The common view in both scholarship and practice is that politics is an exclusively human concern: a practice by humans for humans. Man, as Aristotle described him, is ‘zoon politikon’, a political animal. For Aristotle, governing and being governed is both the essence and purpose of human beings, and this quality not shared by any other creature that we know of.
Crucially, this human-exclusive understanding of politics is still widely shared today. That is not to say, of course, that politics is completely unconcerned about animals. Policy-makers do sometimes turn their attention towards animals, and most states have instituted, for example, a set of animal welfare laws that prohibit practices which are deemed to be ‘cruel’ or to cause ‘unnecessary suffering’.
But note how such laws are still driven and framed around humans and human interests. Anti-cruelty laws target poor character traits rather than poor outcomes for animals; indeed, those laws are perfectly compatible with routinized violence perpetrated against animals (such as that in agriculture, for example). And whether a practice inflicts unnecessary suffering on an animal is determined solely by the interests of human beings: the suffering of lab animals, for example, is deemed entirely necessary to realising particular human goals with regards to medicine.
The human-centred nature of our laws concerning animals is perfectly understandable given our human–exclusive systems and understandings of politics. On this standard view, animals are not members of our political communities: they stand apart from, and outside of, political life. Animals are not part of our power-structures: they do not feature in our political institutions. And animals do not drive our policy agendas: while we might make laws about animals, we do not make them with or for animals.
But is that how things should be? Are animals rightly excluded from membership of our political communities? For many, the answer is obviously ‘yes’ – and little time is spent justifying that position. But such justification is owed. After all, political communities wield enormous power over the lives of animals. They are subject to and affected by our laws in myriad ways. Through our policies on building, energy, parks and public spaces, agriculture, health and more, we determine what types and how many animals come into existence, how they live, and when and how they will die. Without being part of our political systems, animals have no say in these decisions that profoundly shape their lives, and their interests form no part in our determination of our collective goals. Can this subjection of animals be justified?
Some might say ‘yes’ due to the different capacities that animals possess: animals lack some crucial ability to dopolitics. What that capacity is has been contested: for some it is the power of political deliberation (to reflect on, debate and justify particular laws and policies); for others, it is moral autonomy (to reflect on, consider and act upon moral rules). Either way, on this view, if animals cannot participate in the exercise of political power, then their exclusion from how it is wielded seems both inevitable and justified.
The problem with this view, of course, is that there are many human beings who also lack these capacities, and sometimes to a greater extent than some animals. Crucially, these individuals, like young infants or those with cognitive disabilities, are not some strange outliers or ‘marginal cases’: they are normal everyday members of our communities. Or at least they should be. For while these individuals have often been neglected by our political systems, there is wide consensus that the appropriate response to their differing capacities is not to exclude them from our political communities, deny them membership, or disregard their interests when framing our collective goals. Instead, we should seek to find novel ways by which to incorporate and represent these individuals’ interests in our collective pursuits, whether that be through proxy representatives, dedicated ministries, special classes of rights, and so on.
The reason why it is incumbent upon us to explore ways to fully recognise the membership of these individuals comes down to the relations these individuals have with the wider community: together we form so-called ‘communities of fate’. On this understanding, co-members of a community are individuals whose relationships are so intertwined that their futures depend on each other in profound ways. Given this dependency, each and every co-member must have their interests inform, frame, guide and constrain the way in which policy is formed. To not do so would be unjustified subjection.
But as will probably be clear, many animals are also bound up in our communities of fate. As we have seen, myriad animals are affected by and subjected to our decision-making, as humans are affected by and depend upon many of the actions of animals (think of pollination, aeration of soil, so-called ecosystem services, etc.). These entangled relations demand that these animals are recognised as members of our political communities, not outsiders; members whose interests should shape our collective goals and ambitions.
Bringing animals into politics like this no doubt raises a number of important challenges: which animals should be brought into which communities (and which should be excluded)?; how can animals be represented effectively and by whom?; how should conflicts of interests (humans vs animal; animal vs animal) be managed?; and so on. Such challenges are certainly profound, but they also mirror the ones that political scholars have been grappling with for centuries in relation to human-exclusive communities. Animals deserve recognition of their place within our political communities, and they also thus deserve the attention of our political scholarship.
Alasdair Cochrane, Should Animals Have Political Rights? (Polity, 2020)
Alasdair Cochrane, Sentientist Politics (OUP, 2018)
Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (OUP, 2011)