The Journal of Value Inquiry

, Volume 46, Issue 4, pp 503–510 | Cite as

Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka. Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights

Oxford University Press, 2011, 329 pp. $29.95 (Hardback), ISBN 9780199599660
Book Review

Since the publication of Peter Singer’s influential Animal Liberation (1975), the philosophical world has witnessed a considerable shift in thinking about our obligations to animals. But in spite of this intellectual shift, the idea of animal rights has won few converts, and in light of this, it is unclear how the intellectual project should proceed. Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka argue in their recent book, Zoopolis, that the impasse is partly a consequence of the limited theoretical framework in which the animal rights debate has been conducted. Seeking to do justice to the intrinsic moral status of animals, theorists have focused mostly on our negative obligations to animals, such as the obligation not to kill, at the expense of exploring our positive obligations to animals, such as the obligation to provide medical care. The abolitionist view of Gary Francione, for instance, holds that we respect animal rights by leaving them alone—ending all further interaction (p. 78). But as to what more we might owe animals, the view is silent.

To overcome the impasse typified by Francione’s view, Donaldson and Kymlicka propose that we situate our thinking about animal rights in an explicitly political framework, one that takes seriously ideas of citizenship, justice, and human rights. Ultimately, they argue that our relationships to animals—domesticated, wild, and otherwise—can be illuminatingly captured by citizenship theory. The work is of interest to both sides of the animal rights issue. On the one hand, to animal rights theorists, Zoopolis offers a radical extension of traditional accounts of animal rights, while challenging some of its unexamined assumptions. On the other hand, to skeptics of animal rights, it offers either a more plausible framework in which to discuss the issue, or a full-blown reductio of taking animal rights seriously in the first place.

Before getting into the details of the argument, it is worthwhile to survey its general strategy and steps. Taking for the sake of argument the universal basic rights of animals, namely, rights against torture, experimentation, imprisonment, ownership, or being killed, Donaldson and Kymlicka purport to offer a more plausible alternative to traditional animal rights theory, without abandoning its core principles (p. 49). Thus, the theory stands or falls on it proving superior to rival accounts of animal rights considered by themselves.

The relevant desideratum of an extended theory of animal rights is whether it can illuminate and ground positive obligations to animals. Here, Donaldson and Kymlicka combine the universal basic rights view to articulate our negative obligations to animals, with a relational view to articulate and integrate our positive obligations. This relational view, they then argue, is best captured by citizenship theory, in both the human and animal case, an analogy that carries throughout the work. From citizenship theory, we get three basic moral categories of relationships: (1) citizenship, which is accorded to domesticated animals, (2) residency of sovereign territory, which is accorded to wild animals, and (3) denizenship, which is accorded to what they call liminal animals, that is, non-domesticated animals living in human communities. For each category, Donaldson and Kymlicka devote a chapter to exploring the relevant structures, principles, and implications of conceiving our relationships to animals in such a way. In spite of its neat appearance, however, this tripartite framework is far from rigid and leaves ample room for further development and refinement. The details, then, are not presented as a settled matter, but are somewhat exploratory in nature. Indeed, the main thrust of Zoopolis is primarily in support of the political framework, rather than for a set of fixed practical conclusions.

Before the details of the theory are laid out, Donaldson and Kymlicka offer the reader a general case for thinking of animals as bearers of universal basic rights. This serves as both a recap of where the debate over animal rights stands and as the preamble for the more original part of the work, the application of citizenship theory to animals. Their case for recognizing the inviolable rights of animals rests on the basic premise that all creatures with a subjective existence, that is, beings that are conscious or sentient, possess inviolable rights. Having a subjective existence is the crucial condition for moral status, according to Donaldson and Kymlicka. A being with a subjective existence is a conscious, sentient being: “they have a distinctive subjective experience of their own lives and of the world,” or as they sometimes put it, “there is someone home” (p. 25). Sentience, then, is sufficient for self-hood, and crucially, they claim, self-hood is sufficient for personhood. We can thus think of animals as moral persons in the relevant sense.

