The practice of hunting with dogs traces back to ancient Egypt. It became particularly popular in Britain in the 16th century when social clubs began using dogs with highly developed senses of scent to track woodland animals, dominantly foxes. Participants engaged in the activity primarily for sport. For the most part, the practice in this region of the world has now come to an end. On January 23, 2023, the Hunting with Dogs Bill was passed in Scotland. The ban does not outlaw hunting outright, nor does it even ban the practice of hunting with dogs. What the bill does do is make it illegal to chase and hunt animals with a pack of more than two dogs for sport. But farmers and ranchers can apply for exemptions for the purposes of “wildlife management.”
The bill has received mixed responses from communities of animal advocates and serves to highlight key differences between approaches to thinking about our obligations to non-human animals.
One dominant line of reasoning in animal ethics is that we ought to focus on animal welfare. Animal welfare approaches frequently direct their attention not toward banning human use of animals outright, but toward making such practices less cruel or harmful. So, for example, the advocate of an animal welfare approach might focus not on eliminating factory farming, but on making the practices used as part of factory farming more humane. This is the kind of strategy that has been successful when it comes to legislation mandating that egg-laying hens be raised cage-free.
The argument against hunting with dogs takes a similar approach. The argument is that being chased by a large pack of dogs causes animals such as deer, hares, and foxes extreme distress. The animals who end up dying directly in the hunt do not die quickly and painlessly; they are ripped to death by a large pack of dogs against whom they never stood much of a chance. The animals who aren’t ultimately caught by the dogs and don’t die directly as a result of the hunt nevertheless experience severe psychological and physiological problems as a result of the trauma. Some of them suffer injuries that they must deal with for the rest of their lives. Some animal welfare theorists argue that it may not be possible to end hunting entirely, but we ought to ban this form of hunting because it is cruel and unusual.
Other animal advocates do not support the Hunting with Dogs Bill in its current form. Those who adopt this philosophy take on the perspective articulated by philosopher Tom Regan that “the truth of animal ethics requires empty cages, not larger cages.” Thinkers like Regan who believe that we should be focusing on rights rather than simply on welfare are likely to think of the Hunting with Dogs Bill as incoherent. After all, if we acknowledge that for sentient beings who can experience pain, being ripped apart while still alive is a bad thing, preventing these animals from being ripped alive by large packs of dogs doesn’t go far enough. We should outlaw dog hunting in any form by any number of dogs.
If what bothers society is the purpose for which animals are being hunted, then we should go beyond banning hunting for sport using dogs. We should ban hunting for sport altogether. Anything less is not just inconsistent, but inconsistent in ways that have life-or-death implications for countless animals.
Once one acknowledges that we have moral obligations to non-human animals in light of the kinds of beings that they are and the relationship in which we stand to them, it becomes difficult (or perhaps impossible) to effectively defend the position that it is acceptable to torture and kill them, for sport or otherwise.
Of course, animal advocates are not the only parties in Scotland or in Britain who disagree over laws of this type. There is strong pressure from some groups to overturn the legislation. Many of the arguments rest on familiar attitudes about the nature of non-human animals and their relationship to humans. This may have something to do with the fact that attitudes about species hierarchy have been dominant in the Western thought tradition since Aristotle, who famously argued in Politics that,
after the birth of animals, plants exist for their sake, and that the other animals exist for the sake of man, the tame for use and food, the wild, if not all at least the greater part of them, for food, and for the provision of clothing and various instruments. Now if nature makes nothing incomplete, and nothing in vain, the inference must be that she has made all animals for the sake of man.
Following Aristotle, those who argue that humans have a right to hunt with animals, using dogs or otherwise, claim that the universe is purposeful and that humans, the only rational animals, were placed by nature at the top of a dominance hierarchy. The Bible seemingly lends the authority of God to this position in Genesis,
And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
In addition to arguments in support of dominance and hierarchy, advocates of dog hunting argue that they have a right to their cultural traditions. For instance, this month, Scotland’s Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire Hunt, which met for the first time in the 1700s, announced that, as a result of the new bill, they could no longer conduct their hunt and that their 300-hundred-year tradition was now coming to an end.
Friends of the hunt might point to the social importance of pluralism about values and attitudes about the nature of the good.
Liberal societies can only function well if we both recognize and accept that people do not share the same ethical convictions. People will simply have to agree to disagree about whether animals have rights, and animal advocates shouldn’t force their attitudes on others.
In response, defenders of animals argue that pluralism is laudable as it relates to liberties such as free exercise of religion, freedom of thought and expression, and freedom of association, but there are limits. We shouldn’t be value pluralists when it comes to the exploitation, oppression, and death of sentient creatures with lives and relationships of their own.
They might argue further that Darwin effectively demonstrated that the universe is not teleological — it had no particular hierarchy in mind and did not have the intention (nor could it) to enthrone human reason. We should be willing to critically analyze the ways in which appeal to reasoning capacities has been weaponized through the years to justify the oppression of women, children, and racial and ethnic minorities. Western thought has denigrated the body while glorifying the mind, while at the same time associating targets of oppression more closely with the body. As Cathryn Bailey powerfully articulates in her contribution to The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics,
Against this socially constructed background of clumsy brutes, sometimes childlike, sometimes dangerous, animals, women, and people of color have been made to serve as a kind of foil to the purity and controlled exercise of rationality.
In light of these observations, we ought to proceed with caution when we feel inclined to make dominance claims or to force sentient beings into value hierarchies. Humans have done this poorly for all of recorded history with disastrous consequences. We may one day come to see our treatment of non-human animals in the same way.