Review: 'Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy'
Matthew Scully is an unusual proponent of animal rights, coming from the Christian-favoured, Republican party of the U.S. and speaks about people automatically assuming he is on the side of hunters and pig 'farmers' when, in fact, he has been a vegetarian for over 30 years. While he does support animal rights, he still makes that stand from a generally religious perspective, arguing that current treatment of animals is an abuse of god-given dominion, and disagreeing with the secular reasoning of animal rights proponents such as Peter Singer.
Scully's ability is shown when coming to the main thrust of his book, where he writes about animals, how they are treated and how they should be treated. He is an excellent writer (a speechwriter for former president George W. Bush), and a dutiful investigator, travelling to most of the places about which he writes.
These places are a trip to some of the darkest places in our moral landscape, beginning at Safari Club International, an organisation of hunters given tax-free status, through an international whaling convention in Australia, and back to the USA. He travels inside the horrific world of intensive pig farming, where pigs may never feel mud or straw, be permanently immobile in a cage, go untreated for tumours or broken limbs as long as they are fertile, and where some are killed by immersion in boiling water – still fully conscious.
When Scully speaks of religious reasons to protect animals, he loses a lot of his flair. This also happens in his later attempt to ground animal rights in the antiquated idea of natural law, avoiding secular philosophy. It is perhaps his lowest point, as it amounts to little more than the fallacious appeal to tradition, and it comes near the end of the book, after his early foray in theology has been thankfully forgotten.
That doesn't mean that Scully is uncritical of religion. He complains specifically about the Catholic church's doctrines being too fuzzy on animal issues, leaving them open to interpretation in almost any manner. His views were obviously not taken to heart, as theologian William Lane Craig still has no problem declaring:
Thus, amazingly, even though animals may experience pain, they are not aware of being in pain. God in His mercy has apparently spared animals the awareness of pain. This is a tremendous comfort to us pet owners. For even though your dog or cat may be in pain, it really isn't aware of it and so doesn't suffer as you would if you were in pain.
Along the way, Scully has some more-intellectual asides. At one point he touches on animal consciousness, and points out the myriad flaws in the reasoning of those who claim there is none. He spends a fair amount of time criticising Peter Singer (who ironically gives the book a good review), mainly from the position that Singer's controversial views on other topics – infanticide and euthanasia for example – turn off the majority of people from animal rights. However he never commits to religious reasons either, and seems to wobble back and forth without coming to solid conclusions, wanting to reduce animal suffering but unwilling to draw a line beyond which things become impermissible.
Despite his lack of a serious ethical foundation, Scully is more than capable of getting his message across, even if he often resorts to emotional appeals. The questions he asks – such as whether you believe the ease or taste of meat outweighs the suffering of the animals that provide it; whether you are willing to treat animals as mere commodities to be bought and sold; and why you would eat a pig, a cow or a chicken, but not a cat, a dog or a whale – should be seriously considered by anyone who has anything to do with animals.
In an interview about the book, Scully said something that expresses why this book is worth reading for anyone who cares:
It's also worth recalling that people can agree on the same objectives for different reasons: A secular philosopher like Peter Singer can oppose factory farming because it's unethical by his theories of justice. An environmentalist can oppose factory farming because it's reckless stewardship. A conservative can oppose factory farming because it is destructive to small farmers and to the decent ethic of husbandry those farmers live by. A religious person can oppose factory farming because it is degrading to both man and animal — an offense to God. The point is to end the cruelty. And we shouldn't let secondary differences interfere with primary obligations.
While I do disagree with a number of minor points, I find myself horrified by his findings and fully supportive of his conclusions. Indeed, after reading Dominion, I was forced to become a vegetarian in order to maintain any semblance of philosophical consistency.