for distress and pain is made worse by the nationalist model, which insists on the nation as the sole unit of political decision-making, and on national uniformity of law and policy.

    I don’t think that Catia Faria could describe herself as an ‘opponent of fox-hunting’, if she finds its legalisation acceptable. I don’t pretend to have the solution to all ethical-political issues, but certainly fox-hunting is amenable to more differentiated treatment, which takes account of emotions, distress, pain, unease, abhorrence, and differences as to values. What I would suggest, in more detail, is that all single-tier and lower tier local authorities in England and Wales are allocated to six zones, where:

    1. fox-hunting is legally prohibited

    2. fox-hunting is legal

    3. not only fox-hunting is legally prohibited, but also the organisation and public advocacy of the hunt

    4. fox-hunting is not only legal, but public opposition to it, and protests against it, are illegal

    5. in at least one local authority, opposition to fox-hunting is a condition of residence

    6. in at least one local authority, support for fox-hunting is a condition of residence.

    Allocation of the local authorities to each zone would follow a local referendum, although central government could override that to ensure contiguity. In principle the local authority with the most anti-hunt votes would be allocated to zone 5, and that with the most pro-hunt votes would be allocated to zone 6. This would allow those who oppose fox-hunting to prohibit fox-hunting, in at least part of the country, which is impossible with legal uniformity. It would also allow those who feel very strongly that hunting is wrong, to live in a de facto anti-hunt society, with others who share their views.

    This model may be applicable for some other ethical issues. It could probably be combined with localised prohibition of meat, since the strongest opponents of fox-hunting are likely to be vegan, and hunt supporters never are. It will not always be so simple, but then geographical differentiation is only one alternative to the monolithic nation-state, and its rigid uniformity of law and policy.

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