Compassionate conservatives for animals

The conservative ethic of stewardship demands that we ask why so many of us prefer ignorance.

Jason Ketola

In his renowned ethical treatise “Animal Liberation” philosopher Peter Singer remarked, “When non-vegetarians say that “human problems come first,’ I cannot help wondering what exactly it is that they are doing for human beings that compels them to continue to support the wasteful, ruthless exploitation of farm animals.” Singer could not have made the point any better that working against human suffering and animal suffering are not mutually exclusive.

The stereotype that vegetarians are a bunch of human-hating chicken huggers is as tired as it is untrue. Indeed, most of the vegetarians and vegans I know are at least peripherally involved in humanitarian work, and many volunteer substantial amounts of their free time or make their livings working on social justice causes, running social service agencies and facilitating religious ministries that provide services, for instance, for the homeless.

While the vegetarian, as misanthrope stereotype, is easily rejected by pointing to the lives of actual vegetarians, a stereotype that’s been harder to shed is the vegetarian as a secular liberal. Not often have religious scholars or conservative intellectuals received airtime in the mass media. The media seem to be more obsessed with ridiculing the fringe element of the vegetarian movement, which admittedly seems to bask in the coverage it gets. Yet Matthew Scully, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, received widespread acclaim for his book “Dominion,” in which he delivers a conservative and religiously grounded polemic for better treatment of farm animals.

Scully explicitly recasts the ethical issues surrounding factory farming for a conservative audience, a cohort he knows is deeply involved in debating and responding to contemporary moral problems. Scully thinks much of the work generated by vegetarian advocates has been off-putting to religious and conservative groups, and in this assessment he’s probably right. In their zeal, many animal protectionists have lost sight of the fact that animal suffering elicits negative responses in most individuals regardless of creed. By ignoring this immediate opportunity for solidarity, a minority of activists has been responsible for the persistence of the aforementioned vegetarian stereotype and the disdain that many have for their cause. Thankfully, Scully and others have dedicated substantial amounts of time to reminding us that compassion toward animals is not contingent on having a certain faith or philosophical belief system.

Although not a theologian, one of Scully’s greatest contributions comes with his interpretation of the Christian creation story, in which God says in Genesis 1:26 (King James version), “Let us make (hu)man(s) in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the Earth.” Rather than taking this verse to suggest that humans have divine authority to deal and dispense with animals however they choose, Scully suggests that “dominion” here aligns with the conservative ethic of stewardship. In Scully’s view, God has charged us with a caretaking role with respect to animals, and that in our relationship with farm animals we should practice humane husbandry. The egregious practices inherent in factory-style farming, which Scully delineates throughout his book, are far from meeting the humaneness demanded by a proper treatment ethic.

Scully says that as “a matter of simple decency and an obligation to justice” we should not subject animals to “human cruelty.” While he advocates for greater legal protection for animals, Scully maintains that as consumers we ought to use our purchases to obtain animal products from farms that raise and slaughter animals in humane ways, if we consume animal products at all.

He maintains that we ought to consider why prohibitions exist against taking pictures on corporate farms, why public relations professionals are necessary to represent modern farms and their practices and ultimately why so many of us “don’t want to know” where our food comes from. The distancing most of us do from the production of animal products is indicative of a conflict of conscience that ought to be rectified.

The issue of University Dining Services sourcing battery-cage eggs versus certified humane cage-free eggs, to which I have devoted a considerable amount of my journalistic real estate, is the perfect entry point for anyone looking to reassess their relationships with animals. Arguably representing the fullest extent of the corporatization of animal agriculture, battery-cage egg production is the right place for a person to begin thinking about whether their lifestyle choices align with an ethic of humaneness.

Scully’s perspective is appealing in that it provides a fresh angle with which to address an important issue. His work fills a critical gap in a literature that has been bound in mostly secular, liberal ideologies. At the same time, as Scully reminds us that animal suffering is something conservatives and Christians ought to consider and respond to, he destroys the stereotype of the vegetarian as Chaco-wearing hippie. Conservative, liberal, independent or politically indifferent, we should all consider whether our personal use of animals is indeed humane.

Jason Ketola welcomes comments at [email protected]