June 13, 2005
Our companions in creation
Matthew Scully, Special to the National Post
A few years ago, I began writing a book about cruelty to animals and
factory farming in particular. At the time, I viewed factory farming as one
the lesser problems facing humanity.
This view changed quickly. By the time I finished the book, Dominion:
Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, I had come to
view the abuses of industrial farming as a serious moral problem.
The book also provided an occasion for fellow conservatives to get
their almost instinctual dislike of particular animal-rights groups and to
re-examine issues of animal cruelty. Conservatives have a way of dismissing
subject, as if where animals are concerned nothing very serious could ever
stake. It is assumed that animal-protection causes are a project of the
and that the proper conservative position is to stand warily and firmly
I had a hunch that the problem was largely one of presentation, and that
they saw their own principles applied to animal-welfare issues,
would find plenty of reasons to be appalled. More to the point, having
acknowledged the problems of cruelty, we could then support reasonable
Conservatives, after all, aren't shy about discoursing on moral
reluctant to translate the most basic of those standards into law. Setting
the distracting rhetoric of animal rights, that's usually what these
come down to: What moral standards should guide us in our treatment of
and when must those standards be applied in law?
We don't need novel theories of rights to do this. The usual
that conservatives draw between moderation and excess, freedom and licence,
moral goods and material goods, rightful power and the abuse of power, will
do just fine.
Conservatives like the sound of "obligation" better than "right," and
who reviewed my book were relieved to find me arguing more from this angle
from any notion of animal rights. "What the PETA crowd doesn't understand,"
Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online wrote, "or what it deliberately
confuses, is that human compassion toward animals is an obligation of
not an entitlement for animals."
If one is using the word "obligation" seriously, moreover, then there is
practical difference between an obligation on our end not to mistreat
and an entitlement on their end not to be mistreated by us. Either way, we
required to do and not do the same things. And either way, somewhere down
logical line, the entitlement would have to arise from a recognition of the
inherent dignity of a living creature. Animals cruelly dealt with are not
things, not just an irrelevant detail in some self-centered moral drama of
own. They matter in their own right.
But a certain moral relativism runs through the arguments of those
indifferent to animal welfare -- as if animals can be of value only for our
sake, as utility or preference decrees. In practice, this outlook leaves
person to decide for himself when animals rate moral concern. It even allows
to accept or reject established facts about animals, such as their
emotional capacities, their conscious experience of pain and happiness.
There is a disconnect here: Elsewhere in contemporary debates,
consistently oppose moral relativism by pointing out that, like it or not,
are all dealing with the same set of physiological realities and moral
We don't each get to decide the facts of science on a situational basis. We
not each go about bestowing moral value upon things as it pleases us in the
moment. We do not decide moral truth at all: We discern it.
Likewise, the great virtue of conservatism is that it begins with a
assessment of human motivations. We know man as he is, not only the rational
creature but also, as Socrates told us, the rationalizing creature, with a
for finding an angle, an excuse and a euphemism. Whether it's the
who thinks himself a free-speech champion or the abortionist who looks in
mirror and sees a reproductive health care services provider, conservatives
familiar with the type.
So we should not be all that surprised when told that these very same
capacities are often at work in the things that people do to animals -- and
the more so in the American US$125-billion a year livestock industry. The
mind, especially when there is money to be had, can manufacture grand
for the exploitation of other human beings. It is even easier for people to
excuse the wrongs done to lowly animals.
Corporate farmers hardly speak anymore of "raising" animals, with the
of personal care that word implies. Animals are now "grown," like so many
Barns somewhere along the way became "intensive confinement facilities" and
inhabitants mere "production units."
I've seen it all first-hand. At the Smithfield Foods mass-confinement
farms I toured in North Carolina, the visitor is greeted by a bedlam of
squealing, chain rattling and horrible roaring. To maximize the use of
minimize the need for care, the creatures are encased row after row, 400-500
pound mammals trapped without relief inside iron crates about two metres
and half a metre wide. They chew maniacally on bars and chains, as foraging
animals will do when denied straw, or engage in stereotypical nest-building
the straw that isn't there, or else just lie there like broken beings.
The law prohibits none of it.
While efforts to outlaw the gestation crate have been dismissed by
conservative critics as "silly," "comical" and "ridiculous," it doesn't seem
that way up close. The smallest scraps of human charity -- a bit of maternal
care, room to roam outdoors, straw to lie on -- have long since been taken
as costly luxuries, and so the pigs know the feel only of concrete and
They lie covered in their own urine and excrement, with broken legs from
trying to escape or just to turn, covered with festering sores, tumours,
lesions, or what my guide shrugged off as the routine "pus pockets."
