On The Moral Implications Of Badger Culling

For thirty years or more there has been a perceived problem of bovine TB in the UK domestic cattle population. There have been many initiatives to reduce and/or eradicate the disease but all have failed. Many farmers and certainly the NFU maintain that the indigenous wild badger population is the reservoir of the disease and that the only way to eradicate the disease in cattle is to eradicate the badgers. After a badger culling trial in the South West of England a proposal emerged to eradicate badgers completely in vast areas of the South West of England. In 2007 this plan was abandoned by the Labour government after extensive consultation. The ConDem government are now planning to reintroduce a culling policy. This paper was my submission to the 2006 consultation process. I argue that badger culling is not an economic issue it is a moral one. The moral issues have not changed.

I am a concerned citizen who has been moved to protest at the proposed 100% local cull of badgers in an attempt to control Bovine TB in cattle.

I have read many books and pamphlets and attended various meetings with experts and interested parties to discuss the crisis. In all these discussions I hear a constant refrain from the ‘experts’ – namely that “science must drive this argument”, that “the issue must be decided on the basis of the science”. However having heard various people lay out different partisan versions of the scientific evidence it is clear that there is no consensus on what “the science” indicates, or even what qualifies as “science”, in this debate. Various people put forward various credible but contradictory interpretations of “the science”. Some ignore some of “the science” choosing only to focus on certain aspects; others choose to focus on a different aspect. The result is that the debate becomes bogged down in an intense discussion of micro issues of scientific interpretation which most of the public are neither qualified nor inclined to try to resolve. Despite this many members of the public with no particular axe to grind on this issue, just like me, are greatly exercised by this proposed cull – why?

The idea that this issue can be resolved by “the science” is dependent upon an underlying philosophical idea – namely that “science” is, or can reveal, a single empirical truth – the truth. However most scientists will agree that actually science is more accurately described as being “the best explanation for observable phenomena that we have to date based on the currently available evidence.” Scientists acknowledge that scientific evidence has to be interpreted and different scientists come to very different conclusions when interpreting the same evidence.

This leads me to suggest that the scientific approach to this issue is no more likely to resolve it than another equally valid approach to the issue – namely the moral, philosophical and spiritual.

I have not been motivated to get involved in this campaign because I have calmly prepared a costs/benefit analysis on Bovine TB based on the current scientific evidence and decided that the proposed cull would be ineffective. No, I have written letters, joined organisations and attended meetings because I am morally outraged at the suggestion of a 100% cull of a species of indigenous wild creature for what seem like morally trivial reasons. This is an issue of moral proportionality. My response is not based in science and frankly even if the scientific evidence could prove beyond doubt that this cull would eradicate bovine TB in the UK for all time I would still be opposed to it.

Indeed this illustrates the weakness in the purely scientific approach to the argument – i.e. evidence might be produced in the future that proves the effectiveness of the 100% cull and those of us who oppose it would have no ‘scientific’ way of continuing the argument. However, we would still have a rational way of maintaining our position because despite the implications underlying much of these ‘scientific’ discussions the moral and philosophical approach is not irrational and may actually provide a much clearer route through the morass of conflicting interest groups.

For the record I am not saying that I cannot foresee any circumstances in which such a 100% cull would be justifiable. If a particular species were carrying a highly contagious disease that was about to cause a huge pandemic in the human population then maybe such a policy might be justified. Indeed such a situation may soon arise with ‘Bird Flu’ and I do not hear the calls for all birds to be wiped off the face of the planet. We may hear those calls yet of course, if the threat becomes more imminent, but even if we do they will be resisted because such a cull would be both logistically impractical, environmentally disastrous and, again, morally repugnant.

In the case of the proposed badger cull the local genocide of a species seems even more morally disproportionate to the threat than in the case of ‘Bird Flu’. The threat of Bovine TB, such as it is, seems to be primarily an economic and logistical one. Most medical sources agree that even human TB is actually quite difficult to pass on and Bovine TB is at one more remove from the human contagion chain and therefore even less of a threat. At the meeting on the 3rd Feb, Dr Chris Cheeseman the Head of The Wildlife Diseases Unit at the Central Science Laboratory specifically confirmed that the threat to the human population from Bovine TB is negligible.

So what exactly is the threat? It appears that the problem with Bovine TB is based on the fact that we as members of the EU have adopted a set of food hygiene regulations which mean that cattle have to be free of TB to have an economic value in the livestock market. To comply with these regulations cattle found to be contaminated with Bovine TB have to be slaughtered and the carcases destroyed. Farmers are compensated for their financial losses from the public purse but then also have restrictions placed on the movement of the rest of their herd that impose an economic burden on the farmer for which they are not compensated.

From this analysis the threat to humans from Bovine TB itself is not imminent or to coin a phrase “a real and present danger”. The actual threat from Bovine TB seems to be to the public purse and the financial well being of individual farmers – and this threat has been completely created by the regulatory framework we, as rational members of a democratic society, have entered freely into! It has nothing to do with badgers.

Many people will feel that to slaughter thousands, possibly tens of thousands of creatures to relieve ourselves of a financial and bureaucratic burden we have completely created ourselves is disproportionate in the extreme, not to say outrageous. Why not simply change the regulatory framework? Or increase the compensation to farmers? Neither of these is easy or without costs but surely they are preferable to this proposed mass slaughter?

Moral repugnance to an issue like this is not irrational it is, for a start, based in experience. BSE, DDT, Foot & Mouth all show us that Man has often taken draconian action to attempt to ‘control nature’ and has often caused huge unforeseen problems as a result. Hubris is always met by Nemesis as the ancient Greeks had it and scientifically justified interventions such as this cull are quite rightly regarded with the greatest scepticism by the general public.

But people are also motivated by their spiritual connection to other living creatures and to ‘nature’ in general. Many have pets with whom they share genuine loving relationships; many are moved by the beauty of the natural environment and watching wild creatures living freely unfettered by the rules of human society; many are coming to understand that the countryside is not just an industrial landscape for the production of food but an environment essential to human emotional health. Are these people wrong to think like this?

We must not deny or ignore this moral and spiritual aspect to the debate. If the public debate around this issue is to be meaningful then the powers that be need to stop quoting science at the public and have the courage to engage them in the moral debate, then I am sure that the overwhelming majority of them will react with the same passion to this proposed genocide as I do – and are they wrong to do so? Science is not the only arbiter of our actions; moral and spiritual concerns are just as important and indeed often act as a brake on the supposed amorality of the purely scientific approach.

I Am Not A Number

Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society


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