Saturday, August 17, 2013

Enquiry into the RSPCA? - Part 10: Rights or Welfare?

"Who can dispute the inhumanity of the sport of hunting, of pursuing a poor, defenceless creature for mere amusement, till it becomes exhausted by terror and fatigue...?"
Lewis Gompertz, co-founder of the SPCA.

"Nothing is more notorious than that it is not only useless, but dangerous, to poor suffering animals, to reprove their oppressors, or to threaten them with punishment. The general answer, with the addition of bitter oaths and increased cruelty, is, What is that to you?—If the offender be a servant, he curses you, and asks if you are his master? and if he be the master himself, he tells you that the animal is his own. Every one of your lordships must have witnessed scenes like this. A noble duke, whom I do not see in his place, told me only two days ago, that he had lately received this very answer. The validity of this most infamous and stupid defence arises from that defect in the law which I seek to remedy. Animals are considered as property only: to destroy or to abuse them, from malice to the proprietor, or with an intention injurious to his interest in them, is criminal; but the animals themselves are without protection; the law regards them not substantively; they have no rights!
... their rights, subservient as they are, ought to be as sacred as our own. And although certainly, my lords, there can be no law for man in that respect, but such as he makes for himself, yet I cannot conceive any thing more sublime, or interesting, more grateful to heaven, or more beneficial to the world, than to see such a spontaneous restraint imposed by man upon himself." 
... even in struggles for human rights and privileges, sincere and laudable as they occasionally may have been, all human rights and privileges have been trampled upon, by barbarities far more shocking than those of the most barbarous nations, because they have not merely extinguished natural unconnected life, but have destroyed (I trust only for a season) the social happiness and independence of mankind, raising up tyrants to oppress them all in the end, by beginning with the oppression of each other. All this, my lords, has arisen from neglecting the cultivation of the moral sense, the best security of states, and the greatest consolation of the world." 

Thomas, Lord Erskine, CRUELTY TO ANIMALS BILL.

HL Deb 15 May 1809 vol 14 cc553-71
On the order of the day for the second reading of this Bill,
Lord Erskine

Erskine's original bill extended protection to all domestic animals (with an expressed hope that wild animals would also benefit from increased awareness of animal suffering). He further amended it to limit protection to working horses and oxen following objections at the committee stage but the amended bill also failed and animals did not receive legal protection until the success of Richard Martin's Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle Act in 1822. The infant SPCA which later became the RSPCA was founded by a group of men gathered together by the reverend Arthur Broome for the purpose of enforcing Martin's Act (just as today the Hunting Act serves no purpose without enforcement).

At its inception the RSPCA was primarily about securing rights for animals—something that was probably more straightforward at a time when there was fairly universal agreement that all humans have rights but that all humans do not have the same rights. Erskine is quite clear that rights are things which are conferred by legal agreements, not truths that can somehow be discovered and he doesn't find any difficulty in believing that animals should have some rights but not identical ones to the rights which ought to be given to humans.

Many of the activities of the early society are familiar from the work of today's RSPCA—for example the training of magistrates.

Welfare work came later; initially mainly educational, for example publication of advice for horse owners and drivers and promotion of quick-release harness that would enable a fallen horse to be disengaged from a vehicle and allowed to stand.

Campaigning activities continued throughout the period which is sometimes held up as a golden age in which the RSPCA confined its activities to practical welfare work and prosecutions (or, depending on your point of view, a disgracefully stagnant period in which the Society hindered the work of more progressive organisations.)

Examples of this include the introduction of humane stunning in abattoirs, restrictions on the use of stray dogs in experimentation and greater protection for sea-birds.

What an enquiry might comment

The RSPCA has been involved in lobbying Parliament for animal protection measures and in enforcing protection legislation since its inception, and before charitable bodies were regulated by the Charity Commission. Under current Charity Commission rules, charities may take part in lobbying and provision of advice to MPs provided this is done for the promotion of their charitable objects and provided lobbying and campaigning is not party political and does not involve expressing an opinion of the relative merits of the different parties.

There appears to be a confusion which has caused animal welfare and animal rights to be discussed as though these were opposites (with further confusion because Singer, the most prominent advocate of philosophical interest in the moral status of animals does not believe in rights at all as he is a utilitarian.) This is rather as though someone were to argue that it is incorrect for a country to possess a judiciary or a police force as well as a health service and there can be no possible objection to the RSPCA continuing to promote scholarly discussion about the correct principles on which we should make decisions about animals as well as promoting enforcement of existing laws, improvement of these laws where needed and practical welfare provision such as animal homes and hospitals.

It may be that the lobby in favour of repeal of the hunting act is sufficiently powerful to threaten the RSPCA's ability to provide the practical welfare services which are by far the  most expensive element of its work. 

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