Published: April 13, 2020

Corporations have rights, how about animals?

Animal illustrations  hold blank protest signsThat question is the subject of a topics course this fall, PSCI 4002-004, Politics of Animal Rights, TuTh 12:30PM - 1:45PM. The U.S. Supreme Court has famously held that corporations enjoy protections for speech and freedom of religion yet animals are still treated in the law as beings without rights, as mere property. The family dog, therefore, has the same legal status as the family’s home computer. The same is true for elephants in zoos, dolphins in aquariums, and cows headed for the slaughterhouse. Only the owner of these animals has legal rights protected in the law.

Animal protection laws offer some protection, but they do not confer rights on animals. The distinction is critical. Without rights, animal interests are protected only when that protection aligns with human interests/desires. With rights, the animal’s interests are paramount. Consider chimpanzees held in inhumane conditions by their owners. Should relief in the form of habeas corpus be available for them? A New York appellate court judge aptly framed the question:

Does an intelligent nonhuman animal who thinks and plans and appreciates life as human beings do have the right to the protection of the law against arbitrary cruelties and enforced detentions visited on him or her? This is not merely a definitional question, but a deep dilemma of ethics and policy that demands our attention. To treat a chimpanzee as if he or she had no right to liberty protected by habeas corpus is to regard the chimpanzee as entirely lacking independent worth, as a mere resource for human use, a thing the value of which consists exclusively in its usefulness to others. Instead, we should consider whether a chimpanzee is an individual with inherent value who has the right to be treated with respect.  Matter of Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v Lavery, 31 N.Y.3d 1054

The course will explore the ethical, legal and political questions regarding whether animals should have rights. We will consider cutting edge litigation such as the effort to free chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins from cruel confinement via habeas corpus relief along with the theoretical bases for according rights to all animals and the application of rights to farmed animals, companion animals and wildlife. The course is therefore not focused on lifestyle choices such as diet, cruelty-free purchasing, hunting, etc., but instead explores the theoretical underpinnings of animals’ status as mere property and the political factors that sustain that status.