Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy

A Summary

Matthew Scully’s Dominion is a 400 page appeal to our reason and conscience in behalf of the millions of animals who suffer unnecessarily at human hands. Scully describes what few of us will ever see – the pain and misery of animals in factory farms, slaughterhouses, and laboratories; in oceans where whales are hunted, in forests and jungles where sport hunting takes place, and more. Dominion is an argument for the application of morality to our use of the power we have over these defenseless beings.

My summary is laid out this way. First, I will describe a few of Scully’s many examples of unnecessary animal suffering. Second, I will review his responses to some arguments that minimize the significance of animal suffering. Third and last, I will recount the place of reason and conscience in Scully’s thought, and his proposals for the humane treatment of animals.

Based on this bare outline, you may be surprised to learn that Scully is politically conservative, a former speech writer for George W. Bush. Like conservatives generally, Scully emphasizes personal responsibility. But, unlike most conservatives, he sees the mistreatment of animals as “a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship.” (xi)

Human capacity for empathy is a major theme of Dominion. Scully uses it to address our conscience. When we see animals being mistreated, “a part of us hurts with them, recoiling at their cries and attempts to escape.” (31) We experience this in the course of everyday life, for example when our pet is in pain or we hear about an incident of animal cruelty on the news. He hopes to translate that empathy into to an ongoing moral response toward the suffering we cannot see.

Part 1 – Factory Farms, Slaughterhouses, and Laboratories

According to the American Meat Institute, Inc. an industry trade group, in2011, the meat industry processed 2.2 million sheep and lambs, 34.1 million cattle, 110.9 million pigs, 246 million turkeys, and 8.7 billion chickens.[1]

You cannot easily raise all these animals free-range and cage-free. It is much more feasible to herd them into feed lots or squeeze a large number under one roof, farm after farm. Consequently, we have the factory farm, where animals are packed as tightly as possible to be raised and fattened for the slaughter. The less space given to each animal, the lower the cost of labor and overhead, and the greater the profit. When the time comes, they are shipped to a regional slaughterhouse where they are slaughtered and processed on a “production line.” The faster the line moves, the more animals can be processed, and the greater the profit. So, upping the profit comes down to minimizing an animal’s space while it lives, and maximizing the speed with which it is killed and butchered. This is called “efficiency.”

Few of us know just what goes on in these places and the industry does not want us to know, so they have worked very successfully to put laws in place across the country that penalize anyone (employees and non-employees) who photograph or videotape what goes on. In some states, this is a felony. There is also a federal law, “The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act” that criminalizes conduct undertaken “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.” Several individuals have been convicted under this statute merely for picketing, which has somehow become a “terrorist” act.[2] In a document revealed by a Freedom of Information lawsuit, an FBI agent concludes there “is a reasonable indication” to believe that individuals who trespass in order to photograph or videotape abuses on factory farms “have violated the “Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act” and are therefore liable for criminal prosecution.[3] It has not happened yet, but the mere existence of such a law shows the power of the “animal enterprise” lobby.

Factory farmers and their apologists claim that these photographs and videos of animal suffering record very rare events. But Scully points out the contradiction between that claim and their unceasing efforts to keep the public from seeing how animals are treated. If they are treated well, why hide it? (271) Scully wants us to see exactly what the industry wants to hide, so he writes, giving visibility and voice to those he calls “the least visible and the least audible” (174).

Factory Farms

I will begin with the treatment of sows, female pigs who are set aside to produce litters of meat animals. Even though we do not eat pork, and pigs have negative connotations in Jewish thought, they are sentient beings who feel pain just as much as other animals raised for human consumption. Scully calls their treatment “the perfect metaphor for much of the needless animal suffering we tolerate today.” (352) So let us take a look at this metaphor.


These are female pigs in iron gestation crates. The crates are two feet wide, barely enough for these 500 pound animals to squeeze into the bottom while pressed against the sides. They cannot even stretch their legs, because they know by experience that if their legs intrude into the neighboring crate, the sow there will attack them. It is also possible that these sows can no longer stand due to leg injuries.