The predictable response to this view, of course, is that sentience is not sufficient for personhood. Some kind of complex cognitive functioning is also required, as a Kantian might argue. To this, Donaldson and Kymlicka employ the familiar argument from marginal cases, but they do so in an original and insightful way. The argument from marginal cases states that if we withhold personhood from animals on account of their deficient cognitive abilities, then we must also, if we are consistent, withhold personhood from children, the mentally disabled, and some of the elderly. But that implication is plainly unacceptable, so cognitive requirements must not be necessary for personhood. Donaldson and Kymlicka accept that argument, but, they point out, the situation is actually worse for cognitive conceptions of personhood, since “the capacity for Kantian moral agency is, at best, a fragile achievement that humans have to varying degrees at varying points in their lives” (p. 26). To make this the criteria for personhood, then, is to render vulnerable the very beings that inviolable rights are meant to protect. We should therefore accept that sentience is sufficient for intrinsic moral status.

But inviolable rights, grounded in intrinsic moral status, need not be absolute and exceptionless. For instance, killing humans or animals in self-defense is plainly permissible, and historical circumstances have been such that killing animals was once necessary for human survival, which, the authors point out, raises an important general point about justice. This is that justice “only applies in certain circumstances—what Rawls (following Hume) calls the ‘circumstances of justice’,” meaning resources are scarce, but not so severely that cooperation would be impossible (p. 41). Hence, there can be no injustice in cases where we are not in the circumstances of justice with animals. But, they note, “[t]oday, most of us are no longer in the circumstances that would justify imprisoning and killing animals for food, labour, or clothing” (p. 41). Consequently, justice applies and we must recognize animals’ inviolable rights.

The next stage of the argument is to show that citizenship theory can bring conceptual order to the diversity of our relationships to animals. Standing in the way of this move is the claim that due to their inability to engage in political participation, animals are not eligible for the kinds of responsibilities that come with the rights of citizenship. To push back against this claim, Donaldson and Kymlicka argue that it is actually based on a misunderstanding about the nature and function of citizenship in the human case. First, citizenship functions to allocate individuals rights to reside in particular states. This is the right of nationality. Second, citizenship functions as a representation of the will and interests of the people. It forms the basis of a conception of political legitimacy: popular sovereignty. Lastly, citizenship includes democratic agency as a means through which popular sovereignty is exercised, that is, through “rights of political dissent, political mobilization, and free political debate” (p. 56).

Now, if we take the capacity for all three functions to be jointly necessary and sufficient for citizenship, as public reason theories do, then animals are ruled out. But this is too quick. According to Donaldson and Kymlicka, while animals cannot participate in democratic agency, neither can some humans who fall below the threshold of rationality required for political participation. But, we do not conclude from this that some humans are not citizens. On the contrary, we instead conclude that “[t]he capacity for political agency is neither necessary nor sufficient for citizenship in these first two senses [nationality and popular sovereignty]” (p. 57). Animal citizenship, then, need only include the functions of nationality and popular sovereignty. Finally, in order to include the representation of animal interests and supplement their lack of democratic agency, Donaldson and Kymlicka develop an account of dependent agency following similar developments in the contemporary disability movement. In this way, the challenges we face in constructing accounts of animal rights are coextensive with the broader human rights movement.

Having laid the theoretical groundwork, Part II of the book turns to applications of the theory. They begin with domesticated animals. Included in this heterogeneous group are pets, farm animals, and service animals. What is crucial is not what the animals do, but rather the fact of domestication itself. This is the feature that creates the particular relationship we have to domesticated animals, and the central political question here “is to explore the terms under which that relationship can be rendered just” (p. 73). Donaldson and Kymlicka argue that instead of settling with the idea that the original wrong of domestication is irredeemable, our relationship to domesticated animals can be made just by extending citizenship to domesticated animals, so that they become our co-citizens in a shared political community. In this way, citizenship for domesticated animals, they point out, is analogous to the appropriate moral response to the importation of slaves from Africa: it is made just by offering them full citizenship rights in the community into which they were brought against their will.

