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Cooperation with Animals? What Is and What Is Not


The idea of cooperation has been recently used with regard to human–animal relations to justify the application of an associative theory of justice to animals. In this paper, I discuss some of these proposals and seek to provide a reformulation of the idea of cooperation suitable to human–animal relations. The standard idea of cooperation, indeed, presupposes mental capacities that probably cannot be found in animals. I try to disentangle the idea of cooperation from other cognate notions and distinguish it from exploitation, use, and relationship. The upshot is a minimal taxonomy of human–animal relations that covers most possibilities, from the worst type of relation (exploitation) to that which is most favourable to animals’ welfare (relationship). In this taxonomy, cooperation is a form of relation where animals are used to produce a valuable good in a way that is compatible with their ethological features and without being harmed.

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  1. Significant in this regard is Cynthia Stark’s extension of a cooperation-based approach to dependent and disabled individuals. See Stark (2009).

  2. On this understanding, cooperation is not a joint action in which individuals share such mental states as beliefs and/or commitments. Rather, it can be defined in two ways, which are not to be thought of as mutually exclusive. Cooperation can be defined as a scheme of interaction where individuals of the same or different species benefit from the outcome of the coordinated action. See Balcombe (2010: 103–120). Cooperation can be also seen as an attitude fostering typical behaviour of ‘generalized reciprocity’, which also extends to unfamiliar animals. On this, see Bekoff and Pierce (2009: 55–84).

  3. To be sure, cooperation in some sense also occurs between animals of very different species with very different capacities. But these cases are nevertheless different from human–animal cooperation because many of them are likely to be instances of instinctual parasitism or symbiotic relations. Irrespective of whether we are willing to consider parasitism a form of cooperation, this is not a useful model for relations between human beings and animals, which, unlike parasitism, are not characterized by natural dependence.

  4. ‘Humans and non-humans are interdependent in various ways. And on closer inspection, what we call a ‘social’ scheme (our, human social scheme) is rather a social-artefactual-ecological scheme: … then distributive justice, usually applied to ‘social’ justice alone and thus to the ‘merely’ human sphere, should also be applied to this complex conglomerate of co-operation we sometimes call the ‘world’ and cooperative relations within that world. Then it becomes at least thinkable that we speak, as some do, about what we ‘owe’ to nature or to animals,’ Coeckelbergh (2009: 75).

  5. ‘For instance, if we breed animals for (our, human) consumption and treat them very badly in the course of that process, then these cases (1) fall within the scope of problems of justice (as argued above) and (2) would warrant the application of a difference principle since increases in the advantages humans get from the co-operation (we are clearly highly dependent on them for sustaining our current consumption habits) do nothing to maximize the position of these animals, which can be considered the ‘worst-off’, the most disadvantaged in human/animal society,’ Coeckelbergh (2009: 82).

  6. ‘It is bad enough that nonhuman animals are recruited to participate in an allegedly cooperative project without their consent, but the hollowness of the supposed ‘cooperation’ is revealed by the fact that they make the sacrifices and we reap the benefits. That version of the rejoinder overstates. The use of animals in experiments has enriched veterinary medicine, as well as its human counterpart. Nevertheless, the benefits are primarily enjoyed by human beings and the sacrifices are (with a tiny number of exceptions) all on the nonhuman side. Genuine solidarity requires a different balance,’ Kitcher (2015: 305).

  7. They only allow those activities that are natural animal activities (production of wool and eggs) and are more suspicious about activities that need training (for instance, therapeutic assistance). See Donaldson and Kymlicka (2011: 134–144).

  8. To repeat, I do not say that animals do not have such mental states. On the contrary, at least some higher animals are most likely to have them. However, even if we admit this, we cannot ascertain whether the conditions for cooperation apply to animals without recurring to a biased and anthropomorphic presumption.

  9. Floridi and Sanders (2004) have proposed a reformulation of the notion of agency in order to include some forms of artificial entities such as computing systems. For a sceptical position denying that computer systems can be moral agents, although they are certainly moral entities, see Johnson (2006).

  10. Bernstein (1998) has argued that being morally considerable means being at least a moral patient. To be a moral patient an entity must have the capacity to have (subjective) experiences, which animals have and computers do not. Although I find this position quite plausible, my claim does not depend on Bernstein’s argument.

  11. This is so if we assume that in our preferred substantive theory of animal welfare cooperation demands not disposing of animals’ life. However, if one rejects this assumption, one may also argue that animals do not have an inherent interest in living and that, therefore, free range and pasturing methods of rearing animals for meat production are legitimate forms of cooperation.

  12. A substantive account has been provided by Cochrane (2016). Cochrane claims, among other things, that some uses of animals (guard dogs, pet therapy, races, police dogs, etc.) can be made compatible with a non-harming conception of cooperation, if animals are appropriately trained and treated as labourers with their own labour rights.

  13. In this final section, I focus only on interests based on welfare without presupposing that animals have only these types of interests. This is not a quirky restriction. Rather, my point is simply that whatever the diverse substantive account, there is wide agreement on the idea that animals have at least some interests regarding their welfare (e.g. not to suffer, to have pleasant experiences, and so on).

  14. More generally, these considerations go in the same direction as Cochrane’s argument for labour rights for animals. See Cochrane (2016).


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A previous version of this paper was presented in a workshop at the University of Hamburg on Cooperation with Animals? I am grateful to the audience of the workshop (Svenja Ahlhaus, Gün Güley, Bernd Ladwig, Luise K. Müller, Peter Niesen, Markus Patberg, Philipp von Gall) for the helpful comments I received. I am especially grateful to Peter Niesen for many stimulating discussions about related topics and for prompting me to reflect on these issues.


Funding was provided by Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung (project Politics and Animals).

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Correspondence to Federico Zuolo.

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Zuolo, F. Cooperation with Animals? What Is and What Is Not. J Agric Environ Ethics 33, 315–335 (2020).

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  • Animal politics
  • Associative theories of justice
  • Cooperation
  • Exploitation
  • Human–animal relations