A More Stringent Theory of Democratic Citizenship

Expanding the political franchise to include the interests of as many as possible is a laudable goal. It seems intuitive that allowing more people to participate in the political process will yield more favorable policy outcomes for everyone, thereby increasing the soundness of our democracy.  Donaldson and Kymlicka take this idea to an extreme, arguing that democratic citizenship should be redefined to include domesticated animals because they have the capacities expected from political agents.[1] They claim that domesticated animals can make their preferences known, and that these preferences deserve to be served by society.[2] Acknowledging that animals and other groups like the mentally disabled are served to some degree by society without having citizenship status, the authors argue that these groups are still entitled to full democratic citizenship. To accomplish this, they propose a redefinition of the citizen that places little emphasis on agency in its most robust definition. Instead, they argue that what qualifies a being for democratic citizenship is the ability to articulate its preferences.[3] Donaldson and Kymlicka’s weakened qualifications for democratic citizenship should be rejected because recognizing the reflective nature of agency is essential for the theoretical justification of the obligatory relationship between citizen and state. Democratic citizens must consent not just to be governed by society, but to fulfill the role of co-legislators in order for their political authority to be justified. First, I will argue that reflective agency is absolutely necessary for membership in the political community. I adopt the Kantian definition of agency within a community[4], but base my argument on intuitions that do not assume any of Kant’s conclusions. Then, I will address objections that Donaldson and Kymlicka would make to my proposed qualifications for democratic citizenship.

The foundation of democratic citizenship is agency, the ability to make free choices and act on them.  Agency is so vital to political participation because it is the means through which humans make their preferences known to other members of the community.  Through the centuries, the definition of democracy has changed, but the principle that democracies act in the public’s best interest has remained constant.  Since a political community cannot serve the public interest if this interest is never decided on or articulated, democracy cannot exist without individual agency.

Individual agency is limited by a shared moral obligation among all beings who have it.  That we live among others necessitates our interaction with other humans with equal capacities to represent their interests.  In having agency, we must recognize our obligation to respect the interests of others as much as our own.  This self-conscious respect forms a community of equals in which everyone’s interests have equal weight because they recognize the equality of everyone else’s interests.[5]  Living with agency therefore dictates not just that a person has and articulates their interest, but also that they understand that they are equally bound by the interests of other agents.  This mutual understanding is the foundation of moral obligation between people.  It is also a capacity that animals and the mentally disabled lack.  These groups have definite interests and methods of articulating them, but they do not have the capacity to understand their interests’ relationship to the interests of those around them.  Proving that this lack of complete agency disqualifies these groups from democratic citizenship requires an inquiry into how agency relates to the contract-based foundations of democracy.

The formation of a political community necessitates a consensual relationship between society and citizen that can only be legitimately initiated and maintained through the use of individual agency.  Individuals, already possessing the capacity for agency, must consent to take part in the political community.  Consent does not only involve approving the use of power when it serves one’s interests.  Rather, the action of giving consent is a reflection that the agent understands their dual role: that of an actor whose interests have legislative power and that of a recipient who is bound by legislation with the knowledge that it reflects the interests of their equals.  Political agents’ recognition of their reciprocal relationship with the state forms the moral obligation that makes the social contract binding.  Without it, there is no moral principle underlying the alleged consent between society and, for example, domesticated animals.  Locke and other social contract theorists rest their ideas on the existence of moral obligations inherent to a contract, but do not adequately justify the existence of moral obligation in the first place.  Defining moral obligation in these reciprocal terms solves the problem of legitimizing the binding nature of the social contract.

Democratic citizenship can only be formed in this way because this relationship legitimates all power in a democracy.  Without the consent of each individual actor whose interests are represented, authority in a democracy cannot be justified.  Since authority is exercised by each person over every other person by means of their equal political voice, groups without the full capacity for agency do not qualify for this authority.  A domesticated animal undoubtedly has the ability to communicate its interests, but that does not give it a relationship of reciprocal authority with its owner.  The owner, assuming that they are an agent, has the ability to recognize their presence in a community of people with interests and treat each interest with equal respect.  Not knowing this, the domesticated animal has no legitimate claim to moral obligation in the strictest sense.  The animal can be seen as a moral patient whose needs are served by society, but without agency they have no means to enter into the morally binding relationship of democratic citizenship.

