A Facebook friend forwarded along the news of a political development back in my home state:
Maryland may soon be the first state in the country to launch a registry for animal abusers.
As early as next week, State Senator Ron Young plans to introduce a bill mandating that people convicted of animal abuse in Maryland submit their information to a registry, similar to the one for sex offenders. The program would collect the convicted abuser's photograph, fingerprints and address, and charge them $50 a year to fund the registry. If they aren’t convicted of another animal abuse crime for 10 years, they could request to be removed from the list. The registry would be available on a web page run by the Maryland Department of Public Safety.
“It can be posted for the protection of neighbors and their animals,” Young says. “And also, it can be used by pet stores and humane societies, to not allow these people to come and pick up another animal.” Maryland is ranked No. 15 in the nation for its animal protection laws, according to a new list released by the Humane Society of the United States.
Kinda' stupid, I think. We publicize sex offenders' names because it's of interest to people living nearby. Are we concerned cat hoarders are going to like, steal your cat or something? Why don't we publicize the names of actual thieves, robbers, perpetrators of violent assault, etc.?
But it got me thinking about animal rights. Our enemies obviously have no perspective on this (or any) issue, and it's easy to criticize and caricaturize them as sappy, sentimental morons. But that doesn't mean it isn't a worthy question what rights an animal can meaningfully be said to have. A right, such as it is, is the reflection of one's own duty, or the duty of another: thus children have the right to be cared for their parents, and parents have the right to care for their own children. Animals have no duties of their own (being nonvolitional) and thus no natural rights of their own, but it seems to me they do have rights in a very limited sense insofar as we have duties with respect to ourselves.
We have, after all, a duty to cultivate compassion in ourselves and to respect the beauty of creation. This implies a natural aversion to wantonly destroying or mistreating animal life. This isn't inconsistent with the utilitarian destruction of animal life, for instance, slaughtering a cow for meat or putting down diseased or deranged animals, but it certainly does imply a prohibition on the kind of arbitrary and irrational cruelty exhibited in those commercials with the sad, injured puppies and kittens with the Sarah McLaughlin song playing in the background. You know the one.
At any rate, all of this goes to show that senseless abuse of animals is a moral evil, but it does not suffice to show that the state ought, on principle, to involve itself in preventing it. The state is the defender of the moral integrity of the polity, so only those evils which include a scandalous element may licitly be subject to legal prohibition. For instance, we natural-law Catholics can agree that any use of the sexual faculty in a manner inconsistent with its end (that is, procreation, which necessitates marital, noncontraceptive, penetrative sex) is illicit. But some of these illicit acts, such as contraception or pornography, are scandalous, insofar as contraception must be manufactured, transported, sold, and consumed, where others are not. It follows, then, that contraception and pornography may licitly be prohibited where, say, masturbation may not.
So is animal abuse a sufficiently scandalous evil to justify the intrusion of the state? Generally, it probably is. Dog fights and cock fights seem a good example of this, being public acts which deaden the consciences of its participants. But even the lazy animal hoarder who makes no effort to conceal his abuse involves the public to some extent. Suppose I see a malnourished and injured dog on my neighbor's property limping about, whining in pain and scavenging vainly for food. The mere act of seeing it imposes on me the choice either to act compassionately or to harden my heart against it. Enforcing no legal strictures against animal abuse pretty much forces me to do the latter*.
In short, the protection of animals from gratuitous harm and cruelty ought to be regarded as a real moral issue, and in some cases a legal one; but except in its most gruesome forms, it is probably not a very serious issue in either sense of the word. Moreover, pets really are entitled to more protection than farm animals.
*Although I could imagine an arrangement in which the state neither intervenes to protect animals nor intervenes to protect lazy owners. For instance, in some states, a man who cares for abandoned property thereby acquires legal ownership of it. Likewise, I might be permitted to rescue my neighbor's abandoned dog and thereby acquire legal ownership of it, and the police would be forbidden to intervene on the derelict owner's behalf.