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Will Kymlicka on Animal Co-Citizens – Interview Part 1

on December 11. 2014

zoopolisWe recently had the privilege to interview Professor Will Kymlicka on some topics raised by his latest book, Zoopolis, co-authored with Sue Donaldson. Zoopolis offers a new agenda for the theory and practice of animal rights: Most animal rights theory focuses on the intrinsic capacities or interests of animals, and the moral status and moral rights that these intrinsic characteristics give rise to. Zoopolis shifts the debate from the realm of moral theory to the realm of political theory, focusing on the relational obligations that arise from the varied ways that animals relate to human societies and institutions. Building on recent developments in the political theory of group-differentiated citizenship, Zoopolis introduces the genuine “political animal”.

The first part of the interview focuses on the concept of animal citizenship and various issues relating to it: general political theory, the group of animal co-citizens, their political participation, domesticated species preservation vs. modification vs. extinction, animal use and labour, and the question of species vs. individuals.

The second part of the interview deals with animal denizens at the margins of human society, animal foreigners in the wilderness, sovereignty rights and their pre-conditions, natural harms and predation, small-scale help vs. large-scale “humanitarian intervention”, and the dangers of human control and micro-management.

Professor Kymlicka, you argue we need a distinctly political theory of animal rights. Why?

Most existing animal rights theories focus exclusively on the issue of intrinsic moral status, and defend the anti-speciesist position that non-human animals have equal moral status and hence equal basic rights to life. We agree with that, but it leaves many key issues unresolved. Consider the human case. Recognizing that all human beings possess a certain set of basic rights – “human rights” – is crucially important, particularly for forbidding certain violations of human life and dignity. But we need more than this to tell us about the different ways we can positively relate to diverse others. This is where political philosophy comes into play.

Could you illustrate what the idea of basic human rights doesn’t capture with a concrete example?

Imagine an airplane landing at an airport. All its passengers will possess certain rights just in virtue of being human (or, on our view, in virtue of being sentient). However, some passengers may be co-citizens, others international students, others still asylum seekers, tourists, or migrant workers. These reflect different sorts of relationships with the political community where the airplane has landed, and each relationship carries a distinctive set of rights and responsibilities. We must always respect fundamental human rights in our interactions with all passengers – we have no right to kill or torture or experiment on any of them – but these human rights radically underdetermine the legal and political status of the passengers, like the right to stay, the right to work, the right to vote, and so on.

And you’re about applying these political concepts to our relationships with the various groups of non-human animals too.

Exactly, that’s the project – we already have anti-speciesist theories of basic moral status, but what we need now is anti-speciesist theories of social relationships and political membership.

So who are our animal co-citizens?

We argue that domesticated animals have a distinctive relationship to our society, and that co-citizenship is the way to conceptualize this relationship. Domesticated animals have been brought into human societies through confinement and selective breeding. We’ve made them dependent on our care, foreclosing any immediate option of a more independent existence. We have coerced their participation in our schemes of social cooperation, exploiting them for food and labour. They are members of a shared society with us, but as a subordinated class intended to serve us. Every dimension of their lives is governed and regulated by a human political order which ruthlessly ignores their interests. They are tyrannized, in short. So, a political theory of animal rights would ask: how do we transform this caste hierarchy into just relations? In human cases of caste hierarchy, justice requires recognizing the full and equal membership of subordinated groups. Citizenship is the tool we use to convert relations of caste hierarchy into relations of equal membership. We argue the same applies to domesticated animals: they should be recognized as full members and co-citizens of society. They share in the same rights to protection, i.e. basic rights to life and liberty; the same rights to provision, i.e. social rights; and the same rights to participation. Under these conditions, the exercise of power entailed in governing a shared human-animal society can be legitimate, not tyrannical, because society is dedicated to the flourishing of all of its members.

Rights to participation are rights to have a say in how society is structured. But how are we going to enable domesticated animals to have their political say? That seems to pose a bit of a challenge.

It’s a big challenge, but it’s a challenge for some groups of humans too – such as children, the cognitively disabled, or future generations. Various models of guardianship, trusteeship and “dependent agency” have been developed to deal with these cases. So the problem is by no means specific to the case of non-human animals and there are a number of possible solutions.

That sounds plausible – analogies to human cases are always insightful. Returning to our animal co-citizens: Do domesticated animals exhaust their class? Or are there further animal co-citizens? Probably not, at least for now. Citizenship is a cooperative relationship, and so requires capacities for communication and cooperation with humans. We know that domesticated animals have these capacities, since domestication is only possible for animals capable of entering into relations of trust, communication, physical proximity, and norm-sensitivity with humans. We cannot have this sort of shared sociability with many wild animals on the planet. In this sense, domestication not only makes the extension of co-citizenship morally necessary, but also possible. Of course, we can’t predict the future evolution of non-domesticated animals, and opportunities for closer cooperation could emerge once our relations with them are grounded in justice, not domination. So you’re arguing for the preservation of domesticated animals as co-citizens? Many abolitionists would challenge you by saying that it’s impossible to imagine fair relations between humans and domesticated animals and that therefore we should be seeking their extinction.

