The Corner

The one and only.

Scully Versus Smith


In our last two issues, Matthew Scully and Wesley J. Smith have gone at each other about the proper treatment (morally and legally speaking) of animals. But I can’t tell quite what they disagree about.

In his review of Smith’s new book, A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy, Scully writes: “[Smith is] against animal abuse ‘when appropriate’ or ‘where appropriate,’ but always just leaves it at that, without ever specifying a single wrong in need of a single legal reform. He’s personally opposed to cruelty but unwilling to impose that view on others.”

I take this criticism to be the central idea of the review, and to amount to the claim that Smith does not think the law should ever enforce duties of human beings to animals. According to such a view, if the law did concern itself with animals, this would only be an extension of its concern for people. It might, for example, enforce my property rights by forbidding you to kill animals I own (and punishing you if you do). But there would be no difference in kind between your killing my pet cat and your vandalizing my painting (even if we assigned the painting and the cat different values—perhaps one cost more, or I like one more than the other); and the sadist who likes to skin strays alive in the privacy of his home gets a pass.

In his reply, Smith makes two main points. First, he isn’t denying that we owe duties to animals; he supports the cause of “animal welfare,” which “acknowledges the ethical propriety of using animals for human benefit, while vigorously insisting on concomitant duties” (emphasis mine). What he opposes is rather the notion that we owe animals the same duties we owe people, the drawing of an equivalence between the worth of a person and that of an animal: “Regardless of the approach, to the animal-rights true believer, that which is done to an animal is judged as if the same action were done to a human being.” Smith wishes to defend “human exceptionalism,” is committed to “the unique moral status of human life.”

Second, he tells us that animals should not be given “legal personhood” and “the right to sue.”

But it now becomes unclear what Smith and Scully disagree about (other than a few practices they discuss; and it also becomes unclear why they disagree about these practices).

Unlike PETA, Scully does not wish to draw the equivalence Smith opposes. When his own book concerning animal welfare, Dominion, was published in 2002, Scully told Kathryn Lopez that “a dog is not the moral equal of a human being,” even if “a dog is very definitely the moral equal of a pig.” Nothing—in either that interview or his review of Smith’s book—commits him to denying that human beings may kill dogs and pigs and otherwise subordinate them to human interests; he might simply say that there are right and wrong ways of doing this. (We might e.g. ban factory farming while allowing more humane methods of animal husbandry; this could even be understood as one of the “concomitant duties” Smith mentions, whether or not Smith himself defined the duties in such a way as to require the ban.)

As for Smith, his statement that animals should not be allowed to sue does not commit him to saying that the law should never concern itself with the interests of animals. Someone could agree with Smith about lawsuits but still think we should enact cruelty-to-animal laws by which the state prosecutes the sadist, or create a government agency to levy fines on farms that mistreat (however we have defined “mistreat”) their livestock.

I would welcome clarification from Smith as to whether he thinks the “concomitant duties” should find expression in the law. If he does not, then the nature of his disagreement with Scully becomes clear. If he does, it remains unclear, and I would then welcome clarification from both authors as to how each decides what the law should concern itself with, and how their approaches differ. (And I apologize to either if the answer is to be found in his book. The question seems fair to ask in this forum, however, given that its answer is not to be found in the recent NR exchange.)