Respecting Animals


October 19, 2013 by Lori Gruen

I was part of a symposium hosted by the NYU Animal Studies Initiative and the Philosophy Department to discuss new directions in animal ethics.  It was a lively panel and we organized the panel such that each of the panelists (Dale Jamieson, Shelley Kagan, and Jeff McMahan) were to raise some topic and a set of questions, then argue amongst ourselves (moderated by Jeff Sebo).  I raised questions about animal dignity.  Here is roughly what I said:

Traditionally the focus on animal ethics has tended to be on animal suffering and well-being.  Sometimes the discussion turns toward death — when and under what circumstances we may be justified in killing other animals (both Jeff M. and Shelley talked a bit about death and killing).

But there has been very little discussion of respecting other animals. I’ve been developing a view about animal dignity in order to focus some of the attention that animals deserve on what it would mean to be in a relationship of respect with them. Thinking about animal dignity may be a step too far as Simon Blackburn has said. But there is something, it seems to me, wrong with certain ways that animals are treated or presented even beyond the fact that they suffer.

BearonBikeBears dressed up performing human activities (as Susan Cataldi discusses when reflecting on the bears at the Moscow Circus) or great apes dressed up to look like they are humans in boxing rings or in office buildings are cases in which we might think that the animal is lacking in dignity.  But it is hard to really separate out the suffering that was required to get wild animals to dress in human clothes and perform human activities for our entertainment from the indignities in many of these cases.  Animals used in entertainment suffer in training and in captivity and given that suffering is for trivial ends, that may be enough of an objection.  Why turn to thinking about the disrespect that such displays engender?

There are some cases in which there are apparent indignities without there necessarily being obvious suffering.  The case of people painting their dogs to look like something other than dogs is one of my favorite examples.

Screen Shot 2013-10-19 at 3.37.29 PM

The people who do this to them say the dogs like it, just like many of the animals we live with apparently like to do “stupid pet tricks.”

Martha Nussbaum has argued that the properties that are typical of proper species functioning, that allow an individual animal to live a characteristic life as a member of its species, should be respected. When an individual is denied the opportunity to behave in ways that befit their species, their dignity is being undermined. She writes:

Each form of life is worthy oScreen Shot 2013-10-19 at 3.38.05 PMf respect, and it is a problem of justice when a creature does not have the opportunity to unfold its (valuable) power, to flourish in its own way, and to lead a life with dignity. The fact that so many animals never get to move around, enjoy the air, exchange affection with other members of their kind — all that is a waste and a tragedy, and it is not a life in keeping with the dignity of such creatures. 

I’m not sure this neo-aristotelian view gets us too far beyond the sentientist view though. When animals are not allowed to engage in species-typical behaviors, they suffer physically and mentally, so it may simply be that the “tragedy” is their suffering.  Further, it isn’t exactly clear how to make sense of the idea that in the case of painting animals to become Ninja Turtles, that the “species typical” behavior in dogs is being thwarted given the theory that they co-evolved with humans so their behavior is inextricably influenced by our desires.  We could say that making people happy or proud is a species typical behavior for dogs and they actually are happy when we are happy.  Besides, these painted dogs are probably allowed to do the things that dogs do, only they look really silly doing it.

And, I suspect, most animals actually don’t care that they look silly.  They don’t care when they aren’t respected, so why should we worry about this?

I think there are two reasons respecting animals and recognizing their diginity matters – first, if we were to develop much more respectful attitudes this would undoubtedly lead to the promotion of their well-being in all sorts of cases in which it is threatened.

Second,  there is something about our agency and our capacities for moral perception that depend on our being able to aptly respond to situtations in which dignity is being undermined, whether or not the being who is disrespected knows or cares that this is the case.

In Ethics and Animals I propose a view I call “wild dignity” which is a relational or dispositional property that essentially recognizes that individuals with dignity-evoking capacities exist in relation to others with what we might call dignity-appreciating capacities and within specific contexts, often when something that matters is in jeopardy, we can opt to appreciate their dignity or protest an indignity.

That other animals are not concerned about such things as dignity does not necessarily tell against their having it.  Our recognition of their dignity exercises our moral agency and being perceptive about dignity enhancing or dignity diminishing activities or conditions is a central part of our ethical capacity to treat others as they should be treated.