That’s the position we want to challenge. We’re trying to conceive a relationship with domesticated animals that can meet stringent tests of justice. Citizenship seems to us to be a fruitful concept here. If we can imagine our relationship with domesticated animals as one of co-citizenship, that seems to be a promising way of ensuring justice without having to seek their extinction. If that’s right – if the concept of citizenship is indeed fruitful here – then we’re talking about a cooperative relationship that involves both rights and responsibilities. Therefore, it’s part of the task of a theory of citizenship for domesticated animals to think about what kinds of cooperation are permissible and what kinds of responsibilities all members have as parts of this cooperative scheme. In other words, we’re interested in identifying forms of cooperation that are equally responsive to the interests and inclinations of all the members, human and non-human, of this cooperative scheme.

An illustration by concrete example would definitely be fruitful too!

I’m coming to that! At one end of the continuum, we would have activities like tracking a lost child in the woods by a hound dog. Tracking scent is what hounds like to do and it’s something that doesn’t require extensive training and suppression of their natural instincts. The case of a show-jumping horse may be different. It seems to us that training horses to engage in these cooperative activities with humans typically involves “breaking” them. It’s a coercive process that fundamentally requires fighting against the natural instincts of horses. So far as we can tell, that’s not the case with tracking dogs. We don’t have to break tracking dogs.

I’m wondering about guide dogs. I think their case would be similar to the one of horses?

Probably, yes. We would have to look a range of criteria – how coercive the training is, whether the animals seem to enjoy the activity, how much it interferes with their ability to socialize with other animals or with humans, or with their time for leisure, for enjoying and exploring the world. This is a  issue, because many people want to believe that the relationship between a blind human and a guide dog is a loving and a caring one. But if we consider the case in its entirety and from an unbiased anti-speciesist perspective, it may start to look more like a form of slavery.

A related question that’s probably of interest to many vegans is whether it’s conceivable that forms of milk or egg production could meet stringent criteria of justice?

It’s hard to see any prospect for a morally acceptable commercial dairy industry. The economics of dairy production seem to depend almost entirely on harming animals. Having a steady supply of surplus milk that you can then sell requires keeping the cows pregnant, separating them from their calves, and what do you do with the male offspring? We see no prospect for commercial dairy and egg production. Sue and I are both vegans and in the current world, the vegan imperative is clear. But one could imagine that in a future utopian world, humans would care for cows or chickens in a way that meets stringent tests of justice and that generates, as a product, a limited supply of milk or eggs as part of a companionate relationship, but not a commercial one.

So you’re rejecting the abolitionist claim that any kind of use as a resource is necessarily wrong?

It’s part of the ethos of citizenship that in a just society, work is a natural and desirable expression of participation and community, quite compatible with viewing individuals as ends, not means. Indeed, refusing to make any use of the labour or products of someone is often evidence that you don’t view them as a co-citizen, and is a marker of discrimination and injustice. (Think of the way women or minorities were excluded from certain jobs, or the segregation of people with disabilities from the labour force). So the fact that a domesticated animal is contributing labour or products is not, in and of itself, evidence of exploitation. Social animals (human and other) thrive on having tasks, meaningful activity, and opportunities for cooperative social endeavour. In the current world, almost all animal labour is coerced and exploitative. But under conditions of justice, it could be a legitimate and desirable dimension of their full recognition and participation as citizens.

But you would say that domesticating these animals was a severe injustice in the first place? And should we really preserve species that suffer as a consequence of over-breeding? How could we correct for that injustice?

Domestication involved confining animals, and controlling their breeding activity to adapt them to suit our purposes. It was wrong both in motivation (to turn them into more useful resources) and in action (violations of liberty and autonomy). So the history of domestication violated fundamental basic rights. But the question for us, today, is what do we do about this inherited injustice? Think about sheep who have been bred in ways that are unhealthy for them. They’ve been bred to maximize their wool production, i.e. in ways that create more skin folds so that there is more space for the wool, and that’s detrimental to their health. Some abolitionists would argue we should sterilize them so that they become extinct. Others argue we should force them to breed in a way that reverses their skin-fold problem. Both these proposals, on our view, fail to respect the basic rights of sheep, including their rights of movement and association. Forced sterilization and forced breeding are both morally objectionable. However, it is possible that in a non-invasive and non-coercive way we can help reverse the problem. It might be acceptable for us to set up circumstances in which the available pool of mates is tilted towards choices that would help mitigate the detrimental effects of historical breeding. So the process would be indirectly shaped by humans. We wouldn’t determine that on this day this sheep is going to breed with that sheep – that sort of selective breeding can only be done in a very coercive way. But one could opt for more indirect intervention. After all, no one has access to an infinite pool of mates, and so it may be appropriate for humans to shape the composition of the pool of animals within which mating choices of individual sheep are made.

