- Sentientist Politics: A Theory of Global Inter-Species Justice by Alasdair Cochrane
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The “political turn” in animal ethics continues as ethical theorists increasingly shift their attention from individual moral behavior to the institutional frameworks within which people coexist and interact with other animals. We can illustrate the significance of this shift by comparing the different types of questions asked by the different generations of theorists. If preturn animal philosophy tended to ask, “How should we treat animals?” we are now asking, “What kind of polity would secure justice for human as well as nonhuman animals?”
One of the latest contributions to this genre is Alasdair Cochrane’s Sentientist Politics: A Theory of Global Inter-Species Justice. In this ambitious book, the author attempts to define the principles of justice that would inform a cosmopolitan democracy with all sentient beings’ interests in mind.
Cochrane’s argument starts in familiar territory, with the assumption that politics must be shaped and constrained by human rights. According to this conventional view, a political authority is morally acceptable only if it is impartial, protects people’s rights, and allows them a say in the binding collective decisions that affect them. The aims and structure of a legitimate political order, then, must be constructed so that they respect our rights and provide us the means of democratic self-governance. Moreover, if human rights demand political protection and democracy, it follows that we have a moral duty to install and maintain such institutions where we can.
Unsurprisingly, Cochrane’s next step is to argue that what goes for humans also goes for many other animals. As sentient beings, numerous nonhumans have interests and therefore a prima facie right to be taken seriously by the political institutions. Just like the political order must be shaped in its aims and structure by human rights, it needs to be transformed to cater to the rights of nonhuman sentients.
The preferred form of such a political order, Cochrane holds, is a cosmopolitan democracy built around a species-neutral version of the “all-affected” principle. This means making extensive efforts to ensure that decisions are made on the correct level and for the relevant community of affected individuals. According to the cosmopolitan view, the nation-state alone cannot fulfill this role, as the consequences of political decisions routinely spill over borders and affect very different groups with floating and overlapping boundaries. The challenge of cosmopolitan sentientist politics, then, is to define a series of relevant constituencies or “communities of fate” that can claim legitimate decision-making power for themselves. Unlike the present “Westphalian” order of sovereign nation-states then, a cosmopolitan democracy would be made up of a multispecies demos, continually shifting in size depending on the scope of the issues discussed (i.e., if the decisions can be expected to affect the local, regional, national, or transnational level).
Full implementation of Cochrane’s sentientist politics would also entail securing the voice of animal interests in deliberative policy-making bodies via human representatives trained in the interpretation of animal psychology and behavior.
Cochrane’s most important contribution is that he demonstrates how cosmopolitan democratic theory must reassess the status of animals if it is to be consistent. In this sense, Sentient Politics adds to similar literature like, for example, Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka’s (2011) Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights—a book that charted the radical implications of including nonhumans in a liberal theory of citizenship. The implications of Cochrane’s interspecies cosmopolitanism are even more radical in some respects. Unlike Donaldson and Kymlicka, who would exclude free-living animals from [End Page 109] the political community and treat them as their own sovereign “states,” Cochrane abandons the Westphalian paradigm altogether and argues that all sentient animals belong to the same global community. Crucially, this implies far-reaching positive duties on the part of humanity to assist free-living animals in trouble. Even though Cochrane hedges this claim by...