June 13, 2005
National Edition
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 about factory farming in particular. At the time, I viewed factory farming as one of the lesser problems facing humanity.

This view changed quickly. By the time I finished the book, Dominion: The 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 beyond their almost instinctual dislike of particular animal-rights groups and to re-examine issues of animal cruelty. Conservatives have a way of dismissing the subject, as if where animals are concerned nothing very serious could ever be at stake. It is assumed that animal-protection causes are a project of the Left, and that the proper conservative position is to stand warily and firmly against them.

I had a hunch that the problem was largely one of presentation, and that if they saw their own principles applied to animal-welfare issues, conservatives would find plenty of reasons to be appalled. More to the point, having acknowledged the problems of cruelty, we could then support reasonable remedies.

Conservatives, after all, aren't shy about discoursing on moral standards or reluctant to translate the most basic of those standards into law. Setting aside the distracting rhetoric of animal rights, that's usually what these questions come down to: What moral standards should guide us in our treatment of animals, and when must those standards be applied in law?

We don't need novel theories of rights to do this. The usual distinctions that conservatives draw between moderation and excess, freedom and licence, moral goods and material goods, rightful power and the abuse of power, will all do just fine.

Conservatives like the sound of "obligation" better than "right," and those who reviewed my book were relieved to find me arguing more from this angle than 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 humans, not an entitlement for animals."

If one is using the word "obligation" seriously, moreover, then there is no practical difference between an obligation on our end not to mistreat animals and an entitlement on their end not to be mistreated by us. Either way, we are required to do and not do the same things. And either way, somewhere down the 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 just things, not just an irrelevant detail in some self-centered moral drama of our own. They matter in their own right.

But a certain moral relativism runs through the arguments of those hostile or 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 each person to decide for himself when animals rate moral concern. It even allows us to accept or reject established facts about animals, such as their cognitive and emotional capacities, their conscious experience of pain and happiness.

There is a disconnect here: Elsewhere in contemporary debates, conservatives consistently oppose moral relativism by pointing out that, like it or not, we are all dealing with the same set of physiological realities and moral truths. We don't each get to decide the facts of science on a situational basis. We do 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 realistic 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 knack for finding an angle, an excuse and a euphemism. Whether it's the pornographer who thinks himself a free-speech champion or the abortionist who looks in the mirror and sees a reproductive health care services provider, conservatives are 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 all the more so in the American US$125-billion a year livestock industry. The human mind, especially when there is money to be had, can manufacture grand excuses 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 modicum of personal care that word implies. Animals are now "grown," like so many crops. Barns somewhere along the way became "intensive confinement facilities" and the inhabitants mere "production units."

I've seen it all first-hand. At the Smithfield Foods mass-confinement hog 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 space and 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 long 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 with 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 various 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 away as costly luxuries, and so the pigs know the feel only of concrete and metal.

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, ulcers, lesions, or what my guide shrugged off as the routine "pus pockets."

But not to worry, as a Smithfield Foods executive actually assured me, "they 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 medicine, with its sworn oath to "protect animal health" and to "relieve animal suffering.

" For the religious-minded, and Catholics in particular, no less an authority than Pope Benedict XVI has explained the spiritual stakes. Asked recently to weigh in on these very questions, then-Cardinal Ratzinger told German journalist Peter Seewald that animals must be respected as our "companions in creation."

While it is licit to use them for food, "we cannot just do whatever we want with them.... This degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible."

Those religious conservatives who, in every debate over animal welfare, rush to remind us that the animals themselves are secondary and man must come first 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 such questions as: What would the Good Shepherd make of our factory farms? Where does 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 when factory farming was beginning to spread, "to look for God and sing his praises while insulting and degrading his creatures?"

Likewise, the writer B.R. Meyers remarked in The Atlantic that "we deaden our consciences to enjoy -- for a few minutes a day -- the taste of blood, the feel of our teeth meeting through muscle."

That is a cynical but serious indictment, and we must never let it be true of us in the choices we each make or urge upon others. If reason and morality are what set human beings apart from animals, then reason and morality must always guide us in how we treat them, or else it's all just caprice, unbridled appetite 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 of gluttony, willfulness, or at best moral complaisance. What makes a human being human is precisely the ability to understand that the suffering of an animal is more important than the taste of a treat.

Factory farmers also assure us that all of this is an inevitable stage of industrial efficiency. Leave aside the obvious reply that we could all do a lot of things in life more efficiently if we didn't have to trouble ourselves with ethical restraints. Leave aside, too, the tens of billions of dollars in annual federal subsidies that have helped megafarms undermine small family farms and the decent communities that once surrounded them and to give us the illusion of cheap products. And never mind the collateral damage to land, water and air that factory farms cause and the billions of dollars it costs taxpayers to clean up 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 sustained by hormones and antibiotics.

So it shouldn't be surprising that every conservative who reviewed my book conceded that factory farming is a wretched business and a betrayal of human responsibility. And having granted that certain practices are abusive, cruel and wrong, we must be prepared to do something about them.

Americans, conservatives and liberals alike, need to start by confronting 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 Pork Producers Council (a reliable Republican contributor) and the various think-tanks in Washington subsidized by animal-use industries for intellectual cover. In Canada and other nations, these groups have their counterparts. And they must be fought as well.

If such matters were ever brought to George W. Bush's attention in a serious way, he would find in the details of factory farming many things abhorrent to the Christian heart and to his own kindly instincts. Even if he and other world 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 would help to set reforms in motion.

The law that's needed would apply to corporate farmers a few simple rules that better men would have been observing all along: We cannot just take from these creatures, we must give them something in return. We owe them a merciful death, and we owe them a merciful life. And when human beings cannot do something humanely, without degrading both the creatures and ourselves, then we should not do it at all.