Why animals should be treated as co-citizens

Dogs on a farm in Canada. (Photo: Martin Cathrae)

Dogs on a farm in Canada. (Photo: Martin Cathrae)

Cats, dogs, dolphins, chimps, and humans – we’re all technically animals, but do some of us deserve more rights than others? There is a tiny town in northern Spain that thinks not. In late July, the municipality of Trigueros del Valle unanimously passed a local law which officially defines cats and dogs in the town as ‘non-human residents’.

“The mayor must represent not just the human residents but must also be here for the others,” the Spanish town’s mayor told The Independent.

While it might seem a bit far-fetched, the idea that non-human animals should be given human-like rights is gaining traction in jurisdictions as far as India and Argentina to Romania and the United States. But what are the cultural and philosophical implications of all this? And isn’t giving ‘human-like rights’ going a bit too far? I don’t think so, in fact, I think we should be prepared to grant not just human-like ‘rights’ or ‘residency’ to animals, but indeed we should be prepared to give them citizenship and let their interests be directly represented in our governments.

Such a radical shift in thinking about non-human animals is unlikely to occur quickly, and there seem to be some clear stepping stones which will first need to reached. One of the most pivotal steps centres around the debate of whether some animals have a level of ‘personhood’ that can be legally meaningful.

Personhood – that an entity has the essential capacities of a person, like self-consciousness, intellect, experience of suffering and complex emotional states, etc. – comes in different forms and to varying degrees. We would not say, for instance, that a human infant was criminally liable for their own actions, even if those actions caused serious harm to another human, since we know the infant wouldn’t be properly aware of their own actions or the consequences of those actions. However, if a competent adult harmed an infant, that adult would definitely be criminally liable for their own actions, since they have adequate foresight and self-awareness. In this context, then, both the adult and infant have different levels of legal personhood and this is reflected in how the law treats them.

If non-human animals like chimpanzees or orangutans could be argued as being at least somewhat equivalent in a legal or moral sense (courtesy of their intellectual and other human-like capacities) to a human person – even on the level of a human infant – then courts could be persuaded to recognise them as non-human persons. And with the status of personhood can come great things.

The English Somerset case, which gave an African slave his freedom in 1772, was prompted by a writ of habeas corpus, a legal summons that requires the custodian of a prisoner to demonstrate before a court that their detention of the person in question is lawful. Animal rights activists in Argentina and New York have argued that the same legal summons should be employed to require a zoo or university to demonstrate their lawful detention of an orangutan or chimpanzee, respectively. The question for such cases hinges on whether the zoo or university is detaining a legally-defined person.

While these cases are currently ongoing, some politicians and scientists have already made up their minds, and it’s easy to see why. Advanced non-human animals like dolphins or chimpanzees or others are highly intelligent and share huge swaths of genetic heritage with us humans. They lead rich emotional lives and have human-like capacities such as self-awareness.

But personhood should not be the only game in town when it comes to thinking about animals. My pet dog is quite dull, but that shouldn’t mean I can get away with mistreating it any more than I could get away with mistreating a clever orangutan. The ability to experience suffering, therefore, seems to be important in this regard. That said, there can be indirect negative effects or suffering which results from killing something as basic as even an ant (even though it’s unlikely insects experience pain). Sure, stepping on one accidently from time to time won’t cause a catastrophe, but we couldn’t live a world without ants altogether. They, along with the rest of the insect class, form the basis of the food chain. Crops couldn’t grow and cows couldn’t eat grass if it weren’t for creepy crawlies. So even suffering doesn’t seem to capture everything there is to value about animals. In a broad sense, I think most of us recognise that we ought to value our ecosystem as a whole, if not for its own sake then for our own survival’s.

I’m not arguing that trees or bees ought to be considered our co-citizens, however, but rather the non-human animals which form a part of our societies: companion animals like dogs and cats, produce or working animals like horses and sheep. These are the animals which we have actively enlisted into the ranks of our societies for our own purposes. They are the biggest modern caste group worldwide and are regularly exploited for financial gain without full consideration of their welfare.

