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From the July/August, 2003
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Rational Beasts by Christopher Killheffer

Rational Beasts

Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy
by Matthew Scully
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002
(464 pages; $27.95, hardcover)

reviewed by Christopher Killheffer

It is the rarest thing in the world to hear a rational discussion of vivisection,” wrote C. S. Lewis in a 1944 essay on what today is referred to more obscurely as animal research. Lewis considered the arguments of both opponents and defenders of vivisection to be based entirely on subjective sentiment rather than reason. He found the clouds of sentimentalism not only exasperating but also morally dangerous, for sentiment alone offers no guide to determining the obligations of justice.

The situation has not changed much in a half-century. For decades now, the most prominent figure in the debate over animal suffering has been Peter Singer, the philosopher who has recently gained notoriety for publicly advocating infanticide. His arguments against vivisection and factory farming are based on his theories of “preference utilitarianism”—that is, his rewriting of traditional morality into purely subjectivist terms. Opposed to Singer’s ideas are the self-styled “traditionalists,” who are ever willing to poke holes in his language of rights and liberation or his ridiculous accusations of “speciesism.”

The traditionalists are right about Singer, of course, but very rarely do we find one of them willing to rationally address the problem of animal suffering itself. Some of them will speak vaguely of the biblical commandment to subdue, but most often the whole issue is ignored—simply banished from the realm of serious moral concern. And yet, if we look into what is happening, we are naturally appalled. We are left to wonder: Is the only support for defending animal welfare to be found in Singer’s subjectivist theories? Is the Great Tradition really silent about our obligations toward animals?

With Dominion, Matthew Scully enters this confused debate and does us the great service of standing in the gap, so to speak—examining, from the perspective of the Great Tradition, the arguments used to decry or to defend what is being done to animals. Scully, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, is not at all the typical defender of animal welfare, and his book is not a typical book. He gives us exactly what Lewis called for: a truly rational discussion of the moral questions surrounding the modern mistreatment of animals. His argument for considering animal welfare is unapologetically “speciesist”—founded on the truth that human beings are unique creatures entrusted with dominion precisely because we are the only earthly beings capable of exercising it justly and mercifully. Far from being a rejection or rewriting of traditional morality, Scully’s book is a call for our return to it.

Dominion is concerned not so much with what is currently being done to animals as with how their treatment is thought and talked about by those who would justify current practice. He takes us to the annual convention of a trophy-hunters’ club, to the conference of the International Whaling Commission, and inside a mass-confinement hog factory. He introduces us to the convoluted theories of scientists who deny the reality of animal suffering and consciousness. He listens, asks questions, examines the literature, and allows the defenders of these practices and theories to speak for themselves.

The picture that emerges is one of “traditionalists” seeking refuge in euphemism and in appeals to Darwinian or market necessity, or even to a sort of pro-choice relativism. The euphemisms are at times comical, at times chilling: We hear of “harvesting” elephants, of pigs called “production units” or even “proteins,” of killing whales as “the human-induced mortality” of “living marine resources.” We hear it asserted that whales (and everything else) can be preserved only if given market value as prey. We are told that “consumers will not put up with the undisciplined way hogs are raised on small farms.” We hear a relativism that is worthy of the New Age: “A truly spiritual person,” writes one defender of sport-hunting, “does not judge others if they are following an honest path of the heart, and among those paths of the spirit is that of the hunter.”

All of this, Scully insists, evades the hard questions posed by the fact of our dominion. It asserts “a completely amoral vision of nature and our duties of dominion, making none of the distinctions . . . between licit and illicit appetites, just and unjust behavior, moral and material values.” It takes a fatal step into the very subjectivism espoused by the Singerians on the other side of the debate. In both Singer and his opponents, Scully describes

the same permissiveness passing itself off as high principle—a sophisticated rationale for putting one’s own pleasure and convenience over the suffering of others . . . the same fundamentally negative, hostile, imperious stance toward the universe. The same mercilessness, with the same maudlin air of altruism.

Some readers may object to the indignant and sarcastic tone Scully sometimes employs, thinking that such explicit indignation betrays the sentiment that colors his own argument. But Scully’s outrage is a corollary to his argument, and not its foundation. His stance is based on a Christian understanding of a created hierarchy and the immense dignity of our place in it, and outrage is the proper response to seeing that dignity perverted. Scully is outraged because he hates to see animals mistreated, yes, but more so because he hates to see man degrade himself by exercising a dominion that is callous, self-serving, and cruel. “Cruelty,” he writes, “is not only a denial of the animal’s nature, but a betrayal of our own.”

Scully urges us to trust the sentiment of repugnance—our sense that “some wrong has been done, some good has been ignored, some law violated.” That violated law is what tradition calls natural law, and it stands at the heart of Scully’s argument: “All moral truth arises from the nature of things, true in themselves and in crucial respects accessible to reason. Every being has a nature, and that nature defines the ends and ultimate good for which it exists.” This is the language of the Great Tradition, the antidote to subjectivism. Here alone can we find a fixed point of reference by which to determine our moral obligations—both to other creatures and to one another.

Scully argues that natural law demands radical changes in how we treat animals. “Reform will come,” he tells us, “not as we change our moral principles, but as we discern and accept the implications of principles we already hold.” The principles of natural law are already there in the tradition, but they have been inconsistently applied, so that in our country it is a crime for a man to beat one dog in his house but not to torture hundreds of dogs in a laboratory. Scully proposes several clear and practical changes we can make, personally and societally, such as changing our consumption habits, enacting a humane farming law, and requiring researchers to use the many excellent experimental alternatives to vivisection.

One of Scully’s greatest strengths is the clarity with which he sees the debate over animal welfare in relation to the other current debates over natural law. Against natural law are set various subjectivist theories—from the factory farmer’s denial of the nature of the pig to Singer’s denial of the nature of a human baby. “Like so many philosophical questions today, animal welfare presents a choice between sovereign man and sovereign truth, moral truth as our unyielding standard or as a convention of our own making.” What is at stake in the debate over animal welfare is not just the suffering of billions of creatures, but our understanding of the very basis of morality.

Scully insists that when we choose the role of consumer and conqueror, we find that the foundation of all our moral principles begins to slip away. If we make excuses for factory farming and vivisection, we will seek in vain for solid moral ground from which to condemn human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research, not to mention abortion and euthanasia. “In justifying cruelty to animals,” Lewis had warned, “we put ourselves on the animal level. We choose the jungle and must abide by our choice.”  

Christopher Killheffer was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1998, and since that time, he has been a parishioner of St. Mary’s Church, served by Dominican Friars, in New Haven, Connecticut. He works on a farm near New Haven.


Christopher Killheffer works at Yale University Library and on a farm near New Haven, Connecticut, where he is a parishioner of St. Mary's Church.

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