Unthinkable Today, Obvious Tomorrow: The Moral Case for the Abolition of Cruelty to Animals
by MATTHEW SCULLY December 19, 2016
On that issue, our evolving standards approach the ancient ones of Judeo-Christian morality.
You don’t really know your fellow man until you’ve pondered the fact that most people say they love animals, professing admiration and sympathy, and most people eat them. The great masses of creatures in our industrial farms today would be entitled to conclude, if they could do any pondering themselves, that our love is not worth much. Judging by the fruits, it more resembles hatred. They come and go knowing nothing of existence but misery. No season of gentleness anymore before the blade. No glimpse of earth’s comforts or of life’s goodness. It’s all just pain, courtesy of a world filled with self-described animal lovers. Cruelty to animals, and to farm animals in particular, may not be humanity’s worst offense. It has no rival, however, for the title of humanity’s worst hypocrisy.
Lately, some eminent thinkers have turned to the subject, offering us vegans the rare brush with respectable authority. The Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, for one, seems to be especially troubled by the abuse of animals, and he’s certainly not a man to be casually ignored. A Krauthammer column last year was welcomed in animal-welfare circles as a sort of mainstream landmark, signaling that perhaps the issue is truly beginning to register. There’s nothing like seeing a long-held conviction confirmed by others of greater gifts, and that’s how I felt reading his piece. He began:
We often wonder how people of the past, including the most revered and refined, could have universally engaged in conduct now considered unconscionable. . . . While retrospective judgment tends to make us feel superior to our ancestors, it should really evoke humility.
Surely some contemporary practices will be deemed equally abominable by succeeding generations. The only question is: Which ones?
I’ve long thought it will be our treatment of animals. I’m convinced that our great-grandchildren will find it difficult to believe that we actually raised, herded and slaughtered them on an industrial scale — for the eating.
He cites several other examples such as the confinement and shackling of circus elephants (“a reproach to both their nobility and our humanity”), some of our shabbier zoos, and entertainment spectacles involving captive marine mammals. We are finally realizing that such practices are unnecessary, writes Krauthammer, and “it’s good that these are being rethought.”
As for meat, an abundance of substitutes will be available — many already are — “produced at infinitely less cost and effort.” Our successors will see the day when the flesh of slaughtered animals “will become a kind of exotic indulgence, what the cigar (of Cigar Aficionado) is to the dying tobacco culture of today".
We should hope that our great-grandchildren, in passing judgment on the industrial farms of today, are more lenient than we are and don’t get too much into the details. Unkind and unwarranted as they are, the other forms of exploitation that Krauthammer mentions are the least of it. And wondering where we strayed, posterity will note that in America, farm animals were excluded from the very definition of “animal” in the protections provided in our federal Animal Welfare Act. A few minimal regulations apply, such as a new one — a glimpse of the whole ethical setting — saying that you can’t use bulldozers to drag to slaughter a dairy cow too sick or lame to walk to her own death. Even this was resisted by the cattle and dairy lobby as a meddling in their private affairs. What should we expect of an industry that may be described, almost literally, as lawless?
If you do any business with the poultry industry, for example, here’s a story that concerns you. From the Washington Post’s October 27 news pages, it’s a straight dose of truth-telling that reveals, among much else, how one form of cruelty can breed others, in a process shrouded from public inquiry by the very distastefulness of the details. The headline, “New technique may prevent the gruesome deaths of billions of male chicks,” hardly elicits eagerness to learn about the current technique. What we might wish were some grotesque outlier in livestock agriculture is, however, a sample of standard, everyday, and indeed worldwide practice: “Amid the recent, growing opposition to tightly caged hens, another practice in the poultry industry has drawn less notice: All male chicks born at egg farm hatcheries are slaughtered the day they hatch. This is typically done by shredding them alive, in what amounts to a blender.”
Just like that, and for the unfortunate ones over breakfast, Post readers were informed that for the sake of making eggs, “billions of newborn chicks,” because they are not bred to grow fast enough to be killed for meat, are shredded alive, or else gassed or suffocated. Egg producers call the process “maceration,” doubtless because “chick shredding” didn’t have quite the right ring of science and normality. They borrowed the term from wine-makers — apparently figuring, hey, what does it really matter whether you’re doing it with grapes or to living creatures? If it were some guy in his backyard “macerating” a handful of live baby birds, instead of a supposedly respectable global enterprise doing it to billions of them, witnesses would call the police, who would call in the psych unit. Never mind what kind of industry can get away with such a thing. What kind of industry would even think of it?
