SEI News: Q+A with Honours Fellow Hal Conyngham

Get to know one of the Institute’s new Honours Research Fellows, Hal Conyngham, from the Department of Philosophy.

Image by Anggi Nurjaman

What are you researching for Honours?

My research revolves around human/animal relations. In particular, I’m interested in non-dangerous animal labour: the employment of guide dogs, detection dogs, pack animals, and the like. While these uses of working animals are less severe than, for instance, factory farming, the animals are nonetheless made to work, usually without consent. Drawing from political philosophy and theory my thesis will examine the justifiability, or lack thereof, of animals’ non-dangerous labour.

I will explore whether the use of working animals is inherently exploitative, or if matters such as harmful training practices are the obstacles to ethical procedures. My research will also analyse the legitimacy of blanket exclusion of domesticated animals from working, and the interaction of this with their agency and their position in society. Tentatively, I’ll be looking at the extent to which freedom and consent play a role in the exploitation of working animals, specifically freedom of movement and lack of choice in whether, and how, to work.

My thesis will also consider ways in which animals might communicate their preferences or consent regarding labour, and possible methods for humans to read and understand those preferences. That is, it will ask whether or not there is an ethical avenue for domesticated animals to work without exploitation.

What are the key environmental issues your work aims to address?

There has been substantial work done on issues such as factory farming and animal medical testing, but there are also widely accepted ways in which domesticated animals work for, and perhaps with, humans. While this labour is often non-dangerous, it is still the case that animals are working for the benefit of humans, and that their interests are underconsidered.

The major area to which my thesis will contribute is justice between nonhuman and human animals. I aim to explore the area through considering animals’ own perspectives and preferences, to find a bilateral approach which is inclusive of the preferences of both parties. This is particularly important when examining certain kinds of working animals such as guide dogs or emotional support animals, as the needs of both the animal and the human must be borne in mind.

What was the inspiration behind your Honours research?

I was raised vegetarian, and therefore I’ve been aware of issues surrounding animal ethics my whole life. A couple of years ago I became interested in political and moral philosophy specifically, both due to courses I’ve taken during my degree, and also through other books and conversations. Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy particularly had an impact on me, and it was the first time I’d seen animals explored as political agents, rather than just political subjects (or, as completely apolitical).

Working animals sit in an interesting place, as they’re not necessarily violently mistreated (especially when it comes to dogs), but cashing out their own interests and rights is nonetheless incumbent.

Apart from research, what are your passions & interests?

The major way I relax after working is through music. I’ve played the piano since I was young and it lets me switch my brain off for a while. On the weekends I teach English and philosophy to some high school classes. I enjoy teaching, and these classes in particular are fairly relaxed as I’ve had the students for around two years.

What about SEI made you interested in completing Honours Fellowship with us?

Over the past year I’ve attended several of the Sydney Environment Institute’s events as well as attending the Reading Environments reading group and, more recently, the Multispecies Justice HDR Group. I’ve come on board as co-facilitator of the former, and have enjoyed working within the SEI banner. The FASS research initiative on Multispecies Justice is particularly interesting and relevant to my research, and there are some great academics working in the group. I think it’s a very exciting time to come on board. Also, having a desk space is incredible—I’ve seen an increase in productivity after just a couple of weeks.

Hal Conyngham is an Honours student in the University of Sydney’s philosophy department. Her thesis examines the political issues surrounding working animals, and explores the possible paths to creating an ethical framework for animal labour. Hal’s research interests include the intersections of animal studies and political philosophy, climate change in the context of international relations, and youth voting. She co-facilitates Reading Environments, and is a member of the Multispecies Justice HDR group.