Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Animal Crackers: I'm sympathetic to animal rights causes, not because I'm a vegetarian, but because I think unnecessary suffering is just that: unneccessary. I find a lot of animal farming methods needlessly cruel; others appear cruel but are necessary. I think the market can, and will, bring about a number of changes (along the lines of dolphin-safe tuna movement), and I'm willing to pay higher costs for meat to see some suffering ameliorated. (Others won't; that's fine, since I can't make it my responsibility to rid the world of all suffering.)

That said, I think Matthew Scully's Dominion, something of a conservative argument for moral treatment of animals, is a silly, silly book. It scooped up a lot of praise when it was published -- though few of the reviews resisted a whack at Scully's former boss, George W. Bush (for whom Scully was a speechwriter) -- mainly because it conceded a lot of ground to the activists. (Conservatives are always thought of in the media as pillars of integrity and "bipartisanship" when they concede to the left.) I have had to grapple with some issues as a result of reading his book -- a good thing, indubitably -- but the book itself is often shrill, consistently self-righteous, and oddly lacking in authority to the same extent it teems with conviction. It's a bit like reading a transcript of a parental scolding: a little too much screechy self-evidence, not enough controlled argument.

Scully begins by saying that he will argue a reasonable, logical cause without resorting to the emotional warfare that is so often present in animal causes. He promptly ignores this pledge and argues entirely from a Judeo-Christian moral viewpoint, which -- compelling as that case may be -- is based very little on reason. And he certainly does bring emotionalism into the mix by citing cat and dog farming in China. (This is, for obvious reasons, akin to citing cattle ranching and slaughter in Hindu India: It plays upon a cultural tradition, not a point of logic, to create a desired emotional response. Far from being morally evenhanded, it is morally obtuse. One might just as well ask Scully if he spares every mosquito that lights upon him. "Every thing that creepeth," after all.)

Along those religious lines, for example, Scully takes to task the hunters who scorn a new age-y, paganistic sentimentality toward animals while mythologizing their own hunt and instilling it with bogus spirituality. Fair point, but Scully indicts himself just the same, since so much of his core argument derives from Judeo-Christian scripture, itself essentially a mythology. Yes, believing the spiritual tropes about hunting that Scully cites (particularly inane are those of the otherwise staid Roger Scruton) is an exercise in idiotic fatuousness; but how is it so different to believe that the god of Abraham gave us a (benevolent, according to Scully) dominion over all animals. This kind of "reasoning," attempting to govern a world of resources with theology, might have flown in pre-Scopes days, but now it seems pseudoscientific.

Further, Scully never attempts to address the diversity of thought among hunters, some of whom don't trophy hunt, many of whom eat or share their harvest. Scully's section on hunting hammers the themes of brutality, killing for the "fun" of it, and coldness toward animal life. On the contrary, it is the majority of Americans, buying meat from the grocery store, who are cold to the lives of animals, allowed to purchase "beef" instead of a cow. An indictment of your target audience, though, doesn't sell many books, so Scully picks some scapegoats in those who hunt, ranch, and butcher.

Finally, Scully's arguments require an anthropocentric view of the Earth -- a view full of responsibilities for healthy ecosystems, endangered species, and the widening circles of morality of Singer (though Scully does distinguish his views from some of Singer's more extreme ones). I'm more inclined to see mankind as simply another species on the planet, to whom the resources of the Earth are not denied. We wouldn't think of hoping to talk cheetahs out of "cruelly" killing gazelles, would we? To the contrary, though, Scully's brand of morality seeks to deter a species designed for the hunt (raptor's eyes) and meat eating (canine teeth) from both because of what, despite Scully's protestations, is emotionalism.

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