The new technique, in case you’re wondering, promises to identify the gender of chicks well before hatching, and we’re assured it will be adopted when refined and brought to commercial scale in maybe five or so years, or about 20 or 30 billion chicks from now. Progress? Sure. Most anything is bound to be an improvement when the starting point is madness.
The power that humans have over animals, Charles Krauthammer reminds us, needs constant restraining to stay true and just. Clearly there is lost ground to make up.
We’re getting awfully jaded if we can hear of such routine practices and not resolve, there and then, to have nothing to do with the offending industries and to support laws that will bring barbarities of this kind to a swift end. The only rational response is to say, Hold the chicken and eggs, if that’s the price. You don’t have to see comparisons to Dachau to understand that all these little creatures deserve better than this. As do the females, bound by the billions in squalid cages in acrid warehouses that these days can qualify on labels as “natural.” The power that humans have over animals, Krauthammer reminds us, needs constant restraining to stay true and just, to say nothing of sane, and clearly there is lost ground to make up: “One measure of human moral progress — amid and despite the savageries we visit upon each other — is how we treat the innocent in our care. And none are more innocent than these.”
A second formidable figure giving serious thought to animal welfare is Yuval Noah Harari, a professor of history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I first saw reference to that 2014 book (already popular enough to appear in some 30 languages) in news reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had read it. During a cabinet meeting, he told the Israeli agriculture minister, “I realized from [Harari’s] book that animals have more of a consciousness than we realized. That disturbs me and makes me think twice.” The prime minister then authorized a panel to review all anti-cruelty laws — not just in agriculture — throughout Israel (prompting grumbling from the ag minister but enthusiastic approval from the justice minister at the time, Tzipi Livni, who, we learn, is an ethical vegetarian). In political debates, animal-protection causes are waved off sometimes as though, even where some validity is conceded, the whole subject is just too trivial to rate the attention of high-level leaders who have so many more pressing challenges to deal with, starting with the protection of people. If any leader could plead busyness on that score, it would surely be the prime minister of Israel, but Netanyahu was moved by the book, deciding to do something. Reading Sapiens, one can see why.
The work of a brilliant, intellectually fearless man, it’s one of those grand tours of human experience that allow us to glimpse beyond our own little place in time and to distinguish between the subjective, occasionally wishful assumptions of the moment and objective, immutable realities in nature. Profound discourses in natural-law philosophy stress a prior order in nature, morally consequential facts in the created world beyond the power of man to alter, and this is the drift of Harari’s insights, except with a scientific edge. Touching on animals here and there as they figure into our rise to become chief of creatures, not a pretty story on any account, he draws on evolutionary psychology, which identifies the adaptive emotional traits common to mammals in the way that evolutionary biology defines the physical traits. Harari describes how, in the spread of factory farming across the world, the designs of economics were severed from designs in the animals themselves that our remote ancestors, as tough a breed as they were, had to respect, if only by necessity.
All those ages back, and right up until a few generations ago, a grossly maltreated flock or herd quickly became a dying flock or herd. Domestication entailed at least a measure of protection for farm animals, in the sense, as the word “husbandry” denotes, that they were “bonded to the house,” part of an organic and mutually beneficial enterprise, with their nourishment and safety temporarily assured. But none of this obtains any more. Certain modern methods of agriculture, including antibiotics to contain disease in mass confinement, ensure their collective survival in the bleak existence now afforded to some 95 percent of the industrialized world’s cows, pigs, and other domesticated mammals. Beyond that, however, any practical interest that producers ever had in the well-being of animals is gone.
Domestication entailed at least a measure of protection for farm animals, in the sense, as the word ‘husbandry’ denotes, that they were ‘bonded to the house,’ part of a mutually beneficial enterprise.
You could call factory-farm animals evolution’s greatest success story, if all that mattered were reproduction and population, but what is that worth when individually it means a life subjected to extreme cruelty? “The animal kingdom has known many types of pain and misery for millions of years,” Harari writes in a Guardian essay. “Yet the agricultural revolution created completely new kinds of suffering, ones that only worsened with the passing of the generations.”
