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Will animals or nature ever have true rights?

Insights from Aristotle's political animal to Wollstonecraft's feminism and up to Latour's political ontology​

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Key words:  Politics, ontology, society, ideas, nature.


The term political animal refers to a passage of Aristotle’s work where he defines which beings pertain to the political sphere and for what reasons (The Open University, 2015a). His arguments have been a reference in Western political thought, however this term and the boundary it represents have been contested throughout history. This paper will discuss the consequences of inclusion and exclusion from the political sphere according to the following extracts exemplifying the arguments of different thinkers. This paper posits on the same line of thought as Aristotle, Wollstonescraft, Bentham and Rawls. Their arguments have essentially relied on the connection between the human ability to speak and human morals, the latter might be further understood as the exceptional human rational soul, mind, or self- consciousness. The idea of human exceptionalism, which characterizes these authors’ work, is the basis for the nature-culture divide instilled in the science-politics dichotomy. Latour, however, points out that nature’s outcry is evident in environmental crises and furthermore, nature can speak but has been unheard and misrepresented when relegated to science (The Open University, 2015b). He furthers Aristotle’s argument by performing an epistemological critique and demolishing the science-politics dichotomy. His theories can potentially open politics to the many expressions of nature and his arguments, alternatively, point to modern ontology as a source of relevant problems. Finally, moderns’ misconceptions are evident in epistemological and ontological insights. Through Latour it becomes clear that previous authors have furthered a dualism which allows limited room for change in widening the political sphere to other beings. This has dangerously abstracted all kinds of non-humans from the political sphere despite the fact that political choices always involve nature.


The main question involves considering what factors determine the boundary that allow the inclusion or exclusion of a being into the political sphere. For Aristotle the political animal is a speaking animal that can conduct moral conversations. Man is by its nature a political animal, this because, unlike other beings, he is endowed with the capacity to distinguish right from wrong. In light of the latter, it arises that only man is capable of reasoned speech, a quality that enables him to discuss and share common views of issues that determine the existence of a society or a state. Aristotle says, “subhumans and superhumans don't live in states” (cited in The Open University, 2015a). As such not all beings can be political in so far as animals and others are not developed enough to form a society, and other beings, such as gods, are above man and society. Since then, these concepts began to construct and set apart the sphere of politics and nature, assigning characteristics to both domains. Aristotle’s speech and morality are the basis upon which political animals are defined, yet the boundary might move slightly depending on the arguments built on his claims. As a consequence, given that politics was, and still is in many places, primarily a man’s world, undesirable “others,” for instance women, are and were placed where they “belong.”


As previously established, the terms upon which the political animal is constructed set the framework of choice for political strategy. Revolutionaries trying to widen the political sphere to other beings have been faced with the opportunity to discharge nature or remain in its lower sphere. For example, women were regarded as inferior beings compared to men. When Wollstonescraft, a thinker at the roots of the feminist movement, asked herself, “In what does manʼs pre-eminence over the brute creation consist? The answer is as clear as that a half is less than the whole, in Reason” (cited in Dobson, 2008). For Wollstonecraft, reason, knowledge and virtue are possessed by the totality of 'mankind'. She was aware that for admittance into the political domain, women had to demonstrate the capacity to reason. At the same time, her strategy had broader implications for nature. Through her arguments she supported the idea that reason should be the feature allowing membership in the political community and as a result, further condemning those who lacked such capacity.


In The Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham says, “The day has been, I grieve to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated by the law exactly upon the same footing as, in England for example, the inferior races of animals are still. The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But can they suffer?” (The Open University, 2015a). Bentham recognized that Aristotle’s speech capacity is a human feature only, but in his argument it is implied that this does not have moral relevance. Indeed, Bentham discusses morality rather than pure politics. Even still, he touches upon the political boundary by questioning, in a benevolent fashion, the moral component of all men who torment sentient beings. Thus, he contests reason as one of the foundational characteristics of political membership and provides an argument for the inclusion of animals in the political sphere.