6 thoughts on “Respecting Animals

  1. Thanks for this, Lori. I really like the way you hone in on the relational dynamics here and resist attributing dignity directly to animal life. I like the way that dignity, more indirectly, becomes a part of the relational dynamics between humans and animals, and thus “belongs” more to the relation, than anything else. I would agree that seeking to perceive dignity indeed, “exercises our moral agency” and that “being perceptive about dignity enhancing or dignity diminishing activities” ultimately impacts our ethical relations with others. But this seems, then, to drive me back toward reflections on dignity enhancement and diminishment in human life. This is, ultimately, very contextual. I feel dignified when I wear a nice suit to a job interview, but can imagine that I would feel totally undignified if I went jogging in the park, in the same suit. Thus, I can imagine by extension that if I invited a friend to go running in the park with me, and requested that she wear a suit, I might risk provoking a diminishment in her dignity. All of this relies on context, on understanding what is (and is not) likely to be considered “proper”, “appropriate”, “practical”, or “useful” to a significant majority of the people I might come into contact with in a particular sort of social space. In other words, what’s dignity enhancing, or diminishing, in human life is often contingent upon social norms. Would thinking about dignity enhancement in human relations with other animals similarly require us to reflect on norms, standards, or expectations? Would part of the enhancement of dignity require the understanding of what norms or expectations might shape the perception of other creatures in our social spaces? Would we be affirming these norms, if we were careful not to relate to other animals in a way that would violate the norms?

  2. Lori Gruen says:

    Beatrice raises an important worry about relational accounts, that is, that it reduces to something like conventionalism. I think a large part of the reason that relational accounts are dismissed in favor of finding intrinsic properties that make something in all contexts dignified, or morally considerable, or deserving of respect is a worry about something like relativism. But I think there are many other options. Norms can be interrogated to reveal the values that underlie them. How norms come to be norms is a huge question, but one way is that the values that underlie the norms are values that have achieved an overlapping consensus. Its not always (or ever) the case that those values are timeless, objective values, independent of valuers. But there are some “norms” that protect some values that are not mere social whims or popular trends or the desires of the powerful. And in any case, I think that our moral agency demands that we are able to identify and endorse the values that underlie the norms we decide to follow. (whether an other-than-human animal’s moral agency (if they have it) requires that level of critical endorsement may be the topic of another blog post…)

  3. I wanted to comment on Lori’s post which, in fact, I forwarded to the students I had in my Interdisciplinary Perspectives in Animal Studies course that just wrapped up. One of them, Norma Engberg attempted to post a comment and was not able to. Since her comment so fully represents what I wanted to say anyway, I decided to post it for her (although we should figure out why she couldn’t comment herself so she’ll be able to in the future). Norma wrote:

    My desk dictionary defines dignity as ‘a composed or serious manner or style.’ I think a tortoise feels she has (momentarily) loss her dignity when she is turned over or falls on her back. She also feels this way when picked up and held so that her legs dangle frantically, feet touching nothing.

    The tortoise knows what a tortoise’s correct and proper posture is and should be: four feet on the ground and the earth under her bottom shell. In rock climbing, she may find herself temporarily with nothing for one foot, or even two, to touch, but this is her choice. After all, there is still dirt or rock under at least part of her plastron–she can feel it!

    Thus, there are two factors at work here in defining tortoise dignity: the first is posture or position and the second is choice. If the tortoise gets herself into a non-standard position, that is her choice, and she will work to get herself out of it. If something or someone else positions her so she is discomforted, then dignity is lost. Since being left in an undignified position long enough could be fatal, dignified behavior, for a tortoise, is a survival tool.

    Further, it is up to me, as a caregiver, to show that I respect my tortoise’s dignity by not placing her on her back, and by not carrying her so her legs dangle. As Lori says, “[My] recognition of [tortoise] dignity exercises [my] moral agency and …is a central part of [a human’s] ethical capacity to treat others as they should be treated.”

    What her comment suggests is that animal studies should always attempt to enable humans to deepen their understanding, not only of themselves, but of other species. That deeper understanding enables the development of deeper empathy and respect of individual animals and of their species. That is always the underpinning of my teaching and writing as an animal studies scholar.

    The one thing I therefore question in Lori’s original post is that other animals may have no sense of dignity, making the assumption of respect and dignity wholly human-centered. As Norma points out, other animals do indeed have dignity and are capable of feeling silly and of resenting being made to appear silly. Is that an assumption? Possibly, although when one knows a species as well as Norma knows the tortoise for instance, the basis of its sense of what is comfortable becomes as clear as it is clear to Beatrice that wearing the right outfit makes a human comfortable. Four feet on the ground and shell firmly parallel to the soil seems even more sensible to me. My dogs may put up with looking silly to please me on occasion, but not as a constant part of our relationship and, like my cats, certainly prefer to have their dignity respected although, I admit, they are far more tolerant of my failures than the cats who share our household!

