Why are anti-cruelty laws theoretically impotent?
As Tom Regan argues, the term cruelty appeals to a certain state of mind: X’s vivisection of Y is prohibited if the impetus for X’s action was a desire to see Y in a state of persistent pain. If an act is prohibited by an anti-cruelty law, a certain “bad” intention must have motivated the prohibited action. It follows that a society’s designation that using my family dog as a dart-board is an unlawful act, for example, is not derived from a duty owed directly to the dog, but the result of an outpouring of benevolence: “We as society shall take pity on you Jake-the-dog; our kindness has compelled us to choose not to throw sharp metallic objects into your body.”
This is clearly flawed as those who consciously exploit animals are in fact often not cruel. Those who consume animals or wear leather are not cruel. They are products, effects, of our culture. Granted, many hunters, scientists, etc. are callous people, however, many of them are not. Again, they are the results of societal processes that condition all of us to believe that animals are our resources. They are wrong, their actions are immoral, but they are not cruel.
Within the animal rights movement the concept of “rights” (although I am not bound to such a term) is employed because, as with members of our own species, certain actions are prohibited as a matter of justice.
As the dominant group men haven’t chosen not to rape women out of kindness or because it’s cruel to forcefully take sex from women, but because women ought to be respected as possessors of a kind of value that demands that their interests be protected.
We ought to extend the principle of “equal protection of interests” to all persons capable of caring that you are respecting their interests because that is what justice demands of us. Kindness is not the impetus, benevolence doesn’t compel the movement; the logic of our own moral intuitions and basic assumptions about the wrongness of both unnecessary suffering and failing to respect the “inherent value,” in Regan’s conception of “rights,” of all those who posses it ought to move our hearts and minds.
Of course we should be kind in our dealings with other sensitive beings. However, as a question of ethics, kindness, however this is conceived, is but a sufficient manifestation of an acknowledgment that suffering is intrinsically evil, an acknowledgment that necessarily informs the defining of ethical constraints on action.
The practical impotence of anti-cruelty laws has been expounded forcefully by Francione (see the property status of nonhumans), and are not in need of repeating here.
Crossposted @ That Vegan Girl