The immediate objection to my argument is that it is immoral to exclude groups like domesticated animals, the mentally disabled, and even children from the political franchise because their subjective ideas of the good and ability to communicate entitle them to moral and political obligation.  Donaldson and Kymlicka argue against the idea of domesticated animals as moral patients, claiming that animals have faculties that qualify them for moral agency.[6]  It is true that states owe an obligation to these groups, but this obligation does not include admittance into the political franchise.  That society takes care of these groups is a product of the common intuition towards humane treatment. There is also a philosophical justification for our moral obligation towards animals and the disabled: as beings who feel pleasure and pain, they are entitled to have their interests served by the moral community.  They may be entitled to obligation from moral agents, but they lack the ability to recognize their shared obligation to every other agent, an ability that forms the foundation of moral personhood.  Meaningful political participation requires of someone the knowledge that their actions and interests have equal power to legislate as any other interests present in the political community.   Without this knowledge, agents are reduced to moral patients, who are entitled to have their interests served but do not have the cognitive ability to represent themselves as equal legislators.  Allowing beings of this type into the political community robs democratic citizenship of its theoretical legitimacy.

One way that Donaldson and Kymlicka attempt to get around this problem is by introducing the idea of an agency gradient, arguing that everyone needs some form of assistance to make their political voices heard, and domesticated animals merely require more assistance than humans do.[7]  This is a powerful argument in favor of extremely widened inclusion in the political community, but it misses the most important qualification of democratic citizenship, the reflective ability to see oneself as equally legislating and bound by the legislation of the political community.  I draw a strict line in the agency gradient that allows for the distinctions that the authors claim are impossible to make.  Additionally, assisted agency is only a means for democratic citizens to interpret the interests of political patients.  It allows these patients to express their preferences, but does not communicate any self-conscious sense that their preferences have an effect on the political community.

The authors’ strongest argument that animals possess self-determined agency is that since they have the ability to conform to social expectations and even to shape expectations themselves, they fit the qualification of recognizing their ability to shape a community.[8]  Their argument rests on the principle that humans and animals have the ability to act morally without reflection, that intuition is enough to enforce a moral code in a community.  But acting based on moral intuition is not enough to justify political citizenship.  Political power must be derived from a theoretically sound consensual relationship.  This relationship must be the basis of all legitimate political action, especially the actions required of a democratic citizen.  Relying solely on moral intuitions to govern people justifies the inclusion of any being who shows a sense of social pressures.  The authors point out that animals in the wild and in domestic settings often deal with complex social practices.[9] However, displaying a sense of fairness, for example, does not imply that this sense is grounded in anything besides personal interest and intuition.  In this argument, Donaldson and Kymlicka give undue weight to the symptoms of political citizenship, while ignoring the vitally important theoretical foundations of consensual relationships.

The authors also argue that citizenship is a necessary condition for agency to exist, and that granting political citizenship, and its inherent obligations from the community, enables agency in individuals.[10]  While the idea that inclusion in the community enables agency is an empowering justification for inclusion, it favors an action-based account of agency while ignoring an equally important aspect, freedom of choice.  Adopting the idea of a state of nature, or a natural state of mankind independent from outside influence, and the theory that humans consent to enter a political community,[11] it is intuitive that agency predates political citizenship.  Humans exercise their agency in their unconstrained ability to choose to become democratic citizens.  So, agency is the determining feature of democratic citizenship, not the other way around.

That domesticated animals exhibit capacities that meet the minimum standards of our current definition of the democratic citizen does not justify weakening these standards to include animals.  This would miss the theoretical legitimacy of democratic citizenship that can only be derived from reflective individual agency, a capacity that domesticated animals do not possess.  I do not draw a line on the species barrier; if a human does not meet the requirements of democratic citizenship, then including them in the franchise is unjustifiable.  Making this theoretical determination leaves a set of empirical concerns, most prominently how to identify reflective agency in individuals.  Enforcing the requirements for legitimate democratic citizenship must involve testing potential voters, but testing them only on their ability to understand their agency within a political community.  This does not mean that literacy tests, voter ID laws, or other historically racist methods of weeding out allegedly unqualified voters were ever justified.  Determining who belongs in the political community requires determining who has the degree of agency required for it.  Research into exactly how to test the degree of people’s agency is necessary before any change to the political community can be implemented.

[1] Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, Zoopolis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 101.

[2] Donaldson and Kymlicka, Zoopolis, 109.

[3] Donaldson and Kymlicka, Zoopolis, 110-115.

[4] “A rational being belongs as a member to the kingdom of ends when he gives universal laws in it but is also himself subject to these laws.” Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Mary J. Gregor and Jens Timmerman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 41.

[5] Kant, Groundwork, 41-42.

[6] Donaldson and Kymlicka, Zoopolis, 103.

[7] Donaldson and Kymlicka, Zoopolis, 104.

[8] Donaldson and Kymlicka, Zoopolis, 116.

[9] Donaldson and Kymlicka, Zoopolis, 116-120.

[10] Donaldson and Kymlicka, Zoopolis, 60.

[11] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, (Urbana: Project Gutenberg, 2010) viii.95



  1. Donaldson, Sue and Will Kymlicka. Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. S.l.: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.
  2. Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Mary J. Gregor and Jens  Timmermann. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Print.
  3. Locke, John. “Second Treatise Of Government.” Project Gutenberg. N.p., 28 July 2010. Web. 12 May 2017.

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