Animal Autonomy

Animals and Anarchism

Non-human animals (and human animals) all currently suffer under the exploitation of Capitalism and The State. As Anarchists we espouse an ideology which asserts the primacy of autonomy: people should have as much direct control over their own lives as feasible insofar as their autonomy doesn’t infringe on the autonomy of others. Along with notions of free association, mutual aid and non-hierarchy.

I endeavor in this essay to assert two primary points:

1. The moral wrongness of the subjugation of animals

2. The coherence of applying Anarchist principles to non-human animals and the consequences of such application leading to animal use abolition

First, the contemporary subjugation of animals rests primarily on an assumption that non-human animals either lack moral consideration (any actions done towards or by non-human animals is without moral consequence) or that they lack personhood equivalent to human animals. This boils down to what is called speciesism, as Peter Singer put it:

“the racist violates the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of his own race, when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Similarly the speciesist allows the interests of his own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is the same in each case. (Singer 1974: 108)”

This speciesism, a necessary belief for the functioning of industrial animal farming, is without implicit justification; there is nothing self evident in species that provides humans or non-humans a moral difference. Capital must de-legitimize the moral status of non-human animals in order that the industry continue their exploitation, no different than the actions which promotes the European construction of Race and de-humanization of the poor.

Using the basis of species as the justification for harms inflicted on non-human animals requires one to ultimately accept either a total lack of existent morality or a religious narrative granting humans supremacy over all animals (similar to the narrative used to justify chattel slavery). Otherwise the question must be asked: what about being homo sapien conveys any moral ability to inflict pain, suffering and death on other animals? There isn’t one that doesn’t come from a point of divinity or amorality. The function of speciesism is primarily an after the fact justification for behavior that serves only the oppressor, similar to the construction of race to justify slavery:

“Some argue, for example, that racism is not simply, or even primarily about discrimination and prejudice, but rather a mechanism of dehumanizing blackness so as to provide the conditions that makes humans white (see Fanon 1967; Kim 2015; Ko& Ko 2017). According to this line of thought, speciesism isn’t focused on discrimination or prejudice but is a central tool for creating human (and white) supremacy or exceptionalism.” [2]

The history of this is apparent in historical attempts to define BIPOC as something distinct from Whiteness. Using eugenics and phony-science as propaganda to justify the oppression of non-white people with the goal post of whiteness constantly moving to serve the ruling class. So if there is not an argument to be made from species, the omnivore might make the argument that it is the special qualities of humans that justify our domination over non-human animals.

Human exceptionalism “is to suggest that there are distinctly human capacities and it is on the basis of these capacities that humans have moral status and other animals do not”[3]. This assertion falls over when we consider that “developing family ties, solving social problems, expressing emotions, starting wars, having sex for pleasure, using language, or thinking abstractly, are…[not]…unique to [being] human. Both scholarly and popular work on animal behavior suggests that many of the activities that are thought to be distinct to humans occurs in non-humans.”[3] Some people will use human exceptionalism to conclude that non-human animals simply don’t ‘feel as we do’ but “Darwin reported this in The Descent of Man: “So intense is the grief of female monkeys for the loss of their young, that it invariably caused the death of certain kinds” (1871: 40). Jane Goodall’s report of the death of the healthy 8 year old chimpanzee Flint just three weeks after the death of his mother Flo also suggests that sorrow can have a devastating effect on non-human animals (see Goodall 2000: 140–141 in Bekoff 2000). Coyotes, elephants and killer whales are also among the species for which profound effects of grief have been reported (Bekoff 2000)” and “there are some non-humans whose lives are characterized by expressions of joy, playfulness, and a great deal of sex (Woods 2010)” [3].

If we attempt to even hold the belief that humans are somehow deeply different from other animals the science shows us that we are wrong in this belief [4]. Finally, in a way deeply reminiscent of the Imperial State and Capital’s desire to remove personhood from BIPOC and the poor to further exploitation for the elite, the omnivore may attempt to negate the personhood of non-human animals. “The notion of personhood identifies a category of morally considerable beings” [5]. 

