HLS Visiting Prof Discusses Animal Rights and the Law

He once successfully defended a goat accused of killing its owner, and, on Monday afternoon, visiting Harvard Law School professor Howard E. Abrams encouraged students gathered at an informal luncheon to take animal rights seriously.

A former attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund and tax attorney by training, Abrams shared his own background as an animal rights activist and a vegetarian in a talk entitled “Free as a Bird?” Before a roughly 80-person audience at the Law School, composed mostly of law students, Abrams said that lawyers should think not only about the legality of a case involving animals, but also about its moral implications.

Abrams began the afternoon by discussing one of his more famous clients, a goat accused of murdering its owner. Because the goat’s owner had “tortured” it in order to make it a more aggressive guard animal, Abrams said that he was able to free the animal from punishment.

“Animal rights is the only thing that is important to me,” Abrams told the audience, shifting to his own story of vegetarianism.

Abrams said that he is not a philosopher and that he does not have his own consistent moral theory backing up his activism. Rather, he became a vegetarian after reading the argument of libertarian theorist and former Harvard professor Robert Nozick in his famous book “Anarchy, State, and Utopia.” In that work, Nozick argued that animal suffering cannot be justified with human pleasure it might bring—a reason, Abrams said, to avoid eating meat.

Abrams jokingly told his audience that he did not have children out of fear they might turn out to be carnivores.

“I was told I would like my children either way; but I am not convinced,” he said, laughing.

The roughly hour-long event was organized by the Harvard Law School chapter of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. The group also provided a free vegan lunch for attendees.

“We wanted to make more Harvard students learn about animal rights,” said Alene G. Anello ’10, a member of the Fund and one of the event’s organizers.

Sandeep S. Chhabra, a law student who attended the talk, said that the strength of Abrams’s commitment to animal rights surprised him.

“I think it is pretty remarkable how devoted he is to animal rights, [and] the extent that he values animal life over human life,” Chhabra said.

Abrams drew laughter throughout the event, and its ending was no exception.

“Even if I did not convince you, at least most of you did not eat meat for one meal,” he said.

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