Acton Institute Powerblog

The Crunchiness of Factory Farming

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The CrunchyCon blog at NRO is currently discussing the issue of factory farming, which is apparently covered and described in some detail in Dreher’s book (my copy currently is on order, having not been privy to the “crunchy con”versation previously).

A reader accuses Dreher of being in favor of big-government, because “he thinks we ought to ‘ban or at least seriously reform’ factory farming.” Caleb Stegall responds that he, at least, is not a big-government crunchy con, and that this was made clear “early on.” He issues a somewhat strange rejoinder a bit later.

But I think there’s something to the claim. It is one thing to argue that factory farming of the type Dreher describes is immoral, which as Frederica Mathews-Green relates involves “endless rows of pigs in cages too small for them either to stand or lie down; limbs protruding into adjoining cages get wounded and broken. But this damage is ignored, because it won’t affect the production of meat. The pig only has to cling to life long enough to be worth slaughtering.”

It’s quite another to argue that government should take a primary or definitive role in banning such immoral activity. As Aquinas notes, this calls for wisdom.

The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Pr. 30:33): ‘He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood’; and (Mt. 9:17) that if ‘new wine,’ i.e. precepts of a perfect life, ‘is put into old bottles,’ i.e. into imperfect men, ‘the bottles break, and the wine runneth out,’ i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still (Summa Theologica, II.1.96.ii).

As I summarize, “In cases where the law would cause greater evil to be done, it is not prudent to criminalize the behavior.” Once the moral permissibility or impermissibility of an act has been settled upon, it does not settle the question of government’s responsibility.

It may well be that factory farming is disgusting and morally repulsive, but it also may be that the way to deal with it is not through government prohibition but through market mechanisms, i.e. morally-informed consumer choice. There is an underlying current that I sometimes detect in the depiction of crunchy conservatism that seems to confuse consumerism and materialism with capitalism, and accordingly ignores non-governmental market-based solutions to moral issues.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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