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Dominion

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

Matthew Scully's Dominion lies in an honorable tradition which we can trace back at least as far as Plutarch -- decrying the obvious cruelties of human treatment of animals. It follows in the wake of such books as Animal Machines by Ruth Harrison (probably the first major modern book to denounce factory farming), then the justly-famous Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, and later still Diet for a New America by John Robbins.

Dominion is a worthy successor and has two unique features which its predecessors lacked. The first, and the one frequently mentioned, is that Scully is a conservative, and was a speechwriter for the current President Bush. The second, and what really makes this book interesting, is that Scully talks extensively with the "enemy" -- with the exploiters of animals themselves. He has extensive interviews with the people who are hunting elephants in Africa, who are killing what's left of the whales, and who are managing factory farms.

It is Scully's very conservatism which likely gave him the entree to talk with people that most vegetarians would not dare introduce themselves to, much less hope to interview. After all, if you're a businessman and the Republican President's speech-writer wants to talk to you about a book he's writing, why wouldn't you talk?

And talk they do. They'll know better than to talk to Scully next time, but it's too late now. These interviews, coupled with a clinical and revealing description of the nature of various animal-destroying industries, are devastating and revealing. Scully skewers (verbally!) the opposition in the simplest and most effective way possible -- he lets them speak for themselves. By simply reporting their own words, he shows more clearly than anyone else that the whaling, hunting, factory farm, and similar industries lack any redemptive features.

So what about Scully's conservatism? Vegetarians often tend towards the more liberal point of view, so this is a key issue. But in the text of this book, this is less of a concern than it would seem. In the first place, most readers are going to be hard pressed to detect how Scully's conservative ideology is reflected in this book. From the point of view of ideology, 95% of this book could have been written by Peter Singer, Tom Regan, or anyone at PETA.

The remaining 5% is not as problematic as it might be. Scully does delight in taking some potshots at Peter Singer, even while acknowledging Singer's role in the animal rights movement. Scully also puts in some plugs for his anti-abortion views. Dominion is a redefinition of classic conservatism; he contrasts compassion for animals based on natural law (which he supports) with that based on "utilitarian" theories (read: Peter Singer). Scully's discussion of "natural law" is not rigorous or clearly detailed; but whatever it means, it does not mean simply following tradition -- we should not assume anything about Dominion from the "conservative" label.

Moreover, this is a political conservatism, not a religious Christian conservatism. Both supporters and detractors of Scully have totally missed the point, being mislead by the title: the text of Dominion fails to provide anything even close to religious conservatism. Except for the cover and a few quotes from religious thinkers which "frame" his argument, there is very little of an overtly religious nature at all here, and there is absolutely nothing that relates to such basic conservative Christian doctrines as fundamentalism, inerrancy of scripture, Christ the only way to salvation, or anything like that. He gladly introduces Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish sources on the animals.

Having said that, I have two criticisms. First, this book is in serious need of an editing job; it is much too long. He could have easily cut 100 pages and it would have dramatically improved the book. Scully is a great writer; but he just goes on and on and on in excess of what is needed, and there's a limit to the reader's patience for even the most carefully crafted prose on a subject. The second criticism is that, while he has interviewed a great many people, there is one significant person whom he should have interviewed and did not -- and that is Peter Singer.

Scully tries to contrast his natural law approach to Singer's utilitarianism but these distinctions tend to dissolve on closer examination. The basis of philosophical utilitarianism is that we evaluate an action ethically based on the consequences of the action, not in terms of conformity with a rule. Doesn't Scully go to great lengths to talk about the consequences of whaling, hunting, and factory farming? Doesn't natural law have a "utilitarian" basis?

And are Judaism and Christianity above criticism here? Genesis 1:28 states: "Fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion . . . over every living thing that moves upon the earth."  Doesn't this justify, in a literalist framework, everything that Scully condemns?  Modern translators can put a kindly face on the word "dominion," but doing so for "subdue" is much more difficult. "Subdue" in the Hebrew means to subjugate, to kick with your feet, to overpower. Is this what we're supposed to do with the earth?

You would think that a book whose title, Dominion, is taken from the wording in Genesis 1:28, would have some substantial discussion of this point. This is where one might expect Scully's religious conservatism to be discussed, if it were there. But it never materializes. Biblical literalism carries little weight in the text of Dominion.

Some meat-eaters would say that the Bible is to be accepted literally in its comments about "dominion" and "subdue the earth." Scully's response is that citing Genesis in defense of animal exploitation is not an argument, but a way of avoiding the argument. He's right; if the heart is closed to mercy, then no amount of Biblical interpretation will help, regardless of what the Bible says. But once the heart is opened to compassion, biblical interpretation will follow suit as well. I would suggest as well that not only would biblical interpretation follow suit, but philosophical and political interpretation as well.

Keith Akers
September 3, 2003