10 May 2004

Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 5

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who is considered by many contemporary philosophers as one of the greatest philosophers of all time, thought that all and only humans have dignity, by which he understood moral worth or value. This view can be challenged either by showing that some humans lack dignity or that some nonhumans have it. I believe some nonhumans have it. Indeed, I believe that all nonhuman animals have it.

Kant’s mistake was in locating worth in agency. But this is not part of the concept of dignity; it’s a normative position that one can consistently reject. Strictly speaking, dignity is the state of being worthy of honor or respect. It says nothing about the basis of worth or respect. A being can be worthy either in virtue of what it is or in virtue of what it does (or both). Thus, even if animals lack moral agency, they can still be worthy in virtue of what they are.

Let me give some examples. Have you been to a circus? What did you think when you saw bears wearing tutus and moving about on skates? Did you sense that it was undignified? Or what about mules who are trained to dive into pools? Or chimpanzees made to wear clothing and smoke cigars? Be honest. You felt sorry for the animals. You felt as though they were being degraded. Trust your feelings. They don’t lie.

Dignity does not require possession of the concept of dignity, much less the ability to defend oneself from affronts to it. That is a crude (but common) mistake. Having one’s dignity violated is not the same as being embarrassed or humiliated, so the fact (if it is a fact) that the aforementioned bears, mules, and chimpanzees are neither embarrassed nor humiliated is neither here nor there as far as having their dignity violated is concerned. Dignity is a condition, not a mental state or attitude.

Each animal species has a telos, or end. It has characteristic ways of behaving and feeling in response to environmental stimuli. When we take wild animals out of their natural habitats and train them to engage in unnatural behaviors for human amusement, we rob them of their dignity. This is no more acceptable in the case of animals than it is in the case of humans.

If you value dignity, you will boycott rodeos, circuses, bullfights, and zoos, all of which degrade and violate the animals they use and display. If you wouldn’t want your dignity violated, don’t violate the dignity of others, including our animal brethren.

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