A Nation of Animal Lovers? The Case for a General Animal Killing Offence in UK Law
2019-02-01T09:14:10Z (GMT) by
The frequent claim that Britain is a ‘nation of animal lovers’ can be hard to reconcile with the reality of how we often treat even the most revered of our fellow creatures. A survey published by the British Veterinary Association in 2016 showed that 98 per cent of vets have been asked to kill healthy pets, with 53 per cent saying that this is not a rare occurrence. This widespread killing of healthy animals occurs in part because UK law has a one-sided fixation with the quality, but not the preservation, of animal life. Despite the voluminous body of legislation that has been enacted in Britain over the last 200 years to regulate the treatment of animals while they are alive, the law in general does not impose any restrictions upon killing them. This article challenges this status quo and suggests that in some instances it ought to be a criminal offence to kill an animal, even if the death is painless and does not interfere with property rights or biodiversity. From the outset, two points should be made about this position. First, this article does not advance any particular, detailed proposal for the framing of a future animal killing offence, although it will make some rough suggestions in the conclusion. Nor does it attempt to mount an empirical case as to why such a new offence would be desirable. Rather, the focus of the article is primarily normative and conceptual. It makes a largely a priori case in favour of an animal killing offence based on first principles. As such it should be understood as the beginning of a debate concerning what the law’s position on the killing of animals ought to be. Second, the conclusion of the article is arrived at through immanent critique, ie criticism of the law’s current state using its own internal standpoint. In particular, I argue that the absence of any general animal killing offences in UK law stands in tension with two norms that already have significant purchase in its legal context: (1) the value of protecting animal welfare and (2) the harm principle as a basis for criminalisation. In drawing on these principles I will rely on their most developed articulations which, in relation to the harm principle, I take to be found in the four-volume work on the basis for criminalisation written by Joel Feinberg. The article is divided into four main parts. Part 1 will set out what the current legal position on the killing of animals is in the UK. Part 2 contrasts this legal position to other jurisdictions that have adopted broader-based prohibitions on the killing of animals. Part 3 argues that animal welfare is treated as having independent value by contemporary animal protection legislation. It then argues that killing animals is potentially a welfare issue insofar as it deprives them of future pleasurable experiences and reduces their lifetime wellbeing to levels lower they would otherwise have been had they continued to live. Part 4 lays out an alternative, but complementary, argument in favour of introducing an animal killing offence. This argument is derived from four premises: (1) the harm principle, correctly formulated, provides good reason to criminalise conduct; (2) animals are within the class of beings whose protection provides a basis for liberty restriction under the harm principle; (3) killing harms an animal when it deprives them of a life worth living; (4) sometimes it is unjustifiable to harm an animal by killing them.