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If pressed to answer the question “Why are humans equal?” or “What grounds our equality in liberal legal orders?”, the answers might run from the circular (“our common humanity”), to the sacred and unprovable (“human dignity”), to the universally posited but untrue (“our capacity to reason”). Despite the dissatisfying nature of these conventional responses, many of us do persist in believing in human equality and also approve of its exalted conceptual stature in our legal systems. Yet, if we take a closer look at equality’s Lockean foundations in the common law, as Jishnu Guha-Majumdar would have us do in his novel article, Lyons, and Tygers, and Wolves: Oh My!: Human Equality and the “Dominion Covenant” in Locke’s Two Treatises, we might have to question the presumed benign nature of the idea of human equality. Guha-Majumdar asks us to consider that our equality jurisprudence, derived as it still is from Locke’s liberal humanism, is premised on something highly unequal, and indeed violent and tyrannical: the domination of nonhuman animals.

The title of Guha-Mujamdar’s article evokes a scene in the 1939 Hollywood film classic, The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man link arms and chant a verse (“Lions, and tigers, and bears! Oh My!”) to express their fear of who they may encounter as they make their way through a dark forest on their way to Oz.1 Of course, the lion they do end up meeting is soon exposed as lacking the courage seen by humans to be characteristic of male lions to do anyone harm; this is then one of the character “flaws” that propel the foursome onward to ask the Wizard for help (with Toto, of course, alongside them). The verse though reminds us of the threat posed by “predator” animals. It is this threat that Guha-Majumdar claims gives rise to “a dominion covenant” between all humans, God, and nonhumans that is central to Lockean liberalism.

Guha-Majumdar uncovers these “deep ties between human dominion over animals and Locke’s notion of human equality” (P. 638) through a fascinating animal-centered reading of Locke’s Two Treaties and other texts. He describes the dominion covenant as an understanding “hover(ing) between reciprocal agreement and cosmological presumption” (P. 639) wherein humans are justified in subordinating animals because some of them can kill us or the non-threatening animals we domesticate.

In this arrangement, Guha-Majumdar instructs that dangerous (to human) animals “represent the state of war…and must be eliminated as the enemy of mankind par excellence, whereas cattle, the quintessential sign of property and civilization, form the covenant’s basis.” (P. 638.) Both the cows and other livestock representing property and the wild animals posing a threat to human persons and their property must be continually dominated, to ensure that proper human civilization can proceed. And the fact that we have tamed animals through captivity is evidence of our superiority over them. It is this domination of animals, Guha-Majumdar argues, that grounds Lockean human equality and nothing else. A primary contribution of the article, then, is to “reverse the ordinary picture of Locke’s humanism; it is not that human equality legitimizes instrumentalizing nonhumans but that instrumentalizing nonhumans enables the idea of Lockean human equality.” (P. 638, emphasis in original.)

Guha-Majumdar demonstrates his innovative thesis regarding the dominion covenant by drawing primarily from Locke’s writings on religion and closely reading multiple texts. It is a nuanced account, deftly tracing the complex paradoxes that emerge regarding Locke’s humanist commitments and explaining how the dominion covenant helps makes sense of seemingly contradictory statements. As a prime paradox example, Locke himself questioned whether humans qualified as a coherent unit of moral analysis (given similarities across species in terms of, most significantly, reason and self-preservation, as well as the civic virtue lessons animals can impart to children)—or really any species for that matter. Locke also allowed for the fact that subjectivity and consciousness were available to nonhumans as a matter of divine will. At the same time as he questioned human superiority and the human as a category of analysis, however, Locke promoted equality for humans as a group to the exclusion of animals.

The domination of animals as the divinely ordained rationale for human equality (and not, say, any shared capacity such as reason or language), Guha-Majumdar further notes, coheres with the animal-centered crux of Locke’s theory of property, where it is animals and not nonhumans in general that Locke identifies as emblematic of human property. Drawing on the work of Dinesh Wadiwel,2 Guha-Majumdar notes the importance of “appropriation” to Locke’s conceptualization of property, and the essential ingredient in this dynamic being resistance from the object humans are seeking to appropriate, i.e. animals and not other less motile nonhumans. (Pp. 646-647.) He also, following Wadiwel, notes the tight association between cows/cattle and Lockean property justifications. (P. 649.)

