Here at the Reasoned Vegan, there’s no point in trying to keep our biases a secret. The very term “reason” tends to be championed by people who take on labels like “atheist,” “secular humanist” and “liberal.” Like many vegans, we fit into that mold. Conversely, many of the most vigorous opponents of environmentalism and animal rights do so in the name of values like “tradition,” “Christianity” and “conservatism.” Although this may seem like a natural outgrowth of clashing values and personality types, this need not be the case. Sam Harris has pointed out on his podcast that the very fact that people’s views tend to cluster in this way is evidence that they are not reasoning honestly, but instead choosing sides in tribal opposition to one another.
Matthew Scully’s book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy examines man’s relationship to animals from a conservative Christian perspective. Scully’s bona fides as a conservative are beyond question. He was a speech writer for George W. Bush. I can’t resist also pointing out that he co-wrote Melania Trump’s 2016 Republican National Convention speech—the one that was ultimately rewritten with uncanny similarities to Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Scully’s identity as a Christian seems more important to him than his conservatism and he has no patience for a free market that disregards animal life. He reasons honestly from his worldview, chronicling the excesses of human arrogance in the pursuits of big game hunting, whaling and factory farming. He does not reject man’s dominion over animals entirely in the way that a vegan abolitionist would—“someone has to assume dominion, and looking around the earth we seem to be the best candidates exactly because we humans are infinitely superior in reason and alone capable of knowing justice under a dominion still greater than our own”—but he does call for a responsible dominion. Vegan readers should not be too troubled by ideological purity, as Scully does in fact describe himself as a vegan (though he never uses the word in this book), and he spends no time waxing poetic about idyllic small farms. He is a valuable ally to our cause.
It is surprising to see such a passionate, vocal conservative christian defending animals. The bible verse that instantly comes to mind in this context is Genesis 1:26.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. (NIV)
Atheists and Christians alike are used to pointing out this verse as an explanation for the lack of Christian vegans. And the over-representation of atheists is often explained by their commitment to evolution, which does not recognize artificial and irrational distinctions between species. But there is another side to this coin.
Christian values of mercy, restraint and compassion cannot so easily be thrown out the window. Jesus is a figure of paradox. Jesus may have been the alpha and the omega, but he didn’t associate with men in power or robed church elders, but with prostitutes and fishermen. You don’t have to be into Liberation Theology to recognize that Jesus stood for undeserving victims who were despised or ignored by broader society. Pope Francis, who states flatly that “we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” He is only the most recent of a long line of popes and other holy figures to speak out in defense of the animals and the environment, as the earlier link attests.
Conversely, science, for all of its merits, has much to answer for when it has been combined with a capitalist mindset that views living beings as mere machines. In the early 20th century Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced a scientific mindset to factory owners, encouraging them to think of their workers as machines, to be wrung for every last bit of efficiency possible. It is this same mindset of scientific rationality without conscience that has given us factory farming. Cows, chickens and pigs are mere machines meant to produce the valuable commodities of dairy, eggs and meat. Science must not be perverted to undermine the dignity of living beings.
It is remarkable that there is not more cognitive dissonance on this issue for Christians. Factory farming rests on a shallow, materialist view of the world. Greed is lauded as efficiency, cruelty justified as pragmatism, and human arrogance upheld as the natural order. “When, as I think has happened with many people today, we come to see ourselves as consumers and conquerors, then the creatures will mirror that vision, appearing only as commodities, resources, and production units to be governed only by the laws of supply and demand.”
Scully frames much of his book as a chronicle of hubris. The human sense that culinary taste matters more than a chicken, a big game trophy more important than a bear, and a traditional Japanese delicacy more sacred than a whale. The arrogance of humanity is a favorite topic for vegans in general, but it’s worth highlighting how it dovetails with Christianity’s emphasis on humility and dignity. Note here how Scully relates one of the most common objections vegans hear to one of the seven deadly sins:
When people say, for example, that they like their veal or hot dogs just too much to ever give them up, and yeah it’s sad about the farms but that’s just the way it is, reason hears in that the voice of gluttony. We can say that here what makes a human being human is precisely the ability to understand that the suffering of an animal is more important than the taste of a treat.
Furthermore, the underlying philosophy behind Scully’s call for mercy is entirely different than most animal rights activists. Indeed, Scully does not believe in animal rights at all. Natural law is his moral foundation. He does not assume a Christian God specifically, but this framework does require one to believe in a creator with a purpose for living beings.
Every being has a nature, and that nature defines the ends and ultimate good for which it exists. In discerning these purposes we perceive what that being is, what it can do, and what it must do to find its completion and fulfillment, and therefore what its moral interests are and how they may be advanced or hindered. Suddenly not all is arbitrary and we have a fixed point of reference, an intelligent basis for calling one thing good and another bad. That which advances a being onward toward its natural fulfillment is good. That which frustrates or perverts its natural development is bad.
Our unique ability to reason comes with the duty to act in accordance with those natural laws. We need only act in harmony with what our creator meant for us and the creatures around us to lead a moral life. Are chickens meant to be crammed into a shed with steel cages by the tens of thousands? Are pigs meant to be confined in spaces so small they can’t even turn around? We are bending nature to our will in complete disregard for the creature’s own natural behavior. “Whatever measure of happiness their Creator intended for them, it is not something to be taken lightly by us, not to be withdrawn from them wantonly or capriciously.”
Opponents of animal rights, such as Jordan Peterson, have rested their case on the notion that animals cannot comprehend any kind of social contract and are therefore ineligible for rights. For Scully, the intellectual inferiority of animals is precisely why we should protect them. “We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t.” The strong have an obligation to protect the weak. We must hear the voice of reason that shows us when our gluttony overtakes our conscience.
Christians can and should be our allies in the fight against callous indifference to the lives of animals. Earlier I noted that Scully seems to care more about his Christian identity than his conservative one. I do believe that Christians have great potential to be allies to the vegan cause, but the biggest stumbling block is the association of traditional, pro-business conservatism. A vacuous reading of Genesis 1:26 certainly does some work for Christians justifying their meat and dairy consumption, but conservative rhetoric has also trained many Christians to empathize more with a business owner losing profits than an animal losing its life. The very same attitudes that Scully sees as stemming from a rationalist, materialist worldview, I may blame on unrestrained, far-right capitalism. Furthermore, conservatives tend to laud tradition over revolution and veganism is undoubtedly radical in contemporary society. Unfortunately, we have a choice between being “radically cruel or radically kind,” to use Scully’s words. I’m hopeful that many Christians could be won over by a book like this. As an athest, it’s fascinating to see my most basic assumptions about the moral case for veganism challenged. Whatever your perspective, Scully succeeds in writing a heartfelt and eloquent call to mercy.