Most of the discussion in this area is about where the boundary should be drawn. But to what degree can this line move? From 1945, the legal basis for and against the inclusion of other beings in the political realm is made clear by the cosmopolitan argument enshrined in Article 1 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’ (The United Nations, 1945). Rawls, along the same line, affirms "...the moral persons who are entitled to equal justice...first they are capable of having a conception of their good...are capable of having a sense of justice...A being that has this capacity...is to receive the full protection of the principles of justice." (cited in The Open University, 2015c). However, for the moment, cosmopolitanism only offers principles which explain how to interact with non-human animals. In the words of Rawls, "it is wrong to be cruel to animals...the capacity for feelings...of which animals are capable clearly impose duties of compassion and humanity in their case." (cited in The Open University, 2015c).


Regarding cosmopolitanism, Latour highlighted that its meaning is very narrow, giving that its “cosmos” excludes a great amount of beings (Watson, 2014). In this sense, he is opening the door of politics not only to animals but also to other expressions of nature. Thinkers trying to overcome the discrimination among beings might potentially engage in interminable disputes looking for similarities to man. As Bentham, most appear to aim at a cosmopolitan expansion of universal human rights across the species barrier. The most impactful example concerns great apes. The representatives of the Great Ape Project (GAP) affirm “intelligence and self- awareness shown by apes mean they deserve rights to life, freedom and protection from torture.” (cited in MX Australia, 2006). Latour, in contrast, is interested in undoing the boundary all together because on these terms inclusion appears to be limited. Latour affirms, “We are simply giving non-humans the benefit of our beneficence” (cited in The Open University, 2015b). Attempts to move political boundaries are nothing more than patronising gifts. Aristotle’s work demonstrates politics as being defined by its relation to nature, yet nature and politics are dealt with separately. Latourʼs critique has an epistemological nature when emphasizing that public life has been divided into the house of nature and the house of society. Whereas the first is about objective knowledge, matters of fact, and certainty, the latter is characterised by subjective opinion, matters for discussion, and epistemological uncertainty (The Open University, 2015b).


Disasters can be seen as a failure of representation by the domain of science, which should be characterized by controversies instead of certainties. It can be said that natures speaks; crises are an utmost expression of nature’s discomfort (The Open University, 2015b). This is why the representation of nature in scientists’ talks is imperfect, just as it is arguably the case of human‘s voices being misrepresented by politicians. Latour denies that humans are the only creatures who possess the ability to speak. In doing so, he acknowledges a close relation between speech and morals, adding however that the common conception of language has to be widened in order to recognise that nature speaks (Dobson, 2008). The epistemological insight on the human-nature divide allows Latour to highlight that controversies are what characterize both domains and this gives him the opportunity to suggest a union. Furthermore, he suggests using the term spokespersons to refer to those people who represent actants, both human and non-humans (The Open University, 2015b). By extending the language of political representation, science should join politics in a collective defined by controversies and matters of concern. This collective will have to engage in politics with a broader range of actants than before. Driven by their ability to surprise, actants will experiment through processes Latour calls propositions (The Open University, 2015b). By replacing something that is not open to discussion with something that can be widely debated, since debate is a crucial aspect of politics, democracy itself is widened. In a recent interview, Latour discussed a meeting “...in Paris with global-warming specialists of all over the world...they produced the most bizarre hybrid of scientific texts plus a lot of vetting from their different nations. Something entirely different is happening - a hybrid of science and politics” (cited in The Open University, 2015b).


