Animals as citizens?: The next step for animal rights


First aired on Tooth and Claw (29/7/13)

Could the struggle for animal rights define the 21st century just as the struggles for women's rights, civil rights and gay rights defined the 20th century? Authors and activists Peter Singer, Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson hope so and spoke to Tooth and Claw about the past, present and future of the animal rights movement.


Peter Singer wrote the book on animal rights, literally. He published Animal Liberation in 1975 and it gave rise to the modern animal rights movement. He didn't coin the term "speciesism" but his work made it a popular concept. "Speciesism is an attitude of prejudice or bias against beings because they are not members of a favoured species, which usually means they are not members of the species Homo sapiens," Singer explained to Tooth and Claw host Peter Brown. "We like to see ourselves as just somehow on a completely different moral plane and completely different moral status from non-human animals."

Singer acknowledges that humans have the potential for greater intellectual faculties (though is quick to point out that an individual ape has the potential to be more intelligent than a human baby or an intellectually disabled human) but that doesn't mean humans exist "on a completely different moral plane." Instead, we should use these faculties to better understand and acknowledge our relationship with animals and the rights they deserve to have.

Singer sees animal rights as an extension of other battles for equality. "It's a realization that when we got to the boundaries of our species, we haven't gone to the end of that process because there are all these other beings that have lives that matter, that feel pain and suffer, that have lives that go badly, and they are not members of our species," he said. "We need to extend ethics across the species boundary. The process of expanding ethics is not yet complete."

But how, exactly, do we do this? Will Kymlicka, professor of philosophy at Queen's University, and author Sue Donaldson have an idea. They outline how they see Singer's ideas put into action in their book, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. "Reforms we've made to accommodate gender orientation and disability provide a model with respect to thinking about animals," Kymlicka said. With that in mind, Kymlicka and Donaldson describe three"classes" of animals that makes this model a potential reality.


The first class of animals are domestic animals or animals "who have been altered through human intervention, through breeding so that they can no longer live in the wild," Donaldson said. These animals would be given citizenship and would only have to contribute to society in ways the animals would potentially consent to. "We've incorporated them into every dimension of our lives, our economies, they do all kinds of work," Donaldson said. "They are here and they deserve to be recognized as citizens the way human members of the community are."

The second class are animals that live in the wild and "live remotely from society," such as bears and wolves. These animals would be granted sovereignty. "In a human case, we use sovereignty to talk about that right of a people to a territory and a right to a place," Donaldson said. The animals' territory would be treated as a nation within a nation -- a model, Donaldson says, that could be similar to Canada, a country with the nations of Quebec and the First Nations within it.

The third class are the animals that exist in between. They are wild, but live in urban and suburban spaces, like pigeons, raccoons and squirrels. Kymlicka and Donaldson call these animals "denzien" and say we must develop a relationship that looks like a looser and more distant form of "tolerant co-existence."

Kymlicka, Donaldson and Singer all believe we can learn from fights for equality in our past and apply them to our relationship with animals. "We can't afford not to learn from the lessons from the struggles for human justice," Kymlicka said. "Every opportunity we can find to learn examples and models to overcome injustice, we need to take advantage of those when thinking about animals."

According to all three writers, we have a long way to go. In the 38 years since the publication of Animal Liberation, "we're doing slightly better," Singer said. "But still not very well."

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