A year or so ago, Rush Limbaugh ventured a few kind words for the Humane Society of the United States, praising the group for trying to “make life more bearable for animals” and urging conservatives to join its fight against cruelty — “a natural coming together” of causes. Immediately we heard from Wesley J. Smith, who warned in a commentary that Rush had “fallen for the deception” of animal-welfare advocacy and “its true animal rights ideological agenda.” How else to explain this service to a group that “is really against everything for which he stands”?
Like many before him who revealed a soft spot for animal-protection efforts, Rush had stumbled into Wesley Smith’s beat, where all such talk is dismissed as silly, sentimental, or worse. Since at least the late 1990s, Smith has been a relentless and prolific critic of animal causes and defender of animal-use industries, writing for NR and First Things, among other magazines, and by default becoming conservative journalism’s closest thing to an expert on the subject. He’s a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a self-described champion of human dignity against “radical animal welfare policies,” and he writes a blog billed as “Your 24/7 Seminar on Bioethics and the Importance of Being Human.” The last time I looked at the site, Smith was explaining how a plan to cull thousands of elephants in Africa, with airborne sharpshooters assigned to slaughter entire herds including the calves, was “proper animal husbandry.” If that sounds reasonable to you, then skip the seminar — you already understand what “being human” is all about.
Such arguments, advanced with complete certitude and mixed in with Smith’s frequent discourses on the theme of “human exceptionalism,” have gained him a following among sport hunters, furriers, trappers, industrial livestock farmers, animal experimenters, and others who often cite him as a welcome voice of reason and affirmation. If your work in the world involves meting out death, and doubts creep in about the need for it all, Smith is the man with the answers.
This is his first book on the subject, and he wants to get one thing straight right away. “Americans love animals,” he writes, and he understands the feeling. “I want to make it very clear at the outset — as I will throughout this book — that I love animals and, like most people, I wince when I see them in pain.” Lest we forget, he offers similar assurances again and again — always a sign of trouble in books of this sort. Fearing that his benevolence might otherwise go unnoticed, Smith has to keep insisting that things are not as they appear, the practices he defends not as harsh or needless as they might seem, or his own attitude as permissive. There is not a wince in the book.
This is a world of power, appropriation, and consumption, with no time, Smith argues, for “hyperemotional appeals and romanticizing of the animal world and special pleading to youthful innocence.” The use and killing of animals on a massive scale is, and always will be, essential to “human thriving.” Champions of animal protection, animal rights, “animal liberation” — these are but different names, he tells us, for the same subversive project — are “not merely radical, they are profoundly antihuman.”
Their movement “has grown geometrically in size, visibility, and influence through activities ranging from ‘rescuing’ farm animals and impeding animal research, to proselytizing for veganism, seeking to have animals granted legal standing . . . and, most disturbingly, engaging in coercion, criminality, and violence ‘for the animals.’” They’re bad news, threatening to undermine both “the status of animals as property” and “the presumption that humans occupy the apex of moral worth.” Indeed, Smith writes, “The great philosophical question of the twenty-first century, it seems to me, is whether we will knock human beings off the pedestal of moral distinctiveness.”
Somehow this doesn’t really have the ring of a great philosophical question, and the trite pedestal imagery is only part of the problem. Serious moral inquiries do not begin with moral self-congratulation. Usually they center on great wrongs in need of examination and reform, and Smith never even considers the possibility that the systematic abuse of animals, especially uniquely modern abuses such as factory farming, might be such an injustice. The status of animals as mere property, moreover, is undermined every time an anti-cruelty statute is enacted into law, when the state asserts their moral claims against one or another form of human wrongdoing, and nobody feels knocked off his pedestal except the wrongdoers. These measures all succeed or fail by democratic debate, and, reading along, you get the feeling that this is what troubles Smith the most: When animal-protection reforms are put to a vote, they have an unsettling way of commanding majorities.
Oddly, in a book warning about all of these radicals and disturbers of the peace, he makes almost no mention of their many political victories in recent years, for instance the 63.5 percent majority that in 2008 passed an anti-factory-farm initiative in California, banning the merciless, lifelong confinement of pigs, calves, and laying hens in cages barely larger than their own bodies. In Smith’s own home state, just as he was writing the book, more people voted for this reform than for any measure ever on the California ballot; it won in most rural and Republican counties (as did a similar initiative in Arizona) and in 51 of 53 congressional districts. Whatever explains such omissions, they certainly make it easier for Smith to portray animal protection as something strange and pernicious, the concern of a few scruffy misfits and eccentric theorists, and to present himself as the guardian of proper moral thought and, above all, of “human exceptionalism.”
I notice, too, that he never actually writes about animals themselves, except as objects of commercial use or as abstractions in his disputes of theory. He writes capably on scientific matters, yet has nothing at all to say about the cognitive and emotional capacities of animals, their natures and needs, their conscious experience of fear and pain, and other knowable facts that might help us to judge each controversy fairly and reasonably. If we’re discussing, say, the humane treatment of pigs, then it’s useful to know that they are equal in intelligence to dogs, that they dream and have nightmares like dogs, or that such is their experience of fear that on industrial slaughter lines they lose control of their bowels. It is not sentimentality, but reason and empathy that seek to know such details about animals when we decide their fate, or weigh our own part in the things they endure.
