In virtue of their capacity for political agency, political agents can possess special rights, powers, and responsibilities, such as rights to political participation and freedom of speech. Traditionally, political theorists have assumed that only cognitively unimpaired adult humans are political agents, and thus that only those humans can be the bearers of these rights, powers, and responsibilities. However, recent work in animal rights theory has extended the concept of political agency to nonhuman animals. In this article, I develop an account of political agency that identifies the capacities that one must possess to be a political agent and captures the fact that political action is a distinctive type of action. Crucially, this account makes sense of the standard assumption that only some humans count as political agents, and explains why few nonhuman animals, human infants, and severely cognitively impaired humans are likely to possess the capacity for political agency. I go on to reject the view, recently advanced by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, that nonhuman animals can be ‘nonintentional political agents’. I conclude by suggesting that most nonhuman animals, as well as human infants and humans with severe cognitive impairments, cannot straightforwardly be assigned rights to political participation.
This is a preview of subscription content,to check access.
Access this article
Similar content being viewed by others
Allen, C. and Bekoff, M. 1997. Species of Mind: The Philosophy and Biology of Cognitive Ethology. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Allen, C. and Bekoff, M. 2007. Animal Consciousness. In The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness, eds. M. Velmans and S. Schneider. Oxford: Blackwell.
Andrews, K. 2015. The Animal Mind: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Animal Cognition. New York: Routledge.
Barclay, L. 2013. Cognitive Impairment and the Right to Vote: A Strategic Approach. Journal of Applied Philosophy 30( 2): 146–159.
Carter, B. and Nickie, C. 2013. Animals, Agency and Resistance. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 43 (3): 322–340.
Cohen, A. A. 2015. “We Support Circus Animals Who Kill Their Captors”: Nonhuman Resistance, Animal Subjectivity, and the Politics of Democracy. In Tiere – Texte – Transformationen, eds. R. Spannring et al. Bielefeld: Transcript-Verlag.
DeGrazia, D. 1996. Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Delon, N. 2018. Animal Agency, Captivity, and Meaning. The Harvard Review of Philosophy 25: 127–146.
Donaldson, Sue, & Kymlicka, Will. (2011). Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Donaldson, S. and W. Kymlicka. 2015. Interspecies Politics: Reply to Hinchcliffe and Ladwig. Journal of Political Philosophy 23 (3): 321–344.
Donaldson, S. and W. Kymlicka. 2016. Rethinking Membership and Participation in an Inclusive Democracy: Cognitive Disability, Children, Animals. In Disability and Political Theory, ed. B. Arneil, and N. Hirschmann, 168–197. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Driessen, C. 2014. Animal Deliberation. In Political Animals and Animal Politics, ed. M. Wissenburg, and D. Schlosberg, 90–104.. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Forst, R. 2001. The Rule of Reasons. Three Models of Deliberative Democracy’, Ratio Juris, 14: 345–378.
Griffin, D.R. 2001. Animal Minds – Beyond Cognition to Consciousness (revised ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hartley, C. and L. Watson. 2014. Virtue in Political Thought: On Civic Virtue in Political Liberalism. In Virtues and Their Vices, ed. K. Timpe, and C.A. Boyd, 415 – 432. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Healey, R. and A. Pepper. 2020. Interspecies Justice: Agency, Self-Determination, and Assent. Philosophical Studies. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-020-01472-5.
Healy, S.D. 2019. The Face of Animal Cognition. Integrative Zoology 14 (2): 132–144.
Hinchcliffe, C. 2015. Animals and the Limits of Citizenship: Zoopolis and the Concept of Citizenship. Journal of Political Philosophy 23 (3): 302–320.
Keohane, R.O. 1988. International Institutions: Two Approaches. International Studies Quarterly 32 (4): 379–396.
Low, Philip, Panksepp, Jaak, Reiss, Diana, Edelman, David B., Van Swinderen, Bruno, and Christof Koch. 2012. ‘The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness’. Accessed 28th October 2019. http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf
Lynch, M.P. 2012. Democracy as a Space of Reasons. In Truth and Democracy, ed.J. Elkins and A. Norris, 114–129. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Marc, B. and Buyers, J. A. (eds) (1998) Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative and Ecological Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Meijer, E. 2013. Political Communication with Animals. Humanimalia 5(1).
Meijer, E. 2017. Interspecies Encounters and the Political Turn: From Dialogues to Deliberation. In Ethical and Political Approaches to Nonhuman Animal Issues, ed. A. Woodhall and G. Garmendia da Trindade, 201–226. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
Meijer, E. 2019. When Animals Speak: Toward an Interspecies Democracy. New York: New York University Press.
O’Neill, O. 2001. Agents of Justice. Metaphilosophy 32 (1): 180–195.
Pettit, P. 1997. Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Pettit, P. and M. Smith. 2004. The Truth in Deontology. In Reason and Value: Themes from the Moral Philosophy of Joseph Raz, ed. R. Jay Wallace, P. Pettit, S. Scheffler, and M. Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schweikard, D.P. and H.B. Schmid. Collective Intentionality. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), ed. E.N. Zalta. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/collective-intentionality/.
Sebo, J. 2017. Agency and Moral Status. Journal of Moral Philosophy 14 (1): 1–22.
Searle, J. 2010. Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Smith, K.K. 2012. Governing Animals: Animal welfare and the Liberal State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Spinka, M., R.C. Newberry and M. Bekoff. 2001. Mammalian Play: Training for the Unexpected. The Quarterly Review of Biology 76 (2): 141–168.
Thomas, N. 2016. Animals Ethics and the Autonomous Animal Self. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Tomasello, M. 2011. Human Culture in Evolutionary Perspective. In Advances in Culture and Psychology, Vol. 1. ed. M.J. Gelfand, C.-Y. Chiu, and Y.-Y. Hong. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tomasello, M., M. Carpenter, J. Call, T. Behne, and H. Moll. 2005. Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28 (05): 675–691.
Tomasello, M. and M. Carpenter. 2007. Shared Intentionality. Developmental Science 10(1): 121–125.
Young, I.M. 2006. Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model. Social Philosophy and Policy 23 (1): 102–130.
Willett, C. 2014. Interspecies Ethics. New York: Columbia University Press.
I would like to thank Sue Donaldson, Valéry Giroux, Rich Healey, Will Kymlicka, James Lewis, Claudio López-Guerra, Eva Meijer, Greg Mikkelson, David Miller, Wouter Peeters, Merten Reglitz, Heather Widdows, Daniel Viehoff, Kristin Voigt, and several anonymous reviewers for their comments and conversations on earlier versions of this article.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Pepper, A. Political Agency in Humans and Other Animals. Contemp Polit Theory 20, 296–317 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-020-00430-4