Hyper-bred in industrial facilities, separated at once from their mothers, denied the outdoors and anything resembling a natural life, confined without relief between bars, mutilated, experiencing no touch of human kindness before it all ends in the mayhem of slaughter, these creatures still have the social natures of their own distant wild ancestors. Each one still has the emotions, the desires, the need for play, companionship, and maternal care that allowed their kind to flourish over millions of years before humans took charge of their existence. Each one can be happy, sad, lonely, and afraid. A detail has always stayed with me, from a visit years ago to the world’s largest abattoir for hogs, that somehow stirs fellow-feeling as much as any other: The vast plant floors — scene of 2,000 kills every hour, if you can picture that pace — must be constantly washed clean of waste, because in terror so many of the pigs lose control of their bowels.
It’s no revelation — just a reminder we can all use — that farm animals suffer emotionally as well as physically. Only various modern theories, like behaviorism, have ever really questioned this, and those same theories imagine a world in which all creatures but us merely mimic conscious feeling, unaware even of their agonies. So very convenient if you’re in the business of inflicting agonies (what would the word “cruelty” even mean if they were correct?), and Harari, in Sapiens, brings all concerned back to reality: “Feelings and emotions are mechanisms that evolved in all mammals in order to encourage adaptive behaviors. The areas in the human brain which are related to basic emotions like fear, anger, and mother–infant bonding are very similar to those we find in other mammals. Indeed, the very definition of mammals is based on the loving bond between mother and offspring.” With all of their feelings and needs now utterly crushed in modern systems, surrounded by machinery and handled like machinery, animals in factory farms are thus “uniquely miserable” creatures, Harari writes. They might even be worse off, as a group, than any creatures that ever lived:
Today, the majority of large animals on planet earth are domesticated farm animals that live and die as cogs in the wheels of industrial agriculture. . . . The disappearance of wildlife is a calamity of unprecedented magnitude, but the plight of the planet’s majority population — the farm animals — is cause for equal concern. In recent years, there is growing awareness of the conditions under which these animals live and die, and their fate may well turn out to be the greatest crime in human history. If you measure crimes by the sheer amount of pain and misery they inflict on sentient beings, this radical claim is not implausible.
Some will not take well to the suggestion that any of this is a “crime,” much less a grave one, but maybe such terms are needed to get our attention. It would require, in any case, the most highly developed habits of denial to read Harari and not see that all of this is a very big deal. One needs a moment just to absorb the datum that the inhabitants of factory farms constitute earth’s majority large-animal population. Or that in a given year, the number of chickens slaughtered in Europe exceeds the continent’s total population of wild birds of every species. Or take the estimates in biomass, the total weight of various creatures on earth as groups: For all humans, about 300 million tons. Fewer than 100 million tons for every large wild animal on the planet. And 700 million tons for farm animals. Meaning that each year tens of billions of creatures are left to the sorriest of fates for the pleasure of 7 billion. In about 50 years, there will be another couple of billion of us. Must mass animal suffering just keep multiplying as we do?
Suppose that both Yuval Noah Harari and Charles Krauthammer are even close to being right. The former relieves us of any illusion that farm animals, and least of all our fellow mammals, somehow aren’t really conscious of all that they endure and that therefore this vast tribulation of mankind’s making somehow doesn’t count on any moral scale. He calls the treatment of farm animals “one of the most pressing ethical issues of our time.” The latter foresees the disbelief and rebuke of posterity for allowing this to go on beyond any claims of necessity in an age already offering alternatives to meat, milk, eggs, leather, and most every other animal product we can name. Neither writer can be caricatured as fanatical or eccentric. Serious, learned, influential men, both of them. And here they are expressing, essentially, the conviction of your typical, snobbishly derided animal-protection activist that it’s a new day, that we humans have to get all this brutality behind us, and that our own lives will be better for the effort.
