Opinion

Social Justice for Animals

Guy Scotton and Dinesh Wadiwel explore the work of Canadian Professor Will Kymlicka’s book, Zoopolis, co-authored with Sue Donaldson. They propose a new way of thinking about animal rights and makes an argument for animal citizenship.

Image by mhLecaros, Sourced: Flickr CC

In scholarship and activism alike, rethinking our relationships with nonhuman animals is inevitably and urgently political. Interest in animal welfare issues is rising within Australian public discourse, with everything from live exports, caged eggs, marine parks, and the use of whips in horse racing occupying news headlines. Despite this attention, animal rights remain on the fringes of mainstream political dialogue and social justice movements. Against a backdrop of growing global demand for meat, and record per-capita consumption of animal products, critics such as Gary Francione have argued that welfare-oriented regulations are the velvet glove concealing increasingly intensive industrial exploitation.

Will Kymlicka is no stranger to the themes of social justice. He has made profound contributions to multiculturalism in political philosophy, and more recently he has directed his expertise in citizenship theory towards the animal rights debate. In 2011 Kymlicka, in collaboration with Sue Donaldson, published an important new take on contemporary animal rights theory, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (Oxford University Press, 2011). The book has energised conversation between political theorists, animal scholars and activists of all stripes.

One reason for Zoopolis’s lively reception is surely the conceptual daring of arguing that human polities should incorporate domesticated animals as citizens. For many people engaged with political movements, particularly those fighting to achieve basic rights for humans, it must appear ambitious to imagine affording citizenship rights to animals. On the other hand, for animal rights advocates, contemplating citizenship for animals may seem an easy target for derision within a movement that is still struggling for legitimacy.

Yet Donaldson and Kymlicka stake out their theory as a way forward from the failure of animal advocacy and theory to achieve decisive changes in the moral status of animals. As they put it: “for the foreseeable future, we can expect more and more animals every year to be bred, confined, tortured, exploited, and killed to satisfy human desires” (2). Donaldson and Kymlicka’s concern with traditional animal rights approaches is that they focus on negative rights (“non-interference” rights such as rights to bodily integrity), failing to develop positive rights reflecting animals’ different potentials for social and political participation within human societies.

The challenge, as Donaldson and Kymlicka point out, is that humans currently live their lives interconnected with many domesticated animals (in societies such as Australia and the United States, a clear majority of households now consider their animal companions to be members of the family). Rights approaches, then, should foster the social inclusion and participation of these animals, while still upholding the basic liberties of all animals.

It is Donaldson and Kymlicka’s attention to these opportunities for intersubjectivity between species which animates their forward-looking commitment to “identify not just the sacrifices that justice demands of us, but also the rewarding new relationships that justice makes possible.” (255) This, we think, is what makes the book a potential landmark in advancing the animal rights debate. Zoopolis is dedicated to envisioning non-dominating encounters with members of other species as embodied individuals: “of recognizing animals as persons, and also as friends, as co-citizens, and as members of communities – ours and theirs.” (40)

Donaldson and Kymlicka are keenly aware of the potential intersections between social justice questions of how we treat animals and how we might treat other humans. The relation between stigma, exclusion and social justice flickered into view recently with the installation of metal studs outside a central London apartment building, leaving many outraged that “homeless people were being treated like vermin because similar metal spikes are used to deter pigeons.” There are, of course, no simple parallels between contempt for pigeons and the degradation of homeless humans, but both cases call for the reflection which Zoopolis motivates on the ways in which public spaces are shaped by preconceptions, omissions, and forceful exclusions.

In challenging the “cultural blindness” of animal rights theory to different patterns of human-animal relations (65), Zoopolis leaves many questions open. The socialisation and political representation of domesticated animal citizens sketched in the book is not a static bill of rights and duties, but “an ongoing process with unpredictable outcomes.” (122) Looming over this account are the perennial questions of social justice – how do we integrate theory with political action to make enduring change?  In shifting animal rights from the margins to the centre as a core social justice issue, how will the movement for interspecies justice build coalitions with other causes? And how should we confront entrenched industries and deep cultural narratives of human supremacy?

This “political impasse”, Donaldson and Kymlicka suggest in their conclusion, “is considerably more daunting” than the conceptual renovation of animal rights theory (252). They have pursued some of these challenges in subsequent papers, probing contemporary left theory and advocacy’s “persistent indifference to human violence against animals”, and calling for a deeper engagement between animal rights advocacy and the perspectives and interests of Aboriginal communities. In all these directions, the conversation about animals and social justice has just begun.

Professor Will Kymlicka will be presenting a public lecture as part of Sydney Ideas on 5th  August 2014, cosponsored by the Human Animal Research Network and the Sydney Environment Institute.


Guy Scotton is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney

Dinesh Wadiwel is a lecturer in human rights and socio-legal studies and Director of the Master of Human Rights, with a background in social and political theory. He has had over 15 years experience working within civil society organisations, including in anti-poverty and disability rights roles.