Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

The language of animal oppression


I’m finally getting some rest and relaxation (and by ‘rest and relaxation’, I mean ‘job hunting’) after three days of the MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory conference. I co-convened a workshop at the conference, on ‘The Political Turn in Animal Rights’ – 12 really good papers from some top academics and brilliant students. Two things really struck me during the conference.

The first was the huge influence Donaldson and Kymlicka’s book, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights has had on the field. Although many academics were doing political theory and animal rights for many years before the book, it’s really provoked a lot of research and wider engagement.

The second came as a result of a paper by Les Mitchell from Fort Hare, SA. Les drew our attention to the way in which language contributes to injustice towards non-human animals by directing our thought and expression. Two particular modes of expression were telling: the way we refer to animals by adjectives that refer to their purpose, and the use of mass nouns to remove individuality and identity from an animal. For example, we refer to chickens as ‘broiler hens’ or ‘layers’, to cows as ‘beef cattle,’ ‘dairy cows,’ ‘veal calves’. By using these adjectives we reinforce assumptions and cultural practices with an implication that the purpose or telos of a non-human animal is to be used by us. Additionally, mass nouns, nouns that do not permit counting as individual units,: beef, lamb, meat, pork etc., all divorce the product of the farming/meat industry from the individual life that was taken to provide it. When speak of chicken wing, beef rib, leg of lamb rather than ‘the wing of a chicken,’ ‘lamb’s leg,’ ‘cow’s rib’ it may make it easier to divorce the contents of our dinner from the individual that suffered and died to provide us with our gustatory pleasure.

One example Les gave really struck me; it concerned the expressions we use to discuss pets. There’s been a trend in animal rights literature and animal activism to refer to pets as ‘companion animals’. A pet is property, it exists as an instrument to provide its owner with benefits, but a companion animal is something different, something more. However, Les pointed out that even this way of referring to an animal makes us think that its existence is directed towards the purpose of being our companion. If we speak of ‘animal companions’ rather than ‘companion animals’ we are describing a friend rather than an object.

Of course you might be forgiven, reading this post, for being lulled into making the common mental distinction between humans and animals, forgetting for a moment that there is no such distinction (which is why scholars in my field try to refer to non-human animals or to ‘humans and other animals’).

Les’ challenge to our use of language in order to create a shift in perspective got me thinking, I thought it worth sharing.


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

8 thoughts on “The language of animal oppression

  1. This reminds me of English and Speciesism by Joan Dunayer. Excellent.

  2. Don’t you think that domestication (in particular of cats) and animalism are irreconcilable? Cats are obliged carnivores, and how do you morally justify the left-overs of other animals meat the cat won’t eat? Wouldn’t be the only morally acceptable way of feeding a cat to let it hunt for its own sustain?

  3. Thank you for the reply. As a biologist and a 22 years-old cat owner, I strongly doubt that if she hasn’t been exposed to a “free range” diet, meaning she cat hunt for preys in the country I live, she would have been as healthy as she is now. But this is not a scientific opinion but just a dietary doubt. Nonetheless from the ethical point of view, I think that if we believe in animals rights we should coherently retain from forcing them in a non-optimal condition for our interest.

    • This is going to hinge on how you define ‘optimal condition’, which is not straightforward. For example, might think about what a cat needs to flourish as a member of its species, or we might think of it in terms of happiness. If a cat cannot live a good life without killing, then I think it would be wrong for us to keep them as companion animals (and certainly wrong for us to breed them). I’m inclined to think that a cat can live quite contentedly without ever killing though.

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