In this book, all such details are inadmissible, to be pushed as far out of mind as possible, and at one point Smith dismisses the idea that our sense of “fairness” can even apply in the treatment of animals. He belittles the activists with their “radical” agenda, scarcely noticing the radical cruelty they seek to redress. His case against animal protection is by definition partial and prejudged — or, as one might say on their behalf, rigged — and merely to suggest there’s another side to the story is “antihuman.” In the matter of factory farming, his idea of a comforting thought is to grant that while, yes, it is “unnatural” to keep millions of pigs trapped in small iron crates their entire lives, never knowing the feel of soil or the warmth of the sun, “it is also true that these animals have never been in natural settings and so cannot know what they are missing.” The pigs won’t mind their privation and torment, as long we never let them know there is such a thing as happiness.
Likewise, Smith has his own brand of sentimentality, reserved for the industries and people he is defending, whose trade groups are all properly thanked in the acknowledgments for their invaluable assistance, and who all come off as nature’s noblemen, just doing their bit for “human thriving.” His investigative method is to quote at length, and without contradiction, from corporate websites or from interviews with industry spokesmen, who must have marveled at his gullibility as much as readers will. A fur trapper told Smith that snares don’t really kill by strangling, which sounds so downright mean, but simply by “rendering the animal unconscious on the way to death.” And underwater traps, Smith reports from the field, don’t really drown animals: In the process of being “harvested,” the thrashing, struggling creature merely experiences a “fall into unconsciousness.”
People who talk that way are not on sure moral footing, much less anywhere in sight of that “pedestal of moral distinctiveness” Smith keeps going on about, and the euphemisms only get worse in his treatment of animal experimentation. He offers soothing descriptions of violent experiments (chimps are “seated quietly, not struggling” as their limbs are about to be broken). He obscures any distinctions between the many frivolous or vile experiments done in the name of science and those that actually contribute to life-saving knowledge, or else is so blinded by his corporate boosterism that he cannot even tell the difference. Of all the millions of painful and lethal experiments and tests conducted every year — most of them not even useful enough to be reported in scientific journals — how many fall short of the standard of a necessary evil? His answer: “Space does not permit a full exploration of all the purposes and methods of animal testing.” Faced even with the endlessly redundant testing of known toxins on thousands of dogs every year, Smith insists we have no choice because, well, these procedures are mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Who are we to question the rationality of government regulations?
Here as elsewhere, he’s 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. A basic problem in reasoning throughout the book is his assumption that cruelty must be an intentional act with a consciously cruel motive, rather than the objective result of other vices and disorders such as hubris, vanity, avarice, selfishness, pride, gluttony, hardness of heart, or — never to be underestimated in these matters — sheer human presumption and stupidity. A bad aim can leave an animal “wounded and lost,” as sport hunters put it, but since no one intended the long blood trail and slow, agonizing death that follows, it doesn’t count as cruelty. Nobody’s cruel unless we get a confession. Everyone gets to be the judge in his own case, and, to a man, the industry folks Smith interviewed profess only the purest of motives. He takes them at their word and expects us to do the same. This explains why there are “cruel ironies” in the book, and “cruel fabrications” about animal-use industries, but never just cruel people.
He gives the primatologist Jane Goodall grief for suggesting that chimps and other animals can be “degraded” by their mistreatment at human hands, though if that idea is so new and nutty then someone had better tell Pope Benedict XVI, who has cautioned about “the degrading of living creatures to a commodity” in factory-farm conditions. From the title onward, the book is filled with so many philosophical straw men, like “speciesism” and “liberationism,” that Smith is spared the work of ever answering serious arguments against the abuse of animals, grounded on elementary principles like moral consistency, objective value, ordered liberty, and the duties of the strong to the weak. You would never know from Smith that some of the greatest foes of cruelty to animals, and experimentation in particular, were conservative thinkers such as G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, or that their arguments were aimed at precisely the kind of situational ethics, cold reductionism, and worship of scientific efficiency that inform his own arguments. When Rush Limbaugh, in that radio spot that earned him a scolding from Smith, declared that “there has to be a price for animal cruelty, the helpless cannot be left without defenders,” he was a lot closer to conservative principles than anything in this book.
The great challenge hanging over the book is how to square the abuse of animals — if not the worst of sins then surely among the lowest — with Smith’s grandiose talk of “human exceptionalism.” It makes a mighty fancy defense for cheap meat, fine furs, and the like, and in practice seems to mean that instead of making informed moral choices we can just keep granting ourselves exceptions. “Human exceptionalism” is offered to us as some sort of all-purpose absolution for every human excess or iniquity at the expense of animals. Indeed as a rule, in Smith’s brief for exceptionalism, the lower the conduct in question, the loftier and more puffed-up the rationalization. Spare the pigs, chimps, dogs, and other creatures from their man-made miseries and, we are warned, dreadful consequences will follow, such as humanity’s sudden fall from “the pinnacle of the moral hierarchy of life.” Accepting the premises of animal causes “would humble — nay, degrade — the human self-image.” Then there’s his worst-case scenario, should we adopt the legal remedies that animal advocates propose: “On an existential level, the perceived exceptional nature of human life would suffer a significant blow from the blurring of one of the clear definitional lines that distinguish people from animals.”
If you’re looking for impressive-sounding reasons for moral indifference to the preventable suffering of a fellow creature, this existential blow to our perceived human self-image will certainly do the trick. As Smith’s years of labor on the subject demonstrate, however, excuse-making can take almost as much effort as reform. And how much simpler to drop the pretensions, call cruel things by their name, and by just and merciful conduct show how exceptional we really are.
– Mr. Scully has served as NR’s literary editor, as senior speechwriter to Pres. George W. Bush, and as a speechwriter to 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain and vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. He is the author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.