Should non-human animals be included in the scope of social justice?


To cite this article: Sturt-Schmidt, James (2018). Should non-human animals be included in the scope of social justice?, The Millennial [Online], Available at: (this page URL).

Social justice always relates to morality, and theories of social justice can generally be understood as considerations of the best possible practical applications of philosophical theories around ethics and morality; the progression of who should be considered and why, to who should get what and how. With this in mind, to begin to analyse whether or not non-human animals should be included in theories of social justice, we must first engage with the question of whether they should be considered in the ‘moral community’. What Miller (1999) calls the ‘scope of social justice’ is described on a personal, individual level by Opotow (1993) as “the psychological boundary within which considerations of fairness and moral rules and values govern our conduct” (p. 72). This essay invites the reader to engage reflexively with their own psychological boundary of social justice, and consider extending it to other animals. It sets out to explore theories of social justice and various calls for greater attention to be paid to our furry, feathery and scaly companions, with whom we share this Earth. Paying particular attention to Rawlsian theory, it aims to highlight the anthropocentrism in many theories of social justice, and to conclude that it is necessary to include animals in the moral community, and subsequently in the scope of social justice.

To highlight real-world issues that can offer a focal point for our deliberation of morality and social justice concerning non-human animals, Benton (1993) argues that intensive stock rearing (factory farming) and animal experimentation (vivisection) are two groups of practices that arouse the most concern. In industrial farming, animals’ physical movement is severely restricted, their emotional and social needs ignored, they are fed on unnatural diets, subjected to intensive hormone treatments, subjected to great emotional and physical stress, and ultimately (as is the case for some 56 billion land animals each year) killed (ibid.). Animal experimentation often involves surgical removal of vital organs, which may include parts of the brain or central nervous system, and the individuals are subjected to systematic administering of electric shocks or toxic chemicals, amongst other things. Of course, death is once more the inevitable outcome for these poor individuals. Torres (207) offers an explanation for such widespread suffering of non-human animals, stating, “We have crated a false dichotomy between behaviours attributed to companion animals [i.e. cats and dogs] and those of other species that blinds us to the inherent worth and needs of all animals” (p. 2). Before continuing, I must clarify that this essay does not intend to take issue with the practicality, logistics or underlying assumptions of different theories of social justice. Its focus is instead on the individuals these theories consider significant and deserving of justice, the potential applicability of the theories beyond the border of species-membership, and why this is important.

Despite alluding to Miller (1999) with the title of this essay, I wish for his theory of social justice to be my starting point in highlighting the anthropocentrism and short-sightedness of many dominant theories of social justice. Miller (1999) states that, when discussing social justice, we are “discussing how the good and bad things in life should be distributed among the members of a human society” (p. 1, emphasis added). He later states that he holds “a version of the responsibility view of freedom, according to which an obstacle to someone’s actions counts as a constraint on their freedom if and only if another agent (or set of agents) is responsible for the existence of that obstacle” (1999, p. 14). We can use this definition of responsibility to assume that humans, as a ‘set of agents’ or individual humans themselves as agents, have a certain responsibility towards animals of other species when our actions can clearly place constraints on their freedom (e.g. keeping them captive, stealing their offspring, forcibly impregnating them, stealing their bodily excretions, and killing them for meat, fur, or simply for entertainment). Miller (1999) goes on to state, “since “responsible” here means “morally responsible”, this in turn can be established only by looking at what people owe one another as a matter of justice” (p. 14). Here we see how theories of social justice – which are often concerned with defining justice and the practicalities of distributing justice and recognition in the social and physical world – are inextricably connected to questions of morality. I agree with Miller’s sentiment, only I would extend it to encourage us to look not only at what people owe one another in terms of justice, but what we also owe to other animals, including those that – like many humans – are not themselves in a position to be ‘morally responsible’ or partake in Kantian contractarian notions of social justice.

