The Abatement Of Cruelty

Matthew Scully has written a powerful, emotional and, to my mind, largely persuasive piece about the moral necessity of changing our collective treatment of farm animals. It is framed – somewhat relentlessly – as an argument designed to make pro-life conservatives look afresh pigs.jpgat the moral question of animal cruelty, which is, perhaps, a good thing if he wants to break through the noise. But it can alienate readers who may not share Matthew’s pro-life passion – which is a shame because the argument is worth a hearing in its own right – an urgent hearing about an urgent moral atrocity that many of us enable every day of our lives without even realizing it fully.

What I love about Matthew’s essay is that it refuses to let the reader off the hook. It made me deeply uncomfortable about my own eating habits, which I recognize are simply morally unacceptable. Some screeds are so screechy they make you more comfortable in your own position. This screed – though unnecessarily abrasive at times – doesn’t.

The great thing about the essay – apart from its splendid demolition of that preposterous bore, Anthony Bourdain – is its simplicity. What we do to pigs in factory farms is so morally wrong, so violating of even basic moral norms, that we have to stop it.

This week, we found new evidence that the brains of dogs, when examined under MRIs, react very similarly to human brains in terms of emotion, feeling, and suffering. Every dog owner knows this already, but the excuses that we cannot fully, scientifically, know that these animals are capable of feeling have now run completely dry:

Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus. … In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.

Our deep familiarity with dogs makes this unsurprising. It is one reason we find dog-fighting or cruelty or mistreatment so abhorrent. But the brain structure of dogs is very similar to pigs, whose intelligence is close to identical. Which is why Matthew’s strongest paragraphs seem to me to be these:

Why is it right or fair to pamper dogs (the lucky ones) and torture pigs? In some corners of the world they torture and eat both, and by what coherent standard can we tell those savage people that they’ve got it wrong? In the underground meat markets of Thailand, Vietnam, and South Korea, as CNN reports, “a common belief is that stress and fear releases hormones that improve the taste of the meat, so the dogs are placed in stress cages that restrict their movement,” among many sufferings that end only when they “have their throats cut in front of other dogs who are awaiting the same fate.” If such practices are morally out of bounds, that’s news to American agribusiness.

It’s all just cultural preference, habit, and custom, as Asian connoisseurs of meat from dogs (or horses, monkeys, dolphins, whales, and on and on) will be quick to tell you. Morally, the differences between pigs and dogs, and between our treatment of them, are purely conventional, the technical term for meaningless. Appeals to convention may be well and good in matters of taste or social etiquette — there is no One True Way to greet guests or prepare party favors. But if we are being morally rigorous, then citing “custom” is just a tautology: We do it because we do it. In this case, you could switch the picture here in our own country all around — dogs to the abattoir, pigs on the couch — and convention and custom would be just as defensible. Or, more to the point, just as indefensible. We can be consistently kind or consistently cruel, but anything in between has the whiff of moral relativism, right and wrong decided by whim.

The main force against this, of course, is market capitalism. What Scully wants would mean much lower profits for Big Ag, a constituency well-tended to by the GOP, even as they slash food stamps for the poor (yeah, they really are compassionate, these conservatives, aren’t they?). And his argument is, at root, a moral and properly conservative critique of capitalism.

That’s why, by his account, Karl Rove simply gave him an arched eye-brow for bringing up the subject as something that might be included in a GOP platform some day. No party that would love Sarah Palin is ever going to sacrifice profits for animal welfare.

But I wish him well, even though I think he alienates liberals and pro-choice independents unnecessarily in his tone in parts. Perhaps given the raw partisanship that courses through what’s left of the right, it’s the most effective strategy for persuasion among Republicans. But what we are talking about here is an enlargement of human empathy – and slash and burn partisan rhetoric is not too helpful in that difficult endeavor.

He’s also rightly very, very defensive about working for a vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, who has openly declaimed her utter contempt for animal welfare on multiple occasions and fought to kill wolves from helicopters leaving them to die excruciating, long deaths (Scully excuses her because of the pro-life testimony of the birth of Trig, the fantastic story of which he seems to take at face value). One obvious, glaring, unbelievable part of his essay is also his remaining inability to condemn the torture program of his former political masters – even to the point of citing torture advocate Andrew McCarthy in his defense. I’m sorry, Matthew. But no ringing condemnation of private sector cruelty against animals can stand without also acknowledging the horrifying treatment of humans that the Republican party still endorses, and even finds a subject worthy of foul, chuckling humor.

His recommendation – veganism – also seems to me a bit de trop. Yes, we can live without meat. But our species evolved as meat-eaters and we were once capable of husbanding animals humanely on traditional farms. It does not seem to me to be wrong to eat meat as such, but rather wrong to eat meat produced in the way almost all of it now is. Going vegan is an admirable choice in this context, but there are less drastic moves: to seek out meat from humane farmers as well as eating less of it. There are also types of meat. I think we can make distinctions of degree between, say, the emotional experience of a chicken and a pig. But the commodification of living beings is what troubles Scully, and it should trouble any Christian, and certainly any Catholic in a church headed by a man by the name of Francis.

In the larger sense, though, we are in Scully’s debt. His prose erupts at times with the righteous fury of the prophet. Because this is a great moral evil amidst us – and he is a true Prophet about that.

Update: This post prompted a reader thread.