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Man and Beast

Matthew Scully Argues for Kindness to Animals Originally published at The Weekly Standard

AMERICANS LOVE ANIMALS. We coo over and coddle our cats and dogs as if they were children. We paste “Save the Whales” bumper stickers on our cars. We groan in empathetic sadness if a squirrel darts into the road in front of a car. We flock to national parks to catch fleeting glimpses of bears, elk, and antelope. We anthropomorphize the animal world with movies such as “Bambi” and “Babe.” This way of treating animals can be charming, if occasionally loopy. It is also an indicator of prosperity and cultural success: We are so far removed from the struggle for daily survival that we have the luxury of caring about animals and their suffering — as, indeed, we ought.

But in recent years, a radical and misanthropic social movement — promoting animal rights and liberation — has eclipsed the animal-welfare activism typified by the old American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Animal welfarists accept that humans are more important than animals. Animal liberationists see humans as only another animal, with no greater moral value or claim to rights. Welfarists acknowledge that animals may be used to benefit humans — so long as this is done in the most humane way practicable. Liberationists want to ban all human use of animals. Welfarists are pro-animal. Liberationists are antihuman. Worse, the more radical animal liberationists have become violent. The Animal Liberation Front is a case in point, employing vandalism and personal threats against those they label animal abusers. Things have gotten so bad that the recently passed anti-terror legislation included penalties for attacking animal-related businesses.

Into this overheated atmosphere has now come animal lover and author Matthew Scully, who was, until recently, a speechwriter for President Bush. In Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, Scully makes an impassioned argument based on the fact that animals suffer and feel pain. He insists that he is not a supporter of animal rights, and while caring passionately about animals, he agrees they are less important than people. Dominion seeks, he says, merely to help stimulate “a spirit of kindness and clemency” toward the animals he sees as being abused.

SO, IN ONE OF THE BOOK’S most effective sections, Scully coolly rebuts the argument advanced by the godfather of the animal-liberation movement, Princeton University’s Peter Singer. Decrying Singer’s advocacy of infanticide, Scully worries that “Singer’s attack on the sanctity of human life follows a natural trajectory from his case for animals, that they are one and the same moral project.” This is a wise concern. A declaration of the equality of humans and animals allows not just animals to be treated like people, but people to be treated like animals. We are already seeing the fruits of that position, as some animal rightists and bioethicists suggest that cognitively disabled people be used in medical research in place of animals deemed to have a higher cognitive capacity.

Once we’ve rejected Singer-style animal liberation as the antihuman nihilism it is, however, we still need a principled rationale to guide our commitment to the humane treatment of animals. “Dominion” demands from us greater mercy and kindness toward animals — and who could disagree? But the book does little to strengthen the intellectual case for those who want to ease the burden on animals without surrendering to the disaster of animal rights. Indeed, Scully states explicitly, “You will find no theories in this book.”

One place “Dominion” looks for help is the Bible. Although Scully says he is not “particularly a pious or devout person,” he claims that there is a model for the ethical treatment of animals contained in Scripture. In the Garden of Eden, he points out, there was no predation. He also reminds us of the prediction that — as Isaiah 11:6 puts it — “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” These are biblical suggestions that God does not want us to harm animals or cause them to suffer.

While there are serious Judeo-Christian principles that could be used to make an argument for, say, vegetarianism, significant problems exist with this line. It is, for example, God who first kills animals, when he clothes the wayward Adam and Eve with animal skins in Genesis 3:21. Moreover, there seems no way around God’s establishment of the animal sacrifice practiced at Shilo and Jerusalem. The New Testament offers little additional help to Scully. The Gospel of Luke reports that Mary and Joseph sacrificed turtle doves at the temple to celebrate the birth of Jesus — who would go on to speak approvingly of the killing of the fattened calf. Not only were there fishes among the loaves, but, after the Resurrection, the risen Christ fed the disciples a fish breakfast.