  4. Robert Jones says:

    Lori, you’re really onto something important in trying to provide a non-Nussbaumian analysis of dignity violations independent of notions of suffering and well-being. You’re right that Nussbaum’s account seems ultimately a function of suffering and well-being. One question I have surrounds the two reasons you offer for why respecting animals and recognizing their dignity matters. The first, that developing more respectful attitudes towards animals increases the likelihood that we will promote their well-being, seems to involve consequentialist motivations. The second, that aspects of our agency and capacities for moral perception depend on our ability to recognize and respond to dignity violations, seems to connect to a kind of virtue ethics account. In other words, your relational account seems ultimately to rely on either a consequentialist or virtue ethics account. Could you say a bit about this? Thanks!

  5. Lori Gruen says:

    Thanks for your comments Marion, Norma, and Robert.

    Marion, I think it is safe to say that “dignity” — the concept, is probably not something that other animals have and that we are projecting our own thoughts onto them if we think they do. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they don’t have very robust senses of how things should be, as Norma makes so clear in the case of tortoise’s (btw — dictionaries report common usage, not conceptual meaning, which is what I’m interested in thinking about dignity). I spend a fair amount of time with chimpanzees and while I think they do have very clear senses of how things should be (I have argued that they have and follow norms) that isn’t the same thing as wanting to be respected or having a sense of dignity. But my view is that it doesn’t matter if they don’t have that, we ought to treat them with dignity or our moral perception is in question if we don’t.

    And that brings me to Robert’s question about the role of ethical theories in thinking through these issues. (Dale Jamieson was challenging the way that these theories can constrain our thinking in his comments and I agree with him). Moral perception is something that is necessary for every moral theory. Without getting too technical here, it is a capacity that moral agents, whatever principles they end up adopting, need to develop and refine. Without apt moral perception one can miss important features of a situation in which one is trying to bring about the best consequences or in a case when one is trying to act on the right intentions. We might think of apt moral perception as a virtue, but we might just see it as one of the capacities that are necessary for doing the right thing.

  6. Martin Rowe says:

    Lori invited me to comment on her presentation. As I listened to Lori talk about dignity, I found myself lengthening my spine and sitting a little straighter in my chair. That physical change led me to wonder whether the notion of “dignity” might be inherently bipedal, since bipedalism allows us, literally, to be “upright” and “farsighted,” as opposed to “supine” or close to the ground. Of course, meercats and other creatures also stand on two legs, so dignity might not necessarily be a function of bipedalism, but rest instead on the integration of the body with its ecosystem—that the body is “appropriate” and “proximate” to its surroundings, and thus “worthy” (Latin: dignus) of its position. In this regard, the animals that Lori showed in her slides were not “dignified” because they were not proximate to, or near (L: prope), their natural state, but were transposed into another creature altogether. The giraffe in Frank Noelker’s photograph is also physically transposed by not being in his/her natural setting. This is akin to Nussbaum’s point, and is fine as far as it goes.

    The challenge of assessing dignity here is that, as these photographs indicate, the human being relentlessly aestheticizes the animal. We, the bien-pensants who find beauty in the untouched animal—might observe that these images are “distasteful,” whereas the animals’ “owners” might consider these transformations not only respectful but expressions of love, even devotion, perhaps even completion. All the creatures in these photographs are projections of our fantasies about what an animal *could be* when scrubbed clean of that annoying animality that isn’t in our service, or how an animal could (even should) be looked at. In the case of the poodle turned into a turtle, the transformation is explicitly a mutation (“mutant ninja turtle”) and a function of the disordering pollution of the natural order of things (the turtles are mutated because of radiation). These animals are phantasmagoria: creatures of nightmare/phantasy who are our hallucinations of a consciousness that can only *see* an animal as something else—something with a purpose: meat, plaything, clown, totem, fetish, canvas. To offer “dignity” as a response to this feels a little weak. I could readily see these “owners” proclaiming to have offered these animals more dignity than their sad, natural selves—”Look at the beautiful and colorful enclosure I have given this giraffe!” “Look at how I have taught this bear to do what he couldn’t do before!” “Look at how I have changed this brown dog into a multi-colored cartoon!”

    I might (playfully) note that Lori recognized where true “dignity” lies by scrubbing the face of the woman holding her ninja dog. The woman is worthy of retaining the dignity of her anonymity, whereas the dog—admittedly with the ninja bandana disguising his “true” identity as a superhero—remains partly visible. In this way, the photo proves internally and in our use of it, that the animals remain, as they always do in the human environment, at the disposal of our wish to expose or disguise them.

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