Animals and Liberty

In his paper Do Animals Have an Interest in LibertyAlasdair Cochrane draws a distinction between two different kinds of interests. A being has an instrumental interest in liberty if their interest is “dependent on its facilitation of other goods, such as the avoidance of suffering.” A being has an intrinsic interest in liberty if, for that being, liberty is good in itself, “irrespective of its contribution to and facilitation of other goods.”

Cochrane is of the view that while nonhuman animals have an instrumental interest in liberty, they do not have an intrinsic interest in liberty. He uses the example of a dog who is treated well by a kind owner. As long as the dog is allowed to act in accordance of his preferences and satisfy his desire for food, comfort, sleep, etc., Cochrane thinks the dog isn’t harmed if he is seen as the owner’s property. Cochrane then asks us to consider the position of a slave who is owned by a “kindly master” who generally doesn’t interfere in his daily life. Assume the slave genuinely believes that he is inferior to his master and strongly desires to serve him. Cochrane thinks that the slave is still harmed by his property status, even though he is able to satisfy his preferences. Thus, human beings have an intrinsic interest in liberty, while animals only have an instrumental one.

So, why is it that only humans have an intrinsic interest in liberty? Cochrane connects this interest with the the notion of autonomy. Autonomy has a very specific meaning here, and is related to rationality. Very simply, Cochrane’s conception of autonomy “refers to a ‘second-order’ capacity pertaining to the choice and pursuit of one’s own conception of the good.” In other words, it hinges on a being’s ability to step back and reflect on his/her desires and evaluate his/her reasons for pursuing certain ends and holding certain goals. This is what makes the human slave’s case different from that of the dog. The human, because of his property status and indoctrination, is being denied the opportunity to evaluate and revise his goals. He is prevented from creating his own ends or pursing a different set of goals due to his relationship with his owner. There is something intrinsically wrong with his situation, whereas the same isn’t true of the dog’s, since the dog lacks this kind of autonomy.

Cochrane’s position faces an obvious challenge: what about human beings who lack the kind of autonomy necessary for an intrinsic interest in liberty? Do severely mentally disabled people, for instance, not have an intrinsic interest in being seen as someone else’s property? Cochrane actually bites the bullet here and admits that he doesn’t think they have an intrinsic interest in liberty. They do have an instrumental interest though, so in Cochrane’s view, as long as their preferences are satisfied and their welfare is protected, it wouldn’t matter if their official status is that of property. This is an internally consistent position, but still extremely counter-intuitive.

In her response (Animals Do Have an Interest in Liberty) to Cochrane, Valery Giroux makes the case that all sentient beings have an intrinsic interest in liberty. Her paper is worth reading in full. She makes a number of interesting points about autonomy and liberty. I’ll restrict myself to going over only one of them here. She proceeds by first analyzing the case of the indoctrinated human slave. She then provides an alternate account of why he has an intrinsic interest in not being owned by another person, no matter how benevolent. She then argues that this argument can be extended to nonhuman animals as well, which means they too have an intrinsic interest in liberty.

Regarding the case of human slavery, Giroux’s basic contention is the following:

[S]laves who belong to a charitable master who does not interfere in their daily lives are never the less subject to this master’s authority and are at the mercy of his will because he can always decide to start controlling them more rigorously…

In other words, the slave always faces the threat of having his interests thwarted. The slave owner could suddenly decide not to be so gentle, or sell the slave to a harsher owner. But notice that exactly the same is true of someone who owns a dog. The nonhuman animal faces exactly the same threat that the human slave does. Giroux sums it up in the following manner:

Since they have an interest in not being prevented by others from what they want to do, sentient nonhuman animals also have interest in being in situations in which this first interest is not threatened by an inferior moral or legal status they might have. If they have an interest in not undergoing constraints or interference, sentient nonhuman animals also have an interest in not risking undergoing them…


The phrase “threatened by an inferior moral or legal status” is important here, because the moral and legal status define the animal’s position in society. No matter what welfare laws are in place, as long as they are seen as property, they always risk having their interests overridden by those of their owners.

If this line of reasoning has some merit, then it follows that all sentient beings have an intrinsic interest in liberty. Now, this doesn’t mean that the very idea of keeping a companion animal is morally problematic. Companion animals are fine, as long as they are treated with love and respect. It is the norms, attitudes and institutions that deem the ownership of animals as property acceptable that are flawed and need to be abolished. Giroux’s argument also doesn’t force us to conclude that owning humans and owning nonhumans are both equally morally wrong. One could certainly argue that since humans incur an additional harm when they are property  – i.e., the violation of their autonomy that Cochrane describes – owning humans is worse than owning animals.

This entry was posted in animal rights, animal welfare, applied ethics, ethics, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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