It was at Cornell Law that Sherry Colb, Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar, was first approached about teaching a course on animals and the law. "Prior to that, ethical veganism had been a commitment of mine, but I had not thought of it as a potential area in which I could write and teach as well," she says. The results of the suggestion were an animal rights seminar and, later, a book: Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger? And Other Questions People Ask Vegans, published this year by Lantern Books.
"Once I agreed to teach a course on animal rights, I began reading and thinking about the subject in new ways," explains Colb. "Writing a book about the most common philosophical questions that arose in class and out of class felt like a natural next step."
Through examples, case studies, and logic, Colb addresses such questions as "What about plants?" "Don't animals eat other animals?" and "There are no perfect vegans, so why bother?" In the book, she answers them at face value and also delves into the motivations behind various lines of inquiry related to ethical veganism and people's relationship to nonhuman animals.
Colb's background in law also gave her exposure to these questions. While clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, she worked on the case Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, concerning an ordinance prohibiting animal sacrifice. Practitioners of the Santeria religion challenged the ordinance on First Amendment grounds while the City defended the law as an effort to protect animals from cruelty.
"As I read the briefs in the case and thought about the interests of nonhuman animals in a more systematic way, I came to realize that our legal system consistently treats animals as resources for human use, whether they are used for animal sacrifice or, much more commonly, as sources of flesh, hormonal secretions (like dairy and eggs), skin (leather and fur), and hair (wool)," says Colb. "Singling out animal sacrifice thus plainly reflected an antipathy to a particular religious group rather than any genuine commitment to protecting animals from suffering and death."
The Court ruled that the ordinance violated the church's right to Free Exercise of Religion. Colb adds, "Thus began my journey into thinking in a more clear-eyed way about what would have to happen for us to demonstrate a true commitment to the interests of nonhuman animals, rather than an expression of prejudice against the particular ways in which one individual or culture happens to hurt animals, whether it be Santeria or dog-fighting rings."
These issues are also examined in Colb's seminar, which provides a broad survey of the challenges that different writers have posed to the status quo regarding nonhuman animals and includes lectures from guest experts in a variety of fields. "The response to the course has been extremely positive," says Colb. "Students have told me that the ability to think critically about the validity of an entire legal category has strengthened their analytical and argumentation skills within existing legal categories like torts, contracts, and constitutional criminal procedure."
She adds, "People taking the seminar have also said that it exposed them to some of the most profound moral debates of our time. They are able to think critically about information that rarely undergoes any kind of public scrutiny. The willingness to look skeptically at the 'facts' that 'everyone knows' is invaluable in the law, because attorneys need to be able to question what no one else questions."