Leiden Law Blog

Beastly Politics

Beastly Politics

'Animals whom we have made our slaves we do not like to consider our equals', Charles Darwin wrote in 1837. Even centuries after his death this observation by Darwin is still striking. Today, indeed, we still find it hard to perceive non-human animals as our moral equals. It is not surprising that we find it even harder to see 'our slaves' as our political equals. What on earth could animals have to do with politics? They cannot talk, they cannot debate and they certainly cannot vote, it is claimed. So why should we consider them as our political equals? Isn't politics an excellent example of a business that should be exclusively reserved for intelligent and rational humans? Reserved for the political animals, as Aristotle already referred to humans in his work Politika?

A Modern Discipline

Today, thinking about the political status of non-humans is not as novel as it was in Aristotle's era. The discipline of animal politics gains more theoretical attention every year and ideas about what should be the appropriate status of animals in politics are diverse. Some contemporary thinkers claim that (some) non-human animals are important to human politics, some claim that the political consideration of their interests should be mandatory, and some even claim that non-human animals already act politically, but that they only lack recognition of these acts in general politics.

The Equality Principle and the Demos

The idea that all sentient animals are owed political consideration logically follows from the science-based doubt with regard to the belief of categorical human superiority, combined with the primary importance of the (to non-humans extended) equality principle. It might be argued that some non-human animals are part of the demos, because they live and/or are born on the territory of the state and many of their fundamental interests are affected by political decisions. The equality principle at the heart of democracy requires equal representation of the demos. However this can hardly be achieved as long as only one species is formally represented. Doesn’t the liberal democratic state defy its own basic principle of equality by denying certain beings with interests the political power to defend these fundamental interests? Of course there are obvious problems which prevent non-human animals from politically representing themselves, but if they have a claim to representation why shouldn’t humans be charged with this task?

Are We Human Tyrants?

In this light, current (exclusively human) democracies may seem to be out dated in the sense that their apparatuses and ratios stem from an era in which the notion of human superiority went mostly undisputed. Because our democracies developed in a time in which only humans were taken to be of ethical concern, this anthropocentrism is also reflected in our traditional political institutions. The historical understanding of non-humans has resulted in the formal ignorance of non-human interests in politics up to this day. In very strong terms one may even typify our current human rule over non-humans as tyrannical political rule, as Jeremy Bentham implied in 1789. We, humans, have ascribed ourselves the unlimited right to rule over non-humans’ lives and we rule over them in an arbitrary way. Benefits we reluctantly do give them are non-committal and are regarded as acts of generosity – not as a matter of justice. In political theory this extreme form of subordination and political dependence, combined with arbitrary rule, are taken to be the core ingredients of tyrannical rule. Tyrannical or not, the political relationship between humans and non-humans is an unhealthy one. And this observation should trouble us – especially democrats.

Responsible Reform

Although the systematic political subordination of other sentient animals might be a fundamental problem within democracies, it is not necessarily a problem that can't be fixed. The political invisibility of non-human interests in our democratic institutions needn't mean that our democracies are to be discarded with. Liberal democracies have shown themselves to be astonishingly flexible in adapting their political and legal institutions to radically changed ideas of equality, and there is no reason to think that this will not happen this time. The liberal democracy is still one of the most successful ‘inventions’ in centuries, so it is extremely important to not recklessly dive into an animal emancipation project that may put it all at risk. To help us to responsibly lead the legal and political emancipation of non-human animals in the right direction it is important that we exchange ideas on this subject from all over the world. Such a gathering, in which world-wide experts on animal politics (including Robert Garner and Will Kymlicka) and law (including Steven Wise) exchange ideas of future animal emancipation, will take place in the Netherlands on November 12 and 13. I have had the honour of co-organising this conference and those interested are very welcome to attend and be inspired.


Keynote speakers at the Animal Politics: Justice, Power and the State Conference 2016

Steven Wise

President of the Nonhuman Rights Project and lawyer in the world famous lawsuits on behalf of chimpanzees Tommy, Leo, Hercules and Kiko.

Will Kymlicka

Professor of Philosophy at Queen’s University in Canada and the Central European University in Hungary. Co-writer of the ground-breaking book Zoopolis, a Political Theory of Animal Rights.

Robert Garner

Professor in Political Theory at the University of Leicester. His publications include A Theory of Justice for Animals, Animal Ethics, and Animals, Politics, and Morality.

Lori Gruen

William Griffin Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University where she also coordinates Wesleyan Animal Studies.

Laura Wright

Associate Professor and Department Head of English at Western Carolina University. She specialises in Vegan Studies.

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