Conservative presidential speechwriter Matthew Scully recently published an article on the topic of animal cruelty: “ Pro-Life, Pro-Animal .” Scully draws a strong line between a culture which allows massive amounts of unnecessary animal suffering and a culture which turns a blind eye to the horrors of abortion. In the process, he deploys broad “natural law” arguments:

All creatures have natures, capacities, and yearnings that define their own fulfillment, their creaturely happiness, the good for which they exist in a design larger than any schemes of human devising. Using our own defining capacities of reason and conscience, we can derive from natural law a few rough but at least non-arbitrary standards by which to judge right and wrong in our treatment of other creatures. “Unnatural,” in the treatment of animals, is practically a synonym for “cruel”: Wrong is anything that frustrates or perverts the essential nature of an animal, such as the projects of genetic engineers to make animals more compliant in the stress and misery of modern farming; right is conduct that respects the natures of animals, with a regard for their needs and inherent worth as living creatures, and allows for their expression. (A little more poetically: “All creatures sing their Creator’s praises, and are dear to Him for their own sakes.”) Cruelty in this way is not only a denial of the animal’s nature but a betrayal of our own, and, whatever our creed or philosophy, there is a simple route to the heart of the matter: Integrity, honor, humility, righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, charity—take each of these, or any other virtue we might aspire to, and try to square it with the abuse of an animal.

Scully’s “natural law” formulation recalls Benedict XVI’s statement that “the natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure; it is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a ‘grammar’ which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation.”

Thus, when humans raise animals for meat, it is important that they don’t assume that the animal exists only as meat—animals primarily exist as created, animated beings. We need to be aware of the many natural goods inherent within animal life, not just the natural good we experience when we eat them. There are a couple schools of thought on “natural goods” in animal life. There is the side of the animal-rights movement that emphasizes animal suffering and animal autonomy as an argument for humane treatment. These emphases, respectively based upon utilitarian and deontological moral reasoning, tend to divorce ends and means and to see morality as a matter of isolated judgments rather than a way of life. But Scully’s emphasis on Catholic moral teaching and virtue ethics aligns with my own proclivities.

Richard John Neuhaus commended Scully’s book, Dominion (“The Public Square,” April 2003) for emphasizing the role of mercy in human-animal relations. In the practice of virtues like mercy, human goods and animal goods are not incommensurable, or mostly not, and often go hand-in-hand. At the moment of butchery there is an unavoidable and absolute clash, but the pain of butchery need be only one short moment in an animal’s life. And the evil of animal suffering does not necessarily trump our desire for meat. Animals will die anyway—that pain is unavoidable. Neuhaus agreed with Scully that animals sing of their Creator in particular ways: “‘He made us,’ they might well have said, and we readily agree. He made them to be Sunday dinner, and we are grateful.” Meat production justifies raising animals.

But while death is the end of life, it should not and need not be considered the animal’s telos . When I spent a summer interviewing farmers in my county, every farmer raising free-ranged animals for meat spoke of the great pleasure in watching healthy animals live according to their nature: cows grazing in a pasture, or sitting, chewing their cud; pigs rooting around in mud and forest floors; chickens scratching and pecking and chasing bugs—all of them able to move around to another food source and to clean ground.

On these farms, human flourishing and animal flourishing depended on each other. Healthy animals contributed to the farmer’s income, and “happy” animals spoke of the farmer’s virtue. These farmers carefully looked after animal life, and with that attention their own mercy, wisdom, and ultimately, virtue, grew. However, small farms are not the norm. We live in a time of mass produced meat. Huge operations minimize production capital per carcass but come with hidden costs. Factory farm and concentrated animal feeding operations  tend to treat livestock in purely economic terms.

By no means is every small farmer moral, and there are small farms where conditions match or fall beneath those at the average factory farm. I visited a couple like that. And there are large farms with a thousand head of cattle running free on the range. Free range, pasture fed, organic: While some of these terms have come to be equivocations and euphemisms in themselves, when farmers implement the ideas behind the terms, the results are farms where animals “sing their Creator’s praises, and are dear to Him for their own sakes.”

Nature gives us a grammar; we do well to understand and obey the rules. Scully quotes John Paul II’s address to farmers to raise the stakes of the discussion: “Resist the temptations of productivity and profit that work to the detriment of nature. When you forget this principle, becoming tyrants and not custodians of the Earth, sooner or later the Earth rebels.”

Articles by J. David Nolan

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