How should politics relate to animals?

With increasing social concern about the plight of animals and the morality of routine animal slaughter, Dr Alasdair Cochrane’s research asks what the moral worth of animals means for politics: for our political policies, institutions, structures and ideas. 

stock image of kangaroo lying in a dry field

The start of 2020 has been marked by considerable worry, compassion and anger about the plight of many animals around the world. It has been estimated that over a billion wild animals have perished in Australia’s bushfires. And the increasing participation in Veganuary reveals growing social concern about the many billions more who are routinely slaughtered for our plates.  Without doubt, there is now social consensus that animals matter and have moral worth. But what does the moral worth of animals mean for politics? What effect will it have on our political policies, institutions, structures and ideas?

Animal welfare laws

Most states currently impose constraints on what we can do to animals via animal welfare legislation. These laws recognise that sentient animals have a worth of their own and place limits on what humans may do to them. The problem with animal welfare laws, however, is that formal recognition of animals’ worth has meant little in practice. These welfare laws are easily prone to being watered down or overridden by the relatively trivial interests of humans. Indeed, these ‘constraints’ have proved perfectly compatible with the horrors of contemporary industrial animal agriculture, which treats sentient creatures simply as carriers of protein. 

Animal rights

stock image of a Go Vegan protest

For this reason, many have argued that animals’ worth must be properly recognised through the award of rights. If animals were granted a legal status that took seriously the idea that they have a worth of their own, it would grant them rights which could not be sacrificed for the trivial interests of humans. Such a step would be enormously significant, and bring to an end a huge amount of animal suffering and killing. 

Animal politics

And yet, is this all that animals are owed? Is refraining from inflicting terrible suffering and killing them enough? Consider the companion animals with whom we share our homes, for example. Most of us believe that we also have duties to help them live well. We rightly think that their interests should inform some of the most important decisions our family makes: where to live, where to holiday, how to arrange our work-life, and so on. Consider also the service animals who work in the police, the military, in assistance and therapy. Most of us believe that these animals are more than mere ‘tools’ to use and dispose of as we see fit. Instead, we consider these animals as members of our communities who are crucial to its flourishing. 

These considerations open up the possibility that simply refraining from harming and killing animals might not be enough. If some animals belong in our communities, and have interests in living well, then those interests should not only constrain how we do politics, but also frame it. That is to say, instead of being a mere afterthought, perhaps the interests of animals should, like those of humans, be part of setting our community’s policy agenda.

Research Questions

Alasdair Cochrane’s research explores our political relationship with animals, and how it might be transformed, asking: 

  1. What kinds of animal welfare laws should states enact?

  2. Should animal rights be constitutionally protected?

  3. What international instruments are best placed to protect animals globally?

  4. What are the impacts of conventional democratic practices on the lives of animals?  How might they be transformed?

  5. Can animals be represented democratically?  If so, how?

  6. How far can the state legitimately impact upon our relations with animals?

Research Activities


Image of the front cover of Alasdair Cochrane's book Sentientist Politics

Alasdair has written two recent books on these subjects: Should Animals have Political Rights? (Polity, 2020); and Sentientist Politics: A Theory of Global Inter-Species Justice (Oxford, 2018), which was winner of the BISA Susan Strange book prize for 2019.  He has also been researching the political status of ‘working animals’, such as service, therapy and assistance animals, with two recent papers on whether animals can enjoy ‘labour rights’ and ‘good work’.

Teaching Activities

Picture of Alasdair Cochrane

Alasdair teaches a Level 3 module ‘Animals, Ethics and Politics’ which closely relates to these issues. This module explores the debates surrounding what we owe to animals politically. It introduces students to the main debates in animal ethics, and asks if and how they affect our political practices, norms, institutions and policies.  Particular attention is focused on the tensions between animal welfare and other political values and goods, with students exploring such controversial policy debates as animal experimentation, animal agriculture, conservation and the use of animals for entertainment.  

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