Bashing the animal-rights movement has become a genre of conservative article. The latest I saw is one by Daniel Flynn, and he makes clear that there’s a lot to “bash.” Animal-rights fanatics in Britain have been threatening not only biomedical researchers, but their children. Flynn traces their lunacy to the crackpot ideas of Peter Singer, who (while favoring infanticide) morally equates animals and humans and has even opposed taboos against sex with animals.
But decrying the excesses of activists is one thing; it still doesn’t tell us if their cause is just. One night in Kansas in 1856 the abolitionist John Brown and his sons dragged some proslavery men out of their homes and hacked them to death with long-edged swords. Surely an excess, but it hardly means the abolitionist cause was wrong.
Are animals being subjected to unjustified suffering? If so, why is it “liberal” or “conservative” to be concerned about it? Unfortunately, the answer to the first question is affirmative. As conservative writer Matthew Scully detailed in his 2002 book Dominion, modern methods of hunting, whaling, and factory farming subject vast numbers of animals to routine, severe cruelty.
As Fred Barnes noted in a laudatory Wall Street Journal review of Scully’s book:
To Scully’s way of thinking the modern hog farm and poultry farm represent mankind’s worst betrayal of its obligation to animals. On the old family farms, pigs and cattle and chickens were raised for food, but they were free for a time; they mated, raised piglets, calves and chicks and were protected by the farmers who owned them. They had a life.
On industrial farms they don’t. As many as a quarter-million chickens are packed into a single building. Hogs by the millions are raised in single stalls that keep them from sitting down or moving. The sows are artificially inseminated, their offspring quickly removed. They never see the light of day.
I was elated at the publication of Scully’s book and the positive reactions of some conservatives. But a couple of years later, nothing seems to have changed. If the issue of the mistreatment of animals comes up in the conservative press, it’s only to attack pro-animal leftists. This seems to be “conservatism” in the worst sense –reflexive, hidebound, categorically rejecting the message because some of the messengers are obnoxious.
I myself have been a vegetarian for fifteen years, and I became one at a time when I knew nothing about factory farming. I was influenced, though, by another Singer — the conservatively-oriented novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was a passionate advocate of the cause. I found his arguments unanswerable: if we can get along (especially in light of modern nutritional science) just as well by eating tasty vegetarian dishes, what’s the justification for all that slaughter? Why not remove at least that much blood and violence from the world?
There is much biblical support for that outlook. In Eden before the Fall, Adam and Eve eat only the “herb bearing seed” and the “fruit of a tree yielding seed”; the animals have already been created, but there is no mention of killing and consuming them. We first hear about that only in regard to Abel, the keeper of sheep, when humanity is already in a fallen state. Indeed, after Eden the Bible allows meat-eating but takes it very seriously, giving the Hebrews the stringent regulations that are now known as the kosher laws (“Thou shalt not eat the blood”; “Thou shalt not seethe the calf in its mother’s milk. . . “).
It also enjoins:
If a bird’s nest chance to be before thee in the way in any tree, or on the ground, whether they be young ones, or eggs, and the dam sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, thou shalt not take the dam with the young:
But thou shalt in any wise let the dam go, and take the young to thee; that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days.
But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work: thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou.
In other words, the maternal feelings of a bird are a serious matter, and cattle and donkeys are to be given a day off from work just as people are. Undoubtedly, even if one is not a vegetarian, modern factory farms — in which chickens are artificially fattened to the point that some of them can no longer walk, bulls are subjected to agonizing castration, pigs are confined to tiny pens and have the ends of their teeth and their tails severed so they can’t bite each other, and on and on — fall short of that standard.
Conservatives also charge animal-rights activists with being hypocrites because they favor abortion, or with ignoring the fact that animals themselves kill other animals for food. All of which is beside the point. Even if one isn’t persuaded that the Bible’s concern for “animal rights” plus modern knowledge of nutrition adds up to a sound case for vegetarianism, there could be no conceivable “case” for the cruelties now inflicted on animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses, and in much of laboratory research, hunting, and the entertainment industry, and it would behoove conservatives to transcend the conservative-liberal divide on this issue of basic humanity.