For those needing more august authorities than columnists and historians, a third figure to weigh in not so long ago is Pope Francis. Though much in tune with the intuitions of Krauthammer and the scientific insight of Harari, the pope’s encyclical last year, Laudato Sì, or “Praise Be,” fills out the picture with what even those of us who belong to no church can recognize as the grace-filled wisdom of Western moral thought, all the more pertinent in the case of factory farming since it is a system of Western origin. A theme of the work, where it relates to animals, is “a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures,” which explains why a few Catholic commentators, of a supposedly more conservative stripe, were quick to dismiss those parts as “sentimental.” Francis was trying, to not much avail, to shake them from the hard-heartedness they bring to the subject:
Together with our obligation to use the earth’s goods responsibly, we are called to recognize that other living beings have a value of their own in God’s eyes. . . . In our time, the Church does not simply state that other creatures are completely subordinated to the good of human beings, as if they have no worth in themselves and can be treated as we wish. . . . The Catechism clearly and forcefully criticizes a distorted anthropocentrism: “Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection. . . . Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things.”
Countercultural in the way the gospel is supposed to be, Francis reminds us that animals are more than just commodities, and humans more than just consumers, cautioning repeatedly against the blindness and presumption of abusing other creatures in disregard of their dignity and their suffering. Creation is not just the colorful backdrop of human action, nor are animals just interchangeable props in our pursuits. They do not exist merely to give us pleasure or to serve our purposes. We are not “lords and masters,” Francis says, and indeed: “We are not God. . . . Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”
Animals exist as individuals, not just species and groups, says Francis, and they are known, as we are, to their Maker. If that’s sentimentality, the pope notes, then someone else was prone to it, too: “With moving tenderness,” he writes, Jesus drew attention at times to the beauty and indwelling worth of other creatures, saying that “each one of them is important in God’s eyes: ‘Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.’” Seeing the Lord’s own solicitude for animals, asks the leader of Christianity’s largest flock, “How then can we possibly mistreat them or cause them harm?”
Animals exist as individuals, not just species and groups, says Pope Francis, and they are known, as we are, to their Maker.
And how about the lowliest, most forgotten creatures born into our industrial farms — have they also their own particular goodness and worth, by the measure of their Creator? We won’t find a self-respecting Christian authority who, in a clear moment, will say they don’t, or who will dare to describe their treatment as godly dominion or anything close. One has to wonder as well: If five sparrows are not forgotten, then what of those billions of newly hatched chicks? When Francis writes of how some economic enterprises “always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality,” how “technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic,” and how one by-product of this is the “throwaway culture,” perhaps no industry should hear the rebuke louder than one that throws masses of sentient, newborn creatures into industrial blenders every day. (And let every customer of such enterprises take to heart the pope’s reminder that “purchasing is always a moral — and not simply economic — act.”)
“Tyrannical anthropocentrism” is a good phrase to keep in mind next time you hear someone describe any animal-protection cause as “anti-human,” one of those clichés of disparagement that’s tossed off as if it settled anything: “Why don’t you go help humans instead?” We’re left to ask why such people always seem to think that it is beneath human beings to admit and correct cruelty but not to commit cruelty in the first place. It has the ring of self-satisfied excuse-making, by those who lack empathy and resent the quality in others. Why do the very people who like to rhapsodize most about human dignity so often try to explain away practices and industries so transparently beneath our dignity? And, of course, the same arbiters of moral importance will heatedly defend a favorite delicacy, a piece of finery, a bloody recreation, or whatever else, as if all the world depended on it. How do we convey to them the truly finer things, such as what Francis calls a “sense of fraternity” with fellow creatures, bound for dust as we are, and the self-restraint and mercy in which we show the real glory of humanity?
If we’re looking for mankind’s truly distinguishing qualities, high on my list would be a capacity for impartial judgment, in this case the ability over time to see where the demands we place on animals, or allow others to place, are unwarranted or simply unfair. And doubtless one reason that serious men from Washington, D.C., to Jerusalem and Rome find themselves reflecting on all this is that there are so many other practices, beyond industrial farming but akin to it in spirit, in which routine and conscience long ago parted ways, if they ever met at all. “Tyrannical anthropocentrism” covers a lot of ground when you start to notice these various other wrongs at the expense of other creatures, and all the bad actors who haven’t heard the news that dominion means more than vicious domination. The pope, for his part, asks us to think of all animals, wild and domesticated, mindful that cruelty is debasing and has a way of spreading:
Our indifference or cruelty toward fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness that leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty toward any creature is “contrary to human dignity.” We can hardly consider ourselves to be fully loving if we disregard any aspect of reality: “Peace, justice, and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes, which cannot be separated and treated individually without once again falling into reductionism.” Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures.
