Why is it a Crime to Stomp on a Goldfish? - Harm, Victimhood and the Structure of Anti-Cruelty Offenses

85 Pages Posted: 10 Mar 2008

See all articles by Luis E. Chiesa

Luis E. Chiesa

State University of New York at Buffalo Law School

Date Written: March 9, 2008


In the article it is argued that, contrary to what prominent animal law scholars such as Gary Francione claim, we have decided to criminalize harm to animals primarily because we are concerned about the wellbeing of such creatures, not because doing so furthers some other human interest. I do so in four parts. Part I provides a brief historical analysis of animal cruelty laws that will show that, although many of these statutes were originally enacted as a way to protect private property, there has been a marked trend, specially in recent times, to punish animal cruelty regardless, and some-times despite, the property interests involved.

In Part II, the notions of harm, victimhood and consent will be explored in order to lay the groundwork for the claims that will be put forth in the remainder of the article. In light of the issues that animal cruelty statutes raise, particular attention will be paid to discussing John Stuart Mill's and H.L.A. Hart's conception of the harm principle.

Part III examines five different theories that might be advanced in order to explain the interest that we seek to promote by punishing acts that are harmful to animals, namely: (1) protection of property, (2) protection against the infliction of emotional harm to those who have ties to the injured animal, (3) prevention of future harm to humans, (4) enforcement of a moral principle, and (5) protection of the animals themselves.

In Part IV, I will try to explain why it is not necessarily the case, as many animal law scholars have argued, that because animal cruelty statutes allow for the infliction of harm to animals as a result of hunting, scientific and farming activities, the interest primarily sought to be protected by these laws is something other than the protection of animals. This argument is ultimately flawed because it is premised on a misunderstanding of the structure of criminal offenses in general and of anti-cruelty statutes in particular. Properly understood, the existence of privileges that allow people to infringe the prima facie norm against harming animals merely reveals that society (rightly or wrongly) believes that there are countervailing reasons that justify harming the interest sought to be protected by the offense, not that the prohibitory norm was not really designed to protect animals in the first place.

Keywords: anti cruelty, animal cruelty, animal abuse, animal law, animal law scholars, offense, justification, justification defense, personhood, victimhood, harm principle, harm, regrettable harm, regret, animals as property, animals as persons

Suggested Citation

Chiesa, Luis E., Why is it a Crime to Stomp on a Goldfish? - Harm, Victimhood and the Structure of Anti-Cruelty Offenses (March 9, 2008). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1104494 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1104494

Luis E. Chiesa (Contact Author)

State University of New York at Buffalo Law School ( email )

715 O'Brian Hall
Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
United States

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