Image credit: zlikovec /

Upon publication of their book, Animal Crisis: A New Critical Theory (August 2022, Polity Books), philosophers Alice Crary and Lori Gruen chatted with Claire Potter about the urgency of reimagining animal ethics.

Claire Potter [CP]: You frame this book as “a short, urgent plea to radically rethink animal ethics.” First, can you both speak to the question of urgency? There is so much pulling at us as global citizens—democracy, climate catastrophe, pandemic, war: can you tell our readers why human and non-human animal relations should command our attention now?

Alice Crary [AC]: Our plea to rethink animal ethics is urgent for two related reasons. One is that the strategies that have dominated the field for fifty years utterly fail to equip us to address animals’ plight. Some of the most influential approaches urge us to focus on the suffering of animals. Attending to suffering is certainly important but doing so exclusively obscures and perpetuates social mechanisms that hurt animals. Faced with the horrific pain visited upon animals in industrial agriculture, some argue for going cageless or eliminating practices like debeaking. Even though these steps seem good in isolation, they enable meat companies to tout their “welfare credentials” and so risk strengthening a system that not only relentlessly produces and kills animals but also reliably violates the human rights of workers and inflicts tremendous environmental damage. 

The push for profit that results in the commodification of animals’ bodies also leads to treating socially vulnerable human beings as disposable and devastating the natural world. This is a pattern that repeats itself elsewhere. Structures that hurt animals also hurt human beings and contribute to environmental degradation. Animal ethics urgently needs to be rethought so that it can meaningfully resist these structures.

This rethinking is also urgent because it reveals that the condition of animals isn’t a concern distinct from the pressing matters you mention in your question, but a dimension of them. Instead of trying to divide our attention among our time’s most grievous human injustices, environmental outrages, and harms to animals, we need to think in terms of interspecies solidarity.

CP: You offer a sketch of what you have called “critical animal theory.” What are the dimensions of that theory, and how does that theory translate into humans’ daily interactions, seen and unseen, with animals?

Lori Gruen [LG]: We propose a new critical animal theory that is designed to overcome the social and political isolation of traditional animal ethics and animal studies more broadly, and to highlight how leaving animals out of critical theorizing often weakens analyses that human-centered theories offer. 

As Alice pointed out, the plight of marginalized humans and animals are structurally connected. Critical animal theory provides a radically different way of thinking and talking about these relations of power. The division between “humans” and “animals” is not a natural division, but a conceptual one that privileges humans over animals, and not even all humans. This divide operates in a way that justifies the oppression of animals and humans thought to be “closer” to animals, which has often meant women, Black people, people of color, disabled people, and others who are outside of the privileged norm. 

So, critical animal theory challenges hierarchical structures that hurt animals and many humans too. We look at the role that certain “others” have historically been relegated to in the interests of a particular way of organizing social, political, and economic relations to privilege the few.

Critical animal theory works to make structures of oppression more visible, so we also seek to make the lives, experiences, and relationships of other animals visible. Too often in discussions about animal ethics and politics, animals remain abstractions. We push back against this by starting each chapter with a story highlighting particular animals’ experiences, both to show how those experiences matter and to draw connections between the plight of animals in particular contexts and the marginalization of humans in those same contexts. 

By focusing attention on the experiences of actual animals in particular contexts we hope to change readers’ perspectives on the animals they might encounter in their daily lives. Bringing animal lives out from the background is one way to make that change. In the book, for example, we unpack the disposability of both workers and pigs in slaughterhouses and the dangers that they faced during the global pandemic. The vulnerability, risk, and ultimate death of the pigs and some of the workers make vivid the harrowing experiences that are typically hidden. Through a story of cows and their young who escape their pending demise in small-scale dairies, we illuminate the deep relationships that cows form and highlight the fact that even in so-called humane animal production, animals are denied meaningful relationships and dignified lives. 

