Sports and Animals in Utopia
Commercial dog racing, best known under the greyhound type, is now largely considered a cruel sport. It is illegal in 42 U.S. states and only one state, West Virginia, still has active tracks that are not being phased out. Now consider the Iditarod, a long-distance sled dog race that takes place every year in early March in Alaska. Unlike greyhound racing, it is still legal and popular. Mushers and their teams of 12-14 dogs, typically Malamutes or Huskies, travel about 1,000 mi (1,609 km), give or take. An official finish means that at least five dogs must complete the total distance, which is typically covered between 8 and 15 days, sometimes more. Dogs and mushers often face extreme conditions, including blizzards, sub-zero temperatures, and gale-force winds, not to mention the rugged terrain they must traverse and the sheer magnitude of the task. The Iditarod has long been criticized by animal activists for the abuse it seems to inflict on dogs. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is publicly opposed to the race and several sponsors have pulled out under its pressure.
Only well-trained dogs compete, under veterinary supervision. In general, dogs enjoy running, some even relish distance running. Still, ultradistance racing under the direction of a musher is an extremely strenuous activity that huskies might not freely choose to engage in. Events like Iditarod promote the exercise of skills and faculties, and involve dogs who receive overall good care compared to most domesticated animals worldwide, yet at the same time they take place within a rigid structure, imposed by humans onto another species. I personally enjoy the travails of ultrarunning. I find the activity strenuous yet valuable for its own sake. But I can’t say that everyone enjoys it like I do, much less would appreciate being coerced into it.
The question is no longer simply: How should we treat other animals? but: What should our relationships look like? How should we structure institutions and society to supply the material conditions of their flourishing?
Let us step back and ask what kinds of animal agency are worth wanting? In recent years, work on interspecies justice has blossomed. The question is no longer simply: How should we treat other animals? but: What should our relationships look like? How should we structure institutions and society to supply the material conditions of their flourishing? What rights, both negative and positive, should we guarantee? One question that hasn’t received much attention is whether to make room, in a just interspecies society, for gameplay. While many animals enjoy unstructured play, from rough and tumble to chasing, we can also ask whether it’s good for them to participate in more structured, rule-bound forms of play. Play occupies an important part of many animals’ lives, especially, though not exclusively, when they are young. It serves an essential developmental function in many social species of mammals and birds, and plausibly in many other species. And beyond its function, animals also play for the sake of it. Are sled dog racing, horse riding, obstacle course racing, or burro racing examples of finally valuable gameplay for animals?
Trillions of sentient creatures are exploited and killed every year for human consumption. Millions serve as subjects in animal research and testing. Human activities destroy millions of acres of wild habitat and affect the lives of countless animals through pollution and climate change. Against this background, gameplay doesn’t seem like an animal welfare priority. It isn’t. Still the arc of animal liberation is long and, however it bends, we might as well play along. For just gameplay, and its attendant rights to and at play, can model a just society.
Many animals are agents. Agency is, roughly, intentional behavior based on representations of one’s environment and goals. More concretely, animals navigate and alter their environment, they engage, for instance, in niche construction and problem-solving in flexible, goal-directed ways. Agency takes many forms: exploring, foraging, affiliating, and yes, play. Exercising agency matters to animals.
When animals are self-determining, it is they, through the exercise of their own agency, who shape the contours of their lives. We hold that having this kind of control can be an important constituent of a good animal life.
Gameplay could be a manifestation of self-determination because it essentially though temporarily constrains agency while allowing us to explore new forms of free agency. A just interspecies society will be one in which humans and other species can relate to each other as creatures free to set their own ends and engage in finally valuable activities. In a just society, we do not work because we need to, much less are forced to, but because we really want to and find meaning in it. In a just society, animals do not participate in games because we stand to gain from it or enjoy the spectacle of it, but because they really want to and find meaning in it. Animals can live meaningful lives. Work and play can be part of a meaningful life. But a just society requires that work and play be meaningful.
A just interspecies society has no room for cock fighting or greyhound racing as we know them. It sets demanding conditions on the use of dogs and raptors in human-designed and -centered activities such as sled racing and falconry. Animals, instead, will help us design just games and sports. Gameplay, in such a world, is the product of joint authorship, from design to execution. This implies asking animals what they want and developing better methods to interpret it, but also taking what they want as making claims on us.
A just interspecies society will be one in which humans and other species can relate to each other as creatures free to set their own ends and engage in finally valuable activities.
