Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights

January 12, 2012

A recent heart-rending animal story concerned mummy and baby elephant trapped in mud, dying of thirst, and soon to be dinner for hyenas and lions. They were rescued, of course, and the predators had to feed elsewhere. One of the good things about Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights is that it is eminently sensible about this sort of case, claiming that anyone refusing to help is either just plain horrible or in the grip of theory. And there's much that is similar - cookery writer Sue Donaldson and philosopher Will Kymlicka (they're husband and wife, so it's not that bizarre a pairing) put together an always engaging, often persuasive mix of the particular and general, leavening and defending the more abstract claims with choice case studies.

What's the plot line? The authors contrast two approaches to ethics. Utilitarians focus on happiness, take a case-by-case approach and allow that we can sacrifice the one for the many. Rights theorists emphasise justice, develop general principles and ring-fence the individual. I can't kill you to save a busload of children, and I can't kill a fish to feed 5,000.

The authors buy into the rights view. But they insist that it doesn't go far enough. Its characteristic emphasis on negative rights - not to be killed, tortured, enslaved - seems to allow, and perhaps explicitly requires, non-interference where natural evils are concerned. Poor elephants. So do we need a different, subtler, richer ethics? They say not. As the title suggests, what's on offer here is a distinctively political approach to the human/animal interface.

Humans first. States have their citizens, visitors, green-card holders, guest workers and so on. As well as the universal moral rights they all enjoy, these various groups have, in relation to the state, further and different rights and responsibilities. Similarly with animals: pets, lab rats, hens and sheep living here should be seen as our co-citizens; others, keeping to themselves in the air, the sea or what remains of the countryside, form independent sovereign communities; while a third category, and one that includes pigeons and rats, carve out often very good lives on the margins of human communities. Not citizens, but denizens, then, in this middling position.

I have three worries about this. First, this isn't supposed to be simply an eye-catching and sales-swelling metaphor. The authors are serious about it. One objection - that animals can't be citizens because, lacking responsibilities, they have no rights - gets short shrift. For this would cut against children, and sufferers from some sorts of disabilities as well. Others are harder. What are we to make of sovereignty where, for example, migrating birds are concerned? What are we to make of it where animals from dozens of species fight over the same bit of land? Kymlicka is well aware of such problems. His way with them is to suggest that seemingly robust political concepts need a good deal of finessing. But then the analogy is less helpful than it seemed.

Second, we might wonder if the politics/ethics distinction is well made. Agreed, a narrow rights account is both thin and unwieldy. But utilitarianism and, more recently, a revived virtue approach are both well able to take a case-by-case basis, and are both likely to have us dig out the elephants.

Third, there should be more about the basics. The authors concede the need to elaborate on rights. Behind this is the claim that most animals are sufficiently like us to get to first base. But the majority of animals are insects. And even when we can look into their eyes, do we really find there's "someone home"? Maybe with elephants. But not so easily with chickens, lizards and shrimp.

Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights

By Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka. Oxford University Press 352pp, £18.99. ISBN 9780199599660. Published 24 November 2011

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