Just like we wouldn’t expect a co-citizen to work their whole lives and never be given adequate time for rest and relaxation, we shouldn’t expect this of animals. In most high-income countries, we expect that our co-citizens will enjoy a basic level of provision and protection in the forms of food, medicine, and housing; the same should all be true for animals as well.

What might be a touch difficult is getting hoof and paw prints on electoral votes in a meaningful manner. Indeed, it’s highly unlikely any non-human animal could be expected to understand the complexities (and absurdities) of modern politics. This doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t seek to know what is in their best interests and have those interests represented in our governments’ decision-making and services. We don’t expect children to know their best interests or be able to fully care for themselves outside of their families, but we still make concerted efforts to care for children who cannot be cared for by their own families; we, as a society, take it upon ourselves to care for them and to avoid their being exploited or abused. In the same way, perhaps we ought to create policies and agencies which care for animals.

It is likely that the way we treat animals will change and one day we might even call them our co-citizens. A few decades ago the animal rights movement seemed to some like a fringe fad, but it is now part the mainstream. Call me barking mad, but I suspect that in a few more decades we might be talking about co-citizen adoption agencies rather than pet shops.

Australia’s dying dignity


An empty hospital bed. Photographer: Elo Vazquez.

“If I were to keep a pet animal in the same condition I am in, I would be prosecuted. If you disagree with voluntary euthanasia, then don’t use it, but don’t deny the right to me to use it.”

Those were some of the last words of Robert Dent, a Northern Territorian who suffered a long battle with prostate cancer until he became the first person in the world to be euthanised under a statute law. He passed away peacefully on the 22nd of September, 1996. But few fellow Australians have been legally afforded the same mercy. In a rare reminder of the territories’ sovereignty-status, the federal Parliament responded months later by passing laws to overturn those created by the government in the Northern Territory which allowed physicians to assist those who wished to die. Since then, thousands of people have suffered slow, miserable deaths where they otherwise might not have wanted nor needed to.

One such person was Laurie Strike, who passed away in Perth last month after suffering a lengthy treatment for terminal cancer. Earlier this year, he had appealed to the public and our politicians to legalise voluntary euthanasia.

Although the Western Australian parliament have not debated the issue since 2010, other state parliaments have had more recent legislative proposals. Before the state election in Tasmania, voluntary euthanasia legislation was narrowly defeated despite favourable public opinion polls. In South Australia, independent MP Bob Such had, in 2012 and 2013, drafted a private members’ bill for voluntary euthanasia. Before the state election, he admitted that his quest was unlikely to be successful, though given his new political leverage in the hung parliament his chances may improve. (Sadly, however, in macabre irony, he has recently fallen seriously ill.) Religious groups and others opposed to euthanasia have vigorously lobbied legislators on all occasions.

So why do anti-euthanasia campaigners force people like Mr Strike to suffer? Many would appeal to human rights, such as the OHCHR’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 6(1) states that: “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”

One moral argument is that Mr Strike shouldn’t have been able to die with a physician’s assistance, since he was a human being and therefore had a right to life which, in this case, would not have been protected. However this ignores the very essence of what we mean in this context when we talk about a ‘human being’. In fact, merely belonging to a particular species of animal, Homo sapiens, is rather meaningless in moral terms. It’s truer to say we value the presence of particular qualities in human beings more than we value membership to a particular species. Do we really hold that the value of a human being is the same if we compare someone who is permanently brain-dead and someone who is not? Most would consider the brain-dead human being to actually be dead, despite the fact that, in medical terms, the organs and tissue are being kept alive. Clearly, then, when people judge the brain-dead human being as dead, they are actually judging the capacities and qualities of that human being: their ability to communicate, to understand their surroundings, to find enjoyment in life, and so on. All these things come with being a person, not merely a human being.

It is truer, therefore, to say that every person has the inherent right to life, not that every human being does. Though if Mr Strike was a person, then doesn’t the same problem raised by those opposed to euthanasia remain? Aren’t we still depriving him of life or failing to protect his right to life? The Australian Human Rights Commission, upon examining the euthanasia laws passed by the Northern Territory in 1996, say “no, it does not violate our human rights“. They came to this conclusion partly for two reasons: first, the 1996 legislation had limited scope (it only applied to terminally-ill patients who wanted to die); and second, extensive statutory safeguards were put in place to prevent abuses (protecting patients who did not want to die).

