Do humans need animals for their existence?


Sue Donaldson

is a freelance writer and lives in Canada. She has published "Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights" with Will Kymlicka.

How can people deal with animals on the basis of justice? Sue Donaldson dares a philosophical thought experiment on how to improve the current situation. She advocates a tiered approach to dealing with animals. And draws the main features of a political theory of animal rights.

When the dog leads people: a guide dog is not only an everyday helper, but also a caregiver and partner. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

Since the advent of the modern animal rights movement in the 1960s, philosophers have made various arguments explaining why it is wrong for us humans to harm or kill animals for our benefit. Theorists have asserted the demands of animals for fundamental rights, freedoms and protection by focusing on the intrinsic properties of animals and their concerns as sentient beings. Well-known books such as "Animal Liberation" (Peter Singer) and "The Case for Animal Rights" (Tom Regan) called for the liberation of animals from human violence and exploitation and, in the words of Tom Regan, that humans "leave them alone ".

However, there is surprisingly little in these well-known animal rights theories about how we should live and deal with animals once we stop hunting them, fishing them, keeping them as farm animals, eating them, wearing them as clothing and with them Try to do. What types, if any, of human-animal relationships are acceptable? The notion that we can just "leave them alone" is clearly insufficient when it comes to domesticated animals, from which we have bred billions to live in society, to be dependent on and useful for us to be. We must take seriously our duties arising from this long history of domestication and exploitation of animals. This also applies to wild animals, which, although they are less directly dependent on us, are clearly influenced by human activity (e.g. by building, resource exploitation, pollution and climate change). In fact, it is increasingly the case that the only "wild" animals that remain today are those that can coexist with humans and adapt to our society and evolution, so simply leaving animals alone is not adequate answer. We must reflect on our obligation to share the planet with them and live as we can in conditions of justice and mutual welfare.We cannot avoid relationships and interactions with animals; so we need to consider how to develop just relationships, not just how to prevent unjust ones, recognizing that different kinds of animals need and want different kinds of relationships with us (e.g. domesticated animals as opposed to wildlife).

Mary Midgley's "Animals and Why They Matter" focused on the moral meaning of our relationships with different types of animals. And in the ecofeminist and caring ethical tradition, the question of how we coexist with animals is addressed through different types of contextual and relational ethics of attention, dialogue and empathy (Donovan & Adams 2007; Adams & Gruen 2014). At Zoopolis, Will Kymlicka and I have a different approach. We look at the question from the perspective of a political theory that focuses on political relationships between groups and not just on interpersonal, ethical relationships. Political theorists deal primarily with the question of the justice of political bodies and governance. How do we ensure that the social, economic and political institutions and practices of society (cooperative systems) are fair to all members of a society, and also to those of neighboring societies?

The standard answers of political theory to these questions essentially agree that a system of cooperation is fair insofar as it:
  • is inclusive (all members of society are citizens unless they voluntarily give up their status);
  • is egalitarian (governing is in the interests of all members / citizens equally);
  • is legitimate (self-governing through the consent and participation of those governed, who are understood as co-authors of the law);
  • is outwardly fair (relationships with other constitutions are carried out on the basis of fair cooperation conditions).
However, Western political theory forgets the fact that we live and have always lived in inter-species constitutions and that we live alongside other inter-species societies. When we become aware of this reality, the question arises: How can we domestically ensure that the social, economic, and political organs and practices of our own interspecies society are fair to all members of our society, and how can we - from a non-state perspective - interact fairly with neighboring inter-species societies and constitutions?

To respond to this challenge, Zoopolis provides a three-category framework for how we can view membership within inter-species societies and relationships between inter-species societies.

Domesticated, animal citizens

Domesticated animals came into human society by being captured or purposefully bred. Most of these animals are dependent on our care, which eliminates the (immediate) possibility of a more independent existence. We forced them to participate in our systems of social cooperation and exploited them for food and work. They share a community with us, but in that community they form a caste or class subordinate to us; every aspect of their lives is governed by a human political order that largely ignores, steers and regulates their interests as such. How do we transform the caste hierarchy into a relationship shaped by justice? Just as in human caste systems, justice depends on recognizing the full and equal membership of subordinate groups, and citizenship is the means by which we change hierarchical caste relationships in relationships of equal members. Domesticated animals should therefore be recognized as full members and common citizens of society who have the same rights in terms of protection (fundamental rights to life and freedom), care (social rights such as medical care and labor rights) and participation (a say in how society is structured). Under these conditions, the exercise of power inherent in governing a common human-animal society can be legitimate, not tyrannical, because that society cares for the welfare of all its members.

Enabling domesticated animals to have a say is challenging, but the same is true for many groups of people (such as young children). In this regard, there are also various models of guardianship, trusteeship or "trust-based, dependent action" (Donaldson & Kymlicka 2016; Garner & O’Sullivan 2016). In no case should one underestimate the skills of communication, cooperation and the ability to act of domesticated animals. Domestication is only possible with animals that are able to enter into trusting relationships with humans, to communicate with one another and to obey rules. Therefore domestication makes an extension of the concept of citizenship to animals not only morally necessary, but also possible.