Again, the argument here is not that thinking of domesticated animals as our co-citizens can resolve all the ethical problems that arise within their relationship to us. But, they claim, the citizenship model is “more compelling and fruitful” than competing traditional theories of animal rights (p. 74). To take the starkest contrast, consider the abolitionist approach to domesticated animals. On this view, we should seek “the abolition of relations between humans and domesticated animals, and since domesticated animals can rarely survive on their own, this in effect means the extinction of domesticated species” (p. 77). The practical implication is that we take care of existing domesticated animals, but employ a policy of sterilization so that no more come into existence.

The problem with this approach, as Donaldson and Kymlicka point out, is that it seriously misunderstands our relationship to domesticated animals. For one, it doesn’t seem to follow that the best response to the wrong of domestication is the elimination of domesticated animals. Recall the analogy to slavery: the appropriate response to the injustice of bringing slaves to America from Africa was not to eliminate the slaves or return them to Africa; it was to grant them membership in the political community, to give them citizenship rights. So too, Donaldson and Kymlicka argue, in the case of animals. Given that ongoing relations with domesticated animals are inevitable, “[w]e need to start from the premise that humans and domesticated animals already form a shared community—we have brought domesticated animals into our society, and we owe them membership in it” (p. 100).

The details of domesticated animal citizenship are adumbrated in Chapter 5, where Donaldson and Kymlicka argue that citizenship better captures the moral and empirical aspects of a just relationship between humans and animals. Returning to the capacities required for citizenship, they draw on Rawls’s three moral powers required for citizenship: (1) the capacity to have and communicate a subjective good, (2) the capacity to comply with social norms, and (3) the capacity to participate in the co-authoring of laws (p. 103). Rather than challenge these requirements for citizenship, Donaldson and Kymlicka reinterpret them so that they require less stringent cognitive abilities, and can therefore be met by domesticated animals as well as all humans. We must first recognize that domesticated animals clearly have a capacity to have and communicate a subjective good. Anyone who has interacted with a loved companion animal can attest to this. Domesticated animals may not communicate by means of language, but it does not take much interpretation on our part to know what is good for them. Similarly, many domesticated animals, with appropriate training and socialization, are capable of following social norms and cooperating in a limited sense. Once we empower domesticated animals to have their interests taken into account via forms of dependent agency, we will have reconceived domesticated animals as our co-citizens, rather than as passive moral patients that we care for, but owe nothing further.

The remainder of the Chapter is given to some of the practical issues we face in treating domesticated animals as our co-citizens. Some highlights here include the reconfiguration of public space to accommodate domesticated animals’ positive claim to a range of mobility options, criminalizing harm to animals joined with duties to protect them as co-citizens, and limited acceptance of practices that use animal products or labour depending on whether they are engaged in on non-exploitative terms. There are several surprising implications here, in particular, that the burdensome level of training for seeing-eye dogs renders that relationship unjust. There are also tricky issues involving carnivorous companion animals and vegan diets. Readers keen on the intricacies of problems in animal ethics will find much to pore over.

But where does the foregoing leave other kinds of animals? Wild animals, for instance, are continually threatened by human intervention, but are not capable of the kind of relationships domesticated animals are. Donaldson and Kymlicka thus define wild animals as follows: “those living relatively free of direct human management and meeting their own needs for food, shelter, and social structure” (p. 156). In this case, they want to argue that citizenship is neither feasible, nor desirable for wild animals. It is not feasible because of the relationship we currently have with wild animals; it is not desirable because wild animals have an interest in remaining independent from human communities. We should, therefore, understand wild animals as sovereigns of their own territory rather than as our co-citizens, where our relations with them “should be regulated by norms of international justice” (p. 157).