Scully writes about the day he wheedled an invitation to see the inside of an industrial pig farm. (How he managed to do that is a story in itself.) He was taken to a gestation barn, where the sows are caged. This is what Scully saw when he entered.



Some of them are still defiant, roaring and rattling violently as we approach. Some of them are defeated, motionless even at the touch. Some of them are dead… . [One sow is] lying there covered in feces and dried blood, yanking mechanically on the [metal] that [has] worn her mouth raw, as foraging animals will do when caged and denied straw or other roughage to chew… .(265)

Every sow he observed had what they call “crate injuries.” About half of the sows appeared to have injured or fractured limbs. Everywhere, there were sows with bruises, tumors, ulcers, pus pockets, lesions, and cysts. The active ones were roaring, groaning, tail biting, fighting with the sow in the next crate, chewing on bars in a frenzy, or rooting and nest building with imaginary straw. And there were the other sows, the quiet ones, like those in the previous slide, with what is called “social defeat,” in every third or fourth crate. He could tell that they were alive only because they would blink and stare up at him. He writes that these sows are “dead to the world except as heaps of flesh” which are artificially inseminated so that they can produce another litter (265-268).

Pigs are highly social animals. Isolating them in this way would affect them negatively even if they were treated well. But they are not treated well. Industrial farmers are concerned about the sows’ health and well-being only insofar as it affects their ability to breed. Scully learned from a factory farm employee that, where she works, sows are not treated for broken legs and other crate injuries because these do not affect their ability to carry and bear a litter. Unfortunately for pigs, they are very strong animals with a high level of endurance. The pig’s natural strength is the industrialist’s opportunity to up the profit while providing the least possible care.

After two years, they are considered expendable and are taken to the cull pen, where they can, at long last, stretch out their legs and lie on their sides in the company of other such pigs, including the dead and the dying, until the truck comes to take them away.

At every stage, with every new innovation, it is just assumed that what-ever the cost-benefit analysis requires is acceptable. What can be done, however harsh, must be done, or else the competition will do it first … and factory farming now seems not only necessary to the owners, but good and right and humane, and it’s common knowledge in agricultural circles that the animals are happier than ever. (271)

In Scully’s opinion, it is the industrial farmers who are happier than ever. Scully comments that “no one who has seen the inside of a modern hog farm will find comfort in these assurances of their happiness.” (277)


Fifty years ago, there was no such thing as a factory farm. Animals were raised on family farms, not necessarily under perfect conditions, but better conditions than these. Since then, family farms have been taken over by five or six industrial farming corporations which operate all the factory farms in the U.S. They currently produce over 98% of the meat we consume. Fifty years ago, we could not have imagined the industrial production of animals. Now, we cannot imagine doing without it. It is the “new normal.”


Chickens do not fare much better. Each chicken is allotted 150 square inches, or slightly more than one square foot apiece. Maybe these chickens are oblivious to their condition. And maybe egg-laying chickens, which are caged tightly virtually their entire life, feel just fine not being able to move or flap their wings. Maybe. But if chickens hop about, flap their wings, and chase each other when they have space, it just may be natural, DNA-transmitted behavior. And it may just be that when they cannot do these things, it affects them in a way they are unable to communicate.


Cows usually receive better treatment (though not necessarily milk cows). For the most part, cattle are still raised outdoors and fed grass supplemented with grain. This produces lean cows whose flesh does not have the marbling of fat that consumers like. In order to produce more fat, the cattle are moved to feed lots like this one, where they are fed mostly grains, despite the fact that grain-fed cattle are more prone to various diseases than grass-fed cattle.[4]

In the Slaughterhouse

Twenty years ago, we slaughtered, skinned, and dismembered cows at the rate of fifty per hour. But the demand for greater efficiency has won out and now production lines process between 300 and 400 cattle per hour (so, at least six times the speed two decades prior). Unfortunately, the faster they are processed, the more mistakes that are made.