But not to worry, as a Smithfield Foods executive actually assured me,
love it." It's all "for their own good." It is a voice conservatives should
instantly recognize, as we do when it tells us that the fetus feels nothing.
Everything about the picture shows bad faith, moral sloth and endless
excuse-making, all readily answered by conservative arguments, based on
tradition, faith, moral certainty and efficiency.
Conservatives are supposed to revere tradition. Factory farming has no
traditions, no rules, no codes of honor, no little decencies to spare for a
fellow creature. The whole thing is an abandonment of rural values and a
betrayal of honorable animal husbandry -- to say nothing of veterinary
with its sworn oath to "protect animal health" and to "relieve animal
For the religious-minded, and Catholics in particular, no less an
than Pope Benedict XVI has explained the spiritual stakes. Asked recently to
weigh in on these very questions, then-Cardinal Ratzinger told German
Peter Seewald that animals must be respected as our "companions in
While it is licit to use them for food, "we cannot just do whatever we want
them.... This degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in
to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible."
Those religious conservatives who, in every debate over animal welfare,
to remind us that the animals themselves are secondary and man must come
are exactly right -- only they don't follow their own thought to its moral
conclusion. Somehow, in their pious notions of stewardship and dominion, we
always seem to end up with singular moral dignity but no singular moral
accountability to go with it.
Lofty talk about humanity's special status among creatures only invites
questions as: What would the Good Shepherd make of our factory farms? Where
the creature of conscience get off lording it over these poor creatures so
mercilessly? "How is it possible," as Malcolm Muggeridge asked in the years
factory farming was beginning to spread, "to look for God and sing his
while insulting and degrading his creatures?"
Likewise, the writer B.R. Meyers remarked in The Atlantic that "we
consciences to enjoy -- for a few minutes a day -- the taste of blood, the
of our teeth meeting through muscle."
That is a cynical but serious indictment, and we must never let it be
us in the choices we each make or urge upon others. If reason and morality
what set human beings apart from animals, then reason and morality must
guide us in how we treat them, or else it's all just caprice, unbridled
with the pretense of piety. When people say that they like their pork chops,
veal or foie gras too much to give them up, reason hears in that the voice
gluttony, willfulness, or at best moral complaisance. What makes a human
human is precisely the ability to understand that the suffering of an animal
more important than the taste of a treat.
Factory farmers also assure us that all of this is an inevitable stage
industrial efficiency. Leave aside the obvious reply that we could all do a
of things in life more efficiently if we didn't have to trouble ourselves
ethical restraints. Leave aside, too, the tens of billions of dollars in
federal subsidies that have helped megafarms undermine small family farms
the decent communities that once surrounded them and to give us the illusion
cheap products. And never mind the collateral damage to land, water and air
factory farms cause and the billions of dollars it costs taxpayers to clean
after them. Factory farming is a predatory enterprise, absorbing profit and
externalizing costs, unnaturally propped up by political influence and
government subsidies much as factory-farmed animals are unnaturally
hormones and antibiotics.
So it shouldn't be surprising that every conservative who reviewed my
conceded that factory farming is a wretched business and a betrayal of human
responsibility. And having granted that certain practices are abusive,
wrong, we must be prepared to do something about them.
Americans, conservatives and liberals alike, need to start by
such groups as Smithfield Foods (my candidate for the worst corporation in
America in its ruthlessness to people and animals alike), the U.S. National
Producers Council (a reliable Republican contributor) and the various
think-tanks in Washington subsidized by animal-use industries for
cover. In Canada and other nations, these groups have their counterparts.
they must be fought as well.
If such matters were ever brought to George W. Bush's attention in a
way, he would find in the details of factory farming many things abhorrent
the Christian heart and to his own kindly instincts. Even if he and other
leaders were to drop into relevant speeches a few of the prohibited words in
modern industrial agriculture (cruel, humane, compassionate), instead of
endlessly flattering corporate farmers for virtues they lack, that alone
help to set reforms in motion.
The law that's needed would apply to corporate farmers a few simple
that better men would have been observing all along: We cannot just take
these creatures, we must give them something in return. We owe them a
death, and we owe them a merciful life. And when human beings cannot do
something humanely, without degrading both the creatures and ourselves, then
should not do it at all.