Black Rights/ Animal Rights

This year, the CPA’s (Canadian Philosophical Association) Annual Congress Distinguished Lecturer was Will Kymlicka. For those who do not know the name, he is a well-known philosopher who resides in Canada (is he Canadian? Google says he was born in London), who has written extensively on multiculturalism, liberalism, and “Left-wing” politics. However, he took a sharp turn in focus (at least according to one of my professors) when he and Sue Donaldson published Zoopolis: A Theory of Animal Rights in 2011. Unbeknownst to many, he was a staunch animal rights activist.

Below is a summary of Kymlicka’s lecture, from the CPA website:

Several recent theories of human rights have appealed to the idea that human rights can be grounded on some account of human dignity. Critics of these ‘dignitarian’ accounts argue that the idea of human dignity is vague to the point of emptiness, and lacks any determinate content. In fact, however, recent discussions of human dignity do make one very specific claim: namely, that humans must not be treated in the same way we treat animals. Whatever else human dignity requires, it requires that we give humans a much higher status than we give animals. In this respect, dignitarian defenses of human rights follow in a long line of other supremacist accounts of human rights, all of which are as concerned to argue that animals do not deserve rights as they are to argue that humans do deserve rights. I will suggest that the human rights project will be much stronger, both philosophically and politically, if it jettisons such supremacist defenses. There is growing evidence that the more people draw a sharp species hierarchy between humans and animals, the more they draw hierarchies amongst humans, weakening the rights of subaltern groups. Defending human rights on the backs of animals is not only philosophically suspect, but politically self-defeating.

He “called out” quite a few philosophers for advancing the “human supremacist” position in his lecture. One memorable mention was Jeremy Waldron, who wrote this in his book Dignity, Rank and Rights:

The law may force people to do things or go places they would not otherwise do or go to. But even when this happens, they are not herded like cattle, broken like horses, beaten like dumb animals, or reduced to a quivering mass of “bestial desperate terror.” (63 – 64)

Kymlicka took issue with this quote not only for its graphic brutality, but for its implication that it was okay to do this to animals; that of course we could not treat humans this way (because humans have dignity)… but animals? A completely different story.

My initial reaction to the notion of “human supremacism” (a term which I think is a bit much) was to resist it. Non-whites – blacks in particular – have struggled to distance ourselves from the animal-like characterization of our race(s). We were historically likened to beasts and so treated as sub-human; the purported similarity between us and non-human animals used as justification for our oppression. Paget Henry makes mention of this in the Introduction to his book Caliban’s Reason (the cover of which is the image for this post):

Among the most enduring accounts of the refiguring of Caribbean identities produced by this European/Euro-Caribbean tradition of writing has been the character Caliban, from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest… To imperial Prospero, native Caliban (the Carib) was identical with nature—a cannibal, a child, a monster without language, and hence a potential slave to be subdued and domesticated along with nature and history. Much like the raw materials of nature, the labor of Caliban was there to be exploited for the purposes of imperial Prospero. In return for his labor, Prospero would give Caliban language and endow his “purposes with words that made them known.”… in spite of the gift of language, Caliban remains too heavily mired in nature for its uplifting powers of reason and civilization. (4 – 5, my emphasis) 

The likening of the historically oppressed to non-human animals continues into the present. Remember these images of former President Obama and First Lady Michelle?


Or, probably even more tragically, this historical moment?

He was just staring at me, almost like to intimidate me or to overpower me… When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan..  he looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked. (Sanburn 2014)

If you didn’t know that the above were excerpts from Darren Wilson’s testimony about the killing of Mike Brown,  you would think he was talking about a wild animal.

