Some of the most important, influential, and original texts on the standing of animals have, in recent years, been written not by philosophical ethicists but by political theorists such as Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka (2011), Robert Garner (2013), Alasdair Cochrane (2012), and Siobhan O'Sullivan (2011). What follows will argue that their work is partly constitutive of a "political turn" in the discourse of animal rights. Section I will try to shed some light on this idea of a political turn and its driving motivations. Sections II and III will try to show that the turn involves a simultaneous constraining of conceptions of human/animal equality and a broadened appeal to liberal political values. Section IV will address a concern that such a constrained conception of equality, and the allied pragmatism which goes with it, may drive the turn toward rapprochement with animal exploitation through an abandonment of the project of animal liberation. I will suggest that such a danger only arises if key commitments of the turn are combined with a further set of commitments concerning autonomy and agency, commitments that are best left behind. The concluding section, V, will briefly comment on the merits of the kind of discourse that the turn (so far) has involved.Milligan argues
It is no great secret that some of the most important, influential, and original texts on the standing of animals have, in recent years, been written by political theorists rather than (in the manner of Peter Singer and Tom Regan) philosophical ethicists. Here, I have in mind various texts by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka (2011), Robert Garner (2013), Alasdair Cochrane (2012), and Siobhan O'Sullivan (2011), among others. Their political background has, as we might expect, shaped their tone and sense of relevance. However, a stronger claim can be made: that their work is partly constitutive of a "political turn" in what, for lack of a better way of putting matters, I will call the discourse of "animal rights." (With the latter serving as a placeholder for talk about liberation, various sorts of robust concern, entitlements, and care as well as rights in the strict sense.) In what follows, the first section will try to shed some light on this idea of a political turn and some light also upon its driving motivations. Sections II and III will try to show that the turn involves a simultaneous constraining of conceptions of human/animal equality and a broadened appeal to liberal political values. Section IV will address a concern that such a constrained conception of equality, and the allied pragmatism which goes with it, may drive the turn toward rapprochement with animal exploitation through an abandonment of the project of animal liberation. I will suggest that such a danger only arises if key commitments of the turn are combined with a further set of commitments concerning autonomy and agency, commitments which are best left behind. ...
As a provisional gloss, the turn toward the political has emerged in response to two familiar fracture lines within the animal rights discourse. On the one hand, the longstanding dispute about whether to focus with Peter Singer (1995) upon animal interests or with Tom Regan (2003) upon explicit claims about rights. The suggestion of at least some of the authors mentioned above (conspicuously Robert Garner and Alasdair Cochrane) is that, in retrospect, there is much less to this dispute than has sometimes been imagined. It emerged, in a sense, out of an agreed-upon but problematic conception of rights, one in which the possession of special features, such as autonomous rational agency or being the subject-of-a-life, was required to underpin rights claims. The alternative conception, in which rights require only an interest which is strong enough to support the attribution of duties on the part of others, has always been less cognitively demanding, and hence more inclusive. As such, it looks like it should always have been the best option for any comparably inclusive theory of animal rights (Feinberg, 1971/1980). The implication is that the Singer/Regan debate emerged largely out of a mistaken allegiance to the losing side in the rights wars.
On the other hand, and perhaps more conspicuously, the turn texts have been a response to the influential contrast which Gary Francione (1996; also 2000 and 2008) has drawn between "abolitionism" (a true defense of animal rights) and "new welfarism" (which ineffectively champions welfare-based animal interests while often masquerading as a rights discourse). Commitment to abolitionism entails opposition to reforms (and to campaigning for reforms) which modify rather than end exploitative practices. It is closely allied to extinctionism, the view that where animal dependency upon humans is entrenched (as it is with most domesticated animals) the creatures concerned should be prevented from breeding in order to prevent a similar abusive dependency in the future. Such animals (including companion animals) should be bred out of existence in order to avoid further rights violations by people like us. Abolitionism of this sort, while influential in the United States, has been more cautiously received elsewhere, and has been reframed by critics as a form of "fundamentalism" or "puritanism." Robert Garner (Francine & Garner, 2010) uses "fundamentalism," whereas I have used "puritanism" in the past (Milligan, 2010), although both terms risk missing the extent to which abolitionism has itself tended to fracture into multiple and rival positions (Milligan, 2015).
The texts of the political turn share with a Francione-style abolitionism (hereafter, simply "abolitionism") the view that we need a replacement approach toward animal rights that will take the place of the first-wave Singer and Regan theories. However, they uniformly regard abolitionism as a poor candidate. Indeed, Robert Garner's published debate with Gary Francione conveys a good idea of the differing pragmatic-versus-uncompromising temperaments of those involved (Francine & Garner, 2010). At times, any real communication breaks down as each pursue their separate agendas. Even so, given that abolitionism is itself subject to fractures, there is the possibility that a sufficiently nuanced version might eventually converge with the turn texts over a range of matters. This does raise the tempting prospect that we might set out a "necessary and sufficient conditions" account of the turn, which could automatically exclude any such prospect. Alternatively, we might try to understand the turn by specifying what it involves "for the most part" or "to an extent," and this is an approach that will not automatically generate a clear exclusion of all future abolitionist positions. My general methodological inclinations are sympathetic to the latter option for a familiar reason: necessary and sufficient conditions approaches within ethics, politics, and social theory tend to generate micro-industries around the discovery of exceptions, the specification of odd cases and outliers. We may then find that we want to include or to exclude something but the specified necessary and sufficient conditions prevent us from doing so.
