Seeing as though Michael Vick just took a plea deal, I figure it's time to finally get out this little post that's been percolating in my head for over a month now. (And no link to Vick stories, because, if you don't know anything about the Michael Vick story or where to find information about it, you're hopeless.)
I remember my personal reaction to the Vick dog fighting scandal when it first broke was the same as most other Americans- I was horrified. As the proud keeper of two pure bred Labrador Retrievers, I know I feel bad when I miss a walk or when I'm a few hours late feeding them. Executions and torture of dogs would be as unthinkable as, well, doing all that awful stuff to people. But as the case lingered in the news, I began to think about the issue from a libertarian perspective - how, as a libertarian, do I justify laws against animal cruelty? Where do those laws come from and how should they be determined?
The problem is, the law traditionally has treated animals as property - so therefore, killing someone else's dog would be a property crime, but killing your own dog was more akin to smashing your own car. While buying a car to smash it for no reason what so ever may be stupid, it doesn't hurt anyone- but to most of us, torture, abuse, and murder of dogs is just appalling.
Of course, any question of animal abuse raises the question of just what abuse is in the first place. Some animal rights folks will tell you that keeping pets and eating meat is animal abuse, but for most of us, that doesn't ring true any more than the animals as property argument does. Maybe conservatives, and some liberals, are happy just drawing a line, telling us that some things are just plain wrong, but as a libertarian I'd like more of a foundation. After all, the just plain wrong argument seems to reek of moral relativism, which raises the additional question of what to do about cultures where dog fighting (or cock fighting even) are socially acceptable. I think one of the points of libertarianism is that we believe in big rights and wrongs that apply cross-culturally, while leaving personal rights and wrongs up to the individual. So once again, how do I justify wanting to put Michel Vick in jail?
I think the answer is, at least in part, that we have to recognize that animals are more than property and may have some rights. And no, I don't mean animals have the right to vote, drive, and receive public assistance as PETA does. I only mean that animals are sentient beings and should therefore be entitled to more moral consideration than a car or a tree. Not only that, but we should consider animals on a relative scale, by species, rather than all together. After all, dogs, cats, pigs, and dolphins are a bit closer to humans than fish, lobsters, or insects.
And what should these animal rights mean? I'm still sort of working that out. Maybe rights isn't even the best term, as what we're really talking about what consideration animals should be given by humans. Our relationship with animals is probably the most important factor in determining what sort of consideration they should be given. Eating animals, and using their furs, skins, and feathers are all part of the natural order of things. The same goes for hunting. Maybe we're not talking about activities that are necessary for our survival today, but they are all activities that stem from the human drive to survive. Maybe furs are unnecessary in the modern world, but notions of rights shouldn't be based on our current state of relative luxury. I would contrast these uses of animals with those uses that are solely for our entertainment and pleasure that do not stem from our natural survival instincts. This would include the keeping of pets, but not the keeping of work animals.
Keeping pets, using animals for a circus, and whatever else you can think of in that category should require that we give animals more consideration. Dog fighting is cruel precisely because it isn't based upon our primitive survival behavior, but on more modern notions of entertainment. And sure, the circus is all about entertainment too, but wearing stupid outfits, jumping through hoops, and training to be gentle seems to be a far cry from drownings, torture, and training to be vicious.
I think this theory works, at least enough for me - although I'd be more than happy to hear about any holes this theory may have. I recognize that I haven't answered the big question - what if you want to eat your pet dog? But in reality I think that's so unlikely to happen that it's just not a serious issue. And what about raising dogs for the purposes of eating them - well, I find that disgusting, but I imagine we can all agree that doesn't rise to the same level as Michael Vick's actions. I've never heard of any underground black market for dog meat, so maybe that too is something we need not worry about. And from a legal perspective, is our discomfort with the idea of raising dogs for food any different with the Hindu discomfort with the idea of raising cows for food. Maybe that's just more of the price of living in a pluralistic society. Not dog fighting though - It's just plain wrong, and damn it, I've got a damn good reason. I for one am happy Michael Vick is going to jail- and maybe after being there the judge should require he spend a year working with the Dog Whisperer rehabilitating mistreated and neglected dogs.