Widening Inclusion

Stretching the boundary line in democratic participation

Essay, 2010

9 Pages, Grade: 2.2


Since Aristotle first set out his famous definition of the „political animal‟, numerous thinkers have re-interpreted, evaluated and attempted to extend the term to living beings Aristotle himself did not intend to endow with political rights. This essay will primarily look at the works of thinkers like Wollstonecraft, Bentham, Latour, among others, who sought to include nature, i.e. non-human beings, into the political sphere. In their works they constantly challenged the notion of a „boundary line‟, which aims to draw a distinction between the human and the non-human being. The main section will depart from an Aristotelian point of view in which characteristics would be abso- lutely necessary to having the privilege to entitlement of political rights. Afterwards, specifics, which have been put forward by other thinkers and aim at incorporating minorities and non-humans into the political sphere, will be discussed. At the end of the piece it should become clear that ideas about a more inclusive approach to na- ture are neither new, nor are they bizarre and thus should not be dismissed indiscri- minately. Limits of this all-encompassing inclusive approach are exemplified by the works of Nilsen.

One of the earliest works on why legal and political rights should be assigned to some and denied to others was done by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in 350 BC in his works The Politics. In this work he stated that „man is by nature a political animal‟ and that it is only natural for man to „live in a state‟ (Aristotle, 1962 [350 BC], p. 28). For Aristotle the key characteristic of a political being is not only the ability to distin- guish between “good and evil, right and wrong, just and unjust”, but to communicate and agree or disagree on those perceptions (Aristotle, 1962 [350 BC], p. 29), through the vehicle of Speech. It is important to note at this point that Aristotle distinguished Speech from Voice. He acknowledges the fact that other animals indeed are able to communicate pleasure and pain for example, yet they have no idea whether their actions are justified or not (Aristotle, 1962 [350 BC], p. 28). The fact that for Aristotle women, slaves and other foreigners living in the Athens had no right to actively take part in the politics of the polis (The Open University, 2008, included-excluded, 2:30) renders his understanding of a political being rather exclusionary, i.e. it seems he sought to justify exclusion of potential participants rather than to include them into the political process. With minorities still lacking substantial political rights in many socie- ties (OHCHR, 2010); his idea of „the political animal‟ seems to have well made it into the 21st century, although it was fiercely contested over time.

Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the first thinkers in feminist theory, and set out to shake the Aristotelian perception of „man‟ as the sole eligible political being. Wollstonecraft attempted to extend Aristotle‟s boundary line to include women into political decision making. When Wollstonecraft published her Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792 women‟s social exclusion was justified on assumptions that they were not fully developed humans, and closer to savage nature than to civilized and cultivated human-beings. Women, just like non-whites, were considered not ca- pable of making valued contributions to societal life. Thus, she attempted to pull women out of the socially constructed natural realm into that of humans. In effect, she defined more sharply than Aristotle what it is to be a political being. The main characteristics such a being would have to possess were reason, virtue and passion, which lead to knowledge and experience (Wollstonecraft, 19751792, p.91). Exactly these characteristics are the ones, which “distinguish the individual, and direct the laws which bind society together”, and are shared among men and women alike, Wollstonecraft claims (Wollstonecraft, 19751792, p.91). She calls for the change in how the female is perceived and educated in society. Women must be enabled to develop their personalities under the same conditions as men, without being treated as “some fanciful kind of half being” (Wollstonecraft, 19751792, p. 125). It is impor- tant to note here that even though Wollstonecraft raises her voice on behalf of dis- criminated minorities, she excludes them at the same time. Workers and slaves - as for Aristotle - were of no concern to her. Wollstonecraft‟s ideas were certainly influen- tial during the industrial revolution, when the rise of class and mass politics de- manded higher levels of legitimacy in leadership. These increased levels of legitima- cy could only be achieved by incorporating women into the decision-making process and introduce universal suffrage. So while arguing for the extension of political inclu- sion even Wollstonecraft maintained the practice of exclusion.

Her contemporary Jeremy Bentham took a bold step into another direction of inclu- sion, in trying to assign political rights to non-human beings. Bentham made for an interesting approach, as he turned the common perception of spaces upside down. For him humans were excluded from the natural realm. The aim must be to politicize the natural space and its inhabitants by incorporating humanity into it. Unlike Wollstonecraft, Bentham did not look into differences (of humans and non-humans) but similarities of living beings. In a superficially paradox turn, Bentham justifies killing and eating animals, albeit conceiving of every living being as a creature with certain rights. He can do this because his concerns lay more with inducing pain and suffer- ing and the utilizing and treatment of animal creatures as material objects. Bentham argues against such practices on grounds of the possession of the ability to suffer. Humans and non-humans alike, share this ability. Bentham lays heavy stress on this trait, and distinguished from Wollstonecraft, recognizes the characteristics as skin color or status as insufficient when assigning political right (Bentham, 1789, p. 311). Bentham‟s argument exposes its weakness when confronted with a definition of tor- menting. Bentham‟s ideas remain highly relevant today, and the founders of the „Great Ape Project‟ carry them on. Peter Singer, as the initiator of the project, argues that basic human rights - life, liberty and the right to physical integrity (UN Declara- tion on Human Rights, 1948, Article III, V) - should be granted to Great Apes. Singer advances the view that every creature which “shows intelligence and awareness” and has “emotional and social needs” should be treated as such, i.e. as living being and not a “thing”, and must not be subject to human “amusement and entertainment”.

Singer, nevertheless, does not go as far as to propose to set all Great Apes, currently living in confinement, free, nor does he suggest Great Apes should not be killed if they suffer disease or intense pain (Singer, 2006). At this point Singer clearly con- nects with Bentham, who also argued that killing animals under certain circums- tances is right- just tormenting and using them is not (Bentham, 1789, p. 311). To support his argument, he points out striking similarities between Great Apes and hu- mans, like the ability to use language, logic and the ability to develop strong social bonds towards kin as well as non-kin. In fact, he likens Great Apes to humans, who are mentally retarded and are not able to speak or act for themselves and thus need a guardian who takes on this task on their behalf (Singer, 2006). Steven M. Wise could be seen as such a guardian. He develops theories on how le- gal rights could be applied to animals, and he actually represents animals in the cour- troom. His arguments run in line with those of Singer - animals should be rights bear- ers because many of them have at least the same cognitive and emotional skills as mentally retarded or infants have. But Singer goes to the bottom of social organisa- tion by posing a much more profound question: “What is it to be human?”. Wise not only follows Singer‟s argument, and thus Bentham‟s, he also draws on Aristotle‟s concept of speech, in order to qualify non-humans as „political animals‟ (Wise, 2002). A more comprehensive attempt to include non-humans into the political sphere has been made by Christopher Stone. He aims to not only include non-humans into the political sphere but all of nature.


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Widening Inclusion
Stretching the boundary line in democratic participation
The Open University
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widening, inclusion, stretching
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Christian Scheinpflug (Author), 2010, Widening Inclusion, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/175323


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