In addition to being a vegetable farmer, I’m a chef and cooking teacher. I don’t currently raise livestock, but I cook meat and eat meat. I have helped slaughter a few chickens in my life, and once a lamb, which I held while a friend killed it instantly with a bullet to the head. I routinely butcher pigs, which arrive to my kitchen slaughtered and cleaned, but whole with head intact. I cut up many whole chickens every year and think of ways not to waste the internal organs which come stuffed in their cavity. I eat meat with pleasure and without guilt. But my experience brings me a little closer than the average America to the realities of raising and killing animals for food. I spend extra time and money to obtain meat that is raised in a way I feel proud of. As a result of all this, I’ve spent the last twenty years thinking about issues of animal welfare and the ethics of eating meat.
This is definitely not the norm in our culture. When I teach cooking classes, participants routinely admit (bashfully) that they typically avoid thinking about where their meat comes from. Many of us sometimes act as if it comes not from a farm at all but from the supermarket! It’s easy to fall into this way of thinking. Our supermarkets are clean, attractive spaces, overflowing with abundance. The sterile and bloodless package of pork chops couldn’t be further removed from the life and death of the pig from which it comes. Even I, who know better, can be seduced by the easy and pleasant bounty at the modern supermarket.
But there’s a dark reality hidden behind such pleasant bounty. We try to keep it from our minds, but on some level we all know this. When pushed, almost everyone would admit that the way animals are typically raised and slaughtered is awful and inhumane. People don’t want to think about it, but they know it’s true. “Stop, I don’t want to know!” They have vague images in their mind of animal confinement operations, crowded and filthy places which they wouldn’t even want to see or smell, let alone work in, places that are more like factories than farms. As in many areas of life, we let others do the dirty work and try to put it out of mind.
I understand this evasive reaction—I even have it myself at times. The reality is overwhelming, and it’s easier not to think about. But this reaction also concerns me greatly, because it suggests a dangerous tendency and ability to overlook evil. To know something awful is happening, yet pretend otherwise, is a great danger and flaw in any society. Ignoring suffering desensitizes us, whether it be the cruel reality of slavery, the genocide of European Jews, the toxic war-zone of many inner city communities, or the suffering of animals in our care. Ironically, the greater the scale of the atrocity, the easier it sometimes is to overlook. As Josef Stalin is said to have said, “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”
In the case of animals, concern about their suffering is usually thought of as being a left-leaning concern. Although a conservative case can and has been made for the humane treatment of animals, many on both the right and left still see the issue as basically liberal. As a result, many conservatives refuse to engage with the issue, perhaps erroneously assuming that if liberals are for it, conservatives should be against it. Concern for the proper care of animals becomes suspect by association. “If progressives care so much about the suffering of animals,” so many conservatives think, “it is not important enough for me to care about it.” Of course, this kind of categorical thinking is terribly lazy, and both right and left do it on different issues. Something can be true, we must admit, even if Donald Trump or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says it.
One element of the discussion which further alienates conservatives is talk of animal “rights.” Organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) argue not simply that animal cruelty is wrong, but that it is wrong because animals have “rights” that are every bit as inviolable as human rights. Ingrid Newkirk, the founder of PETA, has said “When it comes to pain, love, joy, loneliness, and fear, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” This equivalence comes off as a slippery slope to most conservatives. What, for example, is one to do about the suffering of a fly or spider which is about to enjoy my bowl of soup? What of the poor worms who will be chopped up while I’m tilling my garden bed? What should I do about the flea beetles eating my crops or the deer tick attached to my son’s head? What about their suffering and pain and death?
Even more, many conservatives, steeped as they are in the mental-moral universe of the Judeo-Christian natural law tradition, are concerned with what feels like an equivalence between the life of a human and the life of a rat, and the suggestion that a human has no objective claim to greater value and dignity than the rat. In a PETA-influenced animal rights perspective, the death of a fly and the death of a child can come to seem equivalent, and for many, that is morally troubling.