A prominent theory of social justice that has “taken a central place in Western political thought” (Garner, 2012, p. 172) is that of Rawls’ (1972) A Theory of Justice, which outlines the ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment as a way of reaching conclusions about social justice. This theory suggests that from an ‘original position’ where one has the capacity to make moral considerations about the world, but does not know what position in the social order they will occupy, one can arrive at certain conclusions about what we can (and should) expect from one another in terms of social justice. Of course, an easy critique to level at this theory concerns Rawls’ assumption that it is possible for an individual to take an entirely neutral position to decide on the lives of others, but generally it can be seen as a useful theoretical tool to engage with large questions of justice where – although no universally shared meaning of any social good can be said to exist – we can accept that the assumption that individuals would wish certain basic things (e.g. to be free, to not feel pain, and to have access to food and shelter) is generally unproblematic. In spite of this, I wish not to focus on critiquing the assumptions around subjectivity behind this particular theory, but rather to stress that – accepting it is possible to arrive at an original position – should non-human animals not also be included in this thought experiment? Elliot (1984) suggests, “there are no good reasons for disallowing the possibility that [participants in the original position] turn out to be non-human animals in the real world” (p. 95). Within the Rawlsian paradigm, participants in the original position have capacities to make moral decisions that they understand may be diminished in the actual world (for example they could be a human with severe mental disabilities). This assumption allows the theory to be easily extended to a consideration of other animals, for one can make a decision knowing that their actual position in the world may mean they do not have use of complex language, or complex rational thought.

Further, Elliot (1984) argues, “there is no obvious non-arbitrary way of excluding animals from being represented in the original position that does not equally exclude some humans” (p. 101), and argues that “Animals do have wants, interests and desires which could be taken into account” (p. 101). Elliot (1984) acknowledges, “The difficulty that the inclusion of non-human animals creates is that it requires human beings to make judgements about how things are from the point of view of animals and to rank these against judgements about how things are for human beings” (p. 103). To this, his defense is that “we can make comparative judgements about different lifestyles for them based on our understanding of the propensities, desires, interests and preferences that they have” (ibid.). Whilst accepting this is – to an extent – problematic, he defends his position by demonstrating it is no less problematic than making “the required judgement concerning a human being whose rational life-plan centres on the satisfaction to eat, drink, make love and to watch television and a human being whose rational life-plan centres on the desire to influence political policy and write the definitive book on social justice” (p. 104). Demonstrating the difficulty present in thinking ourselves into the position of another human being and their subjective desires and preferences, he argues “it is not a valid complaint to say that animals cannot be included in a theory of justice because we cannot easily think ourselves into their positions” (ibid.).

Mark Rowlands (2009) also considers how we might ‘thicken’ the veil of ignorance so as to allow species membership to be another factor participants are unaware of. The conclusion of his consideration is that, to include animals within Rawls’ thought experiment, we must move beyond the contractual situation imagined by Rawls to one where individuals do not benefit from possessing mental ability or rationality, since they are not responsible for the possession of such characteristics. Rowlands (2009) furthers this point, arguing that we are also not responsible for being human, and so “the veil of ignorance must then derive us of the knowledge of our humanity” (Rowlands, 2009 cited in Sachs, 2015). For Rowlands, “the scope of morality is restricted to things than an occupant of the original position could rationally worry about being” (p. 160), meaning a non-human animal would qualify, but a rock or any inanimate object would not. Thus, Rowland (like Barry, 1989) sets sentience as the cut-off point for morality, and subsequently inclusion in the scope of social justice. Sachs (2015) argues that Rowland’s reworking of the Rawlsian paradigm is still a version of contractarianism, sorting actions into “categories of permissible, obligatory and impermissible” (p. 646), and so does not satisfy the non-consequentialist’s search to discern “who has rights, or claims, or is the object of duties, or can be wronged” (ibid.), but it is certainly an improvement upon Rawls.