These norms are necessary because while we have obligations not to harm or kill wild animals grounded in their intrinsic moral status, they remain vulnerable to other less direct harms having to do with habitat loss, spillover effects, and counter-productive positive interventions. In these areas, traditional animal rights theory, again, is incapable of providing guidance. For one, if animals have universal basic rights, we need to know why we aren’t obligated to interfere in the wild in order to save animals from predation. Donaldson and Kymlicka call this the “laissez-faire intuition”, and they claim we can explain it by understanding wild animal communities as sovereign territories, where sovereignty serves the moral purpose of providing a secure space in which wild animals can maintain their own forms of social organization, which they are uniquely capable of managing (p. 161).

But even if we conceive of wild animals as residents of their own sovereign territory, we still need a way to distinguish human territory from animal territory. The details here get complicated. For one thing, sovereign animal territory is likely to be multi-layered across species and geographic areas. We cannot draw strict boundaries between species, since many species migrate, and humans still require movement through animal territory. Donaldson and Kymlicka recognize this, noting that the crucial thing is that we (a) recognize animal territory as it currently exists, following the maxim of “this far and no further”, and (b) regulate human activity on animal territory on fair terms, accounting for risks and spillover effects we impose on animals by our actions (p. 194). Above all, however, “the key point is that territory is protected from external alien rule or depredations, and free internally to evolve along its own autonomous course” (p. 191).

Liminal animals comprise the final category of animal in Donaldson and Kymlicka’s citizenship framework. These are wild animals that live in our communities, but are not domesticated, for example, “squirrels, raccoons, rats, starlings, sparrows, gulls, peregrine falcons, and mice” (p. 210). In discussing this novel category of animals, Donaldson and Kymlicka insightfully challenge the well-entrenched dichotomy of domesticated and wild animal that is usually employed in traditional discussions of animal rights. As they point out, the plight of liminal animals in human communities is a mixed one. On the one hand, they have been able to flourish in terms of survival due to the fitness-enhancing aspects of human communities. But, on the other hand, they have also been victims of gross injustices at the hands of humans, suffering from exterminations among other ills, which Donaldson and Kymlicka provocatively characterize as the “animal equivalent of ethnic cleansing” (p. 211). The fundamental moral issue is that liminal animals are thought not to belong in human communities, so that with the smallest disturbance to our way of life, they are eligible to be removed, displaced, or even killed. Challenging this assumption, Donaldson and Kymlicka argue that we not only must respect the basic rights of liminal animals, but we also owe them certain relational duties.

It is on this point that traditional theories of animal rights have failed. By focusing narrowly on the negative rights of animals against interference, they have ignored the ways in which our behavior affects the lives of liminal animals, ways in which our behaviour should count as interference. To remedy this deficiency, Donaldson and Kymlicka propose a denizenship model for liminal animals: “[l]ike citizenship, denizenship is a relationship that should be governed by norms of justice, but it is a looser sort of relationship, less intimate or cooperative, and therefore characterized by a reduced set of rights and responsibilities” (p. 214). Liminal animals are not eligible for citizenship because they lack the capacities required for undertaking the responsibilities of citizenship. But, we can presume, they also would not be interested in citizenship along the lines of domesticated animals, for this would require invasive training that would interfere with their basic interests in being free from human interference. Nevertheless, according to Donaldson and Kymlicka, they belong here, in human communities, where they have adapted to live.

Again the analogy is made to human cases of denizenship: “liminal animals face many of the same dynamics of exclusion or invisibility as human denizens face” (p. 240). To remedy these problems, there are three clusters of issues that must be addressed. First, we must see liminal animals as possessing security of residence; we cannot simply evict them from their homes and expel them. Second, the terms under which we interact with liminal animals must represent a fair accommodation of interests, rather than a hierarchy. Lastly, in light of the dangers of hierarchy, there should be safeguards in place to protect against the stigmatization of such animals. Liminal animals cannot be stigmatized in the way that some human denizens have been, as with some migrant workers, for example.

