I thought that animal welfare was a squishy liberal cause, until some years ago I read Matthew Scully’s Dominion, which changed my life. In the new issue of National Review, Scully makes an elegant conservative, pro-life case for animal welfare. Excerpt:
We are cautioned in some quarters that a concern for animals — especially if carried to eccentric extremes like not eating them any more because the brutality involved is morally untenable — is somehow “anti-human,” coming at the expense of our human dignity and moral concern for one another. The point is lost on me, and least of all have I ever sensed any contradiction in being vegetarian (actually, if that’s not hardcore enough for you, vegan) and pro-life all at once. Come to think of it, I first learned about the “abortion rights” cause and about the ruthlessness of industrialized farming around the same time, at the age of 13 or 14, and my reaction to both was similar: You just don’t treat life that way. Look at pictures of the victims in each case, at the thing itself, and you know that whatever problems the people involved are facing, this cannot be the answer. Routine abortion and systematic cruelty are not merely bad things of the kind that happen in any society; they are really bad things that no just society can learn to live with. As complicated, personal, and emotional (oddly so, in the case of meat and the methods that produce it) as both issues can be, in all the years since, I have never heard a single compelling argument for why the unborn must die or why the animals must suffer.
It gets us nowhere to diminish animal welfare as a moral concern by changing the subject to instances of great human affliction, as if we cannot be expected to care about both, or as if those very afflictions are a constant preoccupation in our daily lives. Such answers are the first reflex of many people, amounting to the non sequitur “There is human suffering, therefore animal suffering is beneath my attention.” Or, less loftily, “I have better things to think about.” It reminds me of the pro-abortion line that if pro-lifers really care about children so much, why don’t we focus instead on broader social priorities like more funding for federal preschool and nutrition programs to serve our nation’s precious children after birth? High-sounding arguments don’t come easy when you’re defending either abortion or cruelty, and the problem in the latter case is that the animal suffering in question is usually at human hands, caused or relieved by us individually or through public policy. Compassion for animals doesn’t drain away some finite reserve of moral energy and idealism, to the detriment of human welfare, but surely adds to the supply. In any case it usually consists in simply not doing bad things to them, and in preventing wrongdoing by others. Cruelty issues like factory farming present specific moral choices. If we’re making the wrong ones, then to shift attention to other woes in the world is just as idle and evasive as when the abortion lobby tries it.
Animals have a moral dignity of their own, a point that nearly everyone, including even some people in cruel industries, will happily concede in unthreatening contexts — that is, when we’re not talking about actually doing something to protect animals and respect their dignity. There are moral truths concerning them, too, that are just as binding and absolute as any other, if we believe in moral truth at all. One could note, among other venerable authorities, the Catholic Catechism’s reminder that human kindness is “owed” to animals, and that it is “contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.” I am not a churchgoer myself, but there is a special rigor to Catholic thinking that commands respect, and when The Catholic Encyclopedia identifies a “direct and essential sinfulness of cruelty to the animal world,” that’s not to be brushed off lightly. The offense is presumably greater when cruelty is commonplace and systematic — across the market “vertically integrated,” to borrow a term from agribusiness — making customers complicit.
Scully’s Dominion is one of those books that shakes you up and persuades you because of the clarity of thought and the beauty of the prose.