Bless the Beasts
From the Oct. 3, 2011, issue of NR


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.


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