Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Regarding Matthew Scully’s DOMINION


I received this request from a reader: "Dear Wes: I'm interested in your take on Dominion--a thoughtful book on the nature of our relationship with animals. I am reading it presently and find that he strikes a good balance so far- his view may be the elixir for those of us who oppose cruel and unusual industrial type 'farms', but hardly consider an animal pup to be equal to our human children. I do see the intrinsic value in giving all living creatures their "due", without crossing over into siding with animal rights extremists. Do you have any comments? Feel free to use my email as a lead-in to your larger audience blog."

Fair enough: I gave Dominion a mixed review in the Weekly Standard. I think the book--while excellently written--is unduly emotional, does not sufficiently consider the human benefit aspect of the animal welfare approach, and unduly demonizes elephant hunters--whose culling license fees pay the bulk of expenses associated with maintaining the African wild animal parks. However, he does a very good take down of Peter Singer. Here are a few excerpts from that review, the full text of which can be accessed here: "Once we've rejected Singer-style animal liberation as the antihuman nihilism it is, however, we still need a principled rationale to guide our commitment to the humane treatment of animals. Dominion demands from us greater mercy and kindness toward animals--and who could disagree? But the book does little to strengthen the intellectual case for those who want to ease the burden on animals without surrendering to the disaster of animal rights. Indeed, Scully states explicitly, 'You will find no theories in this book.'
"Dominion should have been the text that taught us how to practice kindness without falling into the trap of Peter Singer. Unfortunately, Dominion fails at that task, mostly because Scully will not temper his emotional fervor long enough to explore the good humans receive from animals or the consequences that would befall us if we ceased to benefit from them. Animal suffering is crucial to a proper analysis, but so is human welfare.
Matthew Scully is clearly an intelligent man whose big heart has found a just and noble cause. He is a powerful and sometimes even inspired writer, and his devotion to his subject is so great that he left his job at the White House to promote the message of the book. But Dominion is unlikely to motivate many readers who are not already committed to Scully's position. Unfortunately, he is unable or unwilling to bring his intelligence and his heart together. In the end, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy does little to help us embrace our duty to animals while keeping Peter Singerism at arm's length."

Post Script: Scully's book had a greater impact than I thought it would back in 2002 when my review was written, but I think my criticism remains apt. While calling attention in a very emotional way to the abuse of animals--which is why so much of the animal liberation movement embraces the book even though he takes a welfarist approach--in the end, Scully offered little to help us decide how to go about crafting a proper balance. Being emotionally committed is not enough. We also have to have principles that we can apply to help us decide the proper ethical course. And that takes "theories," the precise thing that Scully admits he does not offer.


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