Bless the Beasts

National Review
October 3, 2011

Some virtues are by accidents of history associated with utopianism, hostility to private property, anti-clericalism, and other core beliefs of the Left. I can scandalize a yoga instructor anywhere in the world by declaring myself an avid admirer of Margaret Thatcher, though I challenge you to read the yoga sutras and conclude from them that devotees must favor an overregulated financial sector.

Concern for the welfare and dignity of animals is such an issue, associated with nihilist leftists such as Peter Singer and local totalitarians who seek to regulate pets out of existence. But one need not believe that animals have been endowed with all the rights of humans to insist that they are more than a commodity that tastes good.”

The conservative case against routine indifference to animal suffering has best been made by Matthew Scully in his 2002 book, Dominion. As I read it, the cat in my lap stretched out her paw and tenderly patted my cheek. “She would taste good,” I thought, was not a morally serious answer to the question, “Should I eat her?” And if it was not, how could it be a serious answer to this question: Should I eat an animal that has been separated from its mother at birth; confined its whole life to a pen in which it could not lie down to sleep or even turn around; castrated without anesthetic; force-fed; maddened by pain, fear, and sensory deprivation; and often inadequately stunned before slaughter, and therefore boiled and dismembered while still conscious?

Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of the Humane Society, is not notably a philosophical conservative. Nor has his record at the Humane Society been unimpeachable; Michael Vick remains — despite his apologies and Pacelle’s — as plausible a campaigner for his organization as O. J. Simpson would be for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Pacelle has been too quick to praise animal shelters that are no more than killing machines. (There are better solutions: trapping, neutering, vaccinating, and releasing, for example.) He is not Scully’s equal as a prose stylist; his writing is a bit schmaltzy. But many of the arguments in his new book, The Bond, are compelling; some are new, and those that are not are cogently restated and worth restating.

Our instinct, he proposes, to care for animals is as much a part of our nature as our instinct to exploit them, and a better part of it. If Scully locates his argument, ultimately, in natural law and Christian theology, Pacelle appeals to the bond we instinctively feel with animals, one so ancient that to dismiss it as effete sentimentalism is surely to take the easy way out. This bond may be viewed through many modern prisms — genetic, evolutionary — but it has been observed from Aesop to Kipling. Children are born with a keen curiosity about animals; their horror at the thought that the animals are to be slaughtered must be trained out of them. It is well known that children who torture animals have something very wrong with them: They often grow up to practice this enthusiasm on humans.

I am happy to accept that animals are not humans and that the life of a human is more sacred than a cow’s. But it requires tergiversations of the mind and soul to accept that animals are thus like plants and their lives no more sacred than a carrot’s. We need not value animals more than children to ask, as Bentham did, whether they suffer, conclude that they do, and demand of ourselves that we limit the amount of suffering we impose upon them.

As Pacelle observes, it is not normal in human history to see animals as commodities much like plasma TVs even as we live in ever greater intimacy with them as pets. It is perverse to share our beds with cats and dogs as millions more of them every year are gassed or injected with sodium pentobarbital in animal shelters — a grotesque euphemism, as is the word “euthanasia,” for there is no shelter there, nor mercy in the killing of animals who are healthy, rambunctious, and young. They die terrified, and they die pointlessly: Very few are vicious, and most are capable of forming deep, affectionate bonds with humans. Revulsion at this is neither a left-wing sentiment nor a new one. “Though critics try to cast the animal-protection movement as something foreign, eccentric, and subversive,” Pacelle writes, “this cause has long been a worthy and natural expression of the great Western moral tradition.” William Wilberforce, he adds, is rightly remembered as a campaigner against cruelty to animals.

Pacelle’s tour d’horizon of the development of our understanding of animal nature raises important points. The Cartesian and Skinnerian views of the animal mind are dead. Since the cognitive revolution began in the 1950s, psychologists have grudgingly come to accept the obvious: Animals have minds. (No one without a Ph.D. in psychology could have failed to see this in the first place.) What kind of minds? We do not precisely know, but surely they have them.