However, even if we didn’t accept this finding, how is it that we can say to have established a ‘right to life’ without giving individuals a right to control their life, including how it ends? A ‘right to life’ cannot be meaningful if one cannot exercise that right in ways which make it, in the full sense, a ‘life’. Said differently, what good is a life you don’t have power over? Or one in which you suffer unbearably, hopelessly, and without any or much enjoyment? These might fall under the literal definition of a ‘life’, but to say that they all, irrespective of their features, have the same quality is to deny the factual differences. To further say that individuals must accept what others ascribe to them as the values which constitute a life – or, as is sometimes said, a life worth living – is to say that you know how to live someone’s life better than they do. While we might be able to argue for this in the case of children, how can we reason the same for a fully mature, capable adult of sound mind? Simply, we can’t.

For this reason, some of those opposed to legalising voluntary euthanasia might agree that perhaps euthanasia itself isn’t necessarily immoral, but rather in legalising it we risk abuses and these risks outweigh the benefits. This should be a concern of any responsible community wishing to legislate on these issues, but is largely an empirical question. Being that this matter is far from uncontroversial it is unsurprising then to find a multitude of interpretations of what data is available to us regarding abuses of voluntary euthanasia laws. That said, almost all authors admit two things: (1) that we can never eliminate one hundred percent of the risk; and (2) that some level of risk can be mitigated by legal and practical safeguards. The question is whether enough of the risk can be prevented so as to justify the benefits. We can’t always stop the occasional corrupt cop or malicious or incompetent doctor, but we can make reasonable and serious attempts to avoid foreseeable harms, just like we could for euthanasia laws. For example, we can require psychiatric assessment of patients who request euthanasia (to ensure the person is of sound mind and not just depressed); we can require that multiple, independent physicians agree on the diagnosis, prognosis, and current state and nature of suffering in the patient (to minimise physician-related errors or misjudgements); we can require that requests for euthanasia are repeated, sustained over time, and that only the patient herself is involved in these requests (to prevent unscrupulous friends or family influencing the patient); and so on. It is also worth pointing out that if any abuses have occurred, it is not automatically a strike against voluntary euthanasia laws generally but rather only one statute or perhaps its related institutions and legal or medical practices. Such abuses – again, if they have occurred – may have been preventable given a better policy.

As pragmatic asides, there are also some shared benefits for those left behind after someone dies by voluntary euthanasia. Two prominent benefits were illustrated in mock adverts created as part of the ABC’s television program ‘Gruen Planet’, which analysed advertising practices and trends. In one of the show’s segments, agencies compete to sell the unsellable, and were once asked to persuade Australians that we should make euthanasia compulsory for seniors by the age of 80.

“I never met my granny, because she lived very far away,” begins one advert with a little girl sitting alone, clutching a family photo. “I would have made more time somehow,” a man says about his mother passing away. It’s almost universally true that people put off seeing their relatives or parents. None of us normally intend to, it’s just that we get caught up in our day-to-day lives. When terminally ill patients go through years of treatment and their health very gradually declines, it can be just as easy for family members to miss their opportunity to spend significant time together. Giving these terminally ill patients the option of setting a definite time to die not only gives back some small sense of control in a situation they have had no control over, but it also gives them and their families specified time to spend wisely and meaningfully.

Where the first advert spoke to emotion, the second speaks to reason. “With resources stretched to the limit and the elderly living longer, the time is fast approaching when we have to make some tough decisions,” says an elderly gentleman as he leans out of his hospital bed. He walks down the hall to the maternity wing, looking into a room with a mother caring for her newborn. “Perhaps that time is now.”

While voluntary euthanasia should, in its primary focus, be about the patient, we cannot deny that there are some economic and emotional benefits for those left behind. Being aware of these benefits, including those which may motivate abuses, is vital to assessing any legislative proposal on this issue. Prescribing morals or crying wolf without even hearing a howl, however, is irresponsible, and causes women and men like Mr Strike to suffer unnecessarily long, painful deaths. Let’s not let our common dignity bear a similar fate.

