Thursday, March 05, 2009

Anti-Cruelty Legislation as Empty Gestures

I read an insightful piece on the FindLaw website this morning by Sherry F. Colb, Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell Law School. It's called "An Empty Gesture to Soothe Conscience: Why We Pass Laws Protecting Chimpanzees and Other Animals From Cruelty". In it, she explores the reasons that motivate us to pass anti-cruelty legislation, citing a paper by Pace University law professor Luis Chiesa:

The four purposes are, roughly: (1) protection of property rights (of animals' owners); (2) apprehension of dangerous people (whose dangerousness to fellow human beings is made manifest in their mistreatment of nonhuman animals): (3) promoting the moral sensibilities of those who feel that animal cruelty is immoral; and (4) protecting potential animal victims from harm.
Chiesa expressed that the best account of modern anti-cruelty laws is the fourth, even though this begs the question
Why, if the goal of these laws is to protect animals, are there so many exemptions to the laws, leaving them inapplicable within and throughout the meat, dairy, and egg industries, not to mention the use and killing of animals in clothing production, scientific experimentation, and hunting?
It is from this starting point that Colb proceeds to examine how it is that human society manages to justify -- even when there is inherent and obvious cruelty in certain acts -- that the benefits received by humans in performing some of these acts outweigh the harms that are in-turn inflicted upon the non-human animals involved. Colb agrees with Chiesa that the key to addressing animal cruelty is to address these nonsensical distinctions that are, in fact, so telling of our actual "moral schizophrenia" (Colb quotes Gary L. Francione in her piece). According to Colb:
Chiesa's thesis is important because it implies that if one wishes to legislate more aggressively against the infliction of harm against nonhuman animals (for example, by outlawing the slaughter of nonhuman animals as food), one need only make the case that the benefits derived from a legally permissible activity Рsuch as farming animals to meet the demand for meat, milk, and eggs Рare in fact no greater than they are in the case of prohibited activities like bull-fighting or (in some jurisdictions) the production of pat̩ de foie gras.
However, Colb disagrees with Chiesa that protecting potential animals from harm provides the best account for what drives anti-cruelty legislation, although she does him the kindness of referring to it as "mistaken". She focuses on the incoherence of how we view some animals as adorable, and others as edible or wearable, and expresses how this is something that's instilled in people as early as childhood. According to Colb
People grow up eating, wearing, and otherwise consuming sentient, nonhuman animals. Children, on occasion, feel confused and upset when they learn that their food was once a live animal, but parents counter the confusion with a combination of false information (such as "The animals have very good lives until they die" and "We need to eat and wear animals") and majoritarian reassurance ("Look at all the people eating animals – it can't be wrong if everyone does it"). Then parents might purchase (or even adopt from a shelter) a dog or cat and demonstrate to their children that they – and their children – really are good to nonhuman animals, because they feed and care for one in their own home and even consider him or her to be a part of their family.
From this, she assesses that "[a]nti-cruelty laws, properly understood, represent self-soothing gestures within that denial structure" and that promoting anti-cruelty legislation -- the sort of baby steps that even some vegans view as worthwhile, actually does little other than leave people feeling more comfortable about eating animals than bringing us any closer to the end of our using them as means to our purportedly pleasurable ends. It's a well-articulated article that raises many points that come up time and time again in discussions questioning the philosophical split between welfarism and abolitionism in the animal rights movement.

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