Blaise Pascal spoke of the contradiction in every human heart. Man is an animal at once godlike and depraved. It is not that our dreams are great and our behavior base, but that our dreams are simultaneously wonderful and vile. Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in our treatment of other animals, those four-legged creatures Descartes called “animated machines.”
On the one hand, we elevate animals into pretend-humans. As with most matters, the Americans outdo Europeans. Since moving to America from Britain, I have found that failing to view one’s dog or cat as a furry, non–English-speaking human is considered a sign of callousness. So is calling one’s animal a “pet.” They are no longer pets but family members. When I brought my two cats to an American vet, I discovered that they had been given my surname. Cat carers insisted on referring to Stanley and Pius as my “kids.” In Britain, it was a joke that I treated my animals like children. In America, my maternity to two felines was accepted as an obvious fact.
Now I know what Mrs. Little felt like after giving birth to Stuart. The difference is that only the mouse of E. B. White’s story could, if he lived in today’s Manhattan, complain about his family’s treatment of him to animal welfare bureaus. Imagine sending a mouse to work catching ping-pong balls! And the cruelty of exposing Stuart to the unsafe environment of the insides of a grand piano, where he is compelled to sweat and dash about hammering stuck piano keys!
When Stuart Little was published in 1945, most dogs and cats worked for their keep. Cats were mousers and chased away rats. Until the late nineteenth century, cats subsisted on the mice, birds, and insects they caught and consumed. The family cats that travelled out to India under the Raj were expected to expel snakes and mongooses from their owners’ gardens. Dogs chased postmen and hunted burglars. It was only a very unfortunate burglar who turned into dog food. Dogs ate what they captured or found. Their main drains on the family purse were bones left over from dinner.
In the fifteenth century, Chaucer’s nun prioress fed her little dogs “roast meat, or milk and fine bread.” The fake-pious Sister Eglantine of the Canterbury Tales also wept when one of those dogs died: plus ça change! Still, one did not purchase very much food for domestic animals because what they did for us was to feed themselves by doing what cats and dogs did, like stalking birds and chasing rabbits. Right down until after the Second World War, even city-dwelling cats had to make a living on mice.
The cats and dogs that live in my apartment building in Manhattan have no such functions. And yet, when I remarked cheerfully to a neighbor in the elevator that nearly everyone in the building had a dog, I was put firmly in my place: “Every dog in the building has an apartment.” Dogs and cats now have a place as family members to which poor Stuart could not have aspired. They are the true landlords, not mere non-paying sub-leasees.
It’s not that dogs and cats are useless canine and feline dandies who promenade on leashes and lounge on sofas absorbing beauty sleep. Our dogs and cats work for their expensive food: Their job is to be our companions, friends, and children. And like modern children, they do no manual chores on our behalf.
There is no grandeur in this. Our wealth has taken from domestic animals the jobs at which they excelled while our cultural deficiencies have burdened them with roles for which they are not fully suited.
Here we come to Pascal’s contradiction. The same people whose pets live like spoiled children also regularly consume animals who have spent their lives penned in cages, industrial-style. Most livestock today is treated not even like Descartes’s “animated machines,” but as flesh-producing machines. These animals are expanded to an optimum weight, and slaughtered, in factory conditions.
In this, again, America leads the way. While it is still normal for travellers to see cows and sheep in the fields in Britain and in Europe, animals are much less visible to those who pass through the American countryside. The occasional herd of grazing cows is glimpsed through a car window; the lucky may even catch a glance at a horse, but never a pig. In Norfolk, in England, a pig farm is a network of outdoor pig houses; in America, it is a factory unit. Eighty million of the ninety-five million pigs raised each year in America live on an industrial farm; more than 80 percent of those farms house around five thousand pigs each.
Law is one reason Britain and Europe look different. Battery farming of chickens is illegal in Germany, Holland, and Sweden. After the rearing of veal calves in crates was made illegal in Britain, the industry rebounded with pasture-reared veal calves. A residual sense remains that animals have a nature to be respected, not as pseudo-humans but as species with their own natural functions. Roaming, grazing animals should be able to roam and graze.
My traditionalist friends mock our culture for wanting to “save the whales and abort the babies.” Thomas Aquinas, Tory anarchist that he was, would have asked whether our plundering the sea creatures is connected to our evisceration of the unborn. When animals are mere flesh machines, available for us to consume, we more easily take on an instrumental view of fetal life.
Aquinas had a notion of “nature” embedded in a chain of being. He inherited from the Greek world a hierarchical universe. Subhuman animal natures are animated but irrational; human nature is embodied but still somehow spiritual; angels are disembodied spirits; and God the Creator presides over the ladder.
Yet we do not need imaginative faith in a cosmic “ladder of being” in order to say that a sentient being has desires, emotions, and drives that cannot be fulfilled when it spends its days on a feedlot or caged in a hog house. Any system of animal husbandry that works equally well for non-animated flesh as for animated flesh conflicts with animal nature. Animals are not just meat. They have brains, legs, teeth, and stomachs.
In their natural pastures and at their “natural” slop-filled troughs, animals will eat in a way that makes their milk and their meat taste good. Their taste buds help them fulfill their function for humans. The pig’s nose and ears snuffle out food that will make it better bacon. Its sensory delight in eating help to make it good to eat. Once, within intensive, factory farming, the animal’s embodied sentience becomes an obstacle, then the animal’s body has been excluded from the farming process. The animal as sentient, embodied being no longer cooperates with the human ecology. Technology is applied in order to ignore or minimize the demands of their nature. The animal no longer cooperates with the human ecology but is simply fodder for it.
After the Second World War, intensive farming began in earnest. Animals were herded off the fields and into factories. God commands Adam and Eve to be stewards of his creation, but Christians and Jews largely did not object to these methods. At the same time, we turned pets into ersatz children. Both these changes stem from a metaphysical blackout. We sentimentalize and bestialize our animals.
Philosophers got very excited about the intellectual possibilities in Fides et Ratio, John Paul II’s encyclical about faith and reason. But faith and reason are just intellectual tools. There’s no point in telling the world that faith and reason can cooperate with each other before we have explained how they both apply to stuff outside of our minds. Pope Francis’s Laudato Si points philosophers and theologians to the natures to which we should be applying our faithful reason: the “sentient beings” who dwell in and shape the natural world.
There is a whole theology of the body waiting to be written about embodiment and animal life. A marital theology of the body will never make sense to any but a pious elite until we have a lived theology of the animal body and its husbandry. Questions of natural law become purely notional and abstract if they are taken only to apply to the human reproduction of children, and not to the factory production of animals for our consumption. We have rendered natural law arguments unbelievable by not applying them to the whole of nature.
The non-human animal is neither family nor flesh, but a being with a nature, purpose, and way of life. For Thomas Aquinas, what’s wrong with mistreating animals is that it brutalizes our affections and emotions, softening us up for mistreating human beings. Thus brutalized, we cannot really love animals; rather, we turn them into emotional dumpsters for our sorrows and desires. Our excessive affection for animals is a way of stroking our own egos, expending pity on proxy selfies. Today, our inability to let animals be animals is connected to our culture’s inability to let human beings be human.
Francesca Aran Murphy is a senior fellow at First Things.