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Animals and politics

Concern for nonhuman animals has been traditionally excluded from the political realm, although some public policies take into account the interests of humans who care about protecting animals. However, if we reject speciesism we must progress beyond such an exclusion. Politics are simply about the aims that societies have, and if nonhuman animals should not be discriminated against, then their defense, including the protection of their interests and helping them when they need it, should be undertaken and politically and legally enforced. But this can only happen if we reject the current prevailing attitude of speciesism and make the protection of animals a political issue.


What are politics about?

Politics are not simply about the system of political parties, elections, parliamentary sessions, and the like. In essence, they’re about how a society is organized to achieve the aims that it has. It’s about how power is distributed, how decisions are made, and how matters of justice and related issues are addressed within it. And beyond that, it’s essentially about what a community should be aiming to achieve.

So the problem of how the responsibilities, the goods, and the burdens in a society are allocated and distributed is a political question. From this derives the whole problem of what institutions exist in a certain society, how they should work, who they should represent, etc.1


Political issues enforce certain aims

If a particular aim is integrated into the goals of a political community, this means that the political community will do something to try to achieve this aim. If the aim is to prevent something from occurring, then the force of that institution will be put into action to impede it from happening; if the aim is about making a particular thing happen, then it will provide the means for that to happen. Enforcement is the key idea involved here. If a political community’s institution recommends that a position such as “do not harm animals” or “help animals in need” should be accepted and encouraged, then these institutions will use enforcement so that this occurs.

Speciesist policies keep obstacles in place that prevent animals from being protected from harm and from receiving help when they need it. Therefore, those who hold ethical views against speciesism will be in opposition to speciesist policies. The rejection of speciesism entails agreeing that the interests of nonhuman animals should be taken into account as an aim of our communities.

To further explain this, we can consider other causes that historically have been defended for the ethical advancement of society and the end of discrimination and exploitation. For example, those who defend the rights of children don’t want the protection of children to be a matter on which only parents get to decide; they want there to be a political and legal enforcement of such protection. They want the law to prohibit aggression towards children, and they want the state to prosecute those who force children to work. They may also want other kinds of positive actions in terms of public policies to be put into practice. They may want, for instance, the state to take care of orphan children.


What aims can societies pursue?

If the arguments according to which nonhuman animals should be fully morally considered (explained in the section on speciesism) are correct, this means that political communities must take animals’ interests into account. It means that an important aim that political institutions should pursue is safeguarding the interests of nonhuman animals, striving to ensure that they are fulfilled, and not thwarted.

Some people may think that this cannot be done because a political community can only aim to achieve what is good for its members. However, throughout history political communities have often had goals other than achieving what is good for their members. Their political institutions have often defended the interests of only a slight minority of their members, who were favored over others. In some cases, these institutions have also had different aims, such as defending certain religious or nationalistic stances, independently of how they affect the individuals in their groups. But currently most people believe that furthering the interests of the human members of political communities is something political communities should make a priority. In fact, some think that this should be the only purpose that political communities should have. This may seem a sound and fair position, especially if we compare it with the communities that favor minority interests or ideology over the wellbeing of their members. It seems much more fair that a community should care for all its members rather than just for some of them.

However, aspects of this view can be questioned. In fact, many people now reject this and claim that political communities should not be limited to doing only what is good for their members. Rather, they should take into account other individuals as well. So if the citizens of a certain country were suffering due to something such as war, natural disaster, or severe economic crisis, many of us think it would be good if other countries took action to improve the situation of these individuals.

Moreover, since many of those situations are due to issues of international injustice, the reasons to end such situations, in which people in other countries are suffering, are much stronger than is commonly thought. What this all shows is that there are valid reasons to claim that political communities should not be concerned only with what is good for their members, but for others outside of the groups also. Indeed, there aren’t any conclusive reasons why nonhuman animals’ interests shouldn’t be taken into account by political institutions; in fact, given the reasons presented in the section about the arguments for and against speciesism, it seems apparent that this is what they should do.2

Alternatively, it may also be argued that nonhuman animals should be considered members of our communities.3 They aren’t agents who can make decisions in these communities, but neither are many human beings (such as babies and those with certain intellectual differences), and yet they can be fully impacted by the political decisions made in the countries in which they live and elsewhere; therefore, the interests of nonhuman animals should be considered accordingly.


The interests of nonhuman animals are ignored in the political realm

Given these reasons, it would be clearly desirable if political communities were defending the interests of animals as they do with humans. However, this is not what’s happening. In fact, the situation that human and nonhuman animals are currently living in is very different. In the world in which we live, humans are harmed very significantly in many ways, and their interests are often disregarded, resulting in many humans having no one caring about them or ensuring that their interests are protected. Most nonhuman animals are in an even more dire situation, since trillions of them are killed to be eaten or used in other ways every single year, and they suffer terrible harm due to this.4 In addition, there’s limited concern for the harm suffered by other animals, that is, those living in the wild.

Humans have the benefit of entitlements such as those stated in declarations, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These human rights are still violated in many cases and do not provide assurance of protection for all humans, but at least these declarations exist; states and political institutions acknowledge that they are meant to respect such declarations and endeavor to uphold the rights that are stated in them, even if they often fail to do so.

Moreover, there are many different institutions, not only at the national level but also internationally, that aim to uphold these rights and ensure that they are respected and enforced. Of course, the institutions often fail in these aims, but there is at least some recognition of such aims being worthwhile and an intention to actually achieve them. In contrast, nothing similar exists to protect the interests of nonhuman animals. There’s no institutional body comparable to UNESCO or UNICEF working to ensure that the interests of nonhuman animals are respected and protected; neither is there anything else at an international level that could grant a cessation of the harms and exploitation that nonhuman animals currently have to endure every day. There is nothing to ensure that positive steps are taken to aid animals when they need it.

This lack of public acknowledgement of nonhuman animal rights demonstrates that the full satisfaction of nonhuman animals’ interests is not part of the aims of political institutions at a state level or internationally. There is some legislation having to do with animal welfare, but this is done within the system of exploitation of nonhuman animals, in which such exploitation is fully accepted and actually defended.


Antispeciesist politics would go beyond animal rights

There are reasons to defend the idea that political communities should enforce the protection of nonhuman animals in ways that go beyond mere concern for the minimization of the harms they suffer while they are being used as resources. One of the ways this concern can be incorporated into the institutions of a particular society is, of course, by using legal enforcement to ensure that the interests of nonhuman animals are respected. Currently this could be done by granting legal personhood to nonhuman animals and the legal rights that are necessary to safeguard their protection. However, this is not all that would be required to protect nonhuman animals. Public policies can unfairly favor some individuals over others, making the others much worse off. This happens to humans and it also happens to nonhuman animals.

Even if animals had their most important interests protected by rights, if public policies continued to be aimed at only helping and benefiting humans, while nonhuman animals were not being directly benefited or aided in any way by them, then these political institutions would be acting in a way that discriminates against nonhuman animals. A viewpoint that rejects speciesism would necessitate that nonhuman animals be fully respected and also helped when they need it.


Political change and speciesist attitudes

We might think that it would be impossible for political societies to ever enforce measures to grant full consideration to nonhuman animals, because the only individuals who can vote in our societies are human beings. Although relevant, this argument would fail. Only adult human beings with certain intellectual capacities qualify to vote. Children and those with disqualifying intellectual differences are not allowed. Yet this does not imply that all human beings who lack the capacities that are considered necessary in order to vote should be deprived of any of the benefits that the actions of the political institutions can bring them. It’s the same with nonhuman animals: even if they cannot vote, they can nevertheless be benefited or harmed by the public policies of those elected. Safeguards can be established so that institutions take care of the interests of nonhuman animals.

There is an important objection that can be made here, however. Regardless of the safeguards we intend to put in place, if those who vote and those with the power to make decisions in a political community don’t want to take nonhuman animals into account, then there may be little we can do about it. Voters may well defend only their own interests, and in that case there will probably be little or nothing that can be done in defense of animals.

This objection is right in one respect, which is that those who have the power in a society do get to decide what aims that society will try to achieve. The fact that the fate of nonhuman animals rests in the hands of human beings is inevitable. However, this must not lead us to think that there’s no hope for animals. There are always reasons to have hope for them. If we reject speciesism, we continually endeavor to have the interests of nonhuman animals taken into account. The best way to achieve a very significant political and legal change for nonhuman animals is likely to be by changing the attitudes of the public. While lobby work can help to make a difference to attain a political change regarding animals, we nevertheless need to raise awareness about speciesism.

Hence, at the end of the day ethics ends up being crucial to politics because it helps shed light on the preferable aims that our communities should be striving for. Also, sparking a change in the moral attitudes of the public ends up being crucially necessary in achieving political change.

Further readings

Barry, B. (2002) Culture and equality: An egalitarian critique of multiculturalism, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Casal, P. (2003) “Is multiculturalism bad for animals?”, The Journal of Political Philosophy, 11, pp. 1-22.

Cohen, A. I. (2007) “Contractarianism, other-regarding attitudes, and the moral standing of nonhuman animals”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 24, pp. 188-201.

Cowen, T. (2003) “Policing nature”, Environmental Ethics, 25, pp. 169-182.

Francione, G. L. (2008) Animals as persons: Essays on the abolition of animal exploitation, New York: Columbia University Press.

Garner, R. (2005) The political theory of animal rights, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2006) Frontiers of justice: Disability, nationality, species membership, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

O’Sullivan, S. (2011) Animals, equality and democracy, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Otter, C.; O’Sullivan, S. & and Ross, S. (2012) “Laying the foundations for an international animal protection”, Journal of Animal Ethics, 2, pp. 53-72.

Rowlands, M. (2009 [1998]) Animal rights: Moral, theory and practice, 2nd ed., New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Vallentyne, P. (2005) “Of mice and men: Equality and animals”, Journal of Ethics, 9, pp. 403-433.


1 To start reading about this see: Wolff, J. (2006 [1996]) An introduction to political philosophy, 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press; Lawson, K. (2003 [1985]) The human polity: A comparative introduction to political science, 5th ed., Boston: Houghton Mifflin; Miller, D. (2003) Political philosophy: A very short introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Zeigler, H. (1990) The political community: A comparative introduction to political systems and society, London: Longman. See also: Jackson, R. J. & Jackson, D. (1997) A comparative introduction to political science, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall. And also: Roskin, M. G.; Cord, R. L.; Medeiros, J. A. & Jones, W. S. (2017 [1991]) Political science: An introduction, 14th ed., Harlow: Pearson Education.

2 For an explanation of how different political theories accommodate concern for the interests of nonhuman animals see Cochrane, A. (2010) An introduction to animals and political theory, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

3 Donaldson, S. & Kymlicka, W. (2011) Zoopolis: A political theory of animal rights, New York: Oxford University Press. Horta, O. (2013) “Zoopolis, intervention, and the state of nature”, Law, Ethics and Philosophy, 1, pp. 113-125 [accessed on 14 April 2014]. Donaldson, S. & Kymlicka, W. (2013) “A defense of animal citizens and sovereigns”, Law, Ethics and Philosophy, 1, pp. 143-160 [accessed on 14 April 2014]. Mannino, A. (2014) “Crucial questions in the debate about humanitarian intervention in nature”, giordano bruno stiftung schweiz, 20. Januar [accessed on 12 March 2014].

4 Mood, A. & Brooke, P. (2010) “Estimating the number of fish caught in global fishing each year”, [accessed on 18 October 2010]. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) (2012) “Livestock primary”, FAOSTAT [accessed on 4 January 2012].

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