Torture on the Farm

“Torture on the Farm; Why Conservatives Should Care About Animal   Cruelty”

  The American Conservative

  By Matthew Scully

                                                                                               May 23, 2005 issue

A FEW YEARS AGO I began a book about cruelty to animals and about  factory farming in particular, problems that had been in the back of my  mind for a long while. At the time I viewed factory farming as one of  the lesser problems facing humanity-a small wrong on the grand scale of  good and evil but too casually overlooked and too glibly excused.

  This view changed as I acquainted myself with the details and saw a few  typical farms up close. By the time I finished the book, I had come to  view the abuses of industrial farming as a serious moral problem, a  truly rotten business for good reason passed over in polite  conversation. Little wrongs, when left unattended, can grow and spread  to become grave wrongs, and precisely this had happened on our factory  farms. The result of these ruminations was Dominion: The Power of Man,  the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. And though my tome  never quite hit the bestseller lists, there ought to be some special  literary prize for a work highly recommended in both the Wall Street  Journal and Vegetarian Teen. When you enjoy the accolades of PETA and  Policy Review, Deepak Chopra and Gordon Liddy, Peter Singer and Charles  Colson, you can at least take comfort in the diversity of your  readership. The book also provided an occasion for fellow conservatives  to get beyond their dislike for particular animal-rights groups and to  examine cruelty issues on the merits. Conservatives have a way of  dismissing the subject, as if where animals are concerned nothing very  serious could ever be at stake. And though it is not exactly true that  liberals care more about these issues-you are no more likely to find  reflections or exposés concerning cruelty in The Nation or The New  Republic than in any journal of the Right-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 by  applying their own principles 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? [text cut]

  We don’t need novel theories of rights to do this. The usual  distinctions that conservatives draw between moderation and excess,  freedom and license, moral goods and material goods, rightful power and  the abuse of power, will all do just fine. As it is, the subject hardly  comes up at all among conservatives, and what commentary we do hear  usually takes the form of ridicule directed at animal-rights groups.  Often conservatives side instinctively with any animal-related industry  and those involved, as if a thing is right just because someone can  make money off it or as if our sympathies belong always with the men  just because they are men.

  I had an exchange once with an eminent conservative columnist on this  subject. Conversation turned to my book and to factory farming. Holding  his hands out in the “stop” gesture, he said, “I don’t want to know.”  Granted, life on the factory farm is no one’s favorite subject, but  conservative writers often have to think about things that are  disturbing or sad. In this case, we have an intellectually formidable  fellow known to millions for his stern judgments on every matter of  private morality and public policy. Yet nowhere in all his writings do  I find any treatment of any cruelty issue, never mind that if you asked  him he would surely agree that cruelty to animals is a cowardly and  disgraceful sin. And when the subject is cruelty to farmed animals-the  moral standards being applied in a fundamental human  enterprise-suddenly we’re in forbidden territory and “I don’t want to  know” is the best he can do. But don’t we have a responsibility to  know? Maybe the whole subject could use his fine mind and his good  heart. [text cut]

  Treating animals decently is like most obligations we face, somewhere  between the most and the least important, a modest but essential  requirement to living with integrity. And it’s not a good sign when  arguments are constantly turned to precisely how much is mandatory and  how much, therefore, we can manage to avoid.

  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. The moral standing of our fellow creatures may be humble, but  it is absolute and not something within our power to confer or  withhold. All creatures sing their Creator’s praises, as this truth is  variously expressed in the Bible, and are dear to Him for their own  sakes. 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 such knowable  facts about animals as their cognitive and emotional capacities, their  conscious experience of pain and happiness. Elsewhere in contemporary  debates, conservatives meet the foe of 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 at the moment. Of  course, we do not decide moral truth at all: we discern it. Human  beings in their moral progress learn to appraise things correctly,  using reasoned moral judgment to perceive a prior order not of our  devising. C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man calls this “the doctrine  of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true,  and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the  kind of things we are.” Such words as honor, piety, esteem, and empathy  do not merely describe subjective states of mind, Lewis reminds us, but  speak to objective qualities in the world beyond that merit those  attitudes in us. “[T]o call children delightful or old men venerable,”  he writes, “is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own  parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality  which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not.”  This applies to questions of cruelty as well. A kindly attitude toward  animals is not a subjective sentiment; it is the correct moral response  to the objective value of a fellow creature. Here, too, rational and  virtuous conduct consists in giving things their due and in doing so  consistently. If one animal’s pain-say, that of one’s pet-is real and  deserving of sympathy, then the pain of essentially identical animals  is also meaningful, no matter what conventional distinctions we have  made to narrow the scope of our sympathy. If it is wrong to whip a dog  or starve a horse or bait bears for sport or grossly abuse farm  animals, it is wrong for all people in every place. The problem with  moral relativism is that it leads to capriciousness and the despotic  use of power. And the critical distinction here is not between human  obligations and animal rights, but rather between obligations of  charity and obligations of justice.

  Active kindness to animals falls into the former category. If you take  in strays or help injured wildlife or donate to animal charities, those  are fine things to do, but no one says you should be compelled to do  them. Refraining from cruelty to animals is a different matter, an  obligation of justice not for us each to weigh for ourselves. It is not  simply unkind behavior, it is unjust behavior, and the prohibition  against it is nonnegotiable.