CP: You cite a major theme in animal studies: that the oppression of, and violence directed toward, animals is institutional, but that the scrutiny of these institutions has been intellectually isolated from “traditions of critical social thought that are dedicated to uncovering oppressive structures that impact the human and the more-than-human world.” Can you tell our readers what you mean by the “more than human world” and then explain what is gained by bringing these two strands of thought together?

AC: It is actually only within the last decade that questions about the violence stemming from larger social structures and the exercise of state power have received much attention within animal studies. Even when they are raised, these questions are generally formulated in ways that take for granted the framework of liberal capitalism and so are limited to exploring new sets of rights for animals within that framework. 

This forecloses the possibility of learning from critical genealogies of modernity that reveal an internal pressure within capitalist modes of social organization toward treating as free resources—not only the bodies of animals—but the reproductive, care, and sustenance work of women and racialized people. So, Animal Crisis draws on insights from ecofeminism, the early Frankfurt School, and other critical theories in arguing that animal ethics should be pursued as a critical theory encompassing such a genealogy. 

One thing this genealogical approach teaches is that ideas about human superiority to animals and the rest of nature have been ideological constants in facilitating capitalist expropriations.“More-than-human nature” is a phrase widely used in pro-animal and environmental circles to signal opposition to these hierarchical ideas. All animals, human and non, are caught up in webs of ecological relationships that belong to earth systems, and, far from being normatively ranked in relation to each other in a way that would justify the treatment of some as mere instruments or disposables, each is endowed with a distinctive, non-instrumental dignity. 

CP: Throughout the book, I kept thinking of the phrase “cruelty to animals”: it’s part of the name of a distinguished organization devoted to animal welfare, and it’s what captures our attentionpuppy mills, the slaughter of elephants for tusks, for-profit displays of incarcerated animals. 

But much of the cruelty you describe is ordinary and often hidden. What are the ideologies and practices that keep that cruelty hidden?

LG: We’ve mentioned a bit of that ideological framing already, in the form of human superiority or human exceptionalism and the way that it is both hierarchical and exclusionary, in that not all humans are included. Historically, cruelty to humans is rationalized by comparing those humans to animals. This is familiar in the case of human genocides—Nazis compared Jewish people to rats and vermin, Hutus compared Tutsis to cockroaches, and these are just two examples. When humans are thought to be “subhuman,” cruelty—and worse—is tolerated and thought to be justified. Another example of this dehumanizing ideology in practice, one that facilitates exploitation and violence, is the comparison of women to animals. When nonhuman animals are thought not to matter, when they are not considered valuable beings who have dignity and deserve respect, all sorts of horrors both obvious and more obscure can be committed against them.

This ideology not only works to “naturalize” certain forms of cruel exclusion but also points to traits or characteristics that some animals supposedly lack. For example, there is a large body of work that raises questions about whether this animal or that animal feels pain. The animals are subjected to a variety of painful experiments to figure out whether they feel pain, and even when there is evidence that they do—they writhe, cry, try to escape—there are skeptics who argue for conducting still more painful experiments. 

This incredulity about animal pain, and the need for more and more proof of it, is one of the ways that anti-animal ideology leads to cruelty. Denying that animals are relational beings who form deep bonds with each other is another way that anti-animal ideology operates, obscuring the anguish that animals experience when their children or companions are taken from them or killed.

CP: I want to talk about the concept of “animal rights”. First, can you define the various meanings of that phrase for our readers?

LG: “Animal rights” can mean many different things. In the most popular sense, it has come to represent a general concern for protecting animals from exploitation, oppression, and cruelty. The “animal rights movement” emerged as a way to highlight the plight of animals in the violent food system, in laboratories, and in entertainment—circuses, rodeos, zoos. 

But “rights” have had a variety of different meanings when invoked in discussions of animals. There is a group of animal activists and animal lawyers who are interested in promoting legal rights for animals, for example, the right not to be held captive, the right to bodily integrity, and the right not to be killed. There is another group, mostly scholars, who are interested in establishing that animals have moral rights, and these rights would require that animals are considered as morally worthy beings. There is yet another group of activists and scholars who are promoting political rights for animals, recognizing animals as co-citizens if they live among us, or as sovereign beings if they are wild animals. 

