Scully on animals.
December 3, 2002, 8:30 a.m.
A Q&A by Kathryn Jean Lopez
Matthew Scully, a former editor at National Review (who has
contributed to NR frequently in subsequent years), is a speechwriter
for President George W. Bush.
He is the recently publish author of Dominion: The Power of Man,
the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. The book has
received rave reviews from the likes of the New York Times and mixed
reaction from conservatives. It's a fascinating -- and disturbing --
read, whether you come out agreeing with it or not. Scully recently
sat down to answer some questions from NRO about it.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: In a nutshell, how are we
abusing dominion, our stewardship over animals?
Matthew Scully: In the same way that human beings
are prone to abusing any other kind of power -- by forgetting that
we are not the final authority. The people who run our industrial
livestock farms, for example, have lost all regard for animals as
such, as beings with needs, natures, and a humble dignity of their
own. They treat these creatures like machines and "production units"
of man's own making, instead of as living creatures made by God. And
you will find a similar arrogance in every other kind of cruelty as
Lopez: When and why did you decide to become a
Scully: In the summer or fall of 1974, I read some books
about factory farming, and decided that I wanted no part of it. The
pictures alone were enough to convince me -- chickens de-beaked and
stuffed into cages so tiny they can't even flap their wings, pigs
locked in narrow iron crates they never leave, veal calves
deliberately undernourished and chained or tethered inside of dark
boxes. I saw in such pictures something merciless, deeply
disordered, and unworthy of humanity. And I see factory farming just
that way today.
Our family had a dog at the time, too -- Lucky. He was a
beautiful, noble creature, and taught me to love and respect
animals. To my mind it seemed an obvious problem: I would never want
Lucky to be treated that way. Why on earth should these other
creatures -- animals of comparable feeling and intelligence -- be
treated that way? A dog is not the moral equal of a human being. But
a dog is very definitely the moral equal of a pig, and its only
human caprice and economic convenience that say otherwise. I thought
then and believe now that there is a fundamental inconsistency in
granting kindness to one while averting my eyes from the suffering
-- the man-made miseries -- of the other.
Lopez: You write at one point in Dominion: "this new
science of genetic engineering carries the darkest implications of
all for animals, conferring on us the power not only to use them as
we will but to remake them as we will." I confess, though, I am more
concerned about the implications for human life. Am I wrong -- as a
Christian and as a conservative?
Scully: No, I think that is the right Christian response.
But of course to be "more concerned" about the abuses of science
toward human life implies some level of concern for its abuses
toward animal life. And so much that is done to animals today in the
name of science goes entirely unexamined -- putting the genes of a
jellyfish into a primate to see if the latter will glow, as a lab in
Oregon has done, or cloning animals for no better reason than more
consistent meat quality. The most-appalling example I came across
while writing Dominion is a project among agricultural scientists to
genetically engineer pigs so they're less "stressed" in factory-farm
conditions and during the mayhem of industrial-scale slaughter.
Basically the idea is to create fear-free pigs, to somehow expunge
from the creatures' genetic makeup their very desire to live. As I
say in the book: Instead of redesigning the factory farm to suit the
animal, they are redesigning the animal to suit the factory farm.
All of this for no greater good than efficiency in production, lower
costs, and lower prices. But there are moral costs here, too, and
it's one of those cases when we would do well to think hard about
our own rights toward animals.
Lopez: You note in the book that you are not especially
pious. Then why do you rely so much on religion?
Scully: I meant by this that I have never been a regular
churchgoer or counted myself a member of any church. I did attend
Catholic schools up to the ninth grade, and I admire much in the
Catholic Church. Readers tell me that this influence comes through
in Dominion, and if so I am glad of it. Nowhere in the book,
however, do I presume to state the teachings of that church or any
other from the standpoint of an adherent. At the same time, if I
read my Bible right, then there is Good News even for the lowly
animals -- that love and mercy have come into the world, and we can
be its agents. And when I think of the suffering of the creatures in
our factory farms, laboratories, puppy mills, or of any animal
neglected or mistreated by man, for me there is no more powerful
question than to ask: "What would the Good Shepherd think of
Lopez: What, in your experience, do the "greens" make of
you -- a conservative, Republican-administration vet, sticking his
neck out on animal rights?
Scully: Let me be the first on NRO to break the story that
there are actually other Republicans concerned about cruelty to
animals. Outgoing Senator Bob Smith was a true champion of
compassion for animals, but others remain such as Senator Wayne
Allard and Representative Chris Smith. The same is true in the U.K.,
where many Tories have favored the abolition of veal farming,
battery cages, fur farming, fox hunting, and hare coursing among
other cruel practices and vicious recreations. As for
environmentalists, I think they generally approve of the book, and I
am glad that I've come to know some of them, including Robert F.
Kennedy Jr. He is a brave foe of factory farmers, for both
environmental and animal-welfare reasons. I count myself his ally,
as do the thousands of farmers still worthy of that name.