Latour takes an epistemological route, suggesting that knowledge production could be more democratic and inclusive. However, he also takes an ontological path. Ontology refers to the study of the nature of being and reality. It deals with questions concerning what entities exist, or may be said to exist, and their relations. For moderns, man and therefore the political animal, is characterized by a unique “immortal or rational soul, spirit, mind, or self- consciousness” that is also complete and incommensurable (Scott, 2013). Human exceptionalism sets nature apart and is at the root of the ‘great divide’ between the concepts of nature and culture; and between moderns and the primitives who have not purified nature from culture (Latour, 2009). A determined ontological position corresponds to a range of knowledge and a potential set of practices. Moderns put beings on different levels and humans are at the top of this hierarchy. Every “‘other,” be it animals or nature in the broader sense, appear as something to be seized, dominated and digested,” and this has led to environmental consequences (Scott, 2013). At the same time, moderns are also capable of different modes of relations. Through a review of Descola’s work Scott (2014) highlighted that protection is a mode of relation that can characterize moderns’ interactions. This is why philosophers have been able to advance critiques on behalf of animals within the boundaries of modern ontology.


Evidently moderns have never been as modern as they thought. In fact, it is a misunderstanding, a deception (Rose, 1996). Moderns should refuse human exceptionalism, adopt a hybrid way of thinking and recognize that they inhabit and transform worlds of interconnected beings, all with equal value (Watson, 2014). Such approach, akin to philosophy, distances itself from the political tradition started with Aristotle. Although it might encounter greater barriers than the epistemological approach, some, as Viveiros de Castro, suggest that abandoning modern ontology is the only solution for current environmental problems and arguably the only way to effectively broaden the number of beings entitled to rights (Ghassan, 2012). Engaging with Latour’s reasoning, it becomes clear that the term political animal is merely an abstraction of reality. Non-humans have never been detached from society nor politics. The obvious hybridity of environmental issues, computer sciences or viral diseases transversally mix politics, science and popular domains in such a way that the culture-nature dichotomy no longer makes sense and space should be made for relationism (Rose, 1996).


In conclusion, this paper has shown the consequences of inclusion or exclusion of beings from the category of political animals. An answer to the question has been reached by firstly assessing the arguments of Aristotle, Wollstonescraft, Bentham, Rawls and lastly, the ones of Latour. It was established that the term political animal has been contested and has slightly evolved throughout history. Nevertheless, speech and moral considerability have been a constant feature in the work of aforementioned authors. Latour, as the others, has used the language set by Aristotle, but to a different end. He has shown that the language used by these authors is consistent with human exceptionalism, a constitutive feature of the nature-culture dualism. By evidencing that environmental crises are the utmost demonstration of nature’s capacity for speech, Latour argues that nature has not vanished from culture or politics. It has simply been relegated and misrepresented by science, while furthering the nature-culture divide in the science-politics dichotomy. Despite the fact that human activities have always been a hybrid of politics and nature, the nature-culture dualism has allowed for a fabricated exclusion of non-humans from politics whose consequences are glaring, to say the least. Taking Latour’s ontological insights seriously marks a real break from the political tradition started by Aristotle. Given that under the current ontological scheme humans dominate the hierarchical structure, non-humans’ ability to enter the political sphere relies on mankind’s potential benevolence. Therefore, undermining human exceptionalism and valuing a world inhabited by strictly interconnected and ontologically equal beings is the only way to effectively allow for inclusion of non-human beings in politics.





Dobson A. (2008) Nature (and Politics), Environmental Values, no. 2, (2008): 285-301.


Ghassan H. (2012) Critical anthropological thought and the radical political imaginary today, Critique of Anthropology, 32(3) 285–308


Latour B. (2009) Will non-humans be saved? An argument in ecotheology, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 15, 459-475


MX Australia (2006) Move to ape human rights [Online]. Available at: http://www.nexis.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T23373911810&format=GNBFI&sort=BOOLEAN&startDocNo=1&resultsUrlKey=29_T23373911814&cisb=22_T23373911813&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=244805&docN o=8 (Accessed the 20.01.2016)


Rose D. (1996) Repatriation of Anthropology, review of We have never been modern, by Latour B., American Literary History, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 170-183


Scott M. (2013) The anthropology of ontology (religious science?), Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Volume 19, Issue 4, pages 859–872


Scott, W. (2014) Anthropological cosmochemistry, review of Beyond Nature and Culture, by Descola P., Anthropology of this Century, issue 11


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