Animal Dignity: Philosophical Reflections on Non-Human Existence | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Animal Dignity: Philosophical Reflections on Non-Human Existence

Animal Dignity: Philosophical Reflections on Non-Human Existence
Melanie Challenger. Editor.

Bloomsbury Academic, London, 2024
296 pp., Illus. $26.95
ISBN: 978-1350331679 Paper

Reviewed by: 
Gregory F. Tague
April 2024

Animal Dignity is a rich collection of thirty-one authors spanning thirty-two different entries, including a Foreword by Jane Goodall and an Introduction, section summaries, and an Afterword by editor Melanie Challenger. Many entries include striking black-and-white photographs. The contributors represent a range of disciplines including the arts and humanities, animal behavior, environmental studies, anthropology, law, the sciences, and philosophy. There’s poetry and memoir as well as more traditional, though accessible, short academic papers. Since there are so many contributors, with some overlap of topics and themes, this review will simply judge the book as a whole. The compilation is highly recommended for anyone with an early interest in animal studies and could be useful in undergraduate courses ranging from animal law to animal ethics. Senior researchers might not find anything new here (considering how many entries are republished), but it’s refreshing to be reminded by so many intelligent minds about the nuances and importance of animal dignity.

As editor Challenger notes, most animals are treated with “indignity” (pg. 6). For humans, dignity implies moral standing, especially regarding agency. What about animals? She points out, by examining some key philosophers, how humans are granted special status above all other organisms. Contrary to Kant, she persuasively argues, animals and not only humans are ends in themselves. More specifically, for this volume the question of animal dignity and the value of the term from ethics to religion can be vague and yet looms large. Challenger suggests that ascribing dignity to animals is unavoidable considering how closely entwined they are with human lives: we should recognize animals and respect their adapted natures. However, across nations and societies we still have problems recognizing the dignity of others, e.g. women, children, the aged, the infirm, immigrants, minorities, etc. Conveniently, without dignity, animals can be abused by humans, just like other disenfranchised groups.

A good lead entry comes from Jonathan Safran Foer who recites the horrors of chicken farming shielded from consumer view. The bodies of these birds have been genetically engineered for maximum weight (a consumer product) and for minimal comfort (some can’t even stand). Up to one fourth among thirty-three thousand in a factory farm will suffer serious pain in their short lives. They are, he says, “deformed, drugged, overstressed…in a filthy waste-coated room…” (pgs. 26-27). Up to ninety-five percent are E. coli infected, many even when they are slaughtered, packaged, and sold for human consumption. Other pathogens are common. The mistreatment of chickens is only part of the story, as Foer goes on to say there’s a one hundred percent yearly turnover of workers, most of whom are illegal aliens, immigrants, and poor people. Working conditions are dangerous and deplorable. All of this animal misery and human exploitation is justified by corporate profits and inexpensive “meat” for hungry consumers. Nevertheless, these maltreated birds for human ingestion are, in spite of USDA inspection, riddled with pus, feces, bacteria, infections, cancers, etc. None of this cruelty is dignified.

As is commonly accepted, says contributor Remy Debes, dignity is a state of worth equally distributed and shared by all people. Dignity implies rights, duties, and respect. Standards of human dignity can apply to animals, whether mega fauna of the wild or chickens in a factory farm. Debes offers a range of possibilities for what we call dignity, from human agency, autonomy, empathy, relationships, caring, and distinct personality. We see all of those qualities in animals. By the European Enlightenment, dignity was by definition associated with rank and social status. Only by the middle of the twentieth century, Debes goes on, does human dignity become aligned with basic human rights and not privilege. His point, like Challenger’s investigation of a definition in her Introduction, is that the concept of dignity as applied to humans took a long time to solidify. Relatedly, as others have pointed out elsewhere, animal rights are also human rights. 

Nonetheless, our understanding of the term dignity starts taking shape with Kant who argued for a duty of “moral respect” across the board, where humans are not simply a means but ends in themselves (pg. 39). Debes says some give Kant too much credit. Before him Samuel Pufendorf delineated the “natural rights” (pg. 40) of humans in their morally-tinged social interactions. Then, of course, going back to the Middle Ages and Italian Renaissance following Genesis there is humankind made in God’s image, which they then believed bestows dignity itself. This notion, however, is obviously far from our modern conception of dignity. Debes examines other instances from classical antiquity and early modern times regarding dignity. This historical perspective is an attempt to understand where animals should be placed in a long lineage focused on the supposed notion of human exceptionalism. Debes notes how dignity should not be about what’s exceptional but where to place distinct value and how to treat others, including animals.

Engaging readers, philosophical approaches appear throughout the volume. Suzy Killmister reminds us that Kant does not see animals as rational agents (of course many are) and therefore can be treated as a means for human ends. As is well known, the caution from Kant is that since we supposedly have rational agency any mistreatment of animals can erode human moral character. Later in the book echoing Kant, Lori Gruen says how even if animals are unaware of being laughed at and violated as spectacles in entertainment or at a circus, doing so lowers human dignity. Obviously, seeing harm in this light is totally human centered. In her chapter, Gruen offers “wild dignity”: the elephant or bear is impressively majestic in the wild, but not so in a zoo and much less in a circus where they are objectified.

Turning to a capabilities approach inspired by Martha Nussbaum, Killmister favors seeing dignity not in a hierarchy of rationality but in capacities, e.g. of consciousness, communication, and thinking. An important question, she muses, is whether dignity is inherent (respect) or conferred (moral status). In fact, we already confer a certain status on some animals in how we relate to them as companions. The capabilities approach comes up often in this book. Readers are referred to my Leonardo review, here, of Marth Nussbaum’s Justice for Animals, part of which is reproduced in Animal Dignity. The capabilities approach is laudable but goes only so far and is like an unfinished sentence. Capabilities for what; just “flourishing” as Nussbaum says, borrowing from Aristotle? That’s debatable even for artificially selected “animals” confined by humans at home. It might not apply to animals in sanctuaries and certainly doesn’t apply to wildlife, where their success is not simply for their own pleasure but crucially part of a larger ecosystem they helped evolve. We should be turning to Darwin, not simply Aristotle. Darwin is only mentioned four times in the book. True flourishing would consist of evolution through natural selection and descent with modification, adapted behaviors in and maintenance of a habitat. On the contrary, we have artificially selected and genetically modified nonhuman animals in often cruel and undignified ways to suit human needs and wants.

At any rate, the lack of Darwinian references is a quibble in a book of philosophical reflections. More significantly, there are many chapters dealing with specific species. Sy Montgomery wonderfully recounts “ways of seeing an octopus” (pg. 67) and asserts that as one closely observes and interacts with these magnificent creatures and their emotions and intelligence evidence mounts to grant them dignity. Other contributors convincingly consider dignity related to frogs, bears, dogs (two entries), scorpions, pigs, great apes, orcas, fish, and horses (two entries). Of course, other species are mentioned from time to time. Needless to say, these skillful authors offer compelling arguments for animal dignity in thoughtful and well-crafted chapters. In fact, and perhaps not surprising, many of the personal narratives can carry more weight than the scholarly explanations. 

More than a few chapters, notably Cristina Eisenberg and Michael Paul Nelson’s as co-authors, say that dignity involves moral consideration of one to another, an ethical decision about inclusive relationships. For animals, this goes beyond welfare to respect. Eva Bernet Kempers rightly believes the current ethos is oriented toward animal welfare, meaning that humans can use animals however they wish if suffering is kept to a minimum. The implied question is how much pain (e.g. factory farming, