Vol. 6 No. 16 · 6 September 1984

Search by issue:

Animal Rights

SIR: John Skoyles’s letter denouncing ‘animal-rights philosophers’ (Letters, 19 July) such as Tom Regan is a bit strange. In order to convict them of merely moving ‘from one ivory tower to another’, he makes two points – both obvious, well-known and much discussed in their books – which he seems to think will damn them. (You didn’t somehow lose part of his letter, did you?) Both points belong in the empirical undergrowth out of which the problems arise, a background which is known to provide essential keys to grasping the philosophical problems, and which he is quite mistaken in supposing them to neglect. Both complicate that background, the second one very severely, which is why they have had so much attention. To produce them now as a quick way out is Zen indeed.

The first point is the obvious difference which intellect makes in the nature of suffering. Creatures with human intelligence and social complexity are indeed capable of some kinds of suffering unknown to simpler ones. But since this still leaves plenty of other kinds for the outsiders, it does not affect the general point that their suffering is, as such, a possible ground for moral concern. The difference does not even always operate to the advantage of simpler creatures. Not to know what is happening to one, or be able to foresee an end to it, can often make things worse. The kind and degree of consciousness, sociality and foresight which different species have is a very complex empirical question, and one which (as can easily be discovered) philosophers like Regan well know to be relevant to particular practical problems. But its very complexity makes it impossible to use it as a means of dismissing the whole issue.

The second point concerns the traditional doctrine that rights depend on rationality, a doctrine which runs into well-known difficulties about the status of non-rational humans. How is it that they have rights if intelligent animals do not? The debates about this are vast and cannot be summarised here. Extreme confusion arises. In my own view, the use of words like ‘right’ is far too obscure and shifting to settle these problems, and the status of each kind of being must be thought about separately and directly. Regan, however, prefers the simpler view that the word ‘right’ has a clear sense, in which rights do belong to animals, and he argues this case with great skill and subtlety. Skoyles’s contribution to this difficult issue is to settle everything in a paragraph by conceding that quite likely non-rational people don’t have rights either, but are only allowed to count as right-holders because of the political difficulty of deciding at what point their rights become forfeit. No one who has been following the agonised disputes about these borderline cases within the human scene, over such points as euthanasia, abortion and mental illness, is likely to find this a convincing panacea.

Two points emerge. First, the flat exclusion of animals from all moral concern, which used to be achieved by devices like restricting the word ‘right’ to humans, is no longer acceptable to most of us, and the usage of particular words must be adjusted to reflect our fuller acceptance of responsibility. Second, even within the human scene, the link between rights and rationality is obscure, and attempts to oversimplify it have done a lot of damage to both concepts. Outside the ivory tower, these are crucial issues, and unluckily not at all of the kind which will go away without a good deal of hard thinking.

Mary Midgley

The Great Debate

SIR: A man whom you describe as co-editor of a forthcoming annotated edition of Browning, and at work on a book about the courtship of the poet and Elizabeth Barrett, describes thus his reactions to a Cruise deployment rehearsal at Greenham (LRB, 2 August): ‘All of us are yelling obscenities at the tops of our voices. We curse the American airmen, the crews of the launchers. We use the most basic and unimaginative language – cunts, pricks, fuckers, bastards, murderers, shits.’ I trust I am not alone in my alarm that an academic can contribute in this puerile way to the difficult and critical debate on the reconciliation of a proper defence of European and American values with the need to avoid nuclear warfare. If those at the heart of our higher educational system see the issues in such terms, and believe personal abuse of members of the US armed services to be a substitute for analysis and argument, then we are indeed in trouble. The issues are far wider and deeper than Mr Karlin’s superficial article allows. The Russian submarines off the American coast are not imaginary, nor is the extreme hostility of the Russian reaction to the long-nurtured rapprochement between East and West Germany. Those in Britain and America who retain the freedom to expound and argue (despite, in our case, the current excessive police activity tolerated by Mrs Thatcher’s government) have a responsibility to conduct at a high level a debate on which the future of man may literally depend. The Greenham women have done much by their dedication to bring the Cruise issue before the public and to demonstrate the security risks at the base (reinforced by the Select Committee’s report on lax precautions at other weapons depots). They can do without the childish and unintelligent support of Mr Karlin and the passengers in his car (‘fellow-travellers’ is perhaps unfair).

John May

SIR: O Mr Karlin, o dear o dear. I’m sure your heart’s in the right place, but as one liberal male to another, is ‘cunts’ quite the right invective to use at Greenham Common?

