Don’t laws like the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits the killing of certain species of animals facing extinction, effectively change the property status of animals?
No. The Endangered Species Act and similar measures protect only certain species that are valued by humans for human purposes; such laws do not recognize that animals have value other than that which humans bestow. Some people have argued–erroneously, in my view–that these laws actually provide “rights” for animals. In reality, these laws are no different from those that protect a rainforest, a stream, a mountain, or any other nonsentient thing that humans, for whatever reason, decide to value for human purposes. Such measures imply no recognition that the protected species has value of the sort that we attribute to every human being as a minimal condition of membership in the moral community.
Under economic pressure, governments are now seeking to withdraw some species from endangered-species protection and to readmit them as hunters’ prey, so that the fees generated by hunting licenses and the trade in animal parts can help to pay for maintenance of the remaining animals. Moratoriums on killing particular species are almost always eliminated as soon as populations increase beyond bare extinction levels, thus inviting the “harvesting” of excess animals. We do not, however, treat any humans in the same way. We do not regard it appropriate to use homeless people as forced organ donors in order to subsidize the social welfare costs of other homeless people. We do not condone the “harvesting” of humans.
In any event, laws like the Endangered Species Act do not recognize that animals, because they are sentient, have moral value beyond what humans give them. Such laws regard animals as no different from any other resource that we wish to preserve for the benefit of future generations. We temporarily protect animals like elephants so that future generations of humans will have elephants to use, but elephants are, in the end, only economic commodities, and as long as there are enough elephants, we ultimately value ivory bracelets more than we value the interests of the elephant.
Finally, it should be understood that it is unlikely that any significant change in the status of animals as property will come about as the result of legislation or court cases until there is a significant social change in our attitude about animals. That is, it is not the law that will alter our moral thinking about animals; it must be the other way around. It was not the law that abolished slavery; indeed, the law protected slave ownership and the institution of slavery was not abolished by the law but by the Civil War. The present-day world economy is far more dependent on animal exploitation than were the southern United States on human slavery. Animal exploitation is not going to be ended by a pronouncement of the Supreme Court or an act of congress–at least not until a majority of us accept the position that the institution of animal property is morally unacceptable.