There is some buzz being generated within the political and religious blogosphere these days about animal welfare issues, and it is standing out because of its appeal to an unusual audience of perceived kindred spirits. It makes the argument that “pro-lifers” are the intellectual and spiritual brethren of “pro-animal” advocates. To some this would seem an interesting, if somewhat opaque, syllogism, perhaps akin to Knights of Columbus who are also Master Gardeners.
But it has some intellectually-serious proponents. I must admit to being a fan of one of them, Matthew Scully, a former political speechwriter for figures including George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, in large measure because his writing is eloquent and compelling. I’m a sucker for both, and I freely confess that I would be a model of Stockholm syndrome for anyone making an argument in such a way as Mr. Scully typically does. I have to tread cautiously when I read people whom I like stylistically so as not to be easily persuaded by their prose alone.
So Mr. Scully has posted an intellectually rigorous and rather long post in the National Review Online entitled “Pro-life, Pro-Animal,” which links the issues of respect for human life and the welfare of animals. He starts off well-enough, with an argument that I can support in the context acquitting responsible animal stewardship as a hazard to the notion of human dignity:
“Far from presenting any threat to human dignity, animals and their moral claims upon us — the basic obligation never to be cruel, not just the option to be kind when it suits our purposes — are a constant hindrance to human presumption. What is the mark of that special status of ours, anyway, if not precisely the ability to be just instead of merely dominant, to be the creature of conscience and bring mercy into the world? A loving concern for humanity that stops there, instead of spreading outward in a sense of fellowship and active respect toward ‘our companions in creation,’ to borrow a lovely phrase from Pope Benedict, is too close to self-worship, and bad things come of it.”
I agree with this; human dignity is affirmed, not threatened, when we reflect the compassionate God in whose image we are made. The animals over which we have been granted dominion, in the Judeo-Christian conception at least, offer abundant opportunites to display the full measure of our humanity as stewards of God’s creation.
Where I part company with my erudite friend begins when he starts to wander into the weeds of anti-scientism. I am insulated in small animal practice, a practice filled with animals that are pets and where I am able to totally ignore the fact that the meat my patients and I eat is not harvested from “steak trees” but involves the death of animals to get it. Understood. But I have also spent time on the “kill floor” of a slaughterhouse, and I have colleagues who are intellectually-serious and ethically-motivated as they fulfill their oaths in family farms and within large commercial operations alike. They use moral reasoning as they care for their porcine and bovine patients. Veterinarians are grudging philosophers, generally a sort with a practical bent and a love for scientific proofs. But we are often moral idealists, ones that use the science of animal behavior and physiology to undergird our practice. It is science that recognizes that most livestock don’t lead a charmed life in most environments, that there are dangers in seemingly-idyllic settings, and that safety is an appropriate motivator for their appropriate care. This is why a statement like this from Scully is so difficult to take:
“No matter what new perversion of animal husbandry the industry might devise, it can always count on the sign-off of friendly veterinarians, as true to their oath (“to promote animal health and welfare, to relieve animal suffering”) as Dr. Gosnell was to the Hippocratic oath.”
This is an ad hominem attack and, sadly, reveals a growing divergence between livestock veterinarians and groups like the Humane Society for The United States, formerly natural allies. There are bad characters in the food animal industry, without a doubt. Scully paints a picture in his piece of some of the bad ones, and reminds us of the worst practices in some of the large-scale food operations. Yet the idea that all veterinarians involved in this industry (for Scully doesn’t narrow down his condemnation) are morally-equivalent to the reprehensible abortionist Kermit Gosnell loses me rhetorically from then on. No thinking anti-abortion advocate considers all those who perform abortions to be the equivalent of a Gosnell, despite a profound dislike of their work. To paint livestock veterinarians with the same brush as a convicted murderer is offensive, and careless in its symbolism.
He notes, as he references other authors that are making the case for moral equivalency between the pro-life cause and vegetarianism (or, less dramatically, the pro-animal cause), that “author Mary Eberstadt writes that factory farming and similar abuses of the animal world are ‘simultaneously morally urgent and widely ignored by many people, including and inexplicably by many well-meaning but hitherto under-informed Christians.’” On this I suspect he is mostly right (as, then, is she) and Christians need to better engage the issue before a watching world. I am hopeful that we can be in agreement where they have good points and criticize them when their arguments seem to fall short. There is much to be mined in both areas.