It’s all good for animal rights activists to protest cruelty against non-human animals. I am vegetarian because I am not comfortable knowing that a life was lived in misery and died painfully just so that I could have a bit of meat on my plate (and although I eat seafood occasionally, I try to stay away from it). But it seems tone-deaf to advance the (ideal) moral equality of all sentient beings in a society where even certain humans do not form part of the moral community. Should we not be much more concerned when humans are killed with impunity, than animals? I posed this question to Kymlicka and Donaldson last semester, in a Skype Q & A session about their book Zoopolis arranged by my professor (Andrew Fenton):

Do you think that animal rights theory is dependent on the rights of humans being respected? And if so, does that mean that animal rights activists should join in the fight when human rights are being violated? What comes to mind is the “Stand Your Ground” laws in the States, which makes the killing of other humans quite easy. But if we cannot even respect our own rights, why should we – or can we even – respect the rights of other sentient beings? (Gordon, 2016)

Kymlicka responded that he agreed with me. It is problematic for animal rights activists that such injustices continue to occur, and he stated that there should be more solidarity between animal rights activists and other movements (but that it should go the other way around, too). Yet he maintained that social justice movements are not mutually exclusive, and that historically many causes have been fought side-by-side.

Which is true. And yet I was still unconvinced by the strong stance taken by animal rights activists until I attended Kymlicka’s CPA lecture. For those whose historical and present-day oppression take particular forms, keeping animal rights discourse at arms-length may seem to make sense. WE are not THEM, the beasts and brutes who can be worked “like cattle” and bred “like dogs.” WE are not THEY, who can be killed as a means to an end (sustenance? warmth?) or even out of fear, with little to no moral consequence. But as long as a large moral gap exists between humans and non-human animals – to the point where we think we can treat the latter with impunity – we create conceptual room for humans to slip into the non-human animal category. For some, this means exactly what Darren Wilson implied in his testimony: that he was somehow justified in “killing the beast” that was Mike Brown (even writing that makes me feel some type of way). But what if killing an animal was almost never perceived as justified in our society, no matter the circumstance? How would that change the discourse surrounding human rights?

As with all entries, these are just reflections. In a conversation with my friend Andrew, he pointed out that some cultures (Indigenous, for example) have more harmonious – and respectful – relationships with animals than Westerners. Therefore when they kill for sustenance or ceremonial reasons a different sort of thing is happening than what we see on factory farms. I wrote my final paper last semester against animal rights discourse and in favour of a Buddhist approach to sentient beings, so I understand the difference that cultural considerations can make. But I thank him for his comments, and more info. on the whaling controversy can be found here:




Another friend pointed out that blacks have been treated as even less than animals in certain instances, and I have to agree with that as well. Still another drew my attention to the importance of religion to the question. There is no “right” answer to how we can amalgamate “animal rights” discourse with that of “human rights” (and we can’t forget those who reject the discourse altogether) but it is an interesting question to work through. And we know philosophers love a good question, sometimes even more than a good answer.


T. M. G.


Additional Resources:

Dr. A. Breeze Harper’s work on Black Veganism was recommended to me by Andrew and another friend. Check her out! (She also has a YouTube channel which I have to take in):;


Image Credits:

Just Google “Obama Animal Satire” and the foolishness will pop up. But besides the Obama stuff, the image on the cover of this entry is from Henry’s book, Caliban’s Reason. See below.


Works Cited:

Donaldson, Sue and Will Kymlicka. Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Gordon, Tiffany. Personal correspondence with Will Kymlicka. Skype. End of Winter Term 2016 (the date escapes me. If needed, I can get it from someone).

Henry, Paget. Caliban’s Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy. New York:         Routledge, 2000.

Kymlicka, Will. “Human Rights without Human Supremacism.” PDF, The Canadian Philosophical Association, 2017.

Sanburn, Josh. “All The Ways Darren Wilson Described Being Afraid of Michael Brown.” Time Inc. Last Updated November 25, 2014.

Waldron, Jeremy. Dignity, Rank & Rights. With Wai Chee Dimock, Don Herzog & Michael Rosen. Edited by Meir Dan-Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.