There’s an awful lot of cruelty toward animals in the news lately, and Jim Henley wants to know whether there’s a “libertarian case for animal cruelty laws.” But I actually don’t think the question can really be answered as framed. Libertarianism is a family of doctrines defined by a set of views about the rights people enjoy and their political entailments, not by any shared understanding of what traits make for rights-having. Animal cruelty, like abortion, implicates a boundary question. Insofar as the answer to that question lies outside libertarian theory proper, different answers to it could yield very different policy prescriptions from the same libertarian principles, with neither being more or less libertarian.
But it’s also not just a boundary question. Just as with abortion, if you stipulate an answer to the boundary question, you can try to tease out what follows from libertarian principles. Supposing that animals don’t have strong moral claims of their own, for instance, libertarians would have to look skeptically on justifications that turned instead on the value of signaling social disapproval of cruelty more generally, or on protecting the sensibilities of animal lovers. And if animals are supposed to have some moral claims, but not rising to the level of rights, the libertarian presumption, at least, would seem to be against embedding those claims in law.
Since that’s roughly my view, my reluctant and tentative thought is that I probably have to come down against such laws, though I want to give it a bit more thought before anyone holds me to that. Probably “animal cruelty” is too broad a category to deal with in a uniform way in any event. We’re all supporters of animal rights when the animal is homo sapiens, after all. I won’t bore people with a long disquisition here, but the discussion at the end of this post is at least a decent rough sketch of my view on the boundary question. What figures centrally there in the move from welfare-claims to strong rights is the capacity to represent reasons. That probably makes at least some of our primate cousins charter members of the moral community’s security council.
I will note of existing animal cruelty laws that most contain specific exemptions for agriculture and various other industries, in ways that seem hard to justify. At any rate, I’m having trouble coming up with some coherent view on which “Tender meat is tasty” counts as a justification for the appalling way we treat veal calves but “I like watching violent bloodsports” is no excuse for how Michael Vick treated dogs. If abuse with no better rationale than mild enjoyment is “gratuitous,” then factory farming is gratuitously cruel. (Lest it sound like I’m on a high horse here, I should note that, by my own lights, I really ought to either be a vegan or at least consume only dairy of known, humane provenance.) Our inconsistency here suggests that animal cruelty laws are less a function of high principle than of the fact that we like both burgers and cute doggies.
Update: I’m going to retract my tentative conclusion until I have a chance to think about this a bit further. (You’d think, as a vegetarian of some 15 years, I’d have thought about it plenty, but since there’s not a huge constituency for repealing animal cruelty laws, and I wasn’t about to start a club, I suppose it didn’t come up.) The argument I make in the old post linked above works (if it works) as an account of why reason-representing creatures should be bearers of “rights” in the sense of “side-constraints or trumps not subject to being outweighed by some marginally greater benefit to third parties.” Whereas the relevant sense of a “right” here is “moral claim that may be enforced coercively.” I just sort of fuzzily conflated the two senses. I don’t think that they’re just unrelated, or that features relevant to one property are likely to be irrelevant to the other, but the move above was too quick.