The argument spotlights the centrality of animals in Locke’s writing and the article necessarily involves several steps to cohere. Guha-Majumdar’s meticulous structuring and elegant yet concise expression help the reader to absorb the multi-layered analysis. The tight organization and writing also foster an appreciation of how the argument extends previous scholarship about the flaws and potential of Locke’s theory of human equality that have not paid as close attention to the significance of animals in Lockean theory. Guha-Majumdar’s attention to Locke’s treatment of cattle, deer, and predatory animals specifically help us see the troubling implications of the inequality at the root of Locke’s human equality for liberal legal orders.

And this is not only because claims to human equality subjugate nonhumans. It is also because, as Guha-Majumdar argues in the second half of the article, any humans who violate the cosmic “pact” that is the dominion covenant, by aligning too much with animals, can then be cast out of “humanity” as appropriate punishment. As Guha-Majumdar writes, “because the dominion covenant is something both cosmologically presumed and something to be achieved and enforced, human superiority requires continual enactment.” (P. 648, emphasis in original.) It is here that Guha-Majumdar directs our attention to the second major hierarchical, socially-stratifying implication of Lockean commitment to human equality: its perpetuation of Lockean racism. That is, “Lockean racism is not the failure but the product of Lockean human equality.” (P. 639.)

He gives two main examples to illuminate this connection. First, is the colonization and land dispossession of Indigenous peoples and subsequent entrenchment of private property. Here, Guha-Majumdar argues that the problem is not simply what previous critics have noted—that Locke’s labour theory valued land-based cultivation as a way of life superior to nomadic existence. Rather, it was that Locke privileged “sedentary agriculture with tamed livestock” (P. 652, emphasis in original) as the superior, “properly human” form of civilization over hunting deer and other wild animals and thus the reason to dispossess those humans who did not dominate animals, particularly cows, in this way.

Guha-Majumdar’s second example to show how generative an animal-subordinating foundation to human equality can be for perpetuating interhuman racism highlights Locke’s writings on punishment. Guha-Majumdar traces how animality operates to rationalize the brutal punishment, including human slavery, that Locke’s politics permit despite his commitment to human equality. The analysis again offers the reader a more complex account of the Lockean liberal order. Guha-Majumdar notes that previous critics of Locke’s endorsement of harsh punishment have pointed out that criminals are analogized to animals in order to justify severe punishment. Yet, he argues that such analogy-oriented dehumanization critiques occlude how it is the “Lockean bestiary” (P. 654) that really animates the punishing of humans.

Instead, Guha-Majumdar argues, it is the wild animals that are seen as “predatory” and cast as “noxious brutes” due to the real or imagined threat they pose to humans (by either attacking humans or farmed animals) that exist as an always already criminal in the Lockean worldview. When humans transgress civil society laws, then, they signal their allegiance “with these predatory animals and the broader sense of criminal animality they represent.” (P. 654.) Guha-Majumdar proceeds to demonstrate this part of the argument through exploring what Locke had to say about “lyons, tygers, and wolves”, again taking account of certain contradictions and reconciling them convincingly.

I would suggest that this secondary and the primary argument regarding the domination Lockean human equality encodes merits reflection from all those who assume that constitutional rights to equality in liberal legal orders are forward-looking and social justice-advancing, or that equality as legal norm is the antithesis to—rather than a perpetrator of—domination, oppression, and subordination. Guha-Majumdar’s cogent analysis invites us to consider that even critical theorists who have impugned equality jurisprudence for being too narrow or otherwise liberal have not gone far enough.

We may need to dig deeper, look beyond the human, and confront the possibility that legal campaigns for human equality hoping to address large-scale social inequities in human society today are inherently paradoxical and, perhaps most unsettling, instantiating intense inequality with every legal “win.” As Guha-Majumdar himself intimates (Pp. 638, 658), the unfathomable levels of human violence against animals and accelerating levels of inequality amongst humans behoove us all to be more discerning with contemporary equality discourse however different from its original Lockean formulation.

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  1. Vidor, King, et al. The Wizard of Oz. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), 1939.
  2. Dinesh Wadiwel, The War against Animals (Leiden: Brill Rodophi, 2015).
Cite as: Maneesha Deckha, Equality’s Animal Problem: Normalizing Domination and Enabling Racism with Locke, JOTWELL (April 21, 2022) (reviewing Jishnu Guha-Majumdar, Lyons and Tygers and Wolves, Oh My! Human Equality and the “Dominion Covenant” in Locke’s Two Treatises, 49 Political Theory 637 (2021)),