By law, cattle must be stunned unconscious before they are slaughtered. The usual method is a pistol shot in the forehead, which is called “a knock.” Scully describes an investigation by the Washington Post, which found that the “knock” does not always render cattle unconscious. And it is not unusual for employees to skin and dismember animals that are still alive and conscious. One employee reported that “the [production] line is never stopped simply because an animal is alive.”[5] Another employee, who cuts off the hooves of strung-up cattle passing by at the rate of more than 300 per hour, reported that, “[T]hey blink. They make noises. The head moves, the eyes are open and still looking around. They die piece by piece”[6] This low-paying job takes a great toll on workers, and there is a huge turnover of employees on the production line. Apparently, most human beings do not have the stomach for this level of “efficiency. ”We simply do not know how many cattle, and other large animals such as pigs and sheep, are subject to these agonies.

Kosher slaughter fares better in Scully’s account. He cites an article by Temple Grandin, a consultant who advises the meat industry on how to pacify restless animals as they are led to the slaughter. Grandin is an advocate for more humane slaughter (not its elimination). Having observed kosher slaughter, she commented that it works well in the case of well-designed head-restraints. But when the restraint is not well-designed, as is sometime the case, cattle that are agitated or otherwise struggling in it react more strongly to the cut, violently kicking, twisting, shaking, and spasming in the restraints as they bleed out (132). It does happen.

Federal law does not require that chickens be rendered unconscious before they are slaughtered. Still, they are normally shackled by their legs, hung upside-down, and stunned in an electrified water bath. The effectiveness of this method varies from bird to bird. When they approach the circular blade that cuts off the head, many are still partly or fully conscious and thrashing about. Some of these birds miss the blade entirely. The next station is a tank of scalding water, meant to loosen their feathers. In this tank, still conscious birds are scalded to death. There are alternative ways to kill chickens, more cautious and humane, but, as we might suspect, they are less cost-effective.

Imagine our dog or cat being treated this way (or worse)? Scully describes how fur is harvested from conscious dogs in China and Korea (121). His description, which is based on a “60 Minutes” report, is horrific, and I lost some sleep that night. It is so brutal that I could not bring myself to include it in this summary.

In the Laboratory

Scully has little patience with conservative reluctance to advocate the humane treatment of animals because they do not want to be associated with liberal animal rights activists. He quotes conservative columnist Cal Thomas, who warned that “animal rights activists . . . want us to believe that all research involving animals is cruel and unnecessary.” (377) Scully wonders whether Thomas would consider any animal research to be unnecessary. So he presents an example for Thomas’ consideration.

The Environment Protection Agency requires that all industrial chemicals that are produced or imported in quantities of one million pounds or more must be tested annually for toxicity. There are usually about 3,000 such chemicals, which have to be tested even if they have been tested many times before. “They have to test rat poison again, to see if it is poisonous; and gasoline, to make sure that we shouldn’t drink it; and propane and butane, to have a look just once more what happens when they are inhaled in large quantities. . . . And so, in labs that. . . we will [n]ever see . . . animals must endure internal bleeding, convulsions, seizures, paralysis, and slow death.” (378-79) Apparently, the EPA and other government agencies that mandate unnecessary animal testing (and the scientists themselves) cannot distinguish between what is essential and what is not.

And Scully narrates the harpooning of whales, dolphins accidentally but inevitably caught and drowned in huge fishing nets, sport hunting of small and large game, some zoo keeping, and more of the same. It seems that everywhere human beings have power over animals there follows an appreciable measure of abuse. Time does not permit me to describe these scenes.

Part 2 – Arguments That Minimize

The Significance of Animal Suffering

Argument 1 – About animals’ experience of pain

An assortment of thinkers has claimed that animals do not experience pain as we do because they lack the intellectual capacity to understand or transcend it.  Few of them would argue that this frees us to mistreat animals, but Scully believes that it rests on common, but false, assumptions about animals.  Of course, Scully acknowledges that animals do not possess human intellectual capacity, but he cites numerous experiments which demonstrate that animals have consciousness and a degree of intelligence (214-262). While animals do not wrestle with the meaning of pain, they do understand it in their own framework, as a sensation that they fear and seek to avoid. They may not dwell on pain as we do, but animals who experience extended periods of pain and suffering often display the very “human” responses of aggression or hopelessness.