Unfortunately, many conservatives use the excesses of the animal rights argument to dismiss entirely the issue of the treatment of animals. But this, too, is lazy. At Better Angels, we encourage engagement with our opponents’ best arguments, not their worst arguments. In the case of animal suffering, I find the best argument to actually be a conservative one: animal suffering is wrong, not because animals have “rights,” but because we human beings have a (God-given) nature which demands that we recognize the dignity of all living things, and act in a way that avoids or minimizes the suffering of any living creature.
In other words, we ought to treat animals humanely not so much because of who they are, but because of who we are. It would be odd to say that a lion violates the rights of its prey, but it feels quite reasonable to suggest that as humans, we can do better, and expand our sphere of empathy to include proper care for animals even as we use them humanely for our own legitimate purposes.
This conservative argument for treating animals humanely has been made most powerfully by Rod Dreher and Matthew Scully. In his book Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots, Dreher scathingly observes:
“In a world where efficiency is the highest value, honor comes at too high a price. If you think about it, conservatism today often takes on the characteristics of what conservatives say they hate most of all about liberalism: self-interest above anything else.”
Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, believes that economic values should not be allowed to trump moral values, and he admits that for many conservatives, that is exactly what happens in cases such as animal welfare. Even when opportunities exist to buy humanely-raised meat, most reject the option because it is more expensive or otherwise inconvenient. Moral considerations are ignored or dismissed with the flimsiest arguments in order to make or save money. For Dreher, many “conservatives” are really just “capitalists,” in the negative sense of that world.
For Matthew Scully, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, “dominion over creation” does not mean using nature however we see fit. It means, rather, that we have a sacred duty to care for creation in a spirit of stewardship. As he writes in his book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy:
“Too often, too casually, we assume that our interests always come first, and if it’s profitable or expedient that is all we need to know. We assume that all these other creatures with whom we share the earth are here for us, and only for us. We assume, in effect, that we are everything and they are nothing. Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they stand unequal and powerless before us.”
Scully and Dreher reject the notion of animal “rights,” without rejecting the notion that we are all God’s creatures, and that humans have responsibility for stewardship of creation. This is a notion that would provide common ground between Scully and Dreher, both very conservative, and my progressive friend and fellow columnist Randy Lioz.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this whole discussion: sometimes we can find common ground in our conclusions about what to do, even while disagreeing about why it’s the right thing.
I find this to be a very powerful idea. Of course, many times we will disagree on both ends and means. Much of the time, we won’t be able to find common ground because of differences of principle. But sometimes, we can find ways to work toward shared goals, even if our reasons for doing so are different. Sometimes our disagreements are based on what Scully calls “a distinction without a difference.” Whether we care about animal welfare because animals have rights, or because we believe in showing mercy to God’s creation, makes no difference to how we actually act. Whether we approach gay marriage from the progressive point of view of equality or the more libertarian point of view of keeping government out of the marriage businesses, the result is the same. The more we look past the “why,” and focus on the “what,” the more we might find common goals to work on together in a spirit of cooperation. These opportunities don’t present themselves all the time, but we should constantly be looking for them.
Finally, Scully and Dreher demonstrate an important example of how we sometimes agree with our political ‘opponents’ more than we agree with own our political ‘allies.’ We often assume that those of a different political persuasion have nothing in common with us. But at least on certain issues, there might be agreement across the divide. We have been so inundated in recent years with talk of American “tribalism,” that it’s easy to forget that for many people political views don’t neatly and perfectly align along with party platforms.
As helpful as the simple red/blue distinction can be as a starting point, reality is far more complicated, and the more opportunities we have to identify with those of the opposite political party, the more likely we’ll be to see those we interact with as individuals and not representatives of some monolithic political point of view. The more we talk and learn, the more we learn that, at least on some issues, we have a lot in common with those that we thought were wholly opposed to us—and that’s a powerful recognition to emphasize and celebrate.