One sense in which “everything is related” invites us, if we are going to meet the problem with sincere effort, to examine the validity of our own assumptions. The test is to compare one’s own moral choices as a customer of factory-farm products — that is, virtually all animal products — with other choices and products we more readily recognize as unconscionable. When the pope writes of a “disordered use of things,” he means that human appetites have slipped their leash to cause harm and degradation far beyond anything that can be rationally or morally justified. Modern animal factories are hardly the only instance in which human appetites are treated as laws, wants asserted as needs, or habits and customs obeyed as edicts of nature. Examining the demands that other people and cultures make on animals, we are seeing, essentially, some of our own demands in terms that allow for greater objectivity.
In regions of China, for example, dogs are slaughtered for meat, and South Korea has thousands of dog-meat farms where the rule is that the greater the agony and stress, the better the taste of the meat — a bit of local color we won’t be hearing about in South Korea’s 2018 Olympics promotions. It’s no way to treat sensitive, emotionally alert fellow mammals, but if that’s suddenly the standard, we’ve got worries of our own. Across Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, millions of wild creatures are ensnared each year in the exotic-meat, “traditional medicines,” and especially pathetic “aphrodisiac” trades. There are “bear farms” in China, Vietnam, and elsewhere, ceaselessly confining and immobilizing the victims to extract bile that, customers are assured, holds medicinal powers — a process so pitiless it is largely shunned even in cultures not known for their sensitivity to animals. There’s a market for all of these animal products; indeed, in most cases demand is growing even as supply dies off. People insist they need these things. For some it’s a “livelihood,” for others a longstanding culinary habit or way of life about which they do not welcome questions. And purchasers of these meats and other items have got a ready answer anyway. Why should they indulge themselves any less than Western consumers do with our billions of tormented farm animals? What’s the difference, really?
In the oceans, meanwhile, whales, dolphins, and other intelligent, social mammals still endure prolonged deaths at the hands of Japanese fleets, claimed, like the great whales wiped out in the last century, by the shoreless arrogance of men asserting “ancient custom” but really just doing their killing for the most frivolous of products. The world has to lose the whales because miso soup just doesn’t taste the same without whale blubber. They are like the sealers of Newfoundland, whose honored tradition is to stage an onslaught into one of nature’s nurseries once a year and chase, club, ax, and often skin alive a few hundred thousand newborn pups left on ice floes by their mothers. There are no defensible grounds at all for this, not even a cold economic rationale since it’s subsidized by the Canadian government. Just another way of life, more people unable or unwilling to think past self-entitled desire to the greater good of compassion. They’re not the only ones who assume that the particular products they want, fur and various edible goods, make it all worthwhile.
Then we have the 5 or 6 percent of our population who still think it is normal, and indeed praiseworthy, to stalk, sneak up on, and dispatch animals for no better reason than the malicious thrill of it.
Then, to take a final illustration, we have the 5 or 6 percent of our population who still think it is normal, and indeed praiseworthy, to stalk, sneak up on, and dispatch animals for no better reason than the malicious thrill of it, memorializing these moments with their “trophies.” It’s a passion captured by an American bow hunter who wrote of deer, “I have so loved them that I longed to kill them,” and these days it extends well beyond deer to “game” of every kind. The creepiest of the lot is a type whose low character can escape no outsider to the trophy-hunting mania: thousands of people who compete throughout the world to kill the most and biggest animals. Members of outfits such as America’s own Safari Club International, these hunters are mostly men of means who still assume it is their prerogative to kill even elephants, rhinos, lions, grizzlies, and every other kind of creature in every place on earth. They use sophisticated tracking devices, baits, advanced weaponry, bows that leave long blood trails, and even agricultural methods for the “guaranteed” killing of captive prey, bred for the sole purpose of being shot.