Personhood has been attempted to be defined as the ability to reflect and make decisions in light of a perceived self, as done by Christine Korsgaard when asserting that humans tackle ‘normativity’ in a way non-human animals don’t. If we take Korsgaard at her word then we must at the same time assert that “many humans are not persons. Some humans—i.e., infants, children, people in comas—do not have the rational, self-reflective capacities associated with personhood.” [6]. This ableist view is obviously untenable in a Anarchist framework because it supports a defacto hierarchy of abled humans over disabled humans. Therefore to reject this articulation of personhood we are brought into necessary equality both with all of humanity and all non-human animals. As Tom Regan puts it:

“[living beings] want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and pain, our enjoyment and suffering, our satisfaction and frustration, our continued existence or our untimely death—all make a difference to the quality of our life as lived, as experienced, by us as individuals. As the same is true of … [non-human] animals … they too must be viewed as the experiencing subjects of a life, with inherent value of their own. (Regan 1985: 24)”

As humans we experience these realities of pleasure and pain, as do non-human animals. There is functionally no distinction that can realistically be made between humans and other animals which holds up under scrutiny without at the same time denigrating many humans to a place of becoming objects. A project only endeavored by the State to allow its oppression of its subjects while pretending that oppression is morally justified. 

From a Utilitarian point of view these assertions of personhood, normativity and human superiority are irrelevant to the central moral concern of: does this cause suffering? As Bentham said over two hundred years ago:

“Other animals, which, on account of their interests having been neglected by the insensibility of the ancient jurists, stand degraded into the class of things. [original emphasis] … The day has been, I grieve it to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated … upon the same footing as … animals are still. The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the ossacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps, the faculty for discourse?…the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? (Bentham 1780/1789: chapter xvii, paragraph 6)”

Even the aforementioned Korsgaard from a Kantian vein concedes:

“When you pity a suffering animal, it is because you are perceiving a reason. An animal’s cries express pain, and they mean that there is a reason, a reason to change its conditions. And you can no more hear the cries of an animal as mere noise than you can the words of a person. Another animal can obligate you in exactly the same way another person can. …So of course we have obligations to animals. (Korsgaard 1996: 153)”

Peter Singer, one of the most well known animal activists of our time asserts that “there is no morally justifiable way to exclude from moral consideration non-humans or non-persons who can clearly suffer. Any being that has an interest in not suffering deserves to have that interest taken into account” [7].

To further articulate these points we can ask ourselves what our base emotional response is to watching a dog being beaten to death. Then to ask what meaningful difference there is between typical pet animals and enslaved-for-food animals. In truth, there’s nothing significantly distinct between a pig and a dog, other than the pig having markedly more intelligence when compared together and to typical human intelligence. In a Buddhist view, The Buddha states an argument from empathy and utility in The Dhammapada:

““All tremble at the rod,
are fearful of death.
Drawing the parallel to yourself,
neither kill nor get others to kill.

All tremble at the rod,
hold their life dear.
Drawing the parallel to yourself,
neither kill nor get others to kill.

Whoever takes a rod
to harm living beings desiring ease, when he himself is looking for ease, meets with no ease after death.
Whoever doesn’t take a rod
to harm living beings desiring ease, when he himself is looking for ease, meets with ease after death.”

- Dhammapada 129- 132 (Ven. Thanissaro’s Translation) [8]

We can usually sympathize fairly quickly with the apparent suffering of other animals. From videos of the Israeli State’s genocide against Palestinians to videos of factory farms abusing droves of cows and pigs. There is good reason that films like Earthlings and Dominion continue to convert many omnivores to veganism, the emotional power of immediate empathy to the suffering of others is not something to be understated. From the tears many of us have cried to the emotional support of a dog, as animals we implicitly care about the suffering of others when we understand they are not so different from you or me and only through campaigns of dehumanization can we become estranged from our natural empathic response.

Seeing now that we are unable to justify the subjugation of non-human animals from a broadly philosophical perspective we can turn to ask in what ways basic Anarchist principles do or don’t support animal liberation. This is not a task without precedent as Brian Dominick did in Animal Liberation and Social Liberation [9]. Yet first let’s look at the core Anarchist values we can use to assess this situation

1. Autonomy: The value that individuals should have the maximum amount of direct over their own lives

2. Mutual Aid: That we help others and are in turn helped by them through a complex social dynamic aka cooperation

3. Free Association: That individuals should be able to decide their associations as a matter of personal decision without coercion from hierarchies (particularly of hierarchies born from The State and Capital)

4. Non-Hierarchy: That no one should have coercive (forceful, violent) control over another, that no one should have structural power over another 

If we accept that animals are in-fact individuals and not things then they are counted in our considerations of autonomy. In contemporary and many historical societies the autonomy of non-human animals has been denigrated, non-human animals are often disabused of their ability to exercise autonomy over their own lives: by way of cage, genocide, environmental destruction and pleasure subjugation (see: pets). If we are to seriously assert autonomy as a central value then that assertion must extend to non-human animals. To do otherwise is to implicitly assert speciesism and standards of moral consideration that lead ultimately to not only speciesism but which support historical constructions of race and otherness used to justify chattel slavery and imperialism. It is incoherent otherwise.