  Proverbs reminds us of this-“a righteous man regardeth the life of his  beast, but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel”-and the laws of  America and of every other advanced nation now recognize the  wrongfulness of such conduct with our cruelty statutes. Often applying  felony-level penalties to protect certain domestic animals, these state  and federal statutes declare that even though your animal may elsewhere  in the law be defined as your property, there are certain things you  may not do to that creature, and if you are found harming or neglecting  the animal, you will answer for your conduct in a court of justice.  There are various reasons the state has an interest in forbidding  cruelty, one of which is that cruelty is degrading to human beings. The  problem is that many thinkers on this subject have strained to find  indirect reasons to explain why cruelty is wrong and thereby to force  animal cruelty into the category of the victimless crime. The most  common of these explanations asks us to believe that acts of cruelty  matter only because the cruel person does moral injury to himself or  sullies his character-as if the man is our sole concern and the cruelly  treated animal is entirely incidental. [text cut]

  Whatever terminology we settle on, after all the finer philosophical  points have been hashed over, the aim of the exercise is to prohibit  wrongdoing. All rights, in practice, are protections against human  wrongdoing, and here too the point is to arrive at clear and consistent  legal boundaries on the things that one may or may not do to animals,  so that every man is not left to be the judge in his own case. More  than obligation, moderation, ordered liberty, or any of the other lofty  ideals we hold, what should attune conservatives to all the problems of  animal cruelty-and especially to the modern factory farm-is our worldly  side. 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  healthcare 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 our $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.  How much easier it is for people to excuse the wrongs done to lowly  animals. Where animals are concerned, there is no practice or industry  so low that someone, somewhere, cannot produce a high-sounding reason  for it. The sorriest little miscreant who shoots an elephant, lying in  wait by the water hole in some canned hunting operation, is just  “harvesting resources,” doing his bit for “conservation.” The swarms of  government-subsidized Canadian seal hunters slaughtering tens of  thousands of newborn pups- hacking to death these unoffending  creatures, even in sight of their mothers- offer themselves as the  brave and independent bearers of tradition. With the same sanctimony  and deep dishonesty, factory-farm corporations like Smithfield Foods,  ConAgra, and Tyson Foods still cling to countrified brand names for  their labels-Clear Run Farms, Murphy Family Farms, Happy Valley-to  convince us and no doubt themselves, too, that they are engaged in  something essential, wholesome, and honorable.

  Yet when corporate farmers need barbed wire around their Family Farms  and Happy Valleys and laws to prohibit outsiders from taking  photographs (as is the case in two states) and still other laws to  exempt farm animals from the definition of “animals” as covered in  federal and state cruelty statues, something is amiss. And if  conservatives do nothing else about any other animal issue, we should  attend at least to the factory farms, where the suffering is immense  and we are all asked to be complicit. If we are going to have our meats  and other animal products, there are natural costs to obtaining them,  defined by the duties of animal husbandry and of veterinary ethics.  Factory farming came about when resourceful men figured out ways of  getting around those natural costs, applying new technologies to raise  animals in conditions that would otherwise kill them by deprivation and  disease. With no laws to stop it, moral concern surrendered entirely to  economic calculation, leaving no limit to the punishments that factory  farmers could inflict to keep costs down and profits up. Corporate  farmers hardly speak anymore of “raising” animals, with the modicum of  personal care that word implies. Animals are “grown” now, like so many  crops. Barns somewhere along the way became “intensive confinement  facilities” and the inhabitants mere “production units.”

  The result is a world in which billions of birds, cows, pigs, and other  creatures are locked away, enduring miseries they do not deserve, for  our convenience and pleasure. We belittle the activists with their  radical agenda, scarcely noticing the radical cruelty they seek to  redress. [text cut]

  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.” Likewise, we are told to look away and  think about more serious things. Human beings simply have far bigger  problems to worry about than the well being of farm animals, and surely  all of this zeal would be better directed at causes of human welfare.  You wouldn’t think that men who are unwilling to grant even a few extra  inches in cage space, so that a pig can turn around, would be in any  position to fault others for pettiness. Why are small acts of kindness  beneath us, but not small acts of cruelty? [text cut]

  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, 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. … Certainly, a sort of  industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to  produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together  that they become just caricatures of birds, 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.” [text cut]

  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 began to spread, “to  look for God and sing his praises while insulting and degrading his  creatures? If, as I had thought, all lambs are the Agnus Dei, then to  deprive them of light and the field and their joyous frisking and the  sky is the worst kind of blasphemy.” [text cut]

  Of the many conservatives who reviewed Dominion, every last one  conceded that factory farming is a wretched business and a betrayal of  human responsibility. So it should be a short step to agreement that it  also constitutes a serious issue of law and public policy. Having  granted that certain practices are abusive, cruel, and wrong, we must  be prepared actually to do something about them. [text cut]

  We need our conservative values voters to get behind a Humane Farming  Act so that we can all quit averting our eyes. This reform, a set of  explicit federal cruelty statutes with enforcement funding to back it  up, would leave us with farms we could imagine without wincing,  photograph without prosecution, and explain without excuses. The law  would uphold not only the elementary standards of animal husbandry but  also of veterinary ethics, following no more complicated a principle  than that pigs and cows should be able to walk and turn around, fowl to  move about and spread their wings, and all creatures to know the feel  of soil and grass and the warmth of the sun. No need for labels saying  “free-range” or “humanely raised.” They will all be raised that way.  They all get to be treated like animals and not as unfeeling machines.

  On a date certain, mass confinement, sow gestation crates, veal crates,  battery cages, and all such innovations would be prohibited. This will  end livestock agriculture’s moral race to the bottom and turn the  ingenuity of its scientists toward compassionate solutions. It will  remove the federal support that unnaturally serves agribusiness at the  expense of small farms. And it will shift economies of scale, turning  the balance in favor of humane farmers-as those who run companies like  Wal-Mart could do right now by taking their business away from factory  farms. In all cases, the law 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.


Matthew Scully served as special assistant and deputy director of  speechwriting to President George W. Bush.

He is the author of  Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.