Friday, June 29, 2007


Title: Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (New York: St. Martin's, 2002)

Author: Matthew Scully, who, in an alternate universe, used to be a "special assistant and senior speechwriter" for George W. Bush. That George W. Bush. Apparently he wrote the post-9.11 presidential addresses - and, what's more, is proud of that fact. He's also involved with the National Review, and writes for other pubs including the NYT, the WaPo, and the WSJ.

Argument: Arguing from Scripture, Scully holds that because God put humans in "dominion" over the non-human world, we are obligated to exercise "stewardship". This means that we must not treat animals as though they are there for our pleasure and our pleasure alone. Scully believes that our motivations towards animals could be called "love", and that this speaks well of our humanity - and that cruel actions toward animals, on the other hand, indicate that some part of our morality has been lost. (This is very similar to the arguments of early animal rights activists, who thought that animal cruelty would lead a human down the road to worse and worse crimes against their own Christian nature.) Scully sometimes veers close to making a critique of consumer culture and capitalism as a whole (!), but always somehow steers clear.

The Things That Are:
An exploration of the phenomenon of fellow-feeling between men and animals. Scully looks back at previous Christian thinkers who have spoken out against cruelty, and wonders why today's church doesn't have a stance on the issue. In a section called "Practical Ethics", he points out that "traditional" animal rights activists seek to place animals on a level with humans, but that his own thought is based on the idea that animals are "less" than humans - weaker, more vulnerable - but that this must require more care from us for their welfare, not less. He then makes the case for his inclusion of farm animals in the book (even though, as he says, he feels like it'll lose him readers). Looking at animals and deciding "right action" toward them, he says, "requires discernment and care and humility before means understanding that habits are not always needs, traditions are not eternal laws, and the fur salon, kitchen table, or Churchill Room are not the center of the moral universe" (45). In other words, refraining from animal cruelty is, for him, an act of rational morality.

The Shooting Field:
Scully gains access to safari club conventions, and interviews several safari club outfits and patrons. (This is a good example of a reporting situation in which I bet it really helped to have the Republican connections and credentials.) Lots of details about the fetishization of particular animals, the masculine society, the money it costs, the videos they watch of "greatest charges" or "chases", etc. Scully goes OFF on the "canned hunts", in which animals who are fenced in and unable to get away are shot. Describing one patron of the canned hunts, Scully writes, "These are his needs, his demands as a paying customer, and of course all things of the earth must be reordered to meet them - whatever creature Ray Baxter desires located, seized, trucked to Arkansas, and brought before him for a quick and convenient shot" (65). This is one of those places where Scully is almost, almost, almost anticapitalist. Sort of. I like the way Scully ends the chapter by interviewing professional hunters - the men who take the customers out, find the animals, and arrange the kill.

Matters of Consequence:
Returning to "the beginning" (this he means biblically), Scully looks at the concept of "dominion" and asks "where on earth they [the people at the Safari Club, etc] got this idea of dominion as a relentless, merciless merchandising and pillaging of our forests and their inhabitants" (90). Scully faces right up to the inherent contradiction of his being a conservative who supports animal rights, saying "habits, customs, and impulses, just because they are ancient, are not necessarily venerable" (doesn't sound very conservative to me!) (101)

Riches of the Sea:
What better place to explore the ethics of "resource harvesting" than when it comes to fishing? Whaling is where Scully focuses most of his energy here, going into International Whaling Commission business and into issues of indigenous whale hunting rights (he's not for them). But he also has some interesting things to say about the WTO, which he writes creates a "kind of mania" for fair trade, which becomes "not just a good but the highest good", stripping us of our ability to have moral standards (184). Yeah, it does.

The Laws:
Here Scully looks at the current research on animal "thinking" and "feeling", asking how, if at all, this research has an impact on our understanding of what animal cruelty laws should entail (for he now believes that our system of laws doesn't go far enough, because as it is, "the creatures under our dominion thus inhabit a moral void of subjective human desires and situational ethics" [192]). Some theorists of animal intellect, like Stephen Budiansky, are actively trying, according to Scully, to prove that animals can't think, and therefore that we should not have laws to keep them from being killed. "I am not sure which is the worse evil, the kill or the theory," he writes (229).

Deliver Me From My Necessities:
Here we have an unusual thing: Scully actually manages to get inside a pig farm in North Carolina, where he writes vividly about the physical experience of entering the place where all the pigs are kept, and also about the people he meets who work in the industry ("Gay embodies in her ample frame all of humanity's contradictions about animals, capable of touching solicitude one moment and staggering disregard the next" [266]).

Nature and Nature's God
and Justice and Mercy: "When our own fundamental interests are at stake, in short, and our suffering in the balance, we are moral absolutists, and with animals and their suffering we are moral relativists," Scully writes, pointing out the hypocrisy of humanity in his final appeal to change (298). He writes that if we need to find a moral basis for defining our approach to animals, we should look at the plan of "the nature of things" for a guide, striving not to transgress against what would seem to be the program of each organism by torturing it into a "machine of our own invention" (303). "For me," he writes, "it comes down to a question of whether I am a man or just a consumer" (325).

The book won the PETA award for "Book of the Year", after it came out, though this fact is not on the book jacket! Positive reviews have come from a motley crue, everybody from Michael Pollan to Christopher Hitchens to Peter Singer to Charles Colson.

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