Oct 03, 2014

    Punishing animal cruelty is right, but do so for the right reason

    AN ONLINE clip of a Brooklyn man luring a stray cat with an outstretched hand and then suddenly kicking the feline, propelling it through the air for some 6m and over a fence, has created an uproar.

    Andre Robinson, 22, was arrested in May and had been scheduled to go on trial earlier this week for his act.

    Vigorous prosecution of animal cruelty is appropriate, but not based on animal rights.

    All members of non-human animal species are incapable of significant moral responsibilities, thus affording them "rights" just doesn't fit.

    Instead of focusing on rights for cats and dogs, we should focus on human moral responsibility.

    The United States' enhancement of animal-cruelty laws in recent years is encouraging; it reflects increasing repulsion regarding abuse of helpless, innocent creatures.

    But our increasingly tough animal-cruelty laws are not based on a rights paradigm.

    Animal-cruelty laws focus on punishing and deterring sadistic human misconduct. Making needed enhancements to these laws shows that we can improve our behaviour without wading into the prospect of legal rights for animals.

    Arguing that animals should be considered legal persons because non-human corporations are legal persons does not work, either.

    Regardless of the merits of corporate personhood, the courts have made clear that it is merely a proxy for representing the rights and responsibilities of human stakeholders.

    Words and concepts matter, and assigning personhood to animal species (where no members can take meaningful accountability like most humans can) would be harmful to our legal system and society.

    For example, even if legal personhood were limited to the most intelligent animal species, the most cognitively limited humans could, over time, lose ground to animals with stronger cognitive ability (but still not significant moral accountability) in direct or indirect competition for societal protection.

    Thus, thinking in terms of animal rights may not simply elevate animals; it may also unintentionally lower human rights.

    Whatever vocabulary we use, decisions regarding how we treat animals ultimately reside with us, and we need to focus on human behaviour and morality if we want to improve animals' welfare and our own.

    Animal abusers should face meaningful punishment not because animals have rights, but because humans have responsibilities.


    The writer is the John W. Wade professor of law at Pepperdine University School of Law.