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Don’t Legalize Animal Abuse

This article discusses why mistreating animals is bad even if they’re incapable of suffering.

I don’t think animals can suffer, but I’m not an activist about it. I’m not trying to change how the world treats animals. I’m not asking for different laws. I don’t emphasize this issue. I don’t generally bring it up. I care more about epistemology. Ideas about how minds work are an application of some of my philosophy.

On the whole, I think people should treat animals better, not worse. People should also treat keyboards, phones, buildings and their own bodies better. It’s (usually) bad to smash keyboards, throw phones, cause and/or ignore maintenance problems in buildings, or ingest harmful substances like caffeine, alcohol or smoke.


Legalizing animal abuse would have a variety of negative consequences if nothing else about the world changed. People would do it more because legalizing it would make it more socially legitimate. I don’t see much upside. Maybe more freedom to do scientific testing on animals would be good but, if so, that could be accomplished with a more targeted change that only applies to science – and lab animals should be treated well in ways compatible with the experiment to avoid introducing extra variables like physiological stress.

On the other hand, legalizing animal abuse would actually kill human children. Abused dogs are more likely to bite both humans and dogs.

When spouses fight, one can vandalize the other’s car because it’s shared property. Vandalizing a spouse’s dog would be worse. A dog isn’t replaceable like a car. If vandalizing a dog was treated like regular property damage, the current legal system wouldn’t protect against it well enough.

Why aren’t dogs replaceable? Because they have long-term memory which can’t be backed up and put into a new dog (compare with copying all your data to a new phone). If you’ve had a dog for five years and spent hundreds of hours around it, that’s a huge investment, but society doesn’t see that dog as being worth tens of thousands of dollars. If you were going to get rid of animal abuse laws, you’d have to dramatically raise people’s perception of the monetary value of pets, which is currently way too low.

Dogs, unlike robots we build, cannot have their memory reset. If a dog starts glitching out (e.g. becomes more aggressive) because someone kicks it, you can’t just reinstall and start over, and you wouldn’t want to because the dog has valuable data in it. Restoring a backup from a few days before the abuse would work pretty well but isn’t an option.

You’d be more careful with how you use your Mac or phone if you had no backups of your data and no way to undo changes. You’d be more careful with what software you installed if you couldn’t uninstall it or turn it off. Dogs are like that. And people can screw up your dog’s software by hitting your dog.

People commonly see cars and homes as by far the most valuable things that they own (way ahead of e.g. jewelry, watches and computers for most people). They care about their pets but they don’t put them on that list. They can buy a new dog for a few hundred dollars and they know that (many of them wouldn’t sell their dog for $10,000, but they haven’t all considered that). They don’t want to replace their dog, but many people don’t calculate monetary value correctly. The reason they don’t want to replace their dog is that their current dog has far more value than a new one would. People get confused about it because they can’t sell their dog for anywhere near its value to them. Pricing unique items with no market for them is problematic. Also, if they get a new dog, it will predictably gain value over time.

It’s like how it’s hard to put a price on your diary or journal. If someone burned it, that would be really bad. But how many dollars of damages is that worth? It’s hard to say. A diary has unique, irreplaceable data in it, but there’s no accurate market price because it’s worth far more to the owner than to anyone else.

Similarly, if someone smashes your computer and you lose a bunch of data, you will have a hard time getting appropriate compensation in court today. Being paid the price of a new computer is something the courts understand. And courts will take into account emotional suffering and trauma. They’re worse at taking into account the hassle and time cost of dealing with the whole problem, including going to court. And courts are bad at taking into account the data loss for personal files with no particular commercial value. A dog is like that – it contains a literal computer that literally contains personal data files with no backups. But we also have laws against animal abuse which help protect pet owners, because we recognize in some ways that pets are important. Getting rid of those laws without changing a bunch of other things would make things worse.

Why would you want to abuse a pet anyway? People generally abuse pets because they see the animals as proxies for humans (it can bleed and yelp) or they want to harm the pet’s owner. So that’s really bad. They usually aren’t hitting a dog in the same way they punch a hole in their wall. They know the dog matters more than the wall or their keyboard.

Note: I am not attempting to give a complete list of reasons that animal abuse is bad even if animals are incapable of suffering. I’m just making a few points. There are other issues too.

Factory Farms

Factory farms abuse animals for different reasons. They’re trying to make money. They’re mostly callous not malicious. Let’s consider some downsides of factory farms that apply even if animals cannot suffer.

When animals are sick or have stress hormones, they’re worse for people to eat. This is a real issue involving e.g. cortisol. Tuna fishing reality shows talk about it affecting the quality and therefore price of their catch, and the fishermen go out of their way to reduce fish’s physiological stress.

When animals eat something – like corn or soy – some of it may stay in their body and affect humans who later eat that animal. It can e.g. change the fatty acid profile of the meat.

I don’t like to eat at restaurants with dirty kitchens. I don’t want to eat from dirty farms either. Some people are poor enough for that risk to potentially be worth it, but many aren’t. And in regions where people are poorer, labor is generally cheaper too, so keeping things clean and well-maintained is cheaper there, so reasonably clean kitchens and factories broadly make sense everywhere. (You run into problems in e.g. poorer areas of the U.S. that are stuck with costly laws designed for richer areas of the U.S. They can have a bunch of labor-cost-increasing laws without enough wealth to reduce the impact of the laws.)

I don’t want cars, clothes, books, computers or furniture from dirty factories. Factories should generally be kept neat, tidy and clean even if they make machine tools, let alone consumer products, let alone food. Reasonable standards for cleanliness differ by industry and practicality, but some factory farms are like poorly-kept factories. And they produce food, which is one of the products where hygiene matters most.

On a related note, E. coli is a problem mainly because they mix together large amounts of e.g. lettuce or beef. One infected head of lettuce can contaminate hundreds of other heads of lettuce due to mixing (for pre-made salad mixes rather than buying whole heads of lettuce). They generally don’t figure out which farm had the problem and make them clean up their act. And the government spends money to trace E. coli problems in order to protect public health. This subsidizes having dirtier farms and then mixing lettuce together in processing. The money the government spends on public health, along with the lack of accountability, helps enable farms to get away with being dirtier.

These are just a sample of the problems with factory farms that are separate issues from animal suffering. I’d suggest that animal activists should emphasize benefits for humans more. Explain to people how changes can be good for them, instead of being a sacrifice for the sake of animals. And actually focus reforms on pro-human changes. Even if animals can suffer, there are lots of changes that could be made which would be better for both humans and animals; reformers should start with those.

Elliot Temple on January 1, 2023


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