Politics & Policy

Exploring “Dominion”

Matthew Scully on animals.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Matthew Scully, a former editor at National Review (who has contributed to NR frequently in subsequent years), is currently a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. Last year, his first book, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, was published and has just been released in paperback. The book has received rave reviews from the likes of the New York Times and mixed reaction from conservatives. It’s a fascinating–and disturbing–read, whether you come out agreeing with it or not. Around the time of the book’s release, Scully answered some NRO questions about Dominion; the December 2002 interview is reprinted here.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: In a nutshell, how are we abusing dominion, our stewardship over animals?

Matthew Scully: In the same way that human beings are prone to abusing any other kind of power — by forgetting that we are not the final authority. The people who run our industrial livestock farms, for example, have lost all regard for animals as such, as beings with needs, natures, and a humble dignity of their own. They treat these creatures like machines and “production units” of man’s own making, instead of as living creatures made by God. And you will find a similar arrogance in every other kind of cruelty as well.


When and why did you decide to become a vegetarian?


In the summer or fall of 1974, I read some books about factory farming, and

decided that I wanted no part of it. The pictures alone were enough to convince

me — chickens de-beaked and stuffed into cages so tiny they can’t even flap their wings, pigs locked in narrow iron crates they never leave, veal calves deliberately undernourished and chained or tethered inside of dark boxes. I saw in such pictures something merciless, deeply disordered, and unworthy of humanity. And I see factory farming just that way today.

Our family had a dog at the time, too — Lucky. He was a beautiful, noble creature, and taught me to love and respect animals. To my mind it seemed an obvious problem: I would never want Lucky to be treated that way. Why on earth should these other creatures — animals of comparable feeling and intelligence — be treated that way? A dog is not the moral equal of a human being. But a dog is very definitely the moral equal of a pig, and its only human caprice and economic convenience that say otherwise. I thought then and believe now that there is a fundamental inconsistency in granting kindness to one while averting my eyes from the suffering — the man-made miseries — of the other.

Lopez: You write at one point in Dominion: “this new science of genetic engineering carries the darkest implications of all for animals, conferring on us the power not only to use them as we will but to remake them as we will.” I confess, though, I am more concerned about the implications for human life. Am I wrong — as a Christian and as a conservative?

Scully: No, I think that is the right Christian response. But of course to be “more concerned” about the abuses of science toward human life implies some level of concern for its abuses toward animal life. And so much that is done to animals today in the name of science goes entirely unexamined — putting the genes of a jellyfish into a primate to see if the latter will glow, as a lab in Oregon has done, or cloning animals for no better reason than more consistent meat quality. The most-appalling example I came across while writing Dominion is a project among agricultural scientists to genetically engineer pigs so they’re less “stressed” in factory-farm conditions and during the mayhem of industrial-scale slaughter. Basically the idea is to create fear-free pigs, to somehow expunge from the creatures’ genetic makeup their very desire to live. As I say in the book: Instead of redesigning the factory farm to suit the animal, they are redesigning the animal to suit the factory farm. All of this for no greater good than efficiency in production, lower costs, and lower prices. But there are moral costs here, too, and it’s one of those cases when we would do well to think hard about our own rights toward animals.

Lopez: You note in the book that you are not especially pious. Then why do you rely so much on religion?

Scully: I meant by this that I have never been a regular churchgoer or counted myself a member of any church. I did attend Catholic schools up to the ninth grade, and I admire much in the Catholic Church. Readers tell me that this influence comes through in Dominion, and if so I am glad of it. Nowhere in the book, however, do I presume to state the teachings of that church or any other from the standpoint of an adherent. At the same time, if I read my Bible right, then there is Good News even for the lowly animals — that love and mercy have come into the world, and we can be its agents. And when I think of the suffering of the creatures in our factory farms, laboratories, puppy mills, or of any animal neglected or mistreated by man, for me there is no more powerful question than to ask: “What would the Good Shepherd think of this?”

Lopez: What, in your experience, do the “greens” make of you — a conservative, Republican-administration vet, sticking his neck out on animal rights?

Scully: Let me be the first on NRO to break the story that there are actually other Republicans concerned about cruelty to animals. Outgoing Senator Bob Smith was a true champion of compassion for animals, but others remain such as Senator Wayne Allard and Representative Chris Smith. The same is true in the U.K., where many Tories have favored the abolition of veal farming, battery cages, fur farming, fox hunting, and hare coursing among other cruel practices and vicious recreations. As for environmentalists, I think they generally approve of the book, and I am glad that I’ve come to know some of them, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He is a brave foe of factory farmers, for both environmental and animal-welfare reasons. I count myself his ally, as do the thousands of farmers still worthy of that name.

