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.
Bears 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.
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 of 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.