Shaun Whiteside
London N4

Smoking for England

SIR: The two letters you published (Letters, 2 August) about Paul Foot’s review of Smoke Ring: The Politics of Tobacco (LRB, 19 July) demonstrate almost as much about the extent to which the smoke ring has prevented a proper understanding of our largest preventable cause of disease, disability and premature death as the extraordinary book in question does.

R.W. Farrington begins by criticising Paul Foot on a political level about government interference in people’s health. In so doing, he repeats the most well-worn sophistry which the tobacco manufacturers use to try to defend themselves: that if preventive health measures are taken, then personal freedom is at stake. In reality, of course, the only freedom at stake is the freedom to peddle a uniquely damaging product which will kill one in four of its lifetime users. One is unlikely to meet anyone less like dangerous, interventionist radicals than the Fellows of the various medical Royal Colleges who, for more than twenty years, have been making desperate pleas to successive governments to stop allowing the promotion of tobacco. Where Mr Farrington shows he is most sadly misinformed, or possibly misled by tobacco industry propaganda, is in the idea that smokers ‘choose’ to smoke. Most smokers get into the habit when they are children, and by the time they are adults most want to give up, but cannot. Even then, most of them seriously underestimate the extent of the risks they run and have little conception of just how huge a problem tobacco is to health.

A.C. Graham takes Paul Foot to task for referring to tobacco as ‘the most dangerous drug of all’. This description was, if anything, modest. Tobacco is probably the largest single preventable cause of ill health in the world; in this country it is certainly the largest, responsible for more than four times as many premature deaths as alcohol, road accidents, drugs, suicide, murder and all other known, preventable causes put together. To most people who spend their working lives treating those with diseases caused by smoking it is quite extraordinary that, given the massive scale of the smoking epidemic and the fact that it is so different from other preventable health problems (being always potentially harmful rather than dangerous only when abused or taken in excess), there is still so much ignorance and thus lack of concern about smoking among the public in general and those who govern our lives in particular.

As Smoke Ring shows so clearly, the tobacco manufacturers have managed to resist virtually all serious attempts to discourage the use of their lethal product. Whenever they have signed ‘voluntary agreements’ with governments, they have deliberately cheated by cunning circumvention. They have bought off much of their potential opposition, and their spokesmen have lied and lied again. Fortunately, however, the truth will out, and in the future new ex-smokers like A.C. Graham may continue to outnumber the industry’s new customers. Looking back at the last century, it is almost unbelievable to us now that vested interests and ignorance frustrated the attempts of public health workers to beat cholera for so long. Some time next century, when smoking has become a less serious health problem, those who look back on what happened in the latter half of the 20th century, after science had first discovered the facts about smoking, will be even more incredulous. Smoke Ring will provide them with an explanation.

David Simpson
Director, Action on Smoking and Health, London W1

Who killed Jesus?

SIR: Hyam Maccoby raised a certain innuendo against the late Professor Stauffer’s activity ‘during the war’, with reference to Ernst Bizer’s history of the Bonn University theological faculty (LRB, 19 July). If he had read the book, he could not have failed to notice the full report (p. 265) of the professor’s penalisation for having ridiculed anti-semitism in a public lecture in January 1943. So much for the accuracy of your reviewer, who, it appears, does not distinguish sufficiently between the responsible business of reviewing and the joy of composing vitriolic attacks.

Ernst Bammel
Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge

Old Hat

SIR: Rosalind Mitchison is surely unfair when she says (LRB, 2 August) that A.J.P. Taylor objects to the Social Democratic Party because it is new. Whatever the SDP may or may not be it certainly isn’t new, consisting mainly of one-time Labour MP’s, faces that have been around for years. A.J.P.T. has always had a good nose for phonies, and I feel sure that, like many of us, he would have more respect for the Social Democrats if they gave evidence of having any ideas other than playing party politics, dreaming of the day when they will hold the balance of power. In short, calling the tune without having to carry the can. I can remember him saying, in the Diary, that David Owen must by now be regretting his defection, for he would today be leader of the Labour Party. Probably true, as true as Margaret Thatcher’s saying – and for once I agree with her – that if Labour had won in 1979 there would be no SDP.

Jack Mitchell
London WC1

Old Boy

SIR: A Mr Lodge and a Dr Butler have been squabbling in your columns about whether Kingsley Amis’s new novel is mimetic (?), sceptical, misogynist, structuralist, etc. Instead of boring the pants off us why don’t they just ask the old boy.

Nicky Bird
London W4

Because the old boy might well not reply. I hope that Nicky Bird recovers his – or her – pants.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences