Zoopolis (2) - Animal Citizens

This morning's New York Times has two horrifying stories about the treatment of animals -- one about horse racing in America, and the other about dog-dumping in Puerto Rico.  In the US, the report says, 24 horses die in horse races every week, mostly as a result of the use of pain medication to mask injuries.  In Puerto Rico, there's a place called Dead Dog Beach, where people abandon surplus puppies.  Nice.  Against that background, it feels a little academic to dive into a discussion of whether domesticated animals should be granted citizenship.  This is the kind of thing people argue about furiously, but only in vegan restaurants.

Speaking of which, there is a really good new vegan restaurant in Dallas--the V Spot, on Henderson, just east of The Pearl Cup. This is the type of vegan restaurant it's really hard to find -- elegant and upscale, and with no faux meat or tofu to be seen.  The wild mushroom risotto is excellent, and the chocolate cake is to-die-for!  Expect a few bumps in the service, though.  This is a new restaurant, and they were inundated with guests when we went on a Friday night.  As a result, they kept running out of things.  Go with a flexible attitude, and I bet you will like it.

Anyhow.  Citizenship for animals.  Good idea?


Donaldson & Kymlicka argue that all sentient animals, everywhere, have negative rights.  They may not be eaten or worn or used in medical experiments.  As far as that goes, they are in the same camp as the ur-animal-rights philosopher Tom Regan, "abolitionist" Gary Francione, and other ARTists (animal rights theorists).

As I said in my last post, I'm skeptical about applying this sort of very strong rights talk to animals.  It presupposes that the whole foundation of strong rights (or "inviolability", as D&K put it) is a very minimal subjective point of view -- being a someone, as opposed to a something. I think that's implausible, and rights are not actually intrinsic, but "constructed" out of much more varied and heterogeneous materials than simple subjectivity.  NB:  we have lots of strong reasons to take animals seriously, even if we don't go along with heavy-duty rights talk.

But never mind.  Suppose that all sentient animals do have strong negative rights.  D&K argue that we must go much further.  The domesticated animals of the US should be granted citizenship here, and the domesticated animals of Canada should be granted citizenship there, etc.  Other animals, wild (lions, deer) and semi-wild (rats, squirrels) just have negative rights, and aren't entitled to citizenship.  They put the citizenship view forward as a competitor to the abolitionist view that the relationship between humans and domesticated animals is irredeemable.  The "enemy" in this book is the view that it would be best for domesticated animals to go extinct, and for a chasm to separate humans from the rest of animals, living independent, dignified lives "out there" beyond us.

Animal citizenship would benefit animals in lots of ways. For example, dogs would have much more  freedom of movement.  Which brings me back to the V Spot.  Throughout our meal, we could hear a dog barking behind the restaurant.  After dinner, we saw the dog was tethered to a short leash attached to a rail.  This restriction of animal movement keeps animals second class and less visible, say the authors. In France, they claim, you see dogs in restaurants all the time, and there's no public health disaster as a result. Greater freedom of movement would also involve changes in these kinds of restrictions, abolishing leash laws, additional dog parks, etc..

Another difference is that domesticated animals would receive whatever government-mandated medical care exists in the country where they are citizens.  I take it the idea is that if there's national health care, it would have a veterinary wing. If there's mandatory health insurance, as under Obama's new health care system, somehow animals would have to receive health insurance too. In natural disasters, emergency workers would rescue domesticated animals along with people.  There wouldn't be any prioritizing of human victims.

The idea is not that animals would get to vote, via human proxies (or some such), but that there would be human representatives for animal interests, who would exercise their right to have input into public affairs for them.

One could take some of these items out of the "animal citizen" package and implement them, probably with wide public support. But what about the whole package--the idea that domesticated animals ought to be reclassified as full and equal citizens?  A less sympathetic reader will find this book comical, I think.  Talking about chicken citizens and cow citizens (they do talk this way) will just seem ludicrous.  I find it not so much ludicrous as deeply unrealistic.  But ... why?

Here's one worry I have:  any society can only incorporate so many dependent, non-contributing citizens.  We certainly incorporate dependent children as citizens, but down the line, we gain independent, contributing citizens as a result.  The better care we give to children as children, the more independent and contributing they are, later on.

D&K practically insure that their animal citizens will be non-contributing by placing major limits on their being put to work or used for resources.  Here they're talking about whether dogs and donkeys could be put to work in a place they call "Sheepville"--
We would need safeguards in place to ensure dogs or donkeys were not exploited in Sheepville.  For example, only dogs and donkeys who enjoy the work, and who enjoy the company of sheep (and of other working dogs and donkeys), would be considered. These animals would need to have the option of other activities (staying in bed, hanging out with humans, or sticking to a pasture with their own species, etc.) as a way of assessing their preference for guarding the sheep. And in any case, the hours of work would need to be strictly limited so the donkey or dog didn't feel that they were always on call.  With all these provisos in place, we an imagine that a life involving a limited number of hours of guard duty could be a deeply satisfying life--offering variety, the satisfactions of directed activity, and plenty of social contacts.
Animal citizens have to be pampered to this degree because we have only two real choices: pampering them and exploiting them.  There's no way to tell a dog he has to earn a living, help him make his own career choices, and encourage him to rationally come to terms with the fact that it can be pretty miserable and dull to work a 40-hour week.  If exploitation is ruled out, then we are talking about adding largely non-contributing citizens to the rolls.

Now, for people with dogs, of course dogs do contribute--they are wonderful companions, and people with pets happily take care of them. The question is whether other citizens, who don't get the benefit of this companionship, ought to have the amount of responsibility for animals that comes with elevating then to citizen status. Dogs and cats contribute little or nothing to them.

The inevitable interjection from D&K will be something about people with severe disabilities.  They can be virtually non-contributing too, but no one doubts they should be citizens, and that the public should collectively accommodate and provide for them.  The thing is, though, that people with severe disabilities are the parents, children, siblings, future selves, and past selves, of human citizens.  To draw an analogy between people with disabilities and animals, you've got to think none of these relationships make any moral difference. Most people think they do.


Despite these misgivings, I think this this book is thoughtful, clear, original, and interesting. It's a must read for anyone who "does" animal ethics, and would make a great reading in a course on animal rights.  It's a great question whether we just have obligations to animals, or they also have full-blown rights; and if they do have rights, whether it makes sense to elevate some animals to full citizenship.  Two more chapters to go--on wild and semi-wild animals.


Wayne said...

why does contributions to society always have to be in some kind of service, or activity? Why can't they just be, and contribute to society? I'm thinking of aesthetics here. Cats and dogs are aesthetically pleasing, or at least most of them are. And that adds a salient, but often overlooked, value to the society.

Jean Kazez said...

I can't imagine adding another 100 million citizens in the US who contribute to the general good aesthetically, but don't pay taxes, can't contribute to all the institutions that will support them (courts, vet. hospitals, fire and rescue, etc). Citizenship is much more than carving out some sort of space in the moral community for animals--it's carving out a very demanding type of space.

David Duffy said...

Do D & K discuss the ethics of cat food in that context?

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, they do. They say it's much more complex having a cat than a dog, because it's harder to meet a cat's nutritional requirements without animal products. Actually, as I recall they say if you're going to have a cat, you may also have to have a chicken--so the cat can be fed eggs. These are both going to be animal citizens... both the cat and the chicken.