Animals cannot transcend their suffering. They do not see pain as an opportunity for spiritual growth; they cannot pray for deliverance or grace. They can only endure. The fact that animals do not understand pain as humans do is not cause to ignore their pain. In fact, it is the very inability of animals to transcend pain that humans inflict on them, their helplessness against it, that should trouble us profoundly (xi-xii).

Argument 2 – The Dominion Argument

This argument is based on Genesis 1:26, which reads “And God said, Let us make Adam [humanity] in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” At several points in Dominion, Scully takes issue with Christians in his conservative circles who interpret “tak[ing] dominion” as license to treat them as we wish, under the premise they were created only to serve human needs. One may choose to treat them well, but there is no ethical requirement to do so. Scully is not at all anti-Christian. He reviews the Christian tradition expounded by such well-known figures as Francis of Assisi and John Wesley, who argued for the humane treatment of animals. But this tradition is rejected by those who claim that God has given them the right to unfettered treatment of animals that is supposedly authorized in Genesis.

Scully uses several strategies to counter this argument (88-140). His first response is biblical. He points out that Genesis 1:29 also includes a restriction on Adam’s diet: “And God said, Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you.”  This is a vegetarian diet, indicating that dominion over animals does not imply a necessity to eat them. He also cites several prophetic passages that promise future peace between predator animals and their prey, a number of verses that show God’s care for animals, and others which use animals as examples of human character traits, reflecting the commonsense observation that animals resemble us in many ways. Apparently the Bible attributes certain human characteristics or capacities to animals. Unfortunately, Scully is not biblically or theologically trained, so his biblical argument lacks the depth and coherence that Paul Saal achieves in his paper.

Scully is more effective when he focuses on a profound inner contradiction in the dominion argument. While Christians claim allegiance to God in every sphere of life, the conservative Christian theology of dominion creates a moral vacuum when it comes to the treatment of animals, where the primary issue is not allegiance to God but to self-interest (17). “. . . [I]t is a terrible thing,” Scully writes, “that religious people today can be so indifferent to the cruelty of the [factory] farms, shrugging it off as so much secular, animal rights foolishness. They above all should hear the call to mercy. They above all should have some kindness to spare. . . .” (325)

Part 3 – Scully’s Appeal to Reason and Conscience

Scully’s approach is based on the tradition of natural law, which asserts that:

[A]ll moral truth arises from the nature of things, true in themselves and in crucial respects accessible to reason. Every being has a nature, and that nature defines the ends and ultimate good for which it exists.  . . . That which advances a being onward toward its natural fulfillment is good. That which frustrates or perverts its natural development is bad. (299-300)

There are two major varieties of natural law tradition – religious and philosophical. Religious natural law emphasizes the connection between the natural order and the Creator. Examples of religious natural law are found in the Declaration of Independence, where the Founding Fathers speak of “inalienable rights” and “self-evident truths and “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle” the people.

Scully is an proponent of philosophical natural law, in which he finds a sufficient basis for morality in nature alone, even apart from “Nature’s God.” For the record, he is not a pantheist; he does not believe that nature is divine or has personality.

Both varieties of natural law tradition affirm that humanity is set apart from the rest of nature by our enlarged capacity to reason and our conscience which, when healthy, is sensitive to the moral order and our responsibility to act morally. The burden of Dominion is to inform our conscience so that we are capable of moral behavior toward animals.

Scully argues that human reason and conscience do not only require moral actions of us. They also attest that we can achieve the ultimate good for which we exist only by acting morally, that is, to act toward  other living things with respect to their nature. If an animal is social, we should not isolate it. If it naturally eats grass, let it eat grass. The moral nature of human beings is compromised by choices that result in the unnecessary pain of others, including animals.

