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Ioan-Radu Motoarcă (Ashman Law Offices, LLC), "Animal Voting Rights"
“Puppies, Pigs and Votes”
In 1792, British philosopher Thomas Taylor figured that the best way to demonstrate the absurdity of the notion of women’s rights was to argue that, if women have rights, then so do animals. Hence, in response to books like Mary Shelley’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Taylor produced a pamphlet entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes. The idea of animals’ rights was so far from making any sense to the likes of Taylor that its absurdity required no demonstration. And, in all fairness, given that slavery was a well-respected institution in certain parts of the world back then, perhaps it was natural for animals not to be a priority.
We have come a long way since then. Traditional slavery has been discarded (although it has been replaced by forced labor, forced marriage, and other exploitative practices), and women generally have more control over their choices now than in the 18th century. We have also come to recognize that animals have interests worthy of protection, and many countries, accordingly, have adopted laws protecting these interests.
This trend toward more freedom and more entitlements for previously disenfranchised categories of beings has had an impact in the sphere of political participation as well. In the U.S., for example, the right to vote has been gradually extended to women and Black voters, and facilitated for people with disabilities. Things are far from perfect, and there is still a lot of abuse, but there has been undeniable progress. We may therefore rightfully wonder how far it would be democratically reasonable to go in enfranchising various groups. An examination of recent proposals and debates in political theory/philosophy reveals that the answer is “pretty far.” For instance, it has been proposed that children as old as 12 or even 6 should be allowed to vote. Similarly, there are good arguments that undocumented immigrants or transients should be given the vote along with regular citizens of the country.
Some of the proposals just mentioned may be justified by reflection on the foundational question of who to include within the demos (the democratic community). Strangely enough, this question was largely ignored in democratic debate until around 30-40 years ago, as if who is part of the demos were so obvious that it’s not worth worrying about. But the realities of globalization have rendered this lackadaisical attitude unproductive. The question needs to be addressed and resolved.
The most prominent contemporary theories of who should be part of the democratic community focus either on all those whose interests are affected by the community’s laws and policies, or on all those who are subject to these laws and policies. The reasoning behind these views is that democracy entails that those governed by the laws of a community should have a say in the adoption of those laws. And, of course, that makes sense: why would a country’s laws assert their jurisdiction over me if I had no say in the making of those laws? According to these principles, then, the democratic community must be expanded to possibly include some children, undocumented non-citizens, and transients.
However, if the basis of being included in the democratic community is being affected by the laws and policies of that community, it is arguable that animals should also be included, because their
interests are also affected by the policies operational in whatever areas the animals are located. In this paper, I argue that the best justifications we have for who to include in the demos commit us to enfranchising animals as well.
But how is this going to work? Animals can’t go the polls and vote. That is correct, but there is the option of having human representatives vote on behalf of animals, in the same way that parents or guardians are empowered to take legal actions on behalf of children or wards. There are several problems that would have to be solved in practice, if this proposal is to work. First, we need to decide which animals should vote. I am not claiming that it is possible to take into account absolutely all species entitled to vote on some particular issue, but we could definitely provide at least for some species. For instance, it would be feasible to count pigs’ votes in an election where a candidate supported the abolition of animal farming. Similarly, monkeys and parrots in the Amazonian forest could have votes on policies concerning deforestation. The principle of one animal/one vote is likely not feasible, but we could settle on some proportionality principle.
Second, there is the problem of how exactly the human representatives will exercise their assignment. This organizational question may be solved in a variety of ways. One would be to have an appointed committee entitled to cast votes after receiving scientific reports from a politically neutral scientific organization detailing the impact of the policies under review on animals in the region. But other options are available as well.
Third, one may wonder what happens when it is not clear what the resulting animal vote should be, as when some species would be affected positively by a certain policy, and others negatively. In that case, we could adopt a policy of weighing the various interests at issue and divide the votes accordingly among the species, or, in extremely difficult cases, we may simply not have animals vote at all.
But even if all this could be made to work in practice, there are further conceptual issues. One is the notion that animals are not competent to vote, so isn’t it paradoxical to claim that they should vote? However, voting competence can be simulated pretty well by the apparatus of human representatives, as detailed above. More importantly, it is doubtful whether voting requires competence at all: if animals’ interests are more or less correctly represented in the outcomes of their proxy vote, it is not clear why we should require that animals themselves should be competent to vote. And last, coming up with an adequate competence criterion is really hard. However you try to specify such a criterion, it is likely that it will be under-inclusive and it will leave out some humans who would otherwise be entitled to vote.
Some may also think that we already have other tools for furthering animals’ rights, such as laws for the protection of animals. If only we made more and better such laws, we shouldn’t need to resort to animal voting. But these considerations do not affect the argument that animal voting rights are entailed by the principles at the foundation of our democratic commitments. Furthermore, animal protection laws are limited in scope and, considering the immense butchery going on every day in animal farms, these laws are cold comfort to the numerous animals that do not enjoy the protection of these laws.
Taylor ends his Vindication of the Rights of Brutes with the following remarks: “And thus much may suffice, for an historical proof, that brutes are equal to men. It only now remains (and this must be the province of some able hand) to demonstrate the same great truth in a similar manner, of vegetable, minerals, and even the most apparently contemptible clod of earth; that thus this sublime theory being copiously and accurately discussed, and its truth established by an indisputable series of facts, government may be entirely subverted, subordination abolished, and all things everywhere, and in every respect, be common to all.” In other words, where do we stop? Does accepting the notion that animals should vote mean that we should extend these rights further to plants and minerals?
I do not want to take a stand on this issue, but it has to be said that minerals and plants do not have interests in the same way that many animals do, because they lack conscious experience. However, they might have other kinds of interests that would warrant granting them rights to political participation as well. For instance, if you believe that certain ecosystems have intrinsic worth of some kind, it is not unimaginable that an argument for political rights of ecosystems could be made. It is all going to depend, ultimately, on whether nature’s interests are of a kind that are meant to be protected by the principles underlying the constitution of a democratic community.
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