Magazine article The Spectator

Sir Mulberry Hawke Is the Lastest Beneficiary of Moral Relativism

Magazine article The Spectator

Sir Mulberry Hawke Is the Lastest Beneficiary of Moral Relativism

Article excerpt

AND ANOTHER THING

Last week I studied the operations of two squirrels in Hyde Park. Their extraordinary darts, punctuated by moments of intense stillness, their curious way of hopping rather than running, as though they were toy kangaroos, the sheer concentration with which they attend to whatever it is they are doing - all this is pleasurable to watch. Then I thought to myself: supposing these animals were rats? I would view their activities with revulsion, and might even wax indignant that they were taking place in the open, in broad daylight, and not with the underground furtiveness proper to rats. Why such feelings? Rats and squirrels are similar creatures in many ways. Squirrels are not more, or less, moral creatures than rats. Both are governed by instincts needed for their survival. Yet rats, in our anthropomorphic scale of values, are baddies, grey squirrels are goodies. Not to the same extent as red squirrels, of course, who are nowadays near the top of the hero league, but nonetheless well on the right side of the moral line.

This set me thinking about the changing irrationality of our estimation of animals. The thrush has suddenly moved high up our popular affection scale. People like thrushes because they sing heartily. I like them because their speckles make them delightful to paint; difficult, too, but that adds to the pleasure. However, the reason for their rise in the charts is that they are said to be disappearing, killed by intensive farming. Recent studies claim their numbers have fallen from four million to one million breeding pairs. I don't see any evidence of this myself. Thrushes frequent our London garden and they are plentiful down in Somerset. Moreover, when I was walking past the Round Pond recently, I saw an amazing sight. A crowd of thrushes were begging for bread. They looked sleek, well-fed, were aggressive enough to drive off ducks, pigeons and even swans, and were doing well in the handout scramble. I counted them: 24. I had never seen so many thrushes together. Moreover, they were in close order, which made them seem sinister. They were in danger of toppling over into the baddie league.

It is amazing how an animal out of context or scale can transform itself from appealing to menacing. A ladybird a foot long would terrify us. A thousand foxes running together and snarling in the way foxes sometimes do would have the masked terrorists of the anti-hunt army howling in fear.

A lone wolf, as the name implies,is a goodie, a sympathetic creature. I recently painted one and can testify that a wolf is beautiful in a way few dogs can be. But a wolfpack is a different matter. The Norwegian authorities are so alarmed by the slaughter of thousands of sheep (9,000 last year in a single district) by one of the ten giant packs which roam the wilds, that they plan to carry out a mass cull using helicopters and snowmobiles. A member of an endangered species does not know it is a goodie and that it should behave like one. It just does what comes naturally. I once found myself, in Africa, gazing at the backside of a rhino. I don't know what kind it was. It certainly didn't look white, but then neither do white rhinos. I thought I was safe and that it did not know I was there, and rhinos are almost blind anyway, which is another reason we are meant to feel sorry for them. But it did know I was there, and it suddenly leapt into the air and, all in one movement, stood facing me, prepared to charge. At that moment I wished it was not merely an endangered species but already extinct. A rhino close to is a baddie, and it becomes a goodie only if it is well out of charging distance. …

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