Alasdair Cochrane

What are the political implications of animal sentience? Should the fact that many animals can suffer and experience joy affect how we do politics? And if so, how?

Most states are in agreement that the sentience of animals means something politically. The vast majority of countries across the world possess animal welfare laws which mandate how sentient animals ought and ought not to be treated. Some states have gone even further than this: India, Brazil, Slovenia, Switzerland and Germany, for example, have added animal welfare provisions to their constitutions. France, Belgium and the New Zealand have all taken steps to legally recognise the sentience of animals – granting them a legal status above mere ‘property’. And when there was public outcry when the UK Parliament omitted an existing animal welfare provision as part of its EU Withdrawal Bill, it prompted Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to issue a Ministerial statement declaring that it is beyond question that animals are sentient, that existing UK legislation already recognizes this fact, and that further changes to acknowledge animal sentience will be made as the UK leaves the EU.

But what do all these provisions actually mean for animals themselves?

In a nutshell, they appear to mean that sentient animals have a certain ‘moral worth’ – a moral worth which must be ‘considered’ by policy makers when formulating and implementing laws.

However, if this is the sole political implication of animal sentience, we cannot say that politics does much for the lives of animals themselves. Animal welfare legislation, constitutional provisions and changes to animals’ legal status have proved perfectly compatible with the horror and brutality of modern industrialised animal agriculture, for example. When push comes to shove, political respect for the worth of sentient animals is easily sacrificed for the commercial interests of human beings.

In light of this, proponents of animal rights have argued that the worth of sentient animals has far more radical political implications. They argue that the sentience of animals establishes a set of rights which should not just limit harmful practices, but rule them out. For example, animal rights do not just call for animal welfare be a ‘consideration’ when framing agricultural policy; instead, animal rights call for industrialised animal agriculture to be brought to an end.

I am in broad agreement with this animal rights position and have defended it in previous work. However, in my latest book, Sentientist Politics, I argue that the political implications of animal sentience are even more radical than this.

To explain, consider the implications of the worth and rights of human beings. Human worth obviously limits the harms that can be perpetrated against them, as laws relating to working conditions and so on illustrate; and human rights demand that certain practices, like torture, slavery, murder and so on, are completely outlawed. But human worth and human rights have even greater political significance than this. For it is widely held that the worth and rights of human beings shape the aims and structure of politics itself. Indeed, if the exercise of power by some over others can be justified at all, the most plausible rationale is surely to respect and protect those who are subject to it. The aim of politics, on this view, is to uphold the worth and rights of humans.

But if sentient animals also have moral worth and rights, then it seems as if the worth and rights of all sentient creatures – and not just humans – ought to shape the aims and structure of politics. In other words, the sentience of animals does not just require us to limit or rule out certain harmful practices, but requires us to transform the nature of politics itself. The political implications of animal sentience are radical indeed.

In Sentientist Politics, then, I set about sketching, very broadly, what such a political system might look like. The book doesn’t offer a fine-grained institutional blueprint of these new political arrangements, in part because it seems that a good deal of institutional innovation and experimentation will be required. But it is also clear that some forms of institutions will serve sentient creatures better than others.

To take just one example, one of the most important claims of the book is that sentient creatures are best protected by democratic institutions. Democratic institutions are required because showing respect to the interests of sentient creatures demands a political system with a close understanding of what those interests are. In other words, our system must have mechanisms through which individuals can articulate their interests, have them discussed and have them properly represented in policy-making. What this amounts to, then, is a call for a political system which is participative, deliberative and representative.

But the book also claims that these democratic institutions should contain dedicated animal representatives. This is because leaving the representation of animals to legislators who are also charged with representing humans is likely to lead to the neglect of animals; indeed, animals’ inability to participate directly in systems of policy-making means that their interests are always vulnerable to sacrifice.  So if animal interests are to be acknowledged and weighed fairly in our political system, they must be represented by officials who are dedicated to identifying those interests and speaking on their behalf.

How we institutionalise such representation is obviously a very tricky issue. How can we be sure that these representatives will be effective? How can we hold them to account? How can they manage conflicts of interests both between humans and animals, but also between animals themselves?

And yet, with some imagination, such difficulties are not insurmountable. Indeed many of them are extensions of familiar problems in the representation of humans. In terms of effective representation, the book argues that animal representatives must be required and trained to seek out, listen to and communicate with their constituents. It further argues that these representatives ought to be selected in periodic elections. While the electorate which selects these animal representatives will inevitably be made up of humans, the book proposes that ‘deliberative citizen assemblies’ may provide a useful means to overcome humans’ self-interest when making such selections.

Such representation would have profound effects on how our political systems operate. Agricultural policy would no longer be focused on raising animals to feed to humans, but would be turned to the question of how we can achieve food security for all sentient animals. The health and well-being of animals would become a legitimate focus of public health policy. Town planning and public transport would have to take into account the access and movement of animals, both wild and domesticated. Labour policy would need to acknowledge the existence of a whole range of ‘non-human workers’. And so on.  Politics would be transformed. In sum, Sentientist Politics calls on us to view animals as the subjects of political power that they are, and the agents of political change that they might be.