Do they suffer? Of course. Do they love? Everyone who has lived with a cat or a dog knows the intensity of their emotions. Not just the cats and dogs, either; the natural world is bursting with stories of animals who have formed loving bonds with humans — lions, tigers, elephants, all the way down the phylogenetic tree to octopi. What are we to make of the sight of a monster crocodile who slobbers his way toward the edge of his pool, snorting with satisfaction, in order to be chucked under his chin by his trainer? That is a reptile, after all, one whose ancestors were on the planet millions of years before humans appeared. The capacity for this behavior appears to be at least latent throughout the animal kingdom. Is it right to observe this and conclude that our behavior toward animals is morally unimportant, or, as Pacelle characterizes the arguments of critics, that “animal welfare is ultimately a trivial matter — the product of effete modern sensibilities?” No, I agree with Pacelle: Our treatment of animals is a measure of our character, and to mistreat an animal “is low, dishonorable, and an abuse of power that diminishes man and animal alike.”

In any event, I’ve not yet noticed that anyone who cares for animals is diminished in his capacity to care for humans. To the contrary, in fact. Surely our compassion is not in such finite supply that we must measure it out in teaspoons lest there be none left.

The book ranges over a horror of commonplace cruelties, from puppy mills to sport hunting, but common sense suggests to me that of all these cruelties, industrial farming is both the worst and the one we least wish to think about. It is good, many conservatives will respond, because it is efficient: The world needs cheap food. Profits are good, and wealth is good — but most will allow that some industries are profitable and vile. That it is possible to make a fortune as a pornographer does not mean it is noble. That it is possible to become rich by making music that glorifies gang culture and cop-killing does not mean we ought to admire those who do so.

Still: It is immensely difficult to arrive at a position of personal decency untainted by contradictions or hypocrisy. Animals, when left to their own devices, often die of disease or eat one another. It is absurd — if only because ought implies can — to suggest we must do something about that. Perhaps here the principle should be Arthur Hugh Clough’s: “Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive / Officiously to keep alive.”

Still: Many animals, my beloved cats included, are obligate carnivores. I feed them meat — yet I have rescued and liberated mice from their clutches. No reason for this, I know; just sentiment.

As for laboratory animals, I’m willing to leave the moral gray area as a gray area and concentrate on the obvious abuses. Only the obtuse would endorse torturing primates, for example, to do research that serves no higher purpose than to put out a paper no one will ever read establishing for the 50th time that primates don’t seem to like being tortured. I’m more willing to accept sport hunting and medical research on certain animals, under limited circumstances, than I am factory farming. The way the animals are cared for is important, as is the point of the research. That the answers to these questions are difficult, and that our principles come into conflict, does not mean we should shrug at the questions or say that they do not exist.

All farming, not just the industrial production of meat, causes harm to animals. Plowing and harvesting cause immense suffering to field animals; as Barbara Kingsolver aptly put it, “I’ve watched enough harvests to know that cutting a wheat field amounts to more decapitated bunnies under the combine than you would believe.” “Cruelty-free” is a marketing slogan, not a serious argument. Yet the fact that some animals must suffer is not an argument for absolute license. We are not obligate carnivores, and we have a great deal of choice about how much meat we eat and how we treat the animals we eat before we slaughter them, if to slaughter them we are determined. At least we might ask ourselves whether they were permitted to run; sleep unmolested; enjoy the company of their own kind; experience sunlight, daytime, and nighttime; and express the instincts with which they were endowed by their creator. We choose to impose the hell of factory farming upon them so that we can eat something that tastes good and costs less. The word for this, as Matthew Scully remarked, is gluttony; it is not a virtue.

Although it is not precisely the argument Pacelle makes, one seems to me implied: The more an animal has the capacity to love us, the more shameful it is to mistreat it. It is partly that dogs love and trust us so that makes our betrayal of them so shameful; it is morally relevant that no one has ever said, “He’s loyal as a snake.” Unlike Pacelle, I support comprehensive No Kill legislation of the kind promoted by Nathan Winograd, and hope to see it enacted in every American city.

As for factory farming, I doubt the practice can be changed until widespread moral revulsion takes hold. I encourage the stirring of conscience. To me, those cows and pigs in factory farms look a lot like the cats and dogs who have laid their heads on my chest.

Before you object, ask yourself: Are you sure? Really? Are you sure you are not twisting yourself into rhetorical knots to justify your impulse to do anything you please to creatures who cannot object? After all, if you come across a paper bag in the gutter and it seems something’s in it and you don’t know if it’s alive, you don’t kick it, do you?

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