Animals as Citizens: A Response to Will Kymlicka

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The distinguished political philosopher Will Kymlicka recently spoke at the Carnegie Council as part of the Council’s Ethics Matter series. During his talk Kymlicka briefly touched on animal rights as a legitimate ethical concern. Although philosophers such as Peter Singer derive animal rights from the intrinsic value of animals as complex beings, Kymlicka informed the audience (and defends in his recent book, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights) that he believes any normative grounding for animal rights properly lies within a political citizenship framework—in considering animals as citizens.

Theoretically, citizenship for Kymlicka integrates three prongs: nationality, popular sovereignty, and democratic political agency (Zoopolis, pp. 55-57). First, citizenship means nationality—the right to reside territorially in a particular geographic area and the right to return if traveling abroad. Citizenship’s second prong, popular sovereignty, denotes the liberal theory that a state belongs to the people of that state, not to, say, God or God’s earthly political extension, like an absolute monarch. The third prong of citizenship, democratic political agency, includes the personal capacity to, say, debate politics at a cocktail party or cast a vote.

This third prong, Kymlicka acknowledges, dominates the understanding of citizenship in contemporary political philosophy (Ibid., p. 57). He criticizes this popular stance by analogy to sectors of society with diminished political agency—children, the cognitively disabled, folks with dementia—who we would (and should) never exclude as fellow citizens; they still fully satisfy the first two prongs of his citizenship architecture. Kymlicka argues that, since they likewise have a reduced capacity to exercise political agency, yet also satisfy the first two prongs, animals have just as much reason to be considered citizens.

I’m wary of Kymlicka’s citizenship framework for substantiating animal rights normatively. First, any analogy to humans with limited political agency utterly ignores the essential notion that domesticated animals enter society largely for specific supportive functions (as companions or as food sources), so the animal-human relationship is fundamentally dissimilar at the onset from its human-human counterpart. Kymlicka also assumes a choice in residency: We may be born citizens of country Z, but we also have the option of rescinding our citizenship by moving permanently outside country Z; yet most domesticated animals I can think of have little if any autonomous choice in their residency within fences or homes. And any formal residency requirements for animal-citizens, however lax, might unduly restrict wildlife from movement vital to their existence—think of migration routes for breeding. Further, Kymlicka’s animals-as-citizens construction cannot accommodate the vast biological diversity found in the animal kingdom. Just compare the vastly different needs of the parrot and salmon with the near identical needs of the Russian and Peruvian.

I do agree with Kymlicka on one, crucial point: All animals, domestic and wild, should be respected and taken into political account. We have a responsibility to consider the animals we share this planet with when confronting pressing global issues like climate change, human development, even war. And I’m inclined to believe in animal rights, but, in contrast to Kymlicka, derived from their inherent dignity, and not from a framework of citizenship.


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