We are unable to display your institutional affiliation without JavaScript turned on.
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Find using OpenURL

The Will for Self-Preservation: Locke and Derrida on Dominion, Property and Animals

From: SubStance
Volume 43, Number 2, 2014 (Issue 134)
pp. 148-161 | 10.1353/sub.2014.0029

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

“Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all of whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began”

Despite the strong growth of animal studies within the academy, fundamental critiques of human utilization of animals remain, arguably, on the margins. Classic analytic approaches, such as that advanced by Peter Singer (1975) and Tom Regan (1983), while having a powerful shaping effect on the language of animal advocacy, have been slow to dent academic endeavor, and have failed to significantly impact the research questions posed by some disciplines. Political philosophy is one example of this. Although recently we have seen the emergence of new work in this area from the liberal tradition, including from Robert Garner (2013), Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka (2011), Siobhan O’Sullivan (2011) and Alasdair Cochrane (2010), political philosophy has been slow to respond to the problems presented by human utilization of animals, and social justice debates have largely excluded consideration of the non-human. In many respects this is unfortunate. Our relationships with animals reflect deeply structural forms of social and political organization, and responses to systematic human violence towards animals requires wholesale thinking about the nature of “just” societies, and a political strategy of response. And it is likely that these challenges will continue to grow more pressing. As Donalson and Kymlicka frankly observe: “for the foreseeable future, we can expect more and more animals every year to be bred, confined, tortured, exploited, and killed to satisfy human desires” (2).

In what follows I will explore ways to conceptualize systematic violence toward animals, in order to provide a groundwork for strategic political responses to the problem of human domination. I will read John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government—a classic work within liberal political theory—and a more recent contribution from the continental critical tradition—namely, Jacques Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign. At the outset, Locke and Derrida might appear to be extraordinarily unlikely bedfellows. Yet, as I argue in this essay, they share some remarkable resonances on the question of human domination of animals. Locke’s theory of property is familiar, yet I believe it merits closer examination, since the concept of property relates to the appropriation of animals as property, and the chain of dominion this relationship establishes. Derrida, in his final lectures, examines the logic of domination that separates human from animal. As I examine Locke’s and Derrida’s arguments in turn, I will argue that these thinkers provide largely similar accounts of the human domination of animals, premised upon a recognition that humans are not innately superior to animals, but win their superiority through the application of force. It is true that there are important differences between Locke’s and Derrida’s accounts—namely, in their understanding of the relationship between reason and domination. I will examine this difference, observing that in both accounts, and certainly prominently in Derrida’s account, “truth” is an epistemological construction that is intertwined with the application of violence; in this case, violent domination of non-human animals.

Locke and Property in Creatures

Locke’s theory of property is arguably a foundational perspective in liberal enlightenment philosophy, and underpins key rights conceptualizations, including the right to bodily integrity. In his famous discussion in Two Treatises of Government, Locke establishes a connection between a natural right to one’s own body as property, and the transformative work the individual performs to appropriate the world as property. Locke states:

… Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his.

(287-8; bk. 2, §27)

The transformative relation of work is pivotal within this conceptualization in the ability of individuals to extend the right to one’s own body onto external entities. It is through the transformation of work that one appropriates and possesses the world outside the self. Roberto Esposito notes the peculiar relationship that is established here, where “possessing one’s own corporeal form [persona], he owns all his performances, beginning with the transformation of the material object...

You must be logged in through an institution that subscribes to this journal or book to access the full text.


Shibboleth authentication is only available to registered institutions.

Project MUSE

For subscribing associations only.