Pro-Life Vegetarians: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

I broached the ethical linkage between the pro-life and vegetarian movements in a blog post a couple of weeks ago, where I introduced an essay by Matthew Scully that purports to make a case for vegetarianism on ethical grounds. I have mentioned before my dislike of the moniker “pro-life,” though I have yet to find a more politically-palatable name when “anti-choice” is offered as its replacement. Given my options, I’ll run with “pro-life” henceforth. I have also mentioned my dislike for the manner in which Scully makes this argument, appealing less to rationality than engaging a PETA-like appeal to theatrics.

In this second overview of the issue, I reference an article in First Things from over four years ago written by Mary Eberstadt, an author and research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and someone for whom I have a high regard. She finds herself in agreement with Scully’s overall principles, with a more intellectually cautious, less bombastic approach than his, but carries the moral imperative for vegetarianism further, connecting it to the defense of human life. That the proponents of each appear to find little common ground today she finds less an issue of intellectual and moral acrimony than a failure of competing ethical frameworks to engage one another. This dedication to the ethical agenda of various groups has essentially led (as I quite loosely paraphrase) to people that can’t play well together in the sandbox.

She describes the principal proponents of ethical vegetarianism (if I can call it that; it suggests that people like Bill Clinton who have essentially embraced veganism to avoid an imminent death from cardiovascular disease are “unethical vegetarians;” I will leave it to political non-partisans to parse those terms). They are a group of utilitarians like Peter Singer and postmodern eco-feminists like Carol J. Adams. Neither group is especially amenable to the views from an alliance of conservative Catholics and evangelicals that make up much of the pro-life movement. Evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics put away their differences in a conjoined white-hot lather against people like the utilitarians and eco-feminists who do the same against them. It’s like the 1980s where the Moral Majority and People for the American Way largely existed to antagonize each other and finally just got tired of it. But these groups aren’t tired yet.

Eberstadt notes that, among the “pro-animal” (again, I dislike the term, but will stick with it) adherents within utilitarianism and feminism, “both are hostile to the idea of admitting unborn human life to their circle of approved moral sympathy.” In the case of utilitarianism, animals can suffer pain in ways that unborn humans cannot, so they “trump” the unborn ethically. Eco-feminists find that both women and animals have been victimized, by rape and slaughter, respectively. Protection for animals means that they should not be killed for food; the protection of women means that all rights, including reproductive rights like abortion, must be preserved at all costs. Add that to an open hostility of both groups to matters of religious faith and you have created a very inhospitable sandbox indeed.

The pro-life forces, in Eberstadt’s view, are largely against vegetarianism because it is so often associated with wackos. We’re against it because they’re for it. This defensive crouch, she finds, is counter to the long history in the church of vegetarians like Francis of Assisi and John Chrysostom. Unfortunately this is where her explanation of this position ends, failing to address Biblical scholarship that permits meat-eating, in moderation like most things, as morally-acceptable.

Her solution rests upon an appeal to moral intuition (she avoids the term “natural law” for whatever reason). The comparison is made between those who joined the pro-life or pro-animal (i.e., vegetarian) cause as a consequence of a moral epiphany. Something happens, and we realize that our prior position is wrong. Certainly pro-life supporters use ultrasound images to sway the thinking of those who don’t seem to fully comprehend the moral significance of an unborn human. Likewise, images from grievous practices in some commercial farming or slaughter operations can create a moral reprehension toward the eating of livestock. Eberstadt now finds that we really are all playing in the same sandbox, one where our deepest, most intuitive assessments will prevail to embrace the value of all life, human and animal.

But this is where natural law, or moral intuition, loses me. Moral intuition is a terrific system in the absence of sin, when separated from the realities of the fall. It is still with us in some form, as the notion of “common grace” would have it, but it isn’t perfect. Our moral intuition may change with a compelling argument, perhaps a morally-invalid one. Moral intuition is not disembodied from our feelings at any given time.

During a recent time-wasting exercise of clicking-on-a-link-from-another-link, I was led to an advice column in Salon magazine, that sentinel of moral rectitude. I didn’t expect a lot, but was taken aback by the comment of what should prevail in moral decision-making:

“I think, within certain limits, in our social arrangements, it is right for us to behave according to how we feel. Feeling is a great regulator of human behavior.”

I won’t go further in how ghastly that idea is; I’m glad flash mobs are so in touch with their feelings. Fallen human beings can and do fall prey to their feelings and emotions when setting a moral compass. There need to be deeper principles than just profound moral intuition when processing ethical claims.

More importantly, frankly there are frankly moral issues that trump others. It is not necessary to make false equivalencies to justify moral repugnance to meat-eating and taking the lives of unborn humans. Both are substantial moral quandaries, but they aren’t the same. To make them so is little better than how the utilitarianism of Peter Singer or the rights-theory of Tom Regan sentimentalize all life, with no distinctions made for the moral weight of human beings. At some point, there needs to be recognition that there are indeed two very different games being played in the sandbox.

Pro-Life Equals Pro-Animal

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.

Animal Rights – Part 3

So now that I have titled this whole series of blogs “Animal Rights,” and have already said that I don’t think the notion of rights for animals is very useful, I need to explain what I think is the better way to address animal welfare. I think it is entirely consistent within a Christian worldview to attribute a high moral status to animals (higher than the church has historically done) while stopping short of the establishment of rights. Much of this originates at the very beginning of Scripture, in Genesis 1:27 and 28. Here God has made clear that human beings are made in His image and grants them DOMINION over the Earth, including animals. It’s difficult to say which passages in Scripture have been most abused when put into practice, but this must be one of them. The idea of dominion has been used to justify wholesale destruction of the environment and cruel treatment of animals.

But the Hebrew word for “dominion” implies both power and responsibility. Andrew Linzey, a leading Christian supporter of animal rights, gets plenty wrong (in my estimation) in support of rights, but correctly says that human dominion is “inescapably fraught with moral responsibility.” God remains sovereign over creation, including animals, but we are His stewards. Animal cruelty is an affront to the God who has entrusted us to care for the animals He has placed in our lives.

Matthew Scully, an evangelical and former George W. Bush speechwriter who also famously penned Sarah Palin’s Vice Presidential nomination acceptance speech in 2008 (and, at this writing, will be co-author of Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech), wrote a provocative book entitled “Dominion: The Power of Man, The Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.” In it he stops short of the extension of rights to animals, but makes the case that it is this very lack of rights that should make us all the more aware of our responsibility to look after their welfare:

“We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us. Animals are so easily overlooked, their interests so easily brushed aside. Whenever we humans enter the world, from our farms, to the local animal shelter to the African savanna, we enter as lords of the earth bearing strange powers of terror and mercy alike.”

The idea of responsible stewardship of God’s animals, I think, should be foundational to an ethic for animals. We should care because God cares: the Mosaic Law makes special provisions for animals and they are (at least by implication) part of the new Heaven and new Earth at the time of the consummation of all things. Wise stewards will make responsible choices about the livestock humans use for food, clothing, and work, about the pets we have as companions, and about the wild animals in nature and confined in zoos and preserves.