Seeing Animals Beyond Suffering
Updated: Jan 12
I have been told, it is frivolous and unimportant, even indecent, to discuss a future world in which animals have the autonomy to make their own choices. A world in which animals have basic rights to express their own views and who (as well as how) they spend their time. Surely, in a world where humans kill trillions of sentient beings every year (fish also count!) and where factory farming is so ubiquitous, and the global consumption of animal products continues to increase, our time and efforts ought to be spent on ending the violence, not on having discussions about utopia for animals. Well, I believe acknowledging animal agency is essential to resisting these injustices. I am convinced that, the relative absence of discourses and strategies centred on agency (instead of on suffering and violence) is an obstacle to the advent of a more just and peaceful world for nonhumans. Of course, I want more than anything that we stop killing and harming animals. And yet, I feel that to achieve this, we must tackle the root of the problem, the types of reductionist stories we tell ourselves about animals, and that to fully realise animal autonomy we must rather embrace that animals are much more than just beings who suffer.
In this blog entry, I will highlight why it is important to not only think of animals as beings who suffer but as beings who can experience pleasure and I will then discuss how acknowledging this pleasure helps us to better understand animal agency and autonomy.
From Suffering to Pleasure
The vast majority of people don’t want to cause animals harm and seem genuinely uncomfortable when hearing about industry practices. Yet—and this is a truism—knowledge about what happens to animals is in itself unable to trigger significant societal change. There are many reasons to explain this cognitive dissonance. The most likely may be the pressure to conform to social norms. Another reason, I believe, is the (socially constructed) purpose given to animals.
If we believe that animals are here to serve humans, that that is their purpose in life, then it is easy to disregard their living conditions. This is why, even though suffering is a problem already somewhat acknowledged by speciesists, it is not a problem serious enough to question why we exploit animals.
In order words, when animal rights discourses are based on the suffering within the animal-industrial complex—when they depict the horrors animals go through and the statistics beyond these individual experiences—they invite the discussions on the means to mitigate the harms, on improving welfare, not on questioning why we force animals into this existence in the first place.
Therefore, “happy meat” and “free range” are not oxymorons in the carnist imaginary, and it remains possible to both love and kill someone (who is young and supposedly healthy). It is not, in these imaginings, self-evident why it is wrong to kill “painlessly” and “respectfully” because killing is what was meant to happen. This line of reasoning is problematized, however, when we engage in a discussion about pleasure, instead of pain.
By explaining that animals, like all of us, don’t merely want to escape pain but also seek pleasure and comfort, we can trigger new realms of moral options in the collective imagination. We start addressing what animals are owed and what animals themselves value, and this already a completely different story. Animals can experience a wide variety of pleasures, not simply according to their species but also to each individual, which all have their own way to enjoy their life. They can find pleasure in eating and finding food, in playing, in sexual activities, in meeting a life or seasonal partner (or partners), being in a social group, caring for their offspring, exploring their surroundings, solving practical puzzles, resting in the sun or in a shelter, bathing, napping, scratching their body, moving their body by running or flying or swimming, and so on. This discourse, in my view, gives a more positive and inspiring picture of what we must protect: animals are worth protecting because they are entitled to happiness. (And we enjoy witnessing this happiness too.)
When we engage in this discussion, it also gets easier to process why death in itself constitutes a harm: because whoever has an interest in experiencing pleasure has an interest in continuing to experience it, whereas being killed—even without the pain and anguish of the anticipation of death—is an irreversible harm. Killing is not a problem because of the suffering it causes but because it deprives an individual of the most precious good she has: the ability to enjoy life’s opportunities.
However, talking about animal pleasure is only a first step in telling another story, one that breaches the reductionist conception of animals as passive beings. The next step, and more demanding step, is to talk about animals’ right to freedom—or in other words, finding a way for animals to belong to themselves, that they are entitled to make their own choices. I think one key to opening this door is to turn attention to their agency.
From Pleasure to Agency
Animals have and express their own desires and the next step in creating a kinder world is taking seriously what animals want for themselves. They do not just seek pleasure but their pleasure, their own way, often beyond the comfort and routine we’d like to impose on them.
Importantly, then, their desires are not always in line with what humans may think is best. That is, animals often resist what is expected from—or rather forced on—them by humans. They do so by “[f]aking ignorance, rejection of commands, the slow-down, foot-dragging, […] refusal to work in the heat of the day, taking breaks without permission, rejection of overtime, vocal complaints, open pilfering, secret pilfering, rebuffing new tasks, false compliance, breaking equipment, escape, and direct confrontation,” writes Jason Hribal (2007, 103), or in the words of Catharine MacKinnon (2004, 270), “[t]hey bite back, scream in alarm, withhold affection, approach warily, fly and swim off.” They are not puppets or machines following orders silently but are beings who try to negotiate their fates.
