Tag Archives: animals in captivity

Parsing rights and captivity: the problem with dignity and autonomy

(This video is only tangentially related to my post – but Tyson’s cautionary tale about nonhuman animal communication informs most of the following discussion on autonomy and dignity.)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why I seem to be approaching animal studies from a different angle than most of the (largely abolitionist) animal-related blogs I follow. It’s probably mostly because I’m a stubborn contrarian who runs like hell from anything resembling groupthink. But I’m also a pragmatist who is loath to apply rights claims willy-nilly without thinking about implementation; a secularist who is skeptical of the idea that rights claims, whether human or nonhuman, are ever inherent rather than instrumental; a reformed Kantian who thinks, with some caveats, that Enlightenment reason has been unfairly pummeled by critical theory, but that ‘humanism’ is perniciously anthropocentric; and a Rawls-leaning semi-egalitarian who is reluctant to throw the capitalist baby out with the bathwater of inequality.

All of which is to say: the language of domination and liberation is not my preferred vocabulary, and nor is the language of inherent rights. So This essay by Anat Biletzki from the NYT Opinionator’s the Stone column (Boghossian’s “The Maze of Moral Relativism” has also been getting a lot of attention) caught my eye. A previous post, by Lori Gruen on the ethics of captivity, from the National Humanities Center’s ‘On the Human’ project, is also worth a read. I’d like to address an issue raised indirectly by Biletzky and directly by Gruen–the centrality of one’s view of ‘dignity’ and autonomy as it relates to rights claims for both human and nonhuman animals.

I haven’t done much research on the ‘dignity and rights’ subfield, but my impression is that dignity, when used in the human context, is too often a catch-all term that rapidly becomes void of specific meaning. I guess this is the consequentialist in me coming out, but I think it’s more useful to refer to the specific harms caused to an individual when its dignity is violated, and, where no such harms can be tallied, to look at what we’re really talking about when we talk about dignity (to re-paraphrase Raymond Carver). In some cases, I can see the point of dignity-speak (to take Gruen’s example: the assaults on dignity suffered by humans who have been incarcerated can be tallied using other language, but some of the less tangible psychological harms may be difficult to quantify), but it too often degrades into things like defending the dignity of a collection of cells in an embryo, which, to be blunt, makes very little sense to me. Bernie Rollin’s view on telos, which is closer to Nussbaum’s virtue ethical capabilities approach referenced by Gruen, strikes me as a better approach.

On autonomy, Gruen rightly points out that the term means different things to a neo-Kantian contractarian and to those who, like Gruen, adopt a broader definition that encompasses various forms of preference satsifaction. (This also gets us into Dennett/Frey/Cohen territory, all of whom deny, to various degrees and on various grounds, that it’s really “like” anything to be a bat–to use Nagel’s famous case–but I’m not going there right now). She also distinguishes between autonomy’s instrumental and inherent values:

Freedom or liberty is sometimes thought to entail acting autonomously and making our own choices and being in a condition in which there is an absence of arbitrary interference. Depriving someone of her freedom is also thought to be one of the things that can make a life go badly for that individual. There are two ways that denying individuals their liberty may negatively impact the quality of their lives. If we understand liberty to be an instrumental value then respecting an individual’s liberty is important because it is conducive to other things that are valuable, like pleasure and well-being. Doing what one wants, being free to make choices and to act on them, following the desires one wants to satisfy, and not being interfered with in the pursuit of one’s desires are all freedoms that are important, because they contribute to making an individual’s life go better by allowing that individual to satisfy her desires. Individuals who are confined, restrained, or subordinated cannot act freely upon their desires and live their lives as they want. But liberty can also be thought of as an intrinsic value, a value that in itself, regardless of anything else, is constitutive of living a good life.

Setting aside for a moment my view that what we call inherent values can just as easily be formulated as meta-instrumental values using a rule utilitarian metric, I think this paragraph both captures the nuance of Gruen’s piece (after all, all she’s arguing is that “Denying [captives] the freedom to exercise their autonomy by keeping them under captive control is…ethically problematic.” This seems to me unarguable.) and what I perceive to be one of its key shortcomings.