The arguments here would suggest that our social and political systems recognize nonhumans as beings that are members of the polis. We find the latter arguments promising, but in Animal Crisis we suggest there are real concerns about these rights theories. The fact that we don’t see animals as co-citizens or sovereign beings is not an accidental oversight, but a structural necessity for the system of human supremacy that is enshrined in our political systems. 

CP: I just want to pursue the conversation about animal rights a bit further. We are in a period where human rights, some that we have taken for granted like reproductive health care and abortion, seem to be eroding swiftly. 

Some might say they can’t defend animals until human beings are cared for properly, but you argue strongly for the relationship between the two. Can you focus on one or two of your case studies that make that connection?

AC: Our concern is with great wrongs to animals and with the fact that so many of these wrongs are reliably reproduced by the same social structures that veer toward stripping politically and economically marginalized human beings of basic rights. We argue that it is often patently confused to try to address wrongs against humans and animals separately and sequentially, in the manner described in your question, since they are not occurring independently of each other. 

Animal Crisis’s opening case is about how orangutans on Borneo and Sumatra are threatened by the bulldozing and burning of their lush rainforest homes to make room for palm oil plantations. But orangutans and other non-human animal species aren’t alone in suffering from this massive destruction. Smoke and ash from the fires employed to clear the forests significantly reduce air quality, contributing to many thousands of premature human deaths. Vestiges of Indonesia’s violent colonial past abide in palm oil production today. There are material echoes of the enslavement of human beings that was part of colonial systems in the ongoing exploitation of palm oil plantation workers, whose circumstances today sometimes involve literal enslavement. 

The razing of the forests in which orangutans live increases the likelihood that orangutans will search for food in villages and be regarded as pests, and the political and economic subjugation of local human populations means that the money to be made from selling young orangutans to animal traders is anything but trivial. These pressures can make it seem as though human and animal interests naturally conflict, but this is an illusion. The most severe wrongs to both are traceable to ravages of extractive capitalism, so meaningful steps toward greater justice must involve resistance to structures that are as threatening to animals and the rest of more-than-human nature as they are to human beings. 

CP: When readers are inspired by a book, they often want to intervene and make change. What are some small—and even large-scale—actions you hope readers will want to take after reading this book? 

AC and LG: It can be hard to see how to intervene to make real changes in the violent structures we talk about in Animal Crisis. Disrupting business as usual by participating in actions of youth climate strikers or organizations like Extinction Rebellion is one way to go. Blocking roads to slaughterhouses or oil plants or tree-sitting in forests that will be clear-cut may temporarily stop harms. The greater impact of such actions is often symbolic, bringing destructive practices more clearly into focus in ways that reveal the possibility of resisting them. 

Another route is creating counter-publics. Opening spaces for alternative, anti-capitalist projects, such as participating in community gardening, creating car free zones, providing healthy plant-based food and safe housing for those who are food and housing insecure, and learning from multispecies communities about friendship, resilience, and care can help some people imagine another way to live. These projects are locally crucial, and, like direct disruptive action, their symbolic significance gives them a much wider reach. 

A further possibility is establishing wild spaces that are free from profit-driven incursions, a strategy that today is increasingly being discussed in proposals to protect “half of the earth”. 

We don’t think that it is possible to propose top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions to the complex problems at issue in Animal Crisis. But we hope readers moved by the book will join us in thinking outside the box and come together, in solidarity, to resist the forces that are destroying not only animals but all life on the planet.

Click here to read an excerpt from Animal Crisis by Alice Crary and Lori Gruen, courtesy of Polity Books.

Lori Gruen is William Griffin Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University, where she also is the founding coordinator of Animal Studies.

Alice Crary is University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the New School and Visiting Fellow at Regent’s Park College, Oxford.