The Political Turn in Animal Ethics

The Political Turn in Animal Ethics

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The debate about our treatment of nonhuman animals has been traditionally dominated by moral philosophers, and the crucially important role of politics has been hitherto neglected. This innovative edited collection seeks to redress the imbalance by interrogating some vital questions about this so-called ‘political turn’ in animal ethics.. The questions tackled include: What can political philosophy tell us about our moral obligations to animals? Should the boundaries of the demos be expanded to allow for the inclusion of animals? What kind of political system is most appropriate for the protection of animals? Does the protection of animals require limits to democracy, as in constitutional devices, or a usurping of democracy, as in direct action? What can the work of political scientists tell us about the governance of animal welfare? Leading scholars in the field explain how engaging with politics, in its empirical and normative guises, can throw much needed light on the question of how we treat animals, and how we ought to treat them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783487257
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 10/16/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 226
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Robert Garner is Professor of Politics at the University of Leicester.

Siobhan O’Sullivan is Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

Peter Chen, Senior Lecturer in Government and International Relations, University of Sydney; Alasdair Cochrane, Senior Lecturer in Political Theory, University of Sheffield; Steve Cooke, University Teacher in Theory and Animal Rights, University of Sheffield; Dan Lyons, CEO, Centre for Animals and Social Justice; Tony Milligan, Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Hertfordshire; Lucy Parry, Graduate Student, University of Sheffield; Friederike Schmitz, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Humboldt University Berlin; Kimberley Smith, Professor of Environmental Studies and Political Science, Carleton College

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The Political Turn in Animal Ethics

By Robert Garner, Siobhan O'Sullivan

Rowman & Littlefield International Ltd.

Copyright © 2016 Robert Garner and Siobhan O'Sullivan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-726-4



Robert Garner and Siobhan O'Sullivan

Animal ethics is a strand of moral philosophy that seeks to determine what we, as individuals, owe to animals. This book is – at least in part – concerned with the terrain of that discipline, but its focus is on an emerging field that seeks to explore the links between ethics and politics – the so-called political turn in animal ethics (Milligan, 2015, 2015a; Wissenburg and Scholsberg, 2014; Wykoff, 2014). The aim of this volume is to showcase some of the scholarship in this new field. By so doing, it is designed to help determine the parameters of the political turn and establish how far it represents a genuinely new direction in human-animal studies.

The first step in answering these questions, it seems to us, is to recognise that at least three main senses of the phrase 'political turn' can be identified, all of which are represented in this book. In the first place, the political turn is about the use of political concepts, ideas and theories to engage with the debate about what we owe to animals morally. Secondly, the label 'political turn' can be used to describe those scholars who have sought to focus normatively on the inclusion of animal interests within collective decision-making and particularly within democratic theory and practice. Finally, the political turn refers to the work of scholars who have addressed interesting empirical questions concerning animals and relations of power, whether focused on social movements, law, policies or institutions.

To some extent, the difference between these senses or dimensions of the political turn is the traditional empirical/normative distinction. This is not entirely the case, however, because not all normative political theorising about animals engages directly with the question of what we owe to animals morally. Thus, one can distinguish between the outcome-oriented, normative work, which does seek to utilise political thinking as part of an attempt to justify treating animals in a particular way, and what might be called agency or procedurally oriented, normative work, which seeks to advocate particular means to the achievement of desired outcomes.


The ethical dimension of the political turn reflects not just the political turn in animal ethics but also the animal turn in political theory. That is, not only are those concerned with animal questions increasingly thinking about politics, but political theorists are also generally more open to asking questions about the relationship between humans and animals. This dimension of the political turn has taken a number of forms. In the first place, political turn thinkers have conceived of our obligations to animals in terms of justice as opposed to morality (Cochrane, 2010; Garner, 2013; Nussbaum, 2006). Above all, the inclusion of animals as beneficiaries of justice necessitates the state's involvement in the protection of animal interests because the focus of the political theorist is directed not at voluntary personal lifestyles but at the state's coercive power.

In this volume, a statist approach is assumed in many of the chapters. Such an approach is particularly exemplified in Cochrane's chapter, where he reiterates his interest-based theory of rights (developed in Cochrane, 2012) and uses it to defend the moral permissibility of humans using animals to work for their benefit. Cochrane claims that animals have significant rights-bearing interests in avoiding suffering and death, but do not have a right to liberty. It is, therefore, not a moral requirement, as many abolitionist animal rights thinkers claim, to liberate animals, and not wrong to use them, provided that they do not suffer and are not killed. In his chapter, Cochrane builds upon his foundational argument by claiming, 'Animal labour rights must be recognised and protected in any political community which seeks to take seriously the interests of sentient animals'. That is, if the rights he identifies are to be protected, the enforcement by the state of a set of labour rights will be necessary, including the right to representation by a labour union, the right to a decent standard of remuneration, the right to healthy and safe working conditions, the right to rest and leisure and the right to a decent retirement.

The focus on the state, and the moral permissibility of using animals, exemplified in Cochrane's chapter, however, is challenged by Schmitz's contribution. She argues, from a non-liberal perspective, that normative judgements about how the state ought to treat animals cannot be separated from an evaluation of institutions within civil society. What Schmitz has in mind here, in particular, is the role that economic actors play in the exploitation of animals. Above all, unlike Cochrane, Schmitz – in an analysis of the property status of animals – thinks that the empirical fact of the ownership of animals (which she equates with their commercial use) is an impediment to the achievement of the upholding of the interests – and rights – animals have in avoiding suffering and death (see also Francione, 1995).

As Schmitz accepts, this critique of the state-centric character of much political turn literature is dependent on the validity of a wide definition of politics and a demotion of the state to a subsidiary role. It should be noted here that there is an honourable tradition in political science that construes the 'political' in broad terms, and, of course, there is a well-known Marxist-inspired discourse that relegates the state to that of an instrument of the dominant economic class. However, both approaches – the broad definition of the political and the demotion of the state – are open to challenge. In addition, one of the problems of these two moves, it seems to us, is the practical one that it creates a huge, and arguably unmanageable, set of parameters, thereby diluting the force of a political account of human-animal relations. That is, we can agree with Schmitz that a full picture of human-animal relations requires an input from a wide range of disciplines (economics, sociology, law, as well as politics and moral philosophy) without consenting to the claim that a 'political' turn in animal ethics must be so broad.

Schmitz's claim that the property status of animals is incompatible with animal protection (let alone animal rights) can be challenged too. A key problem here is the connection she makes between the ownership of animals and their commercial use. At one level, we can agree with Schmitz' critique of Cochrane. It is very difficult to see how the institutional use of animals can be commercially viable without their suffering and death, even if it is limited, in the case of agricultural animals, to milk, wool and egg production. Presumably, though, Cochrane would respond by saying that such uses only become morally impermissible if they cannot be achieved without infringing the rights of animals. That is, empirical claims doubting the viability of commercially using animals without inflicting suffering cannot be used to challenge the validity of Cochrane's ethical argument.

Moreover, it might be argued that questions about the relationship between commercial uses of animals and their (poor) treatment are distinct from the issue of their property status. It is difficult to establish that the latter is the cause of the former, not least because, as Schmitz accepts, it is possible for animals to be treated well whilst still being regarded as the property of humans, and the fact that animals are owned does not mean that the owners can do what they like with them. Therefore, as Cochrane points out, 'It is not at all clear that the property status of animals necessarily means that all of their interests must be subordinated'. In his view, it does not prevent them from being regarded as members of our society.

A second strand of this ethical dimension of the political turn involves the avoidance of first principles in preference to a consistent application of established, and non-controversial, norms. The two pre-eminent exponents of this approach are Siobhan O'Sullivan (2007; 2011) and Kimberly Smith (2012), both of whom contribute chapters to this volume, summarising their approaches (see also the work by Flanders, 2014, and Hadley, 2015). The former eschews contentious moral debates about the way we ought to treat animals and focuses on making the claim that the way that some animals are treated is unacceptable from the standpoint of the values that most accept in liberal democratic societies. In particular, the liberal democracy value of equity is transgressed by the very different ways in which animals of the same species are treated. Most notably, the infliction of suffering of animals that liberal democratic states allow in the case of farm and laboratory animals is regarded as morally and legally impermissible in the case of companion animals, despite the fact that the animals cannot be morally separated in terms of cognitive capacities and, in some cases, even species.

Smith's starting point, similarly, is not the debate about the moral worth of animals, but rather is about the American attitude to animals enshrined in laws and regulations. The purpose of her account, therefore, is to 'identify a public philosophy that would justify an existing animal welfare regime'. The best fit for Smith is social contract theory. Domesticated animals, she argues, 'are members of the community that the government was instituted to protect', and this status explains and justifies 'our political duties' to domesticated animals.

One of the key advantages of Smith's innovative method, it seems to us, is that – echoing Donaldson and Kymlicka's relational account in their book Zoopolis (2011) – it enables us to account for the different ways humans tend, in practice, to regard companion animals, on the one hand, and those animals that live freely and/or wildly, on the other. For Smith, this can be justified by social contract theory. Domesticated animals, living and working with us, are part of our political communities and therefore ought to benefit from membership of the social contract. Wild animals, by contrast, do not gain the same benefits of state protection precisely because they are not part of our political community and therefore are not part of the social contract (see also Coeckelbergh, 2009).

One of the problematic aspects of Smith's social contract approach is the tension between the explanatory and normative aspects. The primary part of the theory is its claim that the social contract approach enables us to justify a particular animal welfare regime (in the United States). However, it seems to us that if the social contract is being used as an explanatory device it does not reflect the way animals are currently regarded (particularly those who are exploited in farms and laboratories). Smith, as one would expect, recognises this. Thus, many aspects of the industrialised exploitation of animals in the United States seem to her 'less like a contractual relationship than like a horrific form of slavery'.

In order to deal with the explanatory deficit of social contract theory, Smith regards it partly also as a reforming tool since it suggests that the state's approach is out of step with prevailing public philosophy. The problem with this recognition, though, is that it weakens the explanatory claim of the social contract approach since it cannot account for all aspects of the animal welfare regime as currently constituted in the United States. Moreover, insofar as this is the case, it must then compete with other normative approaches seeking to establish how animals ought to be treated. It is by no means clear why we should choose the social contract approach as our preferred normative theory. One weakness of the social contract approach as a normative theory, for instance, is that it is somewhat vague as to what uses of animals would be morally permissible. It is implied by Smith that factory farming would be so regarded, but does that mean its worst excesses or that only extensive systems of animal agriculture would be sanctioned?

A third strand of the ethical dimension of the political turn involves the embellishment of traditional animal ethics by the employment of relationships. That is, our moral obligations to animals are not, or not only, determined by their cognitive capacities but also by relationships that we have with them. The work of Donaldson and Kymlicka (2011) has given relational ethics a political twist by situating relations between humans and animals within the context of group-differentiated rights utilised in the political philosophy literature on citizenship. In brief, they envisage three categories of animals informed by a relational ethic based on citizenship theory. Domesticated animals – those that are part of our societies – are equivalent to co-citizens and have certain particular rights because of their relational status with humans (chapter 5). Those animals that live amongst us but are not domesticated, so-called liminal animals, are equivalent to co-residents who do not have the rights of full citizenship but to whom we must have moral guidelines given their close proximity to us (chapter 7). Finally, genuinely wild animals are equivalent to separate sovereign communities which ought to be regulated by norms of international justice (chapter 6).

Whilst Zoopolis has certainly not escaped critical scrutiny (see, e.g., Cochrane, 2013a; Edmundson, 2015; Hinchcliffe, 2015; Planinc, 2014), it is probably not an exaggeration to regard it as the single-most important text in the political turn literature. Its value for us lies, in particular, in its emphasis on positive rights. That is, Donaldson and Kymlicka claim that the different relationships we have with animals generate different duties. This enables them to distinguish between our obligations to wild and domesticated animals among other categories of animals. In our view, such a disaggregated approach to considering what it is that we owe to animals is intuitively correct. Moreover, Donaldson and Kymlicka push us to think more sharply about the extent to which positive rights might be owed to certain categories of animals.

The fourth, and final, strand of the ethical dimension of the political turn focuses on the contribution that political pragmatism can make to the animal ethics debate. Here, most notably, Garner (2013) seeks to employ the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory, current within political philosophy, to throw light on animal ethics. Traditional animal ethicists, he argues, adopt ideal theory which focuses on the extent to which a theory of morality approximates to the truth insofar as normative arguments can arrive at such a determinate answer. Seen as a political prescription, the theories of animal ethicists can also be judged in relation to their feasibility and in terms of the steps that are needed to secure them. This is where non-ideal theory comes into play. Garner seeks to develop a non-ideal theory (what he calls the 'sentience position') which, he argues, qualifies as a valid non-ideal theory, although he accepts that a more far-reaching ethic (what he calls the 'enhanced sentience position') is the most valid ideal theory, one that is justified by reference to ethical principles alone.

Like Garner, Milligan in his chapter in this volume also locates the political turn in a recognition of the need to take account of the constraints of existing circumstances. Thus, he contrasts the political turn literature with the 'moral baseline' of the abolitionist animal rights position particularly prevalent amongst activists. Milligan prefers the political turn approach because of its rejection of foundational principles. His own contribution is to outline what he sees as a more 'politically informed conception of animal rights'.

This account is based on a prohibition of cruelty which he sees as more politically salient than the traditional animal rights focus on species equality. The latter, derived – in particular – from the work of Regan, argues that, because at least some animals possess inherent value, to use them, irrespective of what is being done to them whilst being used, is morally impermissible. By contrast, Milligan argues that it makes good strategic sense to prioritise the prohibition of cruelty. Not only is this move more amenable to the creation of a legislative programme of reform, but it is also more consistent, than species equality, with the prevailing liberal social and political order. Moreover, addressing cruelty to animals is more accurate as a guide to the motivation of activists (and, to extrapolate, the public as a whole) than species equality. An emphasis on cruelty, therefore, has the additional effect of closing the gap between the motivating reasons for supporting animal rights and the justifying reasons for doing so.


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Table of Contents

1. Introduction / 2. Labour Rights for Animals, Alasdair Cochrane / 3. Animal Ethics and Human Institutions: Integrating Animals into Political Theory, Friederike Schmitz / 4. Animals and the Politics of Equity, Siobhan O’Sullivan / 5. A Public Philosophy for the Liberal Animal Welfare State, Kimberly Smith / 6. Putting Pluralism First, Tony Milligan / 7. Animals, Politics and Democracy, Robert Garner / 8. Deliberative Democracy and Animals: not so strange bedfellows, Lucy Parry / 9. Understanding Animal Liberation, Steve Cooke / 10. Animal Welfare Policy in Australia: Pace, Race, and Shelf-space, Peter Chen / 11. Animal Protection in the UK: From Symbolic Politics to Democratic Representation, Dan Lyons / Bibliography / Index

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