In the case of nonhuman animal captivity, the distinction between quality-of-life and autonomy is often very different from the same distinction in the case of human captivity. (Again, how one views this distinction will depend on one’s view concerning the scope of autonomy.) (One of) the reason(s) autonomy is perceived as inherently valuable in human society is precisely because it forms the backbone of the system of rights and property from which so many of our institutions emanate. In the case of, say, a farm animal, I think there’s a reasonably strong argument to be made, following Rollin on telos, that the animal in question has a different set of relevant parameters in determining its quality of life. A broiler chicken would not thrive in the forests of its genetic ancestors. Again, Gruen acknowledges this distinction when she says that we have to live with the structural legacy of nonhuman animal captivity–hence my guardianship of our research veteran beagle, Rodney…

Animal Symbols

I teach a class at UMass Lowell on animal ethics, and one of my favorite classes to prepare for is on John Berger‘s “Why Look at Animals”. His essay traces the process by which animals were marginalized in modernity, from mythic companion to Cartesian machine to Taylorist commodity. Just as “animals were the first symbols” when they were ever-present in our lives, “In the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared [, and] today we live without them. And in this new solitude, anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy.” (Berger 9) The irony, of course, is that animal imagery surrounds us, and this new symbolic anthropomorphism bestows animals with an unwelcome human nature: Berger traces the progression that begins with Grandville’s animals and “ends with the banality of Disney”:

DONALD: Man, what a day! What a perfect day for fishing, boating, dating or pcnicking — only I can’t do any of those things!
NEPHEW: Why not, Unca Donald? What’s holding you back?
DONALD: The Bread of Life boys! As usual, I’m broke and its eons till payday.
NEPHEW: You could take a walk Unca Donald — go bird-watching.
DONALD: (groan!) I may have to! But first, I’ll wait for the maiman. He may bring something good newswise!
NEPHEW: Like a cheque from an unknown relative in moneyville? (Berger 13-14)

Fast forward 50 years and we’ve taken the banality to a whole new level.  Think for a moment about this cartoon, where a collection of animals visit the zoo. Children grow up in a synthetic wilderness where animals are co-opted as family, as spectacle, and as simulacra, and adults escape the monotony of wage labor (Berger was a Marxian critical theorist, after all) by inventing a ‘language’ for cats. And I’m not  even getting in to Berger’s attack on zoos, other than to cite his view that they are “a monument to the impossibility of (genuine human-animal) encounters,” because “you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal.” (Berger 23-24)

The irony here is that such embedded symbolism might even play into scientism’s over-broad rejection of anthroporphism, leading to the claim that empathy for nonhuman suffering or identification with mammalian or other behavioral characteristics are merely anthropomorphic, when in biological fact they are much deeper.

Is there any way out of this maze? . Claude Lévi-Strauss famously (well, famously in animal studies circles, at least…) said that “animals are good to think.” The representations I’ve shown so far have been just the opposite: animals have been press-ganged into the human world, such that their ‘think value’ is lost. As Berger, dissecting Grandville’s animals, puts it: “The vulture as landlord is more dreadfully rapacious than he is as a bird. The crocodiles at dinner are greedier at the table than they are in the river.” (Berger 17)

But all it takes to look at the relationship anew is to look with a critical eye. Pieter Hugo has done fascinating work on the complex web of human-animal interdependence in his photoessay, “The Hyena and Other Men”.

Others invert our traditional childhood expectations, fostering a disruptive cognitive dissonance that may jar us out of anthropocentric complacency (okay, this may be a stretch). And many more representations are clearly and openly anthropomorphic, but not necessarily in as culturally harmful a way as Berger describes. And some arguably go beyond banal to shine a light on our species’ peculiar eccentricities. But then again, apparently lots of people still think it’s okay to tattoo live pigs (because hey, he’s a vegetarian!).

And finally, there’s this.