Garner (2012) similarly examines the possibility of “amending the veil of ignorance so as to make species, along with gender, race and social situation, an unknown” (p.160). He also considers other suggestions to extend the Rawlsian paradigm to other animals, such as David Richards’ (1971) idea to allow participants in the original position to protect non-human animals not because they are unaware of their humanity, but rather due to another ‘motivational device’, such as a calculation that beyond the veil of ignorance the participant might discover they care greatly for non-human animals. Barry (1989), however, is sceptical of this approach since he believes many people would be unaware that there are individuals who care so deeply for other animals, and so instead supports Rowland’s (2009) and Elliot’s (1984) adaptations to make species another unknown. Rawls (1972) himself states, “it is wrong to be cruel to animals […] The capacity for feelings of pleasure and pain and for the forms of life which animals are capable clearly impose duties of compassion and humanity in their care” (p.512). However, despite taking this view that being cruel to non-human animals is ‘wrong’, within the Rawlsian contractarian notion of justice, it is not necessarily ‘unjust’. This is because Rawls does not include other animals in his definition of ‘moral persons’ to which his theory of justice applies, whom he argues must be capable of having a “conception of their good” (1972, p.504) and “a sense of justice, a normally effective desire to apply and act on the principles of justice” (ibid.). The fact that, despite this claim, Rawls includes human individuals who do not have such capacity (often called ‘marginal humans’) within the moral community, demonstrates speciesist thinking; that is, proposing “species- membership has a kind of deep explanatory role in determining the ethical facts that it simply does not have” (Plunkett, 2016, p. 7). It is the differential treatment of a group or individual – based on the arbitrary belonging or not belonging to a specific group or category (e.g. race, sex, or species) – that constitutes discrimination, and subsequently racism, sexism and speciesism. Thus, the exclusion of non-human animals from Rawlsian social justice theory is just one example of speciesism within theories of social justice.

To conclude, various theorists make the same call to action that this essay hopes to deliver to its reader. For example, Elliot (1984) states, “We are compelled to take the case for non-human animals seriously and to strive to divest ourselves of the prejudicial pre-theoretical views that encumber our thinking” (p. 102.). Likewise, Kemmerer (2011) argues, “It is necessary for each of us to try and understand how privilege affects the way we think about and engage in social justice. The way that we view the world is influenced by our lived experience – by sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, race, sex, and species” (p.2). I believe it should be a priority of theories of social justice to shift respectful and compassionate treatment of other animals from its perception as benevolence or a supererogatory act (Rawls, 1972, p. 105), to a central position in the discourse of social justice. “The question of ethics must begin with nonhuman animals” (Iveson, 2012, p.32, italics in original). This said, a clear difficulty in developing theories of social justice that include other animals is that it “requires human beings to make judgements about how things are from the point of view of animals” (Elliot, 1984, p. 103.). However, since the same difficulty exists for consideration of other humans, despite being an obvious difficulty that should be addressed further it in no way constitutes a way for theorists within the anthropocentric paradigm of social justice to extricate themselves from their moral obligations towards other animals, whose heart-breaking screams of pain send a clear message of their basic wants, interests and desires, which should serve as the basis for our consideration of how to create a fairer world for all animals. Non-human animals should most definitely be included in the moral community, and subsequently the scope of theories of social justice, and to not do so is, in itself, nothing less than an injustice.



Barry, B. (1989) Theories of Justice. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester-Wheatsheaf.

Benton, T. (1993) Ecology, Animal Rights & Social Justice, London: Verso.

Elliot, R. (1984) Rawlsian Justice and non-Human Animals, Justice of Applied Philosophy, 1: 1, pp. 95-106.

Garner, R. (2011) Much ado about nothing?: Barry, justice and animals, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 1(1), pp. 1 – 14.

Garner, R. (2012) Rawls, Animals and Justice: New Literature, Same Response, Res Publica, 18(1), pp. 159 – 172.

Harvey, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, New York: Oxford.

Miller, D. (1999) The Scope of Social Justice, in Miller, D. (Ed.) Principles of Social Justice, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Opotow, S. (1993) Animals and the Scope of Justice, Journal of Social Issues, 49: 1, pp. 71-85.

Plunkett, D. (2016) Justice, Non-Human Animals, and the Methodology of Political Philosophy, Jurisprudence, 7: 1, pp. 1-29.

Rawls, J. (1972) A Theory of Justice, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Richards, D. (1971) A Theory of reasons for action. Oxford: Blackwell.

Rowlands, M. (2009) Animal Rights: moral theory and practice. 2nd Edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Sachs, B. (2015) Non-Consequentialist Theories of Animal Ethics, Analysis Reviews, 75: 4, pp. 638-654.

Torres, B. (2007) Taking Equality Seriously, in Torres, B. (Ed.) Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights, Oakland Edinburgh, West Virginia: AK Press.


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