Animals do not, however, always offer resistance to and often comply with the rules imposed. Therefore, only looking at agency is fallible and incomplete and if we are to take animals wants seriously, we need to scrutinize the circumstances in which animals were raised. As is the case with humans, social norms, and other constraints, significantly influence the type of choices agents may make. Moreover, animals are at a greater risk of having their agency distorted and coopted and are possibly less able to request (or know of) alternatives. It is also important to remember that resignation to domination is not a sign of an absence of agency but could also be indicative of resilience, a strength to cope with a situation that one cannot change. Autonomy depends, then, on a wide range of factors beyond the individual’s powers—one’s education, whether one has been encouraged to follow one’s inclinations, whether positive feedback is given when one communicates one’s desires, whether one is allowed to opt out, and so on.
Therefore, rather than looking for whether individuals are asking for more autonomy, I think it makes more sense to take autonomy not as a given, but as something to enable and nurture, be it for human or non-human animals.
That is, by putting individuals in situations where they can choose differently to what humans expect of them then we can start to see how unjustified power has potentially been exerted. By creating spaces of co-creation, we start seeing animals in a new light. They tell who they are and show new ways of being. Once this happens, we can start to relate to them as true equals—because they are no longer here forus, to serve us, but for their own reasons.
Some animals will want to spend more time with us, others less, or not at all. Some will look forward to trying new activities and others will prefer to stick to their routines. And their inclinations might also change over time. They will, in sum, tell their own story, one that is so much more rich, nuanced, and interesting than we could foretell.
Far be it from me to dismiss the importance of talking about the misery of the animals in industry. It remains essential to widely publicize how much such suffering needs to end. I simply want to stress some of the limitations of reducing our discourses to the horrors of what animals go through. “The focus on suffering,” writes Sunaura Taylor (2017, 147), “[…] offers only a limited understanding of animals as beings with interests, allowing people to continue to devalue animal lives.” Because most people believe that animals can be owned and used, because animals are not really recognized as masters of their own lives with the right to choose what kinds of lives they want to lead, it becomes easier to devalue their lived realities. We need to work on our social imaginary, and how it shapes how we relate to animals, value their points of view, and listen to their own expressions. By shifting the ways we see animals, and by claiming their right to autonomy—one of the most ambitious rights we can bestow on them—, we can dismantle the powerful justifications that serve to legitimate and ignore their conditions in the first place. It is perhaps by painting this utopia, where animals are treated as free and equal co-creators of the world, that we will inspire our human fellows to end the current oppressive state of affairs.
Author’s note: apart from my own research on autonomy, this article draws on work by Jonathan Balcombe, Sue Donaldson, Will Kymlicka, Jason Hribal, Josephine Donovan, Valéry Giroux, and Sunaura Taylor.
Balcombe, Jonathan. “Animal Pleasure and Its Moral Significance.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 118 (2009): 208–216.
Colling, Sarat. Animal Resistance in the Global Capitalist Era. Michigan University Press, 2020.
Côté-Boudreau, Frédéric. “Inclusive Autonomy: A Theory of Freedom for Everyone.” Queen’s University, 2019.
Donaldson, Sue, and Will Kymlicka. “Rethinking Membership and Participation in an Inclusive Democracy: Cognitive Disability, Children, Animals.” In Disability and Political Theory, edited by Barbara Arneil and Nancy Hirschmann, 168–197. Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Donovan, Josephine. “Feminism and the Treatment of Animals: From Care to Dialogue.” Signs 31, no. 2 (2006): 305–329.
Hribal, Jason C. “Animals, Agency, and Class: Writing the History of Animals from Below.” Human Ecology Review 14, no. 1 (2007): 101–112.
MacKenzie, Catriona, and Natalie Stoljar, eds. Relational Autonomy: Feminist Essays on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self. Oxford University Press, 2000.
MacKinnon, Catharine A. “Of Mice and Men: A Feminist Fragment on Animal Rights.” In Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, edited by Cass R. Sunstein and Martha Craven Nussbaum, 263–276. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Stoljar, Natalie. “Autonomy and Adaptive Preference Formation.” In Autonomy, Oppression, and Gender, edited by Andrea Veltman and Mark Piper, 227–252. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Taylor, Sunaura. Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation. New Press, 2017.