Lopez: When people — conservatives — hear “animal rights” they often think of Peter Singer. Are you in part attempting to get the arguments away from the likes of Singer?  

Scully: I start with a respect for anyone who gives serious attention to the matter, and to their credit animal rights groups are often the ones who bring the problems of cruelty to our attention. I think for example of one group that smuggled a camera into a packing plant a few years ago. Their footage showed awful things like cows being carved up alive and squealing pigs being dropped into scalding tanks, which happens every day. For their efforts, they get derided as meddlesome radicals, crackpots, or what have you. But I think such people show great courage, and do us a service.

It’s also worth recalling that people can agree on the same objectives for different reasons: A secular philosopher like Peter Singer can oppose factory farming because it’s unethical by his theories of justice. An environmentalist can oppose factory farming because it’s reckless stewardship. A conservative can oppose factory farming because it is destructive to small farmers and to the decent ethic of husbandry those farmers live by. A religious person can oppose factory farming because it is degrading to both man and animal — an offense to God. The point is to end the cruelty. And we shouldn’t let secondary differences interfere with primary obligations.

One problem with some animal-rights and “liberation” advocates is that their arguments fail to speak to the average person. They venture off into various theories which sound far removed from actual, everyday life, and so are easily dismissed as eccentric, irrelevant, or, worst of all, hostile to the religious and moral convictions most people still hold. This can have the perverse effect of providing others an excuse to ignore the wrongs done to animals. As a practical matter, the only legal right that any animal can enjoy is to be free from human cruelty or other wrongdoing, and we do not need a new theory for that. And so in my book I try to speak in the simplest terms of reasoned moral judgment, the language of duty, love, mercy, and compassion for the weak.

Lopez: Is hunting immoral?

Scully: One thing I noticed, reading articles and books by sport hunters, is that they themselves are often uneasy about the things they do. And I hope Dominion will encourage more of that self-examination among the relatively few people — about five percent of Americans — with a taste for bloodsport. Hunting, if it can be justified at all, falls into the category of the necessary evil. When the aim is just the pleasure of stalking and killing, or the pride of a “trophy,” the necessity is absent and you have to ask yourself what’s left.

In the book, however, I do not pass judgment on all hunting. I just try to fix a clear standard, to lay down the same kind of basic moral boundaries we need in livestock farming. Pick up any hunting magazine and you will find page after page of ads for fenced-in hunting ranches promising a “100 percent guaranteed kill.” Many hunters today use high-tech firearms and other gadgetry described in the book, or else bows that kill like a knife, maximizing their own pleasure at the cost of maximal suffering for the animal. They have professional guides whispering at their side. They shoot birds and other creatures — even aging animals sold by zoos — released from cages at their command. They routinely bait animals, as any game warden will attest. It gets even worse, as you will find in my chapter about a group of trophy hunters called Safari Club International. Hunting of the kind I describe there is dishonorable, occasionally depraved, and immoral by the standards of “fair chase” that hunters themselves profess on the rare occasions they are called to account. All such practices should be illegal as well — on the general principle that if a man’s going to hunt, let him at least hunt like a man.

Lopez: When it comes to animals, what’s your goal?

Scully: I hope that over time our laws will define clear and consistent obligations in the treatment of animals. For this we need only follow the logic of cruelty laws already in place — prohibiting not only individual acts of cruelty those statures now cover, but also the merciless institutional cruelties the law ignores. In Florida last month, we saw how this can be done when 55 percent of voters approved a ballot initiative to prohibit the use of narrow gestation crates for sows. In Oklahoma, a sizable majority made that state the 48th to outlaw cockfighting. Laws like these can make a big difference, showing animal-related industries that there are limits, and ethical standards, and it’s not just anything goes.

Lopez: If there is one message you could get through to the traditional Left and the Right on these issues of animal rights what would it be? Would it be a different one for each?

Scully: Conservatives like to think of animal protection as a trendy leftist cause, which makes it easier to brush off. And I hope that more of us will open our hearts to animals. I also believe that in factory farming and other cruelties conservatives will find some familiar problems — moral relativism, self-centered materialism, license passing itself off as freedom, and the culture of death. Among liberals, I don’t really detect a great deal more sympathy for animals than on the Right. The Nation and Mother Jones, for instance, are as unlikely to give the subject serious attention as, well, a certain conservative journal which shall go unnamed. For those on the Left who do identify with animal causes, however, my message is that no creature on earth is more innocent, or defenseless, or in need of compassion than a child waiting to be born.

Lopez: What was it like working for this president?

Scully: A true privilege. There’s a reason that everyone I know who works for the man

feels loyalty, affection, and complete respect.

Lopez: Would you like to go back to speechwriting or do you prefer your current gig?

Scully: Unless Rich Lowry is prepared to offer me the job of outdoors columnist, I may

go back to speechwriting.


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