One of the primary reasons that the animal rightists are so dangerously effective is that they do not base their advocacy solely on emotional appeals. They have a philosophical argument that can be communicated simply: Humans and animals equally feel pain; hence humans and animals are equal; hence humans have no more right to ranch cows than they do to own slaves. This antihuman philosophy is morally incoherent, and it would lead to tremendous economic dislocation and human suffering if it were ever implemented. But the simplicity and consistency of the message can be very attractive — especially to the young.

Then, there is the matter of tone. In the preface, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. writes, “Scully’s book gently questions whether we can foster human dignity in a society that treats other sentient beings as production units.” I don’t know what book Kennedy read, but there is nothing gentle about Scully’s unceasingly scathing approach.

He is, for example, obsessed with trophy hunters and a trade association called the Safari Club International, which he loathes to the point of insisting that its tax-exempt status be revoked. Now, trophy hunting seems little more than killing for ego. But Scully is so outraged, he cites approvingly a description of it as “pure evil.” One could reasonably call trophy hunting disgusting, even reprehensible. But our ethical impulses go seriously astray if we do not reserve “pure evil” for the worst wrongs perpetrated against people: the Holocaust, crashing hijacked airliners into skyscrapers, raping little children.

SO HORROR-STRICKEN is Scully about the suffering of animals that the book repeatedly careens out of control. One moment Scully is angrily denouncing the killing of elephants; the next he is berating Japanese whalers. He denounces factory farming of pigs, ricochets to assert God’s love of animals, and boomerangs back to the elephants again. Scully’s editor should have cut fifty pages of repetitive text, while requiring the author to add twenty-five pages about the use of animals in medical research — a difficult subject for people holding Scully’s views, but one at which he only glances.

Still, given Matthew Scully’s undeniable power as a writer, “Dominion” should have been the book that seized back from the animal liberationists the moral agenda of animal protection. The suspicion that the Peter Singers of the world hate humans more than they love animals is what has kept many reasonable people from joining the animal-rights activists. But, at the same time, reasonable people have allowed organizations like PETA considerable and unwarranted slack, for the animal liberationists appear to be the only ones talking about our moral treatment of animals. “Dominion” should have been the text that taught us how to practice kindness without falling into the trap of Peter Singer.

Unfortunately, “Dominion” fails at that task, mostly because Scully will not temper his emotional fervor long enough to explore the good humans receive from animals or the consequences that would befall us if we ceased to benefit from them. Animal suffering is crucial to a proper analysis, but so is human welfare.

Scully urges, for example, that all factory farming be outlawed because animals kept in factory farms are, by their confinement, mistreated. I wasn’t convinced, partly because he anthropomorphizes the inner life of pigs. But let us grant, for the moment, his claim that factory farms cause animals to suffer. That’s an important fact — but it does not settle the matter. We must also look to the human side of the equation.

Factory farming, as Scully briefly acknowledges, allows meat and dairy products to be brought to market at a low cost. I prefer to purchase eggs that were obtained from chickens not kept in cages because I deem such husbandry to be more humane. But I pay for that luxury: $3.49 for a dozen eggs, while eggs, presumably from factory farms, are $1.19 per dozen. Meanwhile, the price of pork in my supermarket is only $1.50 per pound.

Access to such nutritious, inexpensive food provides tremendous human good to people on limited budgets. Thus, even if factory farms cause the extent of animal suffering that Scully claims, the good of inexpensive food for human beings may be sufficient to justify this form of animal husbandry, or may require only reforms to reduce the level of animal suffering. These are the sorts of problems that need extensive research and empirical analysis so that the benefits to humans and harms to animals can be properly balanced. All Scully says is that doing away with factory farms will “mean paying higher prices for meat and dairy products, and therefore, for many consumers, consuming less of both. But the meat you buy, when you eat it, will not have the taste of a bitter life.”

That is utterly inadequate. Matthew Scully is clearly an intelligent man whose big heart has found a just and noble cause. He is a powerful and sometimes even inspired writer, and his devotion to his subject is so great that he left his job at the White House to promote the message of the book.

But Dominion is unlikely to motivate many readers who are not already committed to Scully’s position. Unfortunately, he is unable or unwilling to bring his intelligence and his heart together. In the end, “Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy” does little to help us embrace our duty to animals while keeping Peter Singerism at arm’s length.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.