In The American Conservative, a former Bush speechwriter, Matthew Scully, argues that animal rights – and, in particular, fighting the modern, super-cruel factory farms – should be a conservative cause.
I just used the phrase “animal rights,” but that’s actually a phrase Scully would have problems with. He argues that the left is mistaken to put the issue in terms of animal “rights”; instead, he argues, the issue should be seen in terms of human obligations to animals, without getting mired down in a discussion of rights.
…We are told to look away and think about more serious things. Human beings simply have far bigger problems to worry about than the well being of farm animals, and surely all of this zeal would be better directed at causes of human welfare.
You wouldn’t think that men who are unwilling to grant even a few extra inches in cage space, so that a pig can turn around, would be in any position to fault others for pettiness. Why are small acts of kindness beneath us, but not small acts of cruelty? The larger problem with this appeal to moral priority, however, is that we are dealing with suffering that occurs through human agency. Whether it’s miserliness here, carelessness there, or greed throughout, the result is rank cruelty for which particular people must answer.
Since refraining from cruelty is an obligation of justice, moreover, there is no avoiding the implications. All the goods invoked in defense of factory farming, from the efficiency and higher profits of the system to the lower costs of the products, are false goods unjustly derived. No matter what right and praiseworthy things we are doing elsewhere in life, when we live off a cruel and disgraceful thing like factory farming, we are to that extent living unjustly, and that is hardly a trivial problem. […]
I have to admit that my reflexive reaction to this is to say “forget it, Conservatives would never, ever, ever endorse fighting cruelty if that meant going against the interests of profit.” Indeed, the author himself pegs this response, although he says it’s an unfair stereotype:
I am asked sometimes how a conservative could possibly care about animal suffering in factory farms, but the question is premised on a liberal caricature of conservatism…the assumption that, for all of our fine talk about moral values, “compassionate conservatism” and the like, everything we really care about can be counted in dollars. In the case of factory farming, and the conservative’s blithe tolerance of it, the caricature is too close to the truth.
He proposes new federal laws mandating decent treatment of animals in factory farms:
We need our conservative values voters to get behind a Humane Farming Act so that we can all quit averting our eyes. This reform, a set of explicit federal cruelty statutes with enforcement funding to back it up, would leave us with farms we could imagine without wincing, photograph without prosecution, and explain without excuses.
The law would uphold not only the elementary standards of animal husbandry but also of veterinary ethics, following no more complicated a principle than that pigs and cows should be able to walk and turn around, fowl to move about and spread their wings, and all creatures to know the feel of soil and grass and the warmth of the sun. No need for labels saying “free-range” or “humanely raised.” They will all be raised that way. They all get to be treated like animals and not as unfeeling machines.
This is an issue in which both Democrats and Republicans, like the larger society, have favored averting eyes rather than addressing the issues.
I’d certainly favor the law Scully suggests – but how many politicians, of either party, would? This law would almost certainly piss off voters suddenly facing a huge inflation in meat prices, and pissing off voters isn’t how successful politicians usually operate. (Full disclosure: I eat cheap meat from supermarkets. But I’d gladly pay more for meat, if in return I got assurance that the meat industry as a whole was being reformed as Scully suggests.)
I also wonder how much traction his arguments will find among libertarian conservatives. A new federal law, and using the government to tell farmers how to run their own farms, seems to me exactly the sort of thing that pisses off a significant portion of the conservative base.
I think that Scully is right to make it clear that factory farming is a justice issue. But there’s a curious lack in his article, as well; a text search shows that the word “capitalism” doesn’t appear once in the article. Neither does the word “market.” What’s driving factory farms isn’t the inherently cruel nature of some humans (although you might think so, reading Scully’s account). What’s driving factory farms is the free market; and his unwillingness to address this obvious fact is part of what makes Scully’s argument so “conservative.”
Nonetheless, I hope his approach is more successful than PETA’s has been.