In considering mutual aid towards non-human animals we can consider the mutual destruction assured by the unsustainable production methods of industrial meat (corpse) production. In that through humanity’s large production of meat we necessarily put far greater strain on the earth environment than is necessary for producing food sufficient to feed the entire planets worth of humans to excess. Capitalist or not, the production and slaughter of non-human animals is not an environmentally sustainable practice and will (has) resulted in the death of earths ecology.

To actually perform mutual aid for nonhuman animals, or even to simply abstain from harm, means the end of ecological destruction created through the meat and dairy industry. It would mean an end to burning the Amazon Rainforest for more cow pastures to preserve both the animals living in the rainforest and the very oxygen we breathe, not to mention the human animals living in the rainforest [10, 11, 12, 13, 14]. Mutual aid in this case is largely removing the boot from the neck of the cow, snake and human.

When we turn to Free Association the idea of autonomy comes back, for our enslavement of non-human animals is a shackle on any prospect of their free association, to us as humans or to other non-human animals. Effectively no enslaved cow, pig or dog is able to decide their association. We must abolish the hierarchical control humanity holds over non-human animals if they are ever to have even a chance at free association.

That’s what it is, really, animal liberation involves as a first necessary step the abolition of the coercive hierarchy we have over non-human animals. By using our guns, knives and assembly lines we rule over non-human animals as the Capitalist does the worker. Even with our pets, when we as rulers are unable to care for them (often in no small part due to capitalist pressures) they are often killed (put down). The force with which we use to control non-human animals is a hierarchy constructed and continued for no greater good (as Chomsky might call a “justified hierarchy”) and is maintained only for the pleasure of consumption. The same way the enslaved human is made to till the field so that the slave master might reap the pleasure of leisure and capital at the expense of others, so to do we when consuming meat: we subjugate others for our own pleasure.

To be an Anarchist and assert that we ought to have as much autonomy as possible, that hierarchies must be abolished entirely and society reorganized around free association and mutual aid demands that these values extend to non-human animals. It demands an abolition of farms that raise non-human animals for the consumption of their corpses, an end to cages for humans and non-humans and as much as is possible without getting mauled by a tiger: to let animals decide for themselves what they want to do.




[4] For one of many summaries of tool-use in animals, see Griffin 1992: ch. 5; see also Attenborough 1998: ch. 5. For primary research see, for example, S. Chevalier-Skolnikoff 1989; Weir, Chappell, & Kacelnik 2002, and Visalberghi 1997. For elaborate stories of family-ties, see Galdikas 1995 and Goodall 1986 & 2000. For an interesting discussion of Meerkats see “All For One: Meerkats”, National Geographic. For examples of non-human “culture” in chimpanzees, see Whiten, Goodall, et al. 1999; in whales and dolphins see Rendell & Whitehead 2001; and for a general discussion Griffin 1992: ch. 4. Two useful discussions of non-human “social knowledge” can be found in Cheney & Seyfarth 1990 and Tomasello & Call 1997: Part II. See Bekoff 2000, 2007 and King 2013 for an account of animal emotion. For a discussion of warlike behavior and alliance building see de Waal 1989. Bonobos have sex not just for reproduction, but to relax, to bond, or just for pleasure. They also don’t seem to have taboos about who they have sex with or how. For a discussion see de Waal & Lanting 1997. See Bekoff & Byers 1998 for discussion of play among many different species. Studies of language use among non-humans have a long and interesting history. See, for example, Pepperberg 1999 and Premack 1986. Critics have contended that while some animals can be taught to use words they do not use a language with syntax, defenders have argued that the non-human animals in the language studies, particularly the bonobos, not only have large vocabularies, but are capable of communicating novel information, of combining words in new ways, and of following simple syntactic rules. See Rumbaugh & Savage-Rumbaugh 1999. For a discussion of deception see, for example, Byrne & Whiten 1988 and Byrne & Whiten 1997. For a nice introductory discussion of other forms of cognition see Roberts 1998. See also Hauser & Carey 1997 and Bekoff, Allen, & Burghardt 2002.


[6] (1.3.1)