What if we didn’t control the mating process but used future biotechnology to alter the genes of these animals as non-coercively as possible?

First of all, it’s not clear how biotechnology can be developed without direct harms to the individual animals who are used in the experimental stages. Moreover, we should start from strong assumptions about the bodily integrity of animals. We mustn’t think of any animal as simply a tool that we can manipulate to improve the species down the road. If there were a form of gene therapy that was non-coercive and actually made life better for that individual animal – and not just as a long term goal to improve the breed – then it might be permissible. That would be not unlike other forms of medical treatment that could be justified in the interests of that animal.

I’m not sure I understand the logic of “making life better for an individual” vs. “for the species”. The species is a bunch of individuals. And the only way of making life better for the future individuals is by modifying the present one. Wouldn’t deciding not to do it be deciding that the present animal counts for more than all its children combined? Can that be just?

Consider the human analogy. Would we implement this sort of intervention in the case of humans? Would we force a human individual to undergo potentially harmful gene therapy because it would benefit future generations? I know there are some ethicists who say that we should be engaging in this kind of “enhancement” of humans. But I think most of us would agree that benefits to descendants do not justify harming current individuals, and if we wouldn’t do this to humans we shouldn’t do it to animals. Moreover, I would argue that this whole way of thinking violates the ethos of a citizenship model, which requires that we renounce our dispositions towards coercion and domination. It’s really important to ask of any proposal: is this consistent with an ethos of citizenship, an ethos of equal membership? It’s not just about acknowledging suffering, but about a certain way of thinking of our relationship with animals as co-members of a shared community. So I worry that this push for enhancement – even if done to reverse some of the effects of unjust prior breeding – is at odds with citizenship. Dworkin once said that the ethos of equality is about taking individuals as they are and treating them as equals, which is very different from the idea of changing individuals so that, once changed, they become equals. There is a strong assumption that we need to take individuals as they are, who are members of our community, and figure out how to treat them as equals.

The “take them as they are” heuristic sounds plausible when it comes to ensuring the well-being of present beings, but I’d worry about its consequences for the well-being of future populations… Speaking of populations: If domesticated animals went extinct as a consequence of us going vegan, would you regard that as a problem?

I do not think that species as such have claims of justice, apart from the claims of justice we owe to their individual members. There may be reasons independent of justice for regretting that species go extinct. I could well imagine society deciding that it would be a tragedy of some sort (a loss of beauty, or meaning, or history, or possibility) if this or that species of domesticated animal went extinct. And so we would as a society commit ourselves to creating sanctuaries or other forms of just co-existence. I know of vegans who look after rescued cows or rescued chickens, and who value their relationship to those individual animals. So even if we all went vegan tomorrow, I don’t think it would lead to extinction.

But to isolate the normative point again, suppose you could either save the last two pandas or a thousand cows. You said you could envisage society viewing extinction as a tragedy, but should it?

You would need to describe the case in more detail. We certainly can’t kill 1000 cows to save two pandas, just as we can’t kill humans to save pandas. The rights of individuals constrain how we pursue the good of species preservation. But if the question is about the relative value of cows or pandas going extinct, then I would see both as a tragic loss. There’s a view in some of the animal rights literature that domesticated animals are somehow artificial because they have been bred by humans in ways that make them dependent on us, which is considered degrading and unnatural and inauthentic. I think that whole way of thinking is wrong and pernicious. There is nothing inherently unnatural or degrading about some beings having relations of dependence or interdependence with others. From the point of view of justice, we absolutely need to get away from that thought. Dependence is a feature of the human condition, and it’s a feature of various relationships amongst people and animals. So if there’s a reason to regret the loss of the giant panda, there’s a reason to regret the loss of cows and sheep. They’re all, in their own way, unique and interesting beings, and something is lost to the world when any species goes extinct. What’s wrong has been the way in which we relate to domesticated animals – but in and of themselves they’re not degraded.

Would you agree that if species extinction means that something of moral importance is lost, then new species creation means that something of moral importance is gained?

Well, as I noted earlier, I don’t think that species as such have claims of justice. So while there may be an important value in preserving species, I wouldn’t describe it as a demand of justice. And, conversely, no potential species has a claim of justice to be created.  In this sense, I’m an old-fashioned Rawlsian. Rawls says that “justice is the first virtue of social institutions”, and I agree. So I’m interested in figuring out what justice requires. And I think it’s perfectly possible that even if justice is upheld, some species will go extinct, while other species emerge through normal processes of genetic evolution. There’s always an on-going process in nature by which different animals are competing for resources, some will just out-reproduce others, and it would be strange to take the existing catalogue of species as sacred and say that in perpetuity we neither add one nor reduce one. The goal of our theory is not to maximize the value of biodiversity – or indeed to maximize any other value – but to uphold our duties of justice.