July 28, 2003

Book Review: Dominion by Matthew Scully

By: Peter Brownfeld

Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy
By Matthew Scully
St. Martin’s Press, 434 pages $27.95

The Abuse of Man

By Karina Rollins

God bless Matthew Scully: He has provided the seemingly non-existent middle ground between the PETA crazies (this dog isn’t my pet, he’s my companion animal!) and morally self-satisfied conservatives (God gave us animals to use–caring about them means you don’t care about people!). Scully, a conservative author and former speechwriter for George W. Bush, demonstrates that both mindsets are extreme, and neither is worthy of human greatness. That some in the animal rights movement seek to deny man’s just use of the animal world is well established, and a favorite topic of conservatives everywhere. Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy is an appraisal of where man’s rightful dominion over creation has gone wrong, where stewardship has become unthinking exploitation, where use has become flat-out abuse.

Scully has done his homework, going straight into the belly of the beast–personally visiting factory hog farms in North Carolina, attending a Safari Club big-game-trophy-hunting convention in Nevada, trekking to Australia for a conference of the International Whaling Commission. His straight-forward descriptions of the everyday torment of millions of pigs and cows, his simple relaying of the attitudes and practices of many Safari Club members (dude, cool brain shot on that elephant with the Nitro!) and defenders of commercial whaling, will enrage you, make your stomach turn, and your heart ache.

The reports of the way livestock are slaughtered are many: the stun gun often misses its mark, leaving many pigs and cows hanging squealing by one leg, being dipped in scalding vats and having their hooves hacked off while they are still alive and conscious. What is less well known, in part because it is a relatively new phenomenon, is how the animals live in today’s all-indoor “factory farms.” At a pork production facility Scully observes the sows in iron cages so narrow they literally cannot lay on their sides. They try anyway, sticking their legs through the slats, scraping, cutting, and breaking them in the process. That’s how they stay. Scully passes by countless animals covered with open sores, bruises, cuts, and gashes. The pigs have not a bit of straw to lay on, only concrete and metal–part of the industry’s “state of the art” and “scientific” method of mass confinement, making it easier for staff to clean out feces and urine. Rooters by nature, the pigs shuffle around imaginary straw. An industry advisor has repeatedly made the case for one tiny improvement in the animals’ lives–providing them with some “soft, pliable” toys, as pigs like to chomp on things. What they have is metal chains, which they chew until their mouths are ripped and bloody.

As unpleasant as all of this may be–why should humans change the way they do things? The cost-benefit analysis, after all, shows that this is the cheapest and fastest way of getting pork chops and bacon on our plates. God told us we could use animals to serve our purposes and He never said we have to give them chew toys.

No, says Scully, and he explains why. The argument that nature is cruel and that animals kill other animals does not “lay to rest the matter of our own ethical conduct toward animals. The whole point of dominion is that the animal kingdom is not our moral example…. As our powers are unique, it would follow too that our ethical obligations are unique.”

Yet when it comes to animals, Scully laments, so many conservatives–recognizing in every other area of life that human rights are linked directly to duties, responsibility, and self-restraint–“bring to the whole matter…a kind of exasperated snobbery, as if they should not even have to bother with such trifling questions, and who are all these petty little activists distracting them from the great moral questions of the day? It leads to a dogmatism rivaling anything among the animal rights crowd, if not worse in its stern uncharity toward our fellow creatures, its lazy disdain of moral inconveniences mixed with high talk of moral virtue, and its rigid faith in the Prosperity Bible…”

Scully is not the only prominent conservative who takes animal welfare seriously. National Review‘s Jeffrey Hart, for instance, not one to be accused of “softness of heart” or “misguided morality,” believes that kindness to animals stems from “the imperative duty as rooted in the concept of the fully human.” A professor at Dartmouth College, he writes that “It is depressing to hear cigar-smoking young conservatives wearing red suspenders take a reductive view of well, everything. They seem to contemplate with equanimity a world without lions, tigers, elephants, whales. I am appalled at the philistinism that seems to smile at a future consisting of a global Hong Kong.”

Still, the assertion most often made by conservatives when debating animal welfare, is that virtually any legal protection for animals implies that they have rights, and once society has granted that status to animals, it’s straight down the slippery slope, ending with humans and rats on an equal legal level. Our current legal status for animals reflects that attitude–where short of gauging a puppy’s eyes out in public, there are no limits placed on human treatment of animals. While Scully believes that an animal has some intrinsic moral worth, not merely that bestowed on it by its owner, he knows that animals and humans are not, and cannot be equal. But “we need not suppose some kind of equality between human beings and animals to establish a standard of animal welfare.”

But why any standard at all? In addition to handing back some religious considerations for ethical treatment of animals (e.g., God granted rest on the Sabbath to the beasts as well as to men; St. Francis of Assissi believed in the morality of treating animals well) to those Christians concerned only with the subdue-and-dominate parts of the Bible, Scully invokes natural law, “which compels us by reason to perceive purposes and good beyond our own desires and decrees, to heed natural boundaries, to respect and live within an order of which we are part but not the center.”

What does this mean in practical terms? What laws would Scully like to see on the books? When it comes to animal experimentation, Scully would require that repetitive tests be eliminated and where possible, newer tests with cell cultures and computer models be used (some are in use already and more reliable than tests on animals). He would ban “canned hunting”; in other words, hunters wouldn’t be able to stalk purposely fenced-in prey. Though a vegetarian himself, he doesn’t want to outlaw meat consumption, but would like passage of a Humane Farming Act, requiring things like straw and enough room for the animals who will become our dinner to lay down or turn around. And he wants them to be able to outdoors part of the time.

Yes, if Matthew Scully had his way, your hamburger would cost more. Why should you pay even an extra dime for a tasty meal? Because, cautions Scully, “When a man’s love of finery clouds his moral judgment, that is vanity. When he lets a demanding palate make his moral choices, that is gluttony. When he ascribes the divine will to his own whims, that is pride. And when he gets angry at being reminded of animal suffering that his own daily choices might help avoid, that is moral cowardice.”