Wildlife is subject to human invasion, colonization, displacement and habitat destruction. We treat their areas as terra nullius, which we pollute, cut down, dismantle and colonize without a specific claim. How can we prevent such injustice? When it comes to politics that take place between people, we try to prevent this kind of colonization by recognizing the rights of peoples to their own territory and to territorial autonomy. Relations between peoples or states are governed by principles of sovereignty. They grant territorially limited, political communities the right to maintain themselves as functioning, self-governing societies on traditional territories or home countries. Sovereignty provides protection from outsiders who would displace peoples, steal their land and resources, turn them into dependent states, or place unfair burdens on them (such as cross-border pollution). Sovereignty also offers a secure basis from which fair cooperation conditions can be negotiated (e.g. trade and mobility rights) and forms of mutual support and intervention can be agreed that do not undermine the respective autonomy. Zoopolis advocates that the same principles apply to wildlife and, in fact, this is not a completely new idea. North American indigenous communities have a long history of political thought involving wildlife communities as nations or as peoples with whom one has a contract (Simpson 2011). Wildlife communities should be conceived of as having a sovereign "right to reside" that prevents human aggression. Our relationship with these wildlife communities should be governed by the norms of international justice - as a true "law of peoples" between human and wild animal communities - and not, as before, with brutal violence.

What applies to the citizenship of domesticated animals is also necessary for the enforcement of the sovereignty of wild animals: a certain creative adaptation to the respective circumstances. For example, while some wild animals live in reclaimed habitats, other wild animals migrate over large areas on land, water or in the air. However, various models have already been developed that deal with partial, overlapping, intermediate or sub-state sovereignty rights. This is accompanied by ideas of travel corridors and international commons, with which these complex structures can be approached in such a way that underlying rights to territory and autonomy are preserved (Hadley 2015).

Animals in the threshold area

Not all animals can be neatly classified either as our fellow citizens (full members of a common system of cooperation) or as members of another sovereign society (other nations populating certain areas). We are also home to an increasing number of non-domesticated (or formerly domesticated) animals such as rats, mice, squirrels, crows, raccoons, pigeons, street dogs, coyotes, and myriad other species. However, they are not part of the common system of cooperation like domesticated animals. At the moment, these "cross-border commuters in the threshold area" have no protection from human violence. They are treated as pests, intruders or aliens and are often ruthlessly killed or driven away. To a certain extent, they share a corresponding vulnerability with "threshold area learners" that exist even among people who are not citizens, for example migrant workers, foreign visitors or isolated religious groups such as the Amish not sharing citizenship with us) are all susceptible to stigmatization or exploitation. One way to limit this vulnerability is to give residents the option of citizenship. However, some residents may not want to become citizens at all and are more likely to choose one loose relationship in the sense of a tolerant co-existence with few mutual obligations. And this type of agreement is also useful for many animals in the threshold area. It is doubtful whether they would benefit from it (or at all would be able) to live in such a space enter close and interpersonal citizenship relationships as we can have with domesticated animals. While citizenship guarantees extensive rights to care and protection, it also imposes extensive obligations when it comes to social norms, cooperation and participation. In order to integrate threshold animals into these civil society norms, one would have to exert massive coercion and intervene in their way of life. What non-domesticated animals living with us need is protected resident status: they must be protected from our violence, our disregard for their interests, and our refusal to respect their rights to residence. They need a tolerant coexistence or good company rather than the closely related cooperation that citizenship would bring.

This three-part representation of political relationships between groups is of course schematic and preliminary, and any attempt at implementation will quickly show that there are gray areas and difficult-to-assess cases. But the reasoning that we present in Zoopolis is that the concepts and blueprints of political theory - this includes territory, borders, citizenship, resident status, sovereignty, legitimacy, representation, residence and tolerance - can clarify the question how people can deal with animals on the basis of justice.


Adams, Carol J. & Lori Gruen (2014) Ecofeminism: Feminist intersections with other animals & the earth (Bloomsbury).

Donaldson, Sue & Will Kymlicka (2011) Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (Oxford). [German: Donaldson, Sue & Will Kymlikca (2013) Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (Suhrkamp)].

Donaldson, Sue & Will Kymlicka (2017) “Rethinking Membership and Participation in an Inclusive Democracy: Cognitive Disability, Children, Animals” in Barbara Arneil and Nancy Hirschmann (eds) Disability and Political Theory (Cambridge University Press).

Donovan, Josephine & Carol J. Adams (2007) The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics (Columbia).

Garner, Robert & Siobhan O’Sullivan (2016) The Political Turn in Animal Ethics (Rowman & Littlefield).

Hadley, John (2015) Animal Property Rights: A theory of habitat rights for wild animals (Lexington Books).

Midgley, Mary (1983) Animals and Why They Matter (University of Georgia).

Regan, Tom (1983) The Case for Animal Rights (University of California).

Simpson, Leanne (2011) Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg re-creation, resurgence and a new emergence (ARP Books).

Singer, Peter (1975) Animal Liberation (Harper Collins).