All true. But the rules of clear thinking and moral consistency — above all, the rule of treating natural equals equally — lose none of their validity when we turn to animals, even if the sins of cruelty are of a lesser order than violence to a baby just weeks or days away from birth. In the way of other slight differences and arbitrary distinctions in law that should leave us feeling uneasy, compare the treatment of farm animals to that of other animals protected, on the books at least, by cruelty statutes — protections that are themselves a fairly recent development in Western law.
If you were caught even once inflicting on a dog the punishments that are directed daily at factory-farmed pigs, you would be arrested and answer for that offense in a court of law; in many jurisdictions, the offense would carry a serious possibility of prison time. Dogs and pigs are entirely similar creatures, equals in every relevant way including their intelligence, emotional capacities, variations in personality, and experience of pain. Yet the one is protected from human wrongdoing and the other you may lawfully and profitably treat like garbage, with no regard whatever for that creature’s suffering or dignity. Comparable cruelty toward comparable animals makes you in the one case just another farmer and in the other case just another felon, as Michael Vick can attest.
This particular disjuncture between reality and law didn’t happen by chance. To avoid the massive inconvenience of calling things by their name in law, and acting accordingly, livestock interests years ago saw to it that in the collection of federal rules pertaining to commercially used animals – our Animal Welfare Act as amended several times since the Sixties — farm animals were specifically excluded from the very definition of animal. Just like that, with a few words in a statute and attendant regulations, an entire class of billions of creatures was cut off from any legal obligation to it and, as the industry hoped, from the shelter of human sympathy.
It is an echo of other raw acts of federal power, snatching “personhood” away from unborn children, and in a way this arbitrariness merely codifies an attitude that comes across in our everyday references to animals, an almost random use of personal and impersonal pronouns. “It” is the one exploited or discarded, “he” or “she” the one named and loved. People often do the same with the unborn, even in later stages when the gender is known. “She” or “he” is the one a parent will take care of, “it” the one that Planned Parenthood will take care of.
That legislative power play by the industry spared factory farmers the legal problems, but it doesn’t spare us the moral problems — problems that these very people, like the pro-abortion lobby, have only made more urgent by embedding them in law, exporting them to the world, and resisting, as a threat to Choice, even minimal limits. They tolerate no restrictions, whether it’s extreme cruelty or late-term abortions, for the same reason, too: because they know where the logic leads. The “slippery slope” that both fear we might descend leads, not to unreason, but to unequivocal truth. It is always wrong to deliberately take an innocent human life. And it is always wrong, everywhere and in every case, to abuse animal life. No person, and no thinking, feeling animal, either, is ever just “it.”
A good many people first awaken to the suffering of farm animals by noticing just such contradictions and connections — not only because animal cruelty is bad morals, but because it is also bad reasoning. The concept of “wanton cruelty,” traditionally used to distinguish unavoidable severity from gratuitous abuse, starts to fall apart as soon as you notice the capriciousness in so much of how we act and think about animals. All that factory farming has done — and, on a lesser scale, other animal-use industries — is to make wanton cruelty systematic, giving it the institutional feel of something orderly, rational, “normal,” and beyond question.
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.