Scully is wise enough to know that the natural law tradition is out of fashion and is not well-known in the public sphere, where human fulfillment is said to derive from freedom of choice and self-realization. He also knows that not all religious traditions embrace natural law. Therefore, in order to make common cause with those who do not share his beliefs, he bases his approach to ethics on the general statement that a human being is a “creature of reason and conscience” (45), that is, reason and conscience functioning together. Although there is no longer a consensus in our culture that reason and conscience are core human characteristics, there is general agreement that they are at least a part of our makeup (301).

Scully knows that individuals, in their private lives, usually treat animals with decency. But the vast scope of human cruelty to animals in our day indicates that reason and conscience are not acting together where animals suffer out of sight (157). Indeed, the design and practices of factory farming, “even while defended in terms of reason and realism, [are] designed precisely to prevent our engagement with the facts, to keep information and conscience as far apart as possible.” (324)

We may not adhere to the natural law traditions, but we do agree that reason and conscience are at least among our core human characteristics. In Jewish tradition, we also recognize a struggle between our good and evil inclinations; information is not adequate in itself to restore the conscience to healthy, working order. This process requires humility and repentance, which are implicit but overtly emphasized in Scully’s approach.

Conclusion: Lords of the Earth

Scully writes, “The care of animals brings with it often complicated problems of economics, ecology, and science. But above all it confronts us with questions of conscience.” (xi) He does not argue that the reality of animal suffering should automatically trump all other considerations. There are legitimate human needs that sometimes conflict with animal welfare, thus the concept of “necessary evil.” But, Scully comments, “When we call something a “necessary evil,” the evil is real and it had better be necessary.” (310) Since animals cannot argue in their own behalf, we bear the burden of proof as to what is necessary to meet genuine human need.

I believe that, in his heart of hearts, Scully would prefer that we all become vegetarians. But his actual proposals, though demanding, are more moderate.

The suffering of animals “confront[s] us with a choice we have been putting off for awhile now. The only way of winding down the factory farms is by withholding [ourselves], one act of conscience after another, from the momentum of consumer demand.” (127)

We can limit our consumption of meat and, where possible, only purchase meat that comes from animals that have been raised and slaughtered humanely.

Scully argues passionately that “Laws protecting animals from mistreatment, abuse, and exploitation are not a moral luxury or sentimental afterthought . . . [but] a serious moral obligation.” (43) Current laws are filled with vague language and loopholes that leave farm animals without full protection in life and/or in their death. Scully advocates a new “Humane Farming Act” with detailed and unambiguous regulations for the care of animals raised for food (393). The “question of conscience” is “Are we willing to eat only meat that has been raised humanely and pay the higher price for it?

For Scully, the “sows which we have seen in crates, unable to turn around because corporate farmers want to squeeze the last dime out of them – granting not even a few lousy inches on each side – are the perfect metaphor for much of the needless animal suffering we tolerate today.” (372)

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 do not; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us. . . . Whenever we humans enter their world, from our farms to the local animal shelter to the African savanna, we enter as lords of the earth bearing strange powers of terror and mercy alike. (xi-xii)

Scully’s book is a catalog of how we “lords of the earth” misuse our power over animals, who feel fear and experience pain and suffering, but have no effective way to resist us. The strength of Dominion is his ability to impress on readers that the unnecessary pain and suffering of animals is not an unfortunate exception but partand parcel ofthe way we currently abuse our power over them, and thus, to make this abuse an unavoidable matter of conscience.


[1] “The United States Meat Industry at a Glance,” Accessed on January 6, 2014.

[2] Accessed on January 6, 2014.

[3] Accessed on January 6, 2014.


[4] Accessed on January 14, 2014.

[5] Scully 284, citing Joby Warrick, “ ‘They Die Piece by Piece’: In Overtaxed Plants, Humane Treatment of Animals is Often a Lost Battle,” Washington Post, April 10, 2001.

[6] Ibid.