When they’re not appropriating public lands, sport hunters do their executing in enclosed preserves that leave no escape, or at bird-shooting ranches and other clubby hideaways that are the hunting equivalent of a driving range. When Safari Club’s Walter Palmer last year slayed an esteemed South African lion named Cecil, he was reviled by people everywhere and he disappeared for months; widespread knowledge of this group could send them all into hiding. They get away with it all, even though most of us recognize such people as what they are, ruthless. Before you ask them how they can be so utterly indifferent to animal suffering, however, be ready for the obvious question, “Do you eat meat?” Some hunters are even given to airs of moral superiority toward meat lovers who wince at shooting animals, because hunters, at least, don’t delegate the blood spilling to others. And on that count they have a point.
Cruelty to farm animals is the beam in our own eye, if we patronize that whole rotten system. Disgraceful as all of these other forms of exploitation are, condemning them in any principled, consistent way is a tough proposition if one has been paying no attention to where all the meat and other stuff come from. There’s a reason why animal-use industries, from agribusiness to fur trapping and farming (which inflict suffering to match anything in meat production) to trophy hunting, have combined their lobbying efforts in recent years. They see the connections they hope we won’t make, realizing that they are all more or less equally engaged in enterprises that, to consistent moral reasoning at least, rise or fall together. Survey the whole range of human abuses, from the most sanctimoniously defended to the most transparently depraved, and they aren’t so far apart. The abuses we see and despise are no worse than the institutional ones we don’t see and yet support. The creatures we exploit are essentially the equals of the ones we name, know, or admire from afar. And ample substitutes can be found for the things we extract from the exploited. It’s all knowledge with consequences — inconvenient, at times, but not complicated, and a lot easier in the end than living with, being complicit in, and rationalizing practices that we correctly sense are unworthy of us. Everything is related; we don’t get to decide that some cruelties shall be set apart and spared from judgment.
We sometimes still hear the old term “necessary evils” for violent practices to animals that seem to stand up to reason, serving an indispensable good for the benefit of humanity. What are we supposed to call those practices when reason or necessity is no longer in sight, where neither ever was to begin with, and some or even most people refuse to dispense with the practices anyway? There are pedants who get upset when any abomination inflicted on any animal is described as wicked. They regard that as an affront to our special moral status, according to which only a wrong done to fellow humans can count as evil. When the particular issue at hand, however, is torturing bears, bludgeoning seal pups, “longing” to slay wildlife, immiserating farm animals, shredding chicks, and all the rest, you wouldn’t think it an ideal time to try appealing to our lofty standing as the Creature of Conscience. Of course these are wicked things, and high-minded evasion only compounds the offense.
One of the big stories that posterity will probably notice more than our political press does at the moment is the worldwide advance of the animal-protection movement in the early 21st century.
They involve, moreover, in those who run exploitive enterprises, all the familiar enemies that always have to be overcome in the moral progress of humanity — selfishness, licentiousness, hubris, arrogance, avarice, abuse of power, and abandonment of duty. And they bring forth, in opposition, all the best qualities of empathy, altruism, responsibility, and loving-kindness. Indeed, one of the big stories that posterity will probably notice more than our political press does at the moment is the worldwide advance of the animal-protection movement in the early 21st century. Name any abuse of any creature, and somewhere you will find great-hearted men and women campaigning to end it, with the moneyed interests invariably against them but public support usually on their side — a sign that more of us are sincerely trying to match our conduct with our convictions. A cause that started in the England of William Wilberforce, a man who knew high-minded evasions when he heard them, might even be called the most potent and underrated political issue of our time. Prime Minister Netanyahu is one of many political leaders to think twice, challenge unexamined assumptions, and open his mind and the laws of his country to new standards of treating animals. New standards, that is, that look a lot more like the old ones of Judeo-Christian morality, and of all the great faiths and moral codes, for that matter.
In Europe, various reforms in the past decade or so entail the acknowledgment, in law, that animals experience conscious pain and suffering, the only truthful starting point to framing rules and statutes, and a step up from creatures’ being categorized as objects, commodities, or property. No longer in those nations can industry influence simply airbrush afflicted farm animals out of the picture, as if commercial use instead of nature itself defined what they are. As for American agribusiness, it tells us about all we need to know that its own political cause these days is to criminalize the mere photographing of factory-farm animals. It’s come to that when a few pictures and films, taken by Mercy for Animals, Compassion over Killing, and other intrepid little groups, and posted for the world to see on the Internet, can set multi-billion-dollar conglomerates into a public-relations panic. As Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, writes in his book The Humane Economy (2016), “when a company’s greatest fear is a knowledgeable, ethically alert customer, that company has problems that won’t go away.”
