The Relational Rights of Social Non-human Animals

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Dr Steve Cooke, Associate Professor of Political Theory, University of Leicester and RAC member introduces his new paper on the relational rights of social non-human animals.

When we think about the ethics of animal agriculture, the focus is often on physical harms and the pain suffered by animals. But animals are harmed in a variety of other important and often neglected ways, including damage to their relationships.

Now, more than ever, we have become aware of just how important relationships are to our own wellbeing. Because humans are social animals, we need good quality relationships to flourish. Being deprived of good company, friendship and love harms us. But humans are not the only social animals. Other species also form deeply affective bonds, have friendships, love one another, and grieve and feel lonely when these bonds are severed. Ironically, we have learned a great deal about how harmful isolation and separation are for humans from experiments inflicting social deprivation on non-human animals.

Animal agriculture predominantly involves the farming of social animals. In fact, rearing and handling practices require these animals to be social. They also need to be vulnerable – aggressive, dangerous species and breeds are a poor choice for farming because they pose a risk to their handlers. As a result, humans have selected and bred animals that both highly social and extremely vulnerable.

For example, in cow herds, mothers and their calves continue to spend time together long after weaning and into adulthood. Cows also form friendships, preferring particular cows as grooming and grazing partners. When they are separated, or placed in proximity with unfamiliar animals, their stress levels increase. The more intensively animals are farmed, the closer they must be housed. We also know that cows reassure each other when stressed and take comfort in the closeness of their friends and family. Aside from being herbivores, cows have been bred for docility to increase their vulnerability. They also suffer painful procedures such as de-horning.

Because farmed animals are social, they require good quality relationships to flourish. This means that when they are deprived of contact, they become lonely and suffer physical and mental harm. Similarly, they are harmed by poor quality relationships, such as being forced into overcrowded accommodation or placed in unfamiliar or unnatural groups. The relationships of farmed animals are not just important for them, they are important to them – they matter to the animals themselves. But these relationships are routinely and unavoidably disrupted by farming practices. Farmers determine when animals can have their young, how their offspring are reared, the company they keep and when they may mingle. Social groups are disrupted and controlled by being merged with other groups, unfamiliar animals are introduced, and relationships are abruptly ended by slaughter or sale. The preferences of these animals – such as their preferred grooming partners, family members or grazing companions – are overridden at the convenience of the farmer, often to the detriment of the animals.

Evidence shows that these disruptions result in increased stress, reducing both current wellbeing and the ability to form rewarding relationships in the future. When their lives are controlled in the way they are by farming, these animals suffer serious harm. Their nature is such that they cannot live good, flourishing lives without being able to enjoy good quality associations. I argue in my work that non-human animals ought to have a right to enjoy the relationships that matter to them, free from harmful interference by humans.

When we think about the ethics of animal agriculture, we should pay closer attention to the way that valuable non-human relationships are controlled, disrupted and prevented by farming. By nature, farming involves deliberately exploiting the sociability and vulnerability of non-human animals in order to do them harm. In the process, it violates the relational rights of those animals.

To read more about this argument, and for links to the evidence mentioned, you can read my open access paper ‘The Ethics of Touch and the Importance of Nonhuman Relationships in Animal Agriculture’.


Cooke, S. (2021) The ethics of touch and the importance of nonhuman relationships in animal agriculture. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 34, 12, 


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