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Most people support laws that seek to reduce the suffering of animals. Yet animal cruelty statutes and other kinds of animal welfare laws are under sustained attack by the so-called abolitionists. Animal rights abolitionists claim that it is categorically wrong to treat animals as commodities, and animal welfare laws should be opposed because they do not alter the property status of animals. Abolitionists also claim that animal welfare regulations do not meaningfully reduce animal suffering. In fact, abolitionists argue that such statutes likely increase future animal suffering, either by delaying the advent of abolition or by soothing the conscience of those who want to continue consumption of animal products.

This Article contends that this claim is false and in tension with the core philosophical commitments of abolitionism. There is simply no empirical evidence that supports the counterintuitive claim that animal welfare laws do not meaningfully reduce animal suffering. In fact, both intuition and the few empirical studies that exist suggest that animal welfare statutes do reduce animal suffering. If animal welfare regulations succeed in meaningfully reducing animal suffering, then abolitionists must confront what this Article calls the “abolitionist’s dilemma.” On the one hand, abolitionists could embrace animal welfare regulations, in which case their core opposition to laws that presuppose the property status of animals would be compromised. On the other hand, they could oppose animal welfare regulations that reduce animal suffering solely because they continue to commoditize animals. This would reveal that abolitionists are willing to sacrifice animal welfare in the present with the hopes of achieving an uncertain and unlikely abolition in the future. Not caring about present animal suffering would make the abolitionist position not only politically unpalatable, but also ethically unattractive in a most profound kind of way. As a result, abolitionists should embrace animal welfare statutes that meaningfully reduce suffering, even if doing so means that the abolitionist program as we know it would cease to exist.

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Georgetown Environmental Law Review

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Animal Law Commons