Lopez: When people -- conservatives -- hear "animal
rights" they often think of Peter Singer. Are you in part attempting
to get the arguments away from the likes of Singer?
Scully: I start with a respect for anyone who gives
serious attention to the matter, and to their credit animal rights
groups are often the ones who bring the problems of cruelty to our
attention. I think for example of one group that smuggled a camera
into a packing plant a few years ago. Their footage showed awful
things like cows being carved up alive and squealing pigs being
dropped into scalding tanks, which happens every day. For their
efforts, they get derided as meddlesome radicals, crackpots, or what
have you. But I think such people show great courage, and do us a
It's also worth recalling that people can agree on the same
objectives for different reasons: A secular philosopher like Peter
Singer can oppose factory farming because it's unethical by his
theories of justice. An environmentalist can oppose factory farming
because it's reckless stewardship. A conservative can oppose factory
farming because it is destructive to small farmers and to the decent
ethic of husbandry those farmers live by. A religious person can
oppose factory farming because it is degrading to both man and
animal -- an offense to God. The point is to end the cruelty. And we
shouldn't let secondary differences interfere with primary
One problem with some animal-rights and "liberation" advocates is
that their arguments fail to speak to the average person. They
venture off into various theories which sound far removed from
actual, everyday life, and so are easily dismissed as eccentric,
irrelevant, or, worst of all, hostile to the religious and moral
convictions most people still hold. This can have the perverse
effect of providing others an excuse to ignore the wrongs done to
animals. As a practical matter, the only legal right that any animal
can enjoy is to be free from human cruelty or other wrongdoing, and
we do not need a new theory for that. And so in my book I try to
speak in the simplest terms of reasoned moral judgment, the language
of duty, love, mercy, and compassion for the weak.
Lopez: Is hunting immoral?
Scully: One thing I noticed, reading articles and books by
sport hunters, is that they themselves are often uneasy about the
things they do. And I hope Dominion will encourage more of that
self-examination among the relatively few people -- about five
percent of Americans -- with a taste for bloodsport. Hunting, if it
can be justified at all, falls into the category of the necessary
evil. When the aim is just the pleasure of stalking and killing, or
the pride of a "trophy," the necessity is absent and you have to ask
yourself what's left.
In the book, however, I do not pass judgment on all hunting. I
just try to fix a clear standard, to lay down the same kind of basic
moral boundaries we need in livestock farming. Pick up any hunting
magazine and you will find page after page of ads for fenced-in
hunting ranches promising a "100 percent guaranteed kill." Many
hunters today use high-tech firearms and other gadgetry described in
the book, or else bows that kill like a knife, maximizing their own
pleasure at the cost of maximal suffering for the animal. They have
professional guides whispering at their side. They shoot birds and
other creatures -- even aging animals sold by zoos -- released from
cages at their command. They routinely bait animals, as any game
warden will attest. It gets even worse, as you will find in my
chapter about a group of trophy hunters called Safari Club
International. Hunting of the kind I describe there is dishonorable,
occasionally depraved, and immoral by the standards of "fair chase"
that hunters themselves profess on the rare occasions they are
called to account. All such practices should be illegal as well --
on the general principle that if a man's going to hunt, let him at
least hunt like a man.
Lopez: When it comes to animals, what's your goal?
Scully: I hope that over time our laws will define clear
and consistent obligations in the treatment of animals. For this we
need only follow the logic of cruelty laws already in place --
prohibiting not only individual acts of cruelty those statures now
cover, but also the merciless institutional cruelties the law
ignores. In Florida last month, we saw how this can be done when 55
percent of voters approved a ballot initiative to prohibit the use
of narrow gestation crates for sows. In Oklahoma, a sizable majority
made that state the 48th to outlaw cockfighting. Laws like these can
make a big difference, showing animal-related industries that there
are limits, and ethical standards, and it's not just anything
Lopez: If there is one message you could get through to
the traditional Left and the Right on these issues of animal rights
what would it be? Would it be a different one for each?
Scully: Conservatives like to think of animal protection
as a trendy leftist cause, which makes it easier to brush off. And I
hope that more of us will open our hearts to animals. I also believe
that in factory farming and other cruelties conservatives will find
some familiar problems -- moral relativism, self-centered
materialism, license passing itself off as freedom, and the culture
of death. Among liberals, I don't really detect a great deal more
sympathy for animals than on the Right. The Nation and Mother Jones,
for instance, are as unlikely to give the subject serious attention
as, well, a certain conservative journal which shall go unnamed. For
those on the Left who do identify with animal causes, however, my
message is that no creature on earth is more innocent, or
defenseless, or in need of compassion than a child waiting to be
Lopez: What was it like working for this president?
Scully: A true privilege. There's a reason that everyone I
know who works for the man feels loyalty, affection, and complete
Lopez: Would you like to go back to speechwriting or do
you prefer your current gig?
Scully: Unless Rich Lowry is prepared to offer me the job
of outdoors columnist, I may go back to speechwriting.