Flagging Change

As John Key proposes a referendum to change New Zealand’s flag, I had a look around at various proposed redesigns of the Australian flag. However, none appeared to incorporate elements from more than one Aboriginal flag. Like the the Union Jack, I thought it might be interesting to experiment with a mash-up.

Here’s what I came up with:

What do you think?

Aesthetics aside, I prefer one of two options for any flag redesign: being as inclusive as possible and acknowledging different histories, or being as simple and new as possible – case in point, Canada’s flag. Of the second kind, this is my favourite redesign:


Tony Abbott Flies His True Militant Colours

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Mark Miley, left, U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham, center, Australian Ambassador to Afghanistan Jon Philp and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, right, chat with each other at Multi-National Base Tarin Kot on Oct. 28, 2013 in Uruzgan, Afghanistan. (Source: U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan.)

It might have looked like a typical question-dodging tactic, but when Tony Abbott insisted on secrecy over asylum seekers because it might jeopardise ongoing operations, he did so in one of the most brazen ways possible:

“If we were at war we wouldn’t be giving out information that is of use to the enemy just because we might have an idle curiosity about it ourselves.”

Think about the implications of such a comparison. Are we really at war with any foreign citizen who turns up on our doorstep? Should I have declared war on the kind international student who delivered my Indian food last Friday? I sincerely hope not. Indeed, how would it be possible for me to order authentic Indian food in the suburbs of Melbourne at all if it weren’t for immigration?

Immigration is what this nation has been built on for decades. The diversity of culture, food, skills, language, markets, and more, is what has helped make Australia a unique and strong country. So when our Prime Minister insinuates that we ought to be fighting an all out war with desperate, helpless people, we shouldn’t excuse it as innocent hyperbole. Not only does he insult and further isolate vulnerable minorities already living in Australia (who, despite such rhetoric, continue to make positive contributions to our community), but he literally makes ‘them’ the enemy.

But the militarisation of this issue isn’t new; three-star generals don’t work for the Department of Immigration. Sure, it’s called ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, and not ‘Operation Kill All The Foreigners’, but it might as well be if it’s anything like a War on Asylum Seekers. For what else is a war but an exercise in brutality designed to weaken the enemy’s resolve?

With allegations of Defence mistreatment and the clear aim to deter the ‘enemy’, when do we have to admit that our government might be waging a War on Asylum Seekers?

UN Women Ad Campaign Response

UN Women recently launched a search engine campaign using suggested Google autocomplete search queries. The results were sobering and remind us of how far we have to go on the road to gender equality.

But it got me thinking: what would the autocomplete suggestions be like for men? Would they be the same, different, or worse?

While different, the results were (again) sobering. But why would sexism towards men exist?

Charges of sexism have a long history of being denied where attention isn’t explicitly directed by a third party. The feminist movement didn’t make progress in hushed voices – it made its political point in campaigns run on decibels and big protests. And without first directing attention to those instances of sexism, there could be no acknowledgement of its existence – let alone a chance of addressing it.

Women couldn’t be active citizens a century ago, but men can’t turn on the television today without being told they are dumb, smelly ogres. Homer Simpson and Ray Romano are the quintessential examples of this, and many other television programs have been criticised as similarly enshrining sexist stereotypes.

Granted, though, what’s being told you’re dumb compared to not being able to vote? I’d take today’s sexism towards men over last century’s sexism towards women any day. Should that mean we can’t do better, though? As the search boxes suggest, I think we can do better for both women and men.

So if sexism towards both women and men exists, why don’t we hear about the latter as much?

Mostly because there hasn’t been a historic movement or great oppression in the past, I think. Feminism has an advantage in their track-record of progress where the same cannot be said about the mens’ rights movement. Men were never as badly treated as women, and in some parts of the world (even in the West) women are still treated much worse than men. Though that doesn’t mean we don’t treat men badly as well or that sexism towards men should be ignored.

Instead, let’s make our fight against sexism in general, not about sexism towards women or towards men; let’s just fight to #EndAllSexism.




Our votes aren’t equal

My latest article, “Our votes aren’t equal”, made the front page of SBS World News Australia! And the day before the election, too! Chuffed!

Check it out here: