Many countries have adopted legislation that protects the interests of animals to some extent—see, for example, the 2006 Animal Welfare Act in England, or the 1966 Animal Welfare Act and the 1973 Endangered Species Act in the US. These laws ordinarily ban animal cruelty and place various restrictions on people’s treatment of animals.
That is all well and good. But suppose we went one step further. Suppose it were suggested that animals’ interests would be even better protected if we recognized a right of political participation to animals. One way to do that would be to have human representatives cast votes on behalf of animals with respect to different legislative proposals. Thus, monkeys, parrots, and other creatures in the Amazonian forests in Brazil would have a say in the adoption or rejection of laws impacting their environment. Pigs, cows, and chickens on animal farms would have a say on laws related to their life conditions. This proposal would elevate animals to the status of actual actors in the political process. Right now, animals are merely subjects of our legal protection, but they don’t get to directly influence their own welfare. Under the proposal just stated, animals would have more direct control over their lives.
“Animals’ interests would be even better protected if we recognized a right of political participation to animals.”
But hold on. Why bother with political rights? Wouldn’t we achieve the same results by just doing more of the same of what we are already doing? More and better laws protecting animal welfare, more coverage for more species, etc. That should take care of all the animal protection we want, right? Perhaps. Nonetheless, there are a couple of things to be said in favor of the voting scheme. First, animal voting may relate not only to the right of animals not to be harmed (which arguably could be protected by laws against harm to animals). Animal voting might take place along dimensions that are captured better by a voting system, than merely by laws for the protection of animals. For example, some candidates in an election might propose laws offering a mandatory minimum food quantity for certain categories of animals, say rabbits. Similarly, a candidate could promise shelter to various species (e.g., subsidizing farmers to build more sheds for horses and cows). In those cases, the animals’ vote would go to those candidates. There is a large variety of such policies that could be proposed and implemented, and they would be better left to the electoral process rather than political theorists or politicians coming up ex ante with a list of laws concerning all these possible proposals.
Second, the voting system proposal, once people get accustomed to seeing past its initial bizarreness, may actually gain more traction in the real world of politics than categorical legal proposals for the protection of animal interests. The voting proposal is actually more modest than a purported law mandating the elimination of all harm to animals. Consider the following analogy: arguing for the adoption of a law banning guns entirely, or for a law banning abortion completely, is a stronger claim than submitting gun policy or abortion to a democratic vote. In the same way, in arguing that animals should have a voice regarding their rights, the burden of proof is not as high as in arguing directly that animals should be subject to no harm whatsoever, or that they are entitled to sufficient food or shelter (and that therefore laws should be passed protecting these rights). The end result of each argument may end up being the same, for example laws may be passed protecting animals from harm or providing them with food and shelter. But getting there in the indirect manner (through voting for candidates who support animal-oriented policies), given the significant size of conservative (in outlook, rather than political affiliation) constituencies everywhere, should be more acceptable in public debate today, and thus the safer way to go.
“A voting scheme for animals may provide just the right amount of novelty and provocation to jilt politicians and policymakers out of their apathy.”
Third, indirect protection of animals through legislation has made significant advances, but the general track-record of this approach remains dismal. Animals are still being slaughtered by the dozens of billions every year (you read that right; check out the live Animal Kill Clock in the US) and turned into food (generating huge amounts of unnecessary waste in the process). By this standard, the effects of laws banning animal cruelty and protecting endangered species dwindle almost to insignificance. It doesn’t look like things are getting anywhere like this. So why not try something new? And a voting scheme for animals may provide just the right amount of novelty and provocation to jilt politicians and policymakers out of their apathy.
Of course, one may point out that, if animals have fundamental rights, those rights should be unassailable, not subject to the vagaries of voting. So, it would be absurd to subject such fundamental rights as the right to be free from pain, or the right not to be killed, to voting; as if, should the winning candidate happen to be hostile to animals, the fact that animals had a say in the vote would make it all right to kill animals or make them suffer. This observation is correct, but, at least with respect to fundamental rights, a scheme of animal voting may be seen as only one step in the right direction, i.e., that of protecting animal interests. It is not a solution that guarantees that animal rights will be protected. Given the almost universal indifference to animal suffering and the size of the animal-based food industry, an animal voting system would be better than nothing.