In line with this, I will be concerned with what "largely holds," what is true "up-to-a-point," or true "in many cases." When it comes to the identification of a shift in the focus of the animal rights discourse (albeit a localized shift), it is not obvious that we need to ask for anything more. In line with this, it may readily be conceded that no individual text exemplifies all of the relevant politicizing commitments that are listed below, and that a rival list with only some of the same entries might also capture a good deal. Yet, the list is not arbitrary. It is not a chance configuration. There are, as we shall see, piecemeal reasons why these commitments hang together.
i. A broadening of the appeal to liberal values.
ii. The return to a strong emphasis upon animal interests but in the context of a rights theory rather than a Singer-style consequentialism.
iii. An emphasis upon positive rights rather than negative rights or welfare considerations alone.
iv. A downgrading of the argument from marginal cases so that it is called upon to play only a peripheral role.
v. A broadly pragmatic attitude towards political engagement and compromise.
The final claim comes close to being a consequence of the others. At least, we can understand why someone who was committed to (i)–(iv) might look sympathetically upon (v). The list is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather symptomatic. There are other claims, or at least commitments that I should like to include, and from which a fuller treatment of this issue might benefit, e.g. commitments such as the consideration of animal interests as part of the common good or the inclusion of animals within the scope of a theory of justice. However, the list as given includes enough to make sense of the idea that a distinctive and, up to a point, cohesive series of moves have been made. The list also includes both considerations of value (and how to capture or express claims about value) and a more explicitly strategic orientation. And here, it is my contention that these two have come to be closely related. That is to say, a broadly pragmatic political outlook has shaped a conception of how questions of value are best framed and answered, with a resulting downgrading of the argument from marginal cases and an increased emphasis upon the tension between our treatment of animals and those liberal values which are supposed to govern political life in democratic societies. Moreover, while most of the above commitments do not automatically exclude abolitionism, there is clearly a difficulty with regard to such pragmatism.
However, this consideration alone may be less significant than it seems. The same is, after all, true of Donaldson and Kymlicka's Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (2011), which argues not simply for animal rights but for animal citizenship, and this might arguably make it an instance of utopian discourse as far from pragmatism as any existing abolitionist text. Yet I have taken Zoopolis to be one of the standing exemplars of a political turn text, albeit one that may strike us as significantly different from the other exemplary texts. Therefore, we might be inclined to secure a clearer exclusion of abolitionism by insisting that pragmatism is a non-negotiable political-turn feature. Other matters might be "up to a point" but we could insist that this really is a necessary precondition. Such an exclusion would have to sacrifice Donaldson and Kymlicka (2011) but the sacrifice might seem to be worthwhile.
Here, I will offer three considerations against any such move. First, it would involve a reversion to the model of "necessary and sufficient conditions" discourse and we have (as previously indicated) good reasons of a general theoretical sort to regard the latter as problematic. Second, the way in which Donaldson and Kymlicka (2011) line up with turn texts on other matters seems far from coincidental and makes such an exclusion suspect, too focused upon a single consideration. What motivates the other turn texts also, and very clearly, motivates this text. We may, for example, attend to the insistence upon point (iii) for a rights framework that extends far beyond the negative rights that have been the primary focus of Francione (2008) and, to some extent, Regan (2004, see also 2001 and 2003). For understandable reasons, animal rights theorists have always tended to place the greatest emphasis upon the ending of various harmful practices such as slaughter and intrusive experimentation (some, most, or all). But this alone tells us little about the end-game of animal rights. It tells us little about what kinds of defensible human–animal relations might be put in place after, or instead of, animal exploitation. It tells us about entitlements to be left alone rather than positive entitlements to inclusion and support by the political community. Abolitionism solves the problem by fell-swoop by embracing extinctionism. Donaldson and Kymlicka (2011), together with all of the other texts cited, treat this option as morally indefensible as well as politically unrealistic.
And so the thought has been that a more robust and positive conception of rights is needed. The strongest way in which this can be done is to follow Donaldson and Kymlicka and to insist not simply upon the consideration of animal interests, but to insist upon the consideration of such interests as part of the common good. (And these two are not the same.) From this, we can begin to see the ways in which the individual commitments, which are set out above, connect with one another in a manner that makes any comprehensive disentangling impractical. Nor is it obvious that we must regard pragmatism as an exception to this entangling in order to make room for Donaldson and Kymlicka. There is, arguably, a deep level of pragmatism in their work, particularly in its driving motivation of responding to both abolitionism and extinctionism, albeit this is a level of pragmatism that does not prevent their articulation of a broadly utopian position.
Finally, it is not obvious that any effectively motivating and cohesive discourse of animal rights, even one which is broadly pragmatic, could actually afford to dispense entirely with a utopian strand, even if only in the shape of what John Rawls has referred to as the realizable utopia of an "ideal theory" (Rawls, 1971). Indeed, Robert Garner has recently drawn upon the latter in order to provide constraints to ensure that a reasonable pragmatism (in the shape of a "non-ideal theory"), which falls short of the best imaginable outcome, does not make the latter harder to achieve (Garner, 2013). Here, we stray again into a broader domain of political theory without any reassurance that animal politics will function in an exceptional way: utopian imagery may work its way into more pragmatic discourses and cannot perhaps be permanently exiled from the latter, but this is a general problem for political theory and not in any way a special issue for animal rights.