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Will Kymlicka on Animal Denizens and Foreigners in the Wilderness – Interview Part 2

on December 11. 2014

The first part of the interview was focused 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.

Wildbeast_MigrationThe 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.

We’ve been gravitating away from the topic of our animal co-citizens. Let’s complete the anti-speciesist’s political map. Who else is on it?

The second big category in our theory – after domesticated animals – is wilderness animals. Today, they are subject to human invasion, colonization, displacement and habitat destruction. We often treat their lands as terra nullius which we can pollute, degrade and occupy without justification.

So this raises the question: How can we prevent this injustice? In the case of human colonization, we attempt to block this kind of aggression through recognition of the rights of “peoples” to their own territory, and to autonomy on that territory. Principles of sovereignty regulate relations between different peoples or states. They accord bounded political communities a right to maintain themselves as viable societies on their traditional territories. Sovereignty offers protection from outsiders who would expel peoples, steal their land and resources, turn them into client states, or impose unfair burdens on them, such as cross-border pollution. Sovereignty also provides a secure basis from which to negotiate fair terms of cooperation, e.g. trade and mobility rights, and forms of assistance or intervention which do not undermine autonomy. So the same principles should apply to wilderness animals?

That’s right. Wild animal communities should be seen as having a sovereign “right to place” that blocks human aggression. More generally, our relations with these communities should be governed by norms of international justice – a true “law of peoples” between human and wild animal communities – rather than by brute force. Of course, as with “citizenship” for domesticated animals, enacting “sovereignty” for wilderness animals requires some creative adaptation. While some wilderness animals live in discrete habitats, other free-living animals migrate over extensive areas. So we’ll need new models of partial, overlapping and sub-state sovereignty rights. But in fact we can already find precedents for these models in the human case, along with ideas of mobility corridors and international commons, which can help address these complexities in ways that uphold underlying rights to territory and autonomy.

We’ve now got the domesticated animal co-citizens, which are part of our community, and wilderness animals, which form their own sovereign communities. Are there further basic categories that a political theory of animal rights would propose?

Yes, we have one more basic category. Not all animals can be neatly categorized as either our co-citizens (i.e. as full members of a shared cooperative scheme), or as members of some other sovereign society (i.e. as other nations occupying distinct territories). Think about rats, mice, squirrels, crows, raccoons, pigeons and many others. They live amongst us, but unlike domesticated animals do not cooperate with us, and are not part of a shared cooperative scheme. We call these “liminal” animals – the non-domesticated free-living animals who live amongst us, rather than on their own sovereign territory. Currently, these liminal animals have no protection from human violence. They are treated as pests and invaders, and are ruthlessly killed or expelled. In this respect, they share similar vulnerabilities to groups of liminal humans who live amongst us without participating in a common citizenship, including migrant workers, foreign visitors, or isolationist religious groups such as the Amish. They are all vulnerable to being stigmatized and exploited.

That’s very interesting – it’s the insightful human analogy again. Let me guess how the cat jumps: The protection of liminal animals will be modelled after the politico-legal protection of liminal humans?

Indeed, that’s our approach. In the human case, these residents who are unable or unwilling to become our co-citizens are sometimes called “denizens”, and this is the term we propose for liminal animals. It is possible that, over time, some liminal denizens – human or animal – will express an interest in becoming citizens. However, many denizens do not wish to become citizens, but prefer a looser relationship of tolerant co-existence involving fewer mutual obligations. We think this is particularly true of animal denizens. It is doubtful that they would benefit from – or be capable of – being incorporated into the kinds of cooperative citizenship relations we can have with domesticated animals. Co-citizenship provides robust rights of provision and protection, but it also imposes robust obligations to adhere to citizenship norms, such as refraining from killing, theft or destruction, and otherwise imposing undue burdens on other citizens. To incorporate liminal animals into these civic norms would require massive coercion and interference in their ways of life. Consider the sparrow in our back yard. To protect her from hawks, owls, racoons and other animals – which is a duty we would have to her as a co-citizen – would mean segregating her from them in some kind of cage. That would be a dreadful trade-off: the reduced risk is not worth the loss of liberty. What non-domesticated animals living amongst us need is secure denizenship: they need to be protected from our violence and our refusal to recognize their secure rights of residency, but they do not need or want to become dependent on us for their protection and welfare. They need tolerant co-existence or conviviality rather than intimate cooperation.

So there’s domesticated co-citizens, liminal denizens, and wild sovereign foreigners. I’d like to zoom in on the latter. What does the “sovereign nation” or “state” in the wilderness actually refer to? A population of individuals belonging to the same species? Or an ecosystem? And is the wilderness meaningfully able to “self-govern”?

In order to answer that question, we need to step back and ask a deeper question in political philosophy about the nature and function of rights, such as sovereignty rights. I think of rights, whether for humans or animals, as being mechanisms for addressing injustices. So if we’re trying to figure out how to define or implement a particular right, we need to take a step back and ask what is the injustice that that right is intended to be a protection against. So in the case of animals in the wilderness, the first question is what are the injustices in the relationship between human political communities and wild animals in the wilderness? Our argument is that these injustices include taking over their territory, colonizing their territory, settling on their territory and displacing them onto what is then the territory of some other set of wild animals, creating chains of conflict, and undermining the ecological fabric they depend on. And that chain of injustices is structurally similar to the chain of injustices that we’ve imposed on indigenous peoples through the process of European colonialism. The remedy, in both cases, is sovereignty: assigning sovereignty is an effective way to block a standard form of injustice.

You’re emphasizing the territory. But do we have a “community” on wilderness territory or rather a highly conflictual struggle for life?

Relations amongst the wild animals who live on a particular territory can obviously be conflictual – some of them will be predators, some of them will be prey – and in that sense they do not form a “community”. They all nevertheless have a shared interest in ensuring that the territory they live on is immune from these processes of colonization and conquest and displacement. They don’t have sovereignty rights because they’ve achieved some level of communal harmony or shared identity, but because they share a common need, and face a common injustice. In that sense, we could say that all of the different animal species on that territory each have sovereignty rights that they pool together, or you could say that it’s a sovereignty right that belongs collectively to them as participants in the same ecosystem. Since the function of sovereignty rights is to remedy injustice, we can and should be flexible in the way we assign these sovereignty rights, so as to best protect against those injustices.

You mentioned predation, and on the list of harms that wild animals suffer on a large scale there’s also natural disasters, thirst, hunger, injuries, parasitism and diseases that all go untreated. That presses the question: Are animals in Darwinian ecosystems meaningfully able to self-organize and “self-govern”? Could there be “failed states” in the wilderness and corresponding duties to “humanitarian intervention”?

This is an important question. From our perspective, every sentient being has interests that are morally significant. The fact that animals are in the wilderness does not mean that we can be indifferent to their suffering. It matters morally that there’s a lot of suffering in the wilderness, in nature. So how should we respond to it? We don’t propose a blanket prohibition on intervention to prevent or reduce suffering in nature, but it’s important that any interventions we undertake not lead to a situation in which wilderness animals are placed under a kind of permanent paternalistic management in which we take over responsibility for feeding and sheltering them. Imagine you could guarantee a food supply for a species in the wild. The inevitable result would be that their reproduction would dramatically increase, and this would have knock on effects for other species, who we would then have to intervene to protect. Interventions would lead to greater and greater interventions which then lead to a system of human management where we are basically turning wilderness into a zoo, where we put each species into its own fenced in space (to protect it from predators) and its own guaranteed food supply (to protect it from hunger). That’s what we want to reject, and not just on the grounds it is impracticable, but as a fundamental violation of the right of wild animals to live autonomously and to pursue their own ways of life. We do however allow “one off interventions” that don’t lead to this chain of ever-more invasive and controlling interventions. If there are specific threats that animals are not competent to manage on their own and that could have devastating effects – like a new parasite or bacteria that’s about to devastate an ecosystem – and we could effectively intervene with a vaccine then we should do so. This sort of one-off intervention supports wild animals’ sovereignty by protecting their long-term ability to live autonomously, and reduces suffering without turning nature into a zoo.

One criticism of your view could be that we can think of human culture as a massive set of historically grown interventions – a managed “zoo” – that we benefit from. There’s no reason to assume that a Darwinian situation is optimal or even acceptable for the conscious beings evolution produced, for evolution didn’t optimize for well-being. And if we want human animals to benefit from managed non-Darwinian welfare “zoos”, wouldn’t it be speciesist to deny other animals this privilege?

In the case of humans and domesticated animals, we can protect them from predation, natural disasters, from food shortages, diseases etc., without drastically compromising their freedom and flourishing. That’s the function of the welfare state, and we argue its protective functions should extend to all members of our cooperative society, which includes domesticated animals. If you try to extend that to non-domesticated animals, however, protecting them from risks of predation or starvation would require massive restrictions on their liberties. We would need to regulate where and how they live, what they eat, how they reproduce, what risks they undertake – in effect, to start domesticating them. You may be right that after many generations of such a domestication process, future generations of what are currently wild animals might be happy to have become part of a well-managed zoo. And I certainly agree evolution didn’t optimize for well-being. But as we discussed earlier, we cannot sacrifice existing generations of wild animals in order to try to bring out about some potentially more optimal future zoo animals. So I agree we should ask the question whether any non-domesticated animal would choose to give up some liberties to gain access to the welfare state. But we need to ask that trade-off of existing animals, not whether the trade-off pays off several generations down the road.

One could also argue that – as with humans – a welfare state might increase their overall (positive) liberty, i.e. their being able to do what they want to do.

In thinking about how a welfare state impacts on liberty, we need to distinguish domesticated and non-domesticated animals. As discussed earlier, domestication was a coercive and unjust process, but the result has been to create animals who today no longer need to be coerced in order to cooperate with us, and can flourish in community with us. Relatively mild forms of socialization are sufficient to ensure that they can comply with shared norms, including norms of civility, non-harm, regulation of behaviour that frightens or burdens others, and so on. The stability of the welfare state – indeed of “society” in any form – depends entirely on the fact that we can trust each other to comply with such norms. With non-domesticated animals, however, many of their natural instincts and autonomous ways of life violate these norms, and it would be a massively coercive, long term process to change them so that their lives are compatible with membership in welfare state/society. We see no evidence that wild animals want this, and lots of good evidence to the contrary. Think about wild animals in existing zoos: you might think they have lots of “positive liberty” since their welfare needs are guaranteed. In fact, most are miserable, and in many cases suffer psychological illnesses. They resist and try to escape. We need to pay attention to what animals indicate about their preferences about how to live, and to recognize that there may be dimensions to their flourishing in the wild, despite all the attendant risks, which we don’t fully appreciate. We know quite a bit about how animals suffer, but we have a very impoverished understanding of the positive dimensions of their flourishing, and how this relates to free movement, territorial range, free association, environmental complexity, the tasks and challenges of living in the wild, and so on.

Let’s take an intervention like feeding predators in-vitro meat – maybe we could even make an in-vitro meat robot flee. Would there be any reason not to do that? As for pro reasons, one might adduce that being preyed upon violates negative rights, and that we wouldn’t hesitate to stop predators from preying upon humans, which provides an antispeciesist reason to act similarly when non-humans are concerned.

Again, I would just restate that we need to think about the logic of intervention, and whether it inevitably leads to ever-greater confinement and coercion. If I’m hiking and I see a predator about to attack a prey animal, and if by making some noise I can prevent this from happening, I think that is a normal human response and would not undermine the viability of an independent wild animal community. But if we are imagining interventions to reduce predation on a large scale – and not just to protect one animal from a one-off threat – then I think it will inevitably generate a chain of ever increasing intervention. The interdependence of natural systems is such that predation is not just an isolated dynamic that you could pull out and stop and leave other natural processes untouched. To prevent predation we would also need to control reproduction and mobility, and regulate the ways animals associate with each other within and across species. Life on earth, at multiple levels, depends on relations of predation and the recycling of energy. We don’t see credible prospects of being able to intervene in that on a large scale.

Is there a tension between preventing individual cases of predation – and thus acknowledging that it is a problem – but excluding more systematic ways that could really address it? It may be a bit like favoring the prevention of inter-human violence, starvation and disease on an individual basis, but not systematically. Consider species with many offspring. This reproductive pattern seems to be the prevalent one in Darwinian nature. And the term “(catastrophically) failed state” would seem appropriate when more than 9 out of 10 individuals die horrible deaths shortly after birth. Some have argued that the duty to prevent these countless miserable lives dominates and we shouldn’t primarily research zoo-management technology but rather ways to safely reduce the number of wild animals. If it’s true that wild animals aren’t better off than the animals exploited by us, and if veganism is the reduction of the latter’s number, then the reduction of the former’s number may not be too far-fetched either. It may involve risks and harms, but doing nothing results in certain catastrophes too. So paradoxically and by chance, many wild animal populations might have an interest in our colonizing their territory…

I agree that many wilderness animals suffer miserable short lives, and that this matters morally. If we want a credible animal rights theory we can’t just say “Let them be!” or “Leave them alone!” as a kind of magical slogan that solves all the issues. The “let them be” sentiment is understandable given how horrendously humans have treated non-human animals in the past. But it would be implausible as a general theory of animal rights. “Let them be” would amount to a rejection of all duties to aid, and that is speciesist unless we also reject all duties to aid humans, which hardly anyone does. So I agree that in the case of species that have huge numbers of offspring and do not care for them, but just hope that a few survive to adulthood, there is a prima facie case for saying that this is an on-going moral tragedy – this is a kind of chronically “failed state” where the community is not able to care at all for most of its members. So I agree that in the case of species that reproduce in this way, our principled argument for rights of sovereignty is weak. However, that still leaves lots of pragmatic empirical arguments against intervention. After all, other animals have evolved to benefit from the fact that there are such species. They depend for their life on eating all of these offspring that don’t live very long. So there’s always this risk that if you somehow changed the reproductive strategy of frogs so that they didn’t have hundreds of tadpoles, then you may have to figure out some alternative food supply for the fish and birds and mammals that preyed upon those tadpoles. And then we’re back to the ever-escalating chain of intervention that violates the sovereignty rights of those animals who can truly benefit from sovereignty.

Professor Kymlicka, thank you for this interview!