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  • Writer's pictureClaudia Hirtenfelder

Imagining Better Habitat Rights for Animals

Updated: Mar 22

Steve Cooke is driven by the question of what a better world for animals would look like, and he believes that fostering moral imagination is essential to creating an alternative, more just future. In the latest episode of The Animal Turn, I spoke with Steve about exactly this. We discussed how animals being understood as property often, problematically, excludes them from ethical consideration and how the arts and humanities can assist in providing the tools necessary to develop a moral imagination that positions animals as sentient beings deserving of rights.

While we only touched on animals’ property status briefly toward the end of the episode, Steve argued that “if we think of non-human animals as property, it changes how we regard them morally.” To make his point, he used a quote from Immanuel Kant:

“When man first said to the sheep ‘the pelt which you wear was given to you by nature not for your own use, but for mine’ and took it from the sheep to wear it himself, he became aware of a prerogative which … he enjoyed over all the animals; and he now no longer regarded them as fellow creatures, but as means and instruments to be used at will for the attainment of whatever ends he pleased.” – Immanuel Kant in Christine Korsgaard’s 'Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals.'

Numerous scholars have written about how animals’ status as property makes seeing them as ‘something else’’ extremely challenging. It allows for forms of epistemic erasure which I discuss more with Dinesh Wadiwel in the upcoming episode of the podcast. Steve is not, however, only concerned with how animals’ property status shapes human moral imaginations, he is also interested in how the arts and humanities (philosophy in particular) can be mobilized to enriched what appears possible within moral imaginings. A topic he unfurls more in his paper Imagined Utopias: Animals Rights and the Moral Imagination. The role of philosophy is, Steve urges, to provide people “with pictures about the future that they can see as morally good and that seem plausible, possible.”

Moral imagination helps to paint a picture of what a just world would look like, and it is essential to deciding what actions are permissible in the pursuit of that future. Part of doing this work involves developing concepts that better involve animals within political frameworks. Mobilizing philosophical thought can illustrate how animals can be included within our moral vocabulary and should be considered when discussing political concepts like rights, citizenship, and autonomy. Steve notes that while “people go to great lengths to avoid thinking too hard about our relationship with non-human animals,” animal rights theorists have shown that ideas like rights and citizenship can apply to animals as well.

“If it can be done for McDonalds, why can’t it be done for a Chimpanzee?” – Steve Cooke

For his part, Steve has developed a concept – habitat rights - that helps us to think about animals and their environments in a more politically sensitive fashion. Steve argues that having a decent habitat is vital to the interests of many animals so there is a duty to protect those habitats for animals’ sake. Unlike conservation, which is concerned with questions of biodiversity and species extinction, habitat rights are interested in the needs of individual animals. Steve is not arguing that animals need the same property rights as humans, only that their ability to enjoy and live a decent life needs to be secured and that requires protecting animals’ habitats for their sake. Because this concept is premised on rights, justice would require that the protection of the habitats in question is enforceable. This means that any person or organization hoping to use that same habitat would need to legally justify their actions.

While rights-based frameworks are critiqued for being antagonistic and promoting individualism, Steve argues that such criticisms are perhaps misguided because you cannot have a right outside of a political community. Rights, for Steve, offer a minimum moral standard with which to organize our communities and societies as well as and opportunities to think about how claims can be made in situations where there are competing interests. This conversation with Steve reminded me of the interview with Danielle Clode about koalas. If Eucalypts forests in Australia are not protected and fragmentation is not guarded against, Koalas will be in serious danger of extinction because these animals, with their highly specialized digestive systems, cannot survive on anything else. Not to mention how their social lives and skills are bound up with these diminishing habitats. Therefore, in a world that is characterized by crisis levels of habitat loss and fragmentation, imagining how political systems could be structured to respect the claims of animals (like koalas) to protect their habitats is exactly the kind of mental work we need to be doing if we hope to materially secure their futures.


Steve Cooke is an Associate Professor of Political Theory at the University of Leicester. He works on justice and nonhuman animals, and in the ethics of protest and activism. His main interests are in what a just society for human and nonhuman animal might look like, and the ethics of different ways of achieving it. He recently published What are Animal Rights For?, published by Bristol University Press. Learn more about Steve on his university profile page or connect with him on Mastodon.


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