Could my dog be a citizen?

Maybe not, but Donaldson & Kymlicka’s new book invites us to ask why. I ordered it recently, and so far it’s a fascinating and much-needed addition to political theory. Rather than getting caught up in the stale rights/welfare morass, they venture into a territory that’s rich for humans but poor for everyone else: can we extend citizenship beyond the species line? Should we?

One thing I’ve wondered throughout, though, is whether their defense of nonhuman animal citizenship would fall apart without its grounding in animal rights theory (what they call ART). In any case, whether or not sentient nonhuman animals have fundamental rights by nature might be as meaningless a question on pragmatic grounds as whether humans have such rights: it’s clear that we need them whether they exist or not. (On this topic, I think Aikin and Talisse’s attack on Berlin’s value pluralism as “a difference about what is of value, not a difference about the nature of value” is a distinction without a difference. But this is a different discussion.)

The expansion of the domain of legal personhood to nonhuman animals would a monumental task, both conceptually and practically, as Posner and various others have pointed out. This is one of the reasons District Court Judge Jeffrey Miller was reluctant to acknowledge that the 13th Amendment applies to Orcas. Donaldson and Kymlicka do a good job of navigating this conceptual minefield, though, and they lay a useful foundation upon which political theorists can build, and through which we can hopefully broaden the scope of the debate over nonhuman animals to include their political, as well as their moral, status. This recent review by Steve Donoghue provides a good overview:

In our authors’ simple and elegant formulation, [animals’] inviolable rights come in three sub-sets, depending on the nature of the non-human animals involved. Wild animals are designated as members of separate, sovereign nations, entitled to protection against invasion, trafficking, enslavement – anything that curtails their right to self-determination. At the other end of the spectrum, fully domesticated animals should be seen not as property but as full-fledged members of the communities they share with humans. And the animals in the middle ground, ‘liminal’ species who aren’t domesticated but inhabit human spaces (raccoons, possums, coyotes, pigeons, hawks, etc), should be considered ‘denizens’ of those spaces – not full co-citizens like domesticated animals, but still deserving of fundamental respect (i.e. freedom from pogroms, poisonings, or random persecutions). In our authors’ view, it makes no difference that none of these animals advocate for such respect – the point here is that humans routinely extend these rights to members of their own species who likewise can’t advocate for them (infants and children, for instance, or the uneducated, or the mentally feeble, etc.), so a broader application is already ideologically warranted.

I agree with Donoghue that “Books like this – meticulously thought-out, very attractively reasoned, with no hint of screed – do inestimable good in their incremental way.” Again, though, I wonder if a conception of limited citizenship rights could be formulated without recourse to “universal inviolable rights”, which may present too big a stumbling block, especially when they butt directly against corresponding human rights and interests. If wild animal communities really do have something like sovereignty, an argument could be made that essentially all human settlements violate the property rights of burrowing rodents, for example. This may, or may not, be a silly question. Zoopolis is an important first step in asking it.

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