Animal Rights and Libertarians
While there are many theories and many stripes of libertarianism (as anyone reading Henley, Sanchez, and McArdle on a regular basis would soon discover) it seems to me that at the core of all of them is the Harm Principle, as articulated by John Stuart Mill:
That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others.
It would seem, therefore, that any libertarian case for preventing cruelty to animals — or, more correctly, as Sanchez notes, the particular classes of animals we find cute and cuddly — would have to be built around its impact on other humans, not the animals themselves. Presumably, the chief harm to others in torturing animals that are the property of the torturer is psychic.
Can libertarians justify using the coercive power of the state to take away the liberty of a few on the basis that the thing prohibited creates severe emotional distress among a great many people? Or is that a slippery slope towards justifying any law based solely on societal norms?
UPDATE: Julian Sanchez rejects my suggestion that the Harm Principle is purely libertarian:
While it may be most frequently invoked by libertarians, I think the Harm Principle, at least as a strong presumptive default, has pretty wide appeal in American culture. We’re all Millians now, and the most dyed-in-the-wool paternalists today will earnestly tell you that all they’re really trying to do is prevent some externality or another. What’s more particularly characteristic of libertarians is that we tend to want to stay pretty close to Mill’s rather narrowly constrained concept of “distinct and assignable” harms, excluding all sorts of purely psychic harms, costs “imposed” on the public system by people who make unhealthy choices, and so on.
I agree that the Harm Principle has adherents among non-libertarians. I’d argue, though, that its embrace as the only rationale for state coercion is libertarian.
Bruce McQain argues that animals are property, pure and simple, and that any attempt to legislate that they be treated otherwise is a clear violation of libertarian principles. Commenter Robb Allen sees this is an inherent flaw in the philosophy: “[P]ure libertarianism is like pure communism. Really pretty in Power Point, but useless in real life. Like it or not, we live as a society, and there’s always enough people willing to use the state that you have to just deal with it.”
Of course, the fact that people have not fully internalized a theory does not make it flawed; people are not purely rational creatures, after all, and we often act against interests out of emotionalism. Most of us would prefer to a meal of chili burgers and curly fries to poached salmon and broccoli; that doesn’t render the former a healthy diet.
Meanwhile, Bill Quick can’t quite reconcile his libertarian beliefs with his instinctual desire to commit violence against animal abusers but he’s working on it.