The Legal Right to Do Wrong

Human slaves were once legally the property of other members of the human race and were not granted legal personhood. They were regarded as property just like nonhuman animals are regarded today. To treat animals as property is species discrimination, and it is reflected in every country’s legal system.

“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.”

– Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States

On a recent Facebook thread, a man commented: “Isn’t it good that you have the right to be vegan and I have the right to be a meat-eater?” I told him I was working so that he didn’t have the right to do wrong. Why should people have the legal right to do what is morally wrong? Why should people be legally allowed to oppress innocent animals, both human and nonhuman? And why should one species – humans – be legally allowed to devastate a planet that is home to many species? The laws that comprise our legal systems are uncivilised and archaic.

Years ago, I was sitting on a plateau in a national forest befriending wild deer, harming no one. A hunter invaded my personal spot in the forest and began shooting at my deer friends. He was perfectly within the confines of the law. I decided right then and there that something was deeply wrong with the entire legal system and that I should not necessarily follow human-made laws, but the laws of Truth.

Fundamental rights that should be granted to all persons are not a part of the legal systems of the world. There are places in the world today where homosexuality, especially between men, is illegal and even punishable by the death penalty. In Saudi Arabia, women are under the guardianship system in which every woman (no matter how old she is) has to have a male guardian everywhere she goes. There is also an absence of laws and regulations to prevent child marriages and prosecute those who take part in them.

Not only are there unjust laws, but often there are no laws when laws are obviously required. Globally, our legal systems need an extreme makeover, as they reflect a morality of a certain culture or time and not the universal timeless virtues at the core of humanity.

Sometimes laws make it into the legal system but are not enforced. Animal welfare laws are a good example of laws that are not enforced and don’t even apply to “farmed” animals, which is peculiar because they are, in fact, animals. To varying degrees, cruelty to animals is illegal in most countries, but these laws have really done nothing to prevent cruelty to animals. Factory farming, which involves various evidently cruel practices, has remained largely exempt from legal scrutiny. The financial interests of humans are apparently more important than stopping the lawful practices that inflict cruelty on those who can suffer.

A recent specific example of the US legal system’s failure to defend innocent victims is when Conklin Dairy Farms owner Gary Conklin in Ohio walked away from charges of horrific sadistic abuse caught on undercover footage and shown to the world in May 2010. Conklin was caught kicking a downed cow; vets testified that this was standard practice. It was reported that he knew what was going on and he walked completely free. One employee, Billy Joe Gregg, was fired and arrested. He was documented breaking cows’ tails, body slamming young calves, jabbing cows with pitchforks and beating them with crowbars – and bragging about it. He got off with misdemeanor charges. No matter what you do to farmed animals in Ohio you cannot be charged with a felony.

Farmed animals are routinely subjected to appalling cruelty, even bestiality. There are no laws to protect them against sadistic treatment. This is quite aside from the fact that they are purpose-bred into existence to be exploited and needlessly killed for perverted human pleasure. Conklin and his wallet were more legally protected than innocent infant calves. Conklin Dairy Farms is representative of a legal system that is unconcerned about justice or compassion.

Here in New Zealand, I’ve heard stories of people’s cruel treatment of dogs, the species that has created the closest bond with humans. When people try to call authorities such as the SPCA to report dogs kept in cages for most of their lives, they find out that it is not illegal to be cruel. Common practices like dragging newborn infant calves by their hind legs away from their mothers seem to be acceptable by the many people who consume dairy and cheese. Hollywood filmmakers have harmed and killed animals to make movies.

What kind of person would want to eat “leg of lamb”, the leg of an innocent child? The answer: normal, law-abiding people. Cruelty is normal and acceptable because it is legal. To powerfully exemplify the fact that cruelty is normal and legal, here is an excerpt from a 2009 essay by Elizabeth DeCoux, associate professor of law:

“After 143 years of advocacy and legislation purporting to help animals, not only does cruelty to companion animals persist but acts of cruelty against farm animals are literally standard practice. Pigs and cows feel their tails being cut off with hot pinchers. ‘Beef’ cows have their uterus removed without anaesthesia. Thousands and thousands of animals who are alive and awake feel their skin being wrenched from their bodies in slaughterhouses. Dogs in toxicity tests are poisoned with overdoses of drugs even though toxicity in humans has already been established. Other dogs are hung from the laboratory ceiling in slings and shocked until they convulse. Researchers apply corrosive substances to the eyes of rabbits to determine what damage will result. Newborn chicks, unwanted because they are male, are suffocated in plastic bags. Scientists inject acid into a dog’s abdomen and count the number of times she writhes. Workers shock injured cows with cattle prods on their eyeballs in an effort to force them to walk to the slaughter line in spite of their injuries. Commercial and hobby fishers watch as flailing fish suffocate on the decks of their boats. Nine billion animals are killed to be food in the United States each year. These actions continue, year after year, in spite of all the animal-welfare organisations and all the animal-welfare laws. Welfarists use some of these images and narratives, and sometimes the result is that legislators enact new welfare laws, but little actually changes in the places where animals live and die. This is so because animals remain our property, for our use, our stomachs, and our latest shade of nail polish.”

Women in the United States and elsewhere were once regarded as the property of their husbands or fathers. Human slaves were once legally the property of other members of the human race and were not granted legal personhood. They were regarded as property just like nonhuman animals are regarded today. Nonhuman animals are not considered “persons” under the law. That makes them objects, commodities, slaves owned by humans. In a book I’ve just read about dogs, the dog caregivers were literally referred to as the dog’s “master” and “mistress”.

To treat animals as property is species discrimination, and it is reflected in every country’s legal system. Humans may harm other animals in ways that would be unthinkable if applied to humans. Like women and certain races that were enslaved and held no legal rights, nonhuman animals need legal personhood extended to them and must cease being viewed as the property of humans. This is what we are working towards: that all sentient animals are regarded as legitimate holders of legal rights. Until that happens, legal systems are lacking credibility.

Non-vegans tell me that veganism is extreme. It’s an enigma to me that everyone doesn’t see that kidnapping, raping, enslaving, oppressing and murdering sentient animals is what is really extreme – extremely unjust – and that defending these innocent victims is extremely necessary. So I reply to the man on the Facebook thread that he might not want legal systems or anyone else telling him “what to eat”, but it becomes a matter of justice when “what you eat” is actually “who you eat”.



© Gentle World 2023. Gentle World is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) educational organization, helping to build a more peaceful society by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making the transition. EIN: 59-1999433