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  • Writer's pictureClaudia Hirtenfelder

Animals and Politics: Launching Season 6 with Will Kymlicka

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

I am delighted to be launching Season 6 of The Animal Turn in conversation with philosopher Will Kymlicka. In this episode, Kymlicka outlines how animals remain largely sidelined in political thought, arguing that politics needs to be enriched to better account for animals.

Even though, since at least the 1970s, “the animal question” has been relatively high profile in moral philosophy it remains marginalized in political philosophy, an asymmetry that has left Will puzzled. He suspects animals are rarely mentioned in politics inherited from the western tradition because it is driven by human exceptionalism. There is a presumption that humans are unique in their collective decision-making practices. Whereas moral philosophy is generally focused on an individual agent and the ways in which they reason through their moral choices, political philosophy is primarily concerned with collective decision making. That is:

“What distinguishes politics is that … there is a requirement that we make a decision collectively and that that collective decision be enforceable. And so, politics involves the idea of authority.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to looking at the world through political concepts that help us to understand collective decision making, we tend to only think about humans. Kymlicka uses a quote from Gwendlyn Blue and Melanie Rock (2014) to make this point:

“Developments in social theory over the past few decades have unsettled deeply entrenched assumptions about what constitutes the human by exposing the tenuous divisions that separate humans, non-human animals and technologies and, in turn, affording a more active role to non-human entities in the constitution of social worlds. The concept of the public, however, remains persistently, stubbornly, and somewhat curiously entrenched in anthropomorphic imaginaries. Within and outside of academe, it is commonplace to suppose that publics are purely human and that publics arise from the unique human capacity for symbolic communication” (Blue and Rock 2014: 504)

Politics is not, however, only a human activity but should instead be thought of as emerging through living together as social animals. Even though the difference between social and political life is sometimes exaggerated in academia, Will argues it is necessary to consider them in tandem because “politics is a vehicle for a community to do things.” Therefore, while we need to fight for recognition of sentience for all animals it is also necessary to fight for the recognition of animals’ membership in society.

Thinking about how legitimate authority, collective decision making, and politics relates to animals could be thought of, Will suggests, across three different registers. First, politics “on behalf of” animals, where humans represent animals. You could imagine parliamentary seats being set aside for animals/animal representatives, for example. Second, politics “by” animals, where wild animals exercise self-government. This has become an important area of ethological investigation particularly as it relates to thinking about how animals like wolves and elephants use cooperation to structure their societies and exercise collective decision-making. Third, politics “with” animals, where humans and animals do politics together and co-author decisions. Also called “joint politics” this is the area that Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson are primarily focused.

For Will, part of imaging what politics “at its best” would look like requires by using “some real-world examples that are pre-configurations of what this future ideal would be.” Tangible examples of joint politics that involve efforts to share power with domesticated animals can be found in farmed animal sanctuaries, in the family, and in the workplace. Sanctuaries are some of the few places where people are attempting to collective relate to domesticated animals in non-instrumentalist ways. Many people think of their companion animals as members of their families which is why Will argues “it’s really important that we think about families as multispecies families.” There are also a variety of interspecies workplaces in which animals are considered “part of the team.” This leads Will to assert that:

“In these specific contexts, it’s really hard not to acknowledge what we have here is a case for social membership. There’s just no way to understand that relationship except through the idea that we really are part of a social relationship.” – Will Kymlicka

While we owe domesticated animals membership rights, we do not have the unilateral right to force them to stay. As such it is necessary to think about how animals can exit a family, a workplace or even a society. Will believes, however, that if domesticated animals were treated as members of society and had rights many would choose to stay. “The way in which humans and animals have developed the capacity for interspecies sociability immensely enriches the possible lives we can have,” he says.

Will Kymlicka is not alone in thinking that political concepts need to be re-worked and re-thought to better account for animals. While there is perhaps some disagreement about how best to go about this, there is a general consensus that the human exceptionalism that continues to pervade political practice and thought must be challenged. Throughout Season 6 you will hear from philosophers, activists, and social scientists about why thinking deeply about animals and politics is significant.

Stay tuned!


Will Kymlicka is the Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy in the Philosophy Department at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada, where he has taught since 1998. He is the co-author with Sue Donaldson of Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights, published by Oxford University Press in 2011, and now translated into German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Turkish, Dutch, Chinese, Korean, and Polish. Zoopolis argues that animals belong at the heart of democratic political theory - defending rights of citizenship for domesticated animals and sovereignty rights for wild animals – and its ideas have helped launch the recent `political turn’ in animal ethics. Will and Sue have continued developing their model of a zoopolis, and its implications for animal advocacy, legal reform, and alliances with other social justice movements. Their recent work has appeared in Politics and Animals; The Philosophy and Politics of Animal Liberation; Journal of Animal Ethics; Canadian Perspectives on Animals and the Law; the Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies. Will co-directs the Animals in Philosophy, Politics, Law and Ethics research group at Queen’s University, including its postdoctoral fellowship program, and teaches courses in animals and political theory and in animals and the law.


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