The Uses of Cruelty and the “Gentling Effect”

“The question of whether a modern society should endorse animal suffering as entertainment is bound to cross the mind of any casual visitor to a bullfight. Alexander Fiske-Harrison first tussled with the issue in his early twenties and, as a student of both philosophy and biology, has perhaps tussled with it more lengthily and cogently than most of us.”
Literary Review, August 1st, 2011

“It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting.”
Financial Times, June 4th, 2011

“He develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, but what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it.”
Daily Mail, May 26th, 2011

As I got on the plane to the Roman coliseum at Nîmes in France to see the greatest living bullfighter, José Tomás, on Sunday, September 18th, the idea of cruelty was foremost on my mind for obvious reasons. The gladiatorial arena is the birth place of the bullfight, whatever other historical traditions may have partly inspired it or later imposed themselves and moulded it – Minoan bull-dancers, Carthaginian marriage rituals, Mithraic initiation rites, the knightly joust, the circus, flamenco, ballet and the theatre. The gladiator is he who wields the gladius, the ‘sword’. The old name for a matador, ‘killer’, is espada or sword.

(All photos are mine from that day unless otherwise marked.)

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The Great Chain of Being

The Astronomer by John Vermeer (1668)

For a long time now I have been trying to work out the philosophical underpinnings of my views on animals, which I do not believe differ that greatly from other people’s. By which I mean the views of the vast majority who think it’s okay to keep pets, use fly spray, eat meat and yet refrain from slavery. murder and cannibalism. Here is a sketch of how those metaphysical underpinnings might be laid out, although it lacks the rigour and structure of an academic treatise. I am not trying to illuminate the path every step of the way and counter every possible movement of dissent. The destination is already known to be the right one, I am merely shining a torch down the path as I go along it.

I hold the view – derived from Aristotle, codified and made Christian by the Medievals – that there is a Scala Naturae, ‘Chain of Being’, which accords certain creatures a morally higher status than others. As an atheist, I’ve dispensed with God (along with the angles from Seraphim to Principalities) leaving Man at the top. From Man, there is a line coming down through mammals and birds, via reptiles and amphibians, onto the invertebrates, and thence beyond the Animal Kingdom into Plants, Fungi, Protists and Monera. Continue reading