The Humane Society itself has demonstrated this in consistent ballot-initiative victories to prohibit some of the severest forms of confinement — in Florida, California, Arizona, and just last month in Massachusetts. This last measure, approved by 78 percent of Massachusetts voters and endorsed by their Republican governor, prohibits not only specific cruelties but also the sale of products relying on those methods, making it, so far, the most efficacious reform of factory farming anywhere in the world. These and other political routs have, in turn, led the industry to initiate, slowly and grudgingly, changes of its own, as large retailers impose standards throughout supply chains, in response to customers who are awakening to the problem. It’s always a sound principle that whatever we would not personally do ourselves, whatever we would find abhorrent and unconscionable, we should not allow to be done on our behalf or in furtherance of industries we patronize. Apply that rule tens of millions of times across the market, and these industries will discover that they can be as resourceful in dismantling the apparatus of cruelty as they have been in building it.
It’s easy to forget that even among all the people sadly caught up in factory farming and its profits, no one really looks around and feels entirely at peace with the status quo.
I have a hunch that Pacelle’s The Humane Economy, describing all the market-driven innovations that can one day replace harsh exploitation of every kind — the invincible pairing of human creativity and human compassion — is making the rounds within meat-producing and other animal-use industries. When the world’s largest meat company buys a 5 percent share in a startup called Beyond Meat, as happened this fall, that’s a glimpse of bigger things in the making. It’s easy to forget that even among all the people sadly caught up in factory farming and its profits, no one really looks around and feels entirely at peace with the status quo, wishing only to see more of it. As livestock companies are pressured and held to account, intense cruelty will little by little give way to milder systems, meat production itself to alternatives, including real animal meat grown in cell cultures. For all the creatures spared from the worst suffering, what will it matter if relief comes by amazing grace or by a shifting profit motive?
Along the way, it will surely become more apparent when we are only refining practices that are better abolished. One day, as Charles Krauthammer predicts, humanity will be done altogether with feeding on animals, for reasons of ethics along with the health and ecological reasons that are also staring us in the face. When an industry inflicts boundless abuse on animals, weighing ever more on the conscience of men and women everywhere, adversely affecting human health, and, moreover, when it’s a blight on the natural environment, it’s not implausible to imagine that industry’s eventual extinction. Unthinkable to most people today, obvious to most people tomorrow: We are all better off without the whole sorry business. And in the vocabulary of civilized people, who will miss the term “slaughterhouse”?
Pope Francis prays, “May the power and the light of the grace we have received also be evident in our relationship to other creatures and to the world around us,” and we should stay alert to every possibility in that direction. As voters and buyers, we should take a general, active stance in favor of helping animals of every kind, in every society, and not forever assume that other concerns must take priority or that they necessarily compete with animal protection. A few generations from now, after all, who is really going to care about most of the things we worry and argue about in politics today? No one, after we have moved along, will think any more or less of us because we got it right or wrong on tax policy, on this program or that one, or on most of the other political questions, except security issues, that are often just contests for advantage, having not much to do with justice or conscience, and that will someday be as faintly recalled as the silver-versus-gold debates of another era. But how human beings treat the innocent and defenseless creatures under our power — that’s one of those revealing marks we leave behind. It ranks with the most fundamental of human responsibilities. As a political cause it can hold its own in any fair test of comparative importance.
It’s the moral tests that are remembered, the ones inviting us to look beyond self-interested advantage, to square how we act with what we know, to widen the circle of sympathy and respect, or simply to do right for its own sake. This is a challenge for our age. Far from being some new or radical issue, it is older than ancient, differing only in opportunities, uniquely ours, to leave behind wretched customs and rid the world of needless miseries. More ways of life that don’t involve so much death. More pursuits of happiness that don’t cause so much pain. Civilization a milestone or two further along, with less hypocrisy, more integrity, less hidden violence, and more true peace. Among the gifts we can offer posterity, they don’t come much better than that.
— Matthew Scully, a former literary editor of National Review and senior speechwriter to President George W. Bush, is the author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.