Who can play in a just interspecies society? Everyone can play! Even raccoons and rats should be allowed to engage in their own gameplay. Your attic and your trashcan may be off-limits, but maybe at least some parks and green spaces should accommodate them. Granted, interspecies gameplay is likely to be mainly restricted to domesticated species, from companion animals to formerly farmed animals, so no playing fetch or frisbee with raccoons. Through domestication, animals such as dogs, horses, goats, and donkeys, and to some extent trained birds such as parrots, ravens, and raptors, have evolved a behavioral repertoire that makes most of them suitable for mutually rewarding interactions with us. Still, many may not want to play with us, and we should not expect them to. But we should design infrastructures that create opportunities for gameplay. Start from existing structures such as goat playgrounds, pig ponds, protected plains for free-range horses, enriched habitat for chickens; then imagine, along with the careful observation of animal behavior, novel structures and practices that could foster their agency, develop natural and learned skills, satisfy their need for free play, and based on unforced interactions, let us together design the rules of just games.
Does this all sound utopian? It should! According to Bernard Suits, in his nearly cult book The Grasshopper, utopia simply picks out the sort of world in which instrumental labor is no longer required. A utopia is worth aspiring to because it’s a world in which we can do just the things we want to do for their own sake, where we can all engage only in finally valuable activities. In utopia, a lot more of our time would be spent playing games. For games satisfy both our need for structure, especially rules and the overcoming of obstacles, and our valuing nature, the fact that we value some things intrinsically or finally, rather than instrumentally. In games, our agency is free to follow self-imposed rules for the sake of the activity itself. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world where labor is no longer needed but replaced by meaningful work and leisurely gameplay? In utopia, would you spend less time working and more time learning elaborate cooking recipes, playing video games, solving puzzles, and running? I know I would.
[I]f we recognize that animal agency matters, and the true meaning of animal liberation implies emancipation and self-determination, we should envision ways to foster their agency without perpetuating exploitation and domination.
Now consider utopia in relation to the idea of interspecies justice. Although Suits was concerned with human utopia, we can imagine an interspecies utopia all the same—a more just world for animals, free from exploitation and domination. For animal labour can solidify injustice. It has historically treated animals as commodities and ‘beasts of burden’. Scholars have recently argued that the remedy for this injustice is not to abolish animal labor, but to offer opportunities for freely chosen and suitably designed and regulated work that can contribute to flourishing. In the ‘post-work society,’ argue Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, however, animals would not be compelled to work, either to support themselves or to contribute their fair share, since basic needs are met as a condition of citizenship. Animals would be free to choose how they participate in society. They may still choose to work, but only based on their own interests—the pleasures of learning, cooperation, receiving esteem from others, and so on—and only under certain conditions. For one thing, we should only have animals work for us if they assent and do not dissent to it, that is, they visibly affirm it and do not show signs of resistance or reluctance. Transitioning to a more just society also involves promoting not just micro-agency, within the boundaries of existing structures of labor and sports, but also macro-agency, by prompting animals to co-author new structures and novel forms of gameplay, according to Donaldson and Kymlicka.
We are of course a far cry from utopia. But if we recognize that animal agency matters, and the true meaning of animal liberation implies emancipation and self-determination, we should envision ways to foster their agency without perpetuating exploitation and domination. Bottom-up structures of agency, co-authored by millions of nonhuman voices, could supplant top-down, anthropocentric structures. In the transition to utopia, gameplay could be emancipatory.
 Bekoff, Marc, and John A. Byers, eds. 1998. Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative and Ecological Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  Healey, R. and Pepper, A. 2021. ‘Interspecies justice: agency, self-determination, and assent’, Philosophical Studies, 178(4), p. 1227.  Nguyen, C. Thi. 2020. Games: Agency as Art. New York: Oxford University Press.  Delon, Nicolas. 2020. ‘The Meaning of Animal Labour.’ In Animal Labour: A New Frontier of Interspecies Justice?, edited by Charlotte Blattner, Kendra Coulter, and Will Kymlicka, 160–80. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  Suits, Bernard. 1978. The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Broadview Press.  C. Blattner, K. Coulter, W. Kymlicka, eds. 2020. Animal Labour: A New Frontier of Interspecies Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  Donaldson, Sue, and Will Kymlicka. 2019. ‘Animal Labour in a Post-Work Society?’ In Animal Labour: A New Frontier of Interspecies Justice, edited by Charlotte E. Blattner, Kendra Coulter, and Will Kymlicka, 207–28. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  Healey and Pepper, ‘Interspecies justice’.  Donaldson, Sue, and Will Kymlicka. 2016. “Rethinking Membership and Participation in an Inclusive Democracy: Cognitive Disability, Children, Animals.” In Disability and Political Theory, edited by Barbara Arneil and Nancy J. Hirschmann, 168–97. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nicolas Delon is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies at New College of Florida. He received his doctorate from Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and specializes in animal ethics. He has published on a range of topics including moral status, agency, meaning, wild animal suffering, urban animals, and Nietzsche. He’s currently working on a book project on animal agency. He lives in Sarasota, Florida, with his family and two cats and spends a lot of time running.