Governing Animals: Animal Welfare and the Liberal State

Governing Animals: Animal Welfare and the Liberal State

Governing Animals: Animal Welfare and the Liberal State

Governing Animals: Animal Welfare and the Liberal State


What is the role of government in protecting animal welfare? What principles should policy makers draw on as they try to balance animal welfare against human liberty?

Much has been written in recent years on our moral duties towards animals, but scholars and activists alike have neglected the important question of how far the state may go to enforce those duties. Kimberly K. Smith fills that gap by exploring how liberal political principles apply to animal welfare policy. Focusing on animal welfare in the United States,Governing Animalsbegins with an account of the historical relationship between animals and the development of the American liberal welfare state. It then turns to the central theoretical argument: Some animals (most prominently pets and livestock) may be considered members of the liberal social contract. That conclusion justifies limited state intervention to defend their welfare - even when such intervention may harm human citizens. Taking the analysis further, the study examines whether citizens may enjoy property rights in animals, what those rights entail, how animals may be represented in our political and legal institutions, and what strategies for reform are most compatible with liberal principles. The book takes up several policy issues along the way, from public funding of animal rescue operations to the ethics of livestock production, animal sacrifice, and animal fighting.

Beyond even these specific policy questions, this book asks what sort of liberalism is suitable for the challenges of the twenty-first century. Smith argues that investigating the political morality of our treatment of animals gives us insight into how to design practices and institutions that protect the most vulnerable members of our society, thus making of our shared world a more fitting home for both humans and the nonhumans to which we are so deeply connected.


In 2005, shortly after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast, I began thinking about animal welfare. Granted, this was not an obvious move in response to the Gulf Coast tragedy, nor to the problems of poverty, racial oppression, and environmental degradation that it uncovered. Social inequality and environmental management are arguably the major challenges of the twenty-first century. Why, at this moment, should we be thinking about animals?

One answer, of course, was famously formulated by Claude Lévi-Strauss: animals are good to think with. Thinking about animal welfare may help us to extend and enrich liberal political theory, to make it more relevant to the deeply interconnected social and environmental problems we face. That is part of my project. But I hope this book makes the case that animals are also an interesting and important subject of public policy in their own right. They deserve greater attention by political theorists and, indeed, by the general community of policy makers, activists, and ordinary citizens. This book, then, is intended for that broad audience. It aims to introduce readers to some of the tools and concepts that political theorists use to think about political obligation, the role of the government, and related issues as they apply to animals. But because I don’t think political theorists have all the answers, the book attempts to bring others, such as historians and legal scholars, into the conversation. You will find here a lot of theoretical argument but also a lot of excursions into history, law, and public policy—excursions that will, I hope, encourage some creative and critical engagement with the theory presented. We need to improve our ability to govern the natural world, to make the world a better, richer, more sustaining habitat for humans and other species. This is a collective project, and thinking together about our political relations with animals is a good place to start.

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