Having surveyed the contents of the work, I register here some critical remarks on the project as a whole. Donaldson and Kymlicka describe the impetus for the book as the “impasse” that exists in the animal advocacy movement, with roots in the animal rights literature (p. 1). Theorists have developed sophisticated theories about animal rights, but this has proven inadequate to deal with pressing practical moral problems. Consequently, few real-world victories have been won. But even after having supplemented the intellectual side of the impasse, in their Conclusion, Donaldson and Kymlicka express skepticism that the political impasse can be overcome, noting “[m]oral arguments are notoriously ineffective when they run so fully against the grain of self-interest and inherited expectations” (p. 252). There is a serious question about feasibility here. One need only adopt the requirement that morality be minimally compatible with our self-interest to see that a demanding theory of animal rights is not going to get off the ground. We may just be creatures that have evolved with a limited capacity for moral attitudes toward animals. So, while Zoopolis has the virtue of taking more seriously the fact of our inevitable relationships to animals, it may lack the virtue of taking seriously the fact that our moral attitudes toward animals are limited. We might be capable of treating domesticated animals better than we currently do, but whether we can treat them as equals on a par with our fellow human citizens is doubtful, given the kinds of beings we are.

This is not to say the moral vision of Zoopolis is not compelling. For those who already take animal rights seriously, Zoopolis represents a powerful and logically coherent extension of the basic idea of animal rights, in a way that is capable of tackling many thorny practical problems. But as a political theory, it is difficult to see how Zoopolis could win the assent of reasonable people in a world of diverse comprehensive doctrines, to adopt Rawls’s phrase. Maybe this just shows people’s comprehensive doctrines to be mistaken or wrong. It might well be that how most people think about animals is seriously morally deficient. But these are strong winds we are up against, and it is not obvious that naked self-interest is doing all the work, for, some people’s way of life, culture, and means of survival are tied up with views that subordinate animals to humans. A feasible political theory that includes animals ought to find a way to accommodate such diverse interests. It is unlikely that Zoopolis can do so.

Consider the problem of tradeoffs. If animal interests and human interests count equally, we must tradeoff animal and human interests at the same rate. This requires, for instance, that people, for whom a particular religious tradition is most important, must give that up for a view about the moral status of animals that they do not accept, nor could accept. As one moral theory among many, a theory of animal rights that required this would be unproblematic, but as a political theory, to be imposed on others, its requirements may be beyond the “strains of commitment”, to use another expression from Rawls.

Lastly, a crucial premise in Zoopolis may be unfounded. Donaldson and Kymlicka say that justice only applies in the circumstances of justice, and that there have been times in human history when treating animals as less than bearers of inviolable rights was necessary for human survival. However, the case for domesticated animal citizenship is premised on the fact of the injustice of domestication, which presumably took place at a time when human survival did depend on domesticating animals, that is, when the circumstances of justice did not apply. This is not to say that there is nothing morally problematic about domesticated animals. But, if the case for animal citizenship is framed as the appropriate moral response to an event that cannot be considered an injustice by the theory’s own lights, the idea of citizenship for animals loses some of its force. Donaldson and Kymlicka might respond that this does not absolve humans of moral responsibility once domestication ceased to become necessary for human survival, and maybe that is the correct response. But the fact of domestication is considerably more complex and ultimately unsuitable as the fundamental moral wrong that must be rectified.

In spite of these difficulties, Zoopolis remains a remarkable landmark in the animal rights debate. Like what Nozick said of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), it would seem that animal rights theorists must either work within the theory put forward by Zoopolis, or explain why not. As implausible as some might find the initial idea of universal basic rights for animals, it seems to me more implausible that existing theories of animal rights terminate with that initial idea, while failing to notice the extent to which animals form a part of our communities. Whether animals have rights or not, we cannot simply leave them alone. To this extent, Zoopolis succeeds in its aim to offer a more plausible alternative to traditional animal rights theory. But, more work needs to be done on the details of the citizenship theory of animal rights. Theorists are likely to find new challenges around every corner, due to the complexity of our relationships to animals. Donaldson and Kymlicka have provided the conceptual framework and the broad contours. It will be interesting to see how the intellectual project develops, while the political project lags behind.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of ArizonaTucson USA

Personalised recommendations