Christinae Bailey

Who Calls the Shots?  Moral Agency in Other Animals: Challenging Human Exceptionalism

By, Christinae Bailey, PhD Candidate Department of Philosophy at the University of Montreal


The concept of “moral community” has two different meanings: the community of all beings who are morally considerable and the community of beings who are in interpersonal and social relationships and have obligations, expectations and responsabilities toward each other. Mainstream animal rights theorists argue that other-than-human animals only belong to the moral community in the first sense: they are “moral patients”, but not “moral agents”. It would therefore be fundamentally inappropriate to consider them as norm-responsive agents and responsible beings.

I think that this common stance follows from a failure to challenge human exceptionalism. Working with a rationalist conception which conflates moral agency and rational moral reflection, authors such as Regan, Singer, Linzey, Steiner or Korsgaard challenge human supremacy while leaving largely intact human exceptionalism regarding moral agency. This stance fuels rather extreme forms of paternalistic management of the lives of other animals and leads to classical dilemma (such as the extinction of domesticated animals or the massive intervention in the wild).

A more adequate conception of animal life as defined not only by sentience and vulnerability, but also by agency (a practical understanding of their situation) and intersubjectivity (interpersonal and social relationships) enables a fundamental shift of perspective in animal ethics. It enriches our understanding of the types of harms and injustices which can be done to them and opens the possibility of recognizing other animals, not only as moral patients (as beneficiaries or victims of our benevolent or oppressive decisions), but also as moral agents who can communicate their preferences, address claims to others, respect the basic rules of civility, and participate in the development of respectful norms of cooperation (as Donaldson and Kymlicka argue in Zoopolis).

There are, of course, good reasons for being careful with the study of moral subjectivities in other animals. First, it runs the risk of distracting us from more pressing issues (such as the abolition of animal farming and experimentation). Secondly, it may help fuel the widespread myth that they consent to their oppression (as it is often the case in non-critical animal studies). However, considering other highly social animals as members of moral communities in the second sense – as full and equal members of our interspecies communities in the case of domesticated animals or as members of their own communities in the case of liminal and wild animals – enables us to go beyond “minimal” or “libertarian” animal ethics (which focuses only on negative duties not to harm sentient beings) to develop genuinely relational, social and political analysis of interspecies ethics.

Stop focusing exclusively animals’ vulnerability and capacity to suffer to consider them as communicative social selves with subjective and intersubjective lives of their own may help disrupt excessive forms of paternalism commonly found in animal ethics by challenging the widespread assumption that the we are always the ones who get to “call the shots” and unilaterally decide the fate of other animals.


Christiane Bailey is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Université de Montréal (Québec, Canada).

She has published “Deux sens de communauté morale: consideration morale et agentivité morale chez d’autres animaux” (Ateliers de l’éthique/The Ethics Forum, forthcoming); “Le partage du monde: Husserl et la constitution des animaux comme ‘autres moi’” (Chiasmi, 2013); “Zoopolis. A Political Renewal of Animal Rights Theories” (Dialogue, 2013); “Kinds of Life. On the Phenomenological Basis of the Distinction Between Higher and Lower Animals” (Environmental philosophy, 2011) as well as many articles on animals in early Heidegger’s work.

In 2014, she received the “Britches Scholar of the Year” (ICAS) and the “Feminist Animal Studies Fellowship in honor of Marti Kheel” (WAS-ASI). She is an editorial board member for Phaenex and has co-organized conferences on animal ethics and phenomenology (EPTC, 2013), critical animal studies (SCAS, 2014) and ecofeminism (Montreal, 2015). More info: