Designing A Better Legal System For Animals
The majority of legal systems across the world regard nonhuman animals as property. This classification has often meant animals have few or even no legal rights. Animal rights organizations and advocates have argued in court for the recognition of animals as legal entities with rights, not as property. But many of these cases have been unsuccessful. This paper explores two key beliefs that keep animals classified as property: human exceptionalism and concerns about the dehumanization of vulnerable groups of people.
Human exceptionalism is the belief that humans are superior to other species; a legal system influenced by human exceptionalism may therefore grant humans more rights than nonhuman animals. The paper argues that European common and civil law have human exceptionalism at their roots. These legal structures spread globally through colonialism. The legal system has only two categories — persons and property — so common and civil law classify animals as property. This classification has not changed much throughout history. Most legal systems change slowly, because judges are bound by precedent. Judges are unlikely to push for change in how animals are classified because they share the human exceptionalist beliefs of their cultures.
The judicial system may also be hesitant to stop classifying animals as property due to concerns about perpetuating the dehumanization and animalization of marginalized human groups. The paper examines the case study of Happy, a 51-year-old elephant who has spent the majority of her life in the Bronx Zoo in New York after being captured in the wild as a baby. The Nonhuman Rights Project argued that her self-awareness and ability to suffer granted her the legal right to bodily integrity, and that her confinement in a zoo violated this right. The New York Court of Appeals dismissed the case. In his dissent, Justice Wilson critiques human exceptionalism and anthropocentrism. Nevertheless, he argued that the U.S. has a history of denying the humanity of racial minorities. Analogizing the treatment of animals to slavery risks further dehumanizing marginalized groups. As a solution to this problem, Justice Wilson preferred maintaining the human-animal divide while also changing the common law to respect animal rights.
Counter to this view, the paper argues that anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism actually support racism. The author states that our treatment of animals is at the root of Western forms of racism and oppression. These forms of oppression are based on the idea that only rational, autonomous individuals deserve to be treated well, and oppressed groups such as women and people of color aren’t truly rational or autonomous. Human exceptionalism is a manifestation of this harmful idea. To this point, the paper highlights studies demonstrating that people who support animal subordination also show more support for intra-human hierarchies than those who are more compassionate to animals. The author’s overall view is that human exceptionalism undermines human equality.
What legal classification should we then give animals? The author thinks we should recognize that, even though a human-first approach is built into most legal systems around the world, it is still a cultural worldview. The “Amerindian” view of animals explored in the paper, for example, treats animals as subjects, like humans, as opposed to legal objects. Ultimately, this paper brings into question an assumption that the majority of legal structures across the world hold: that animals should be classified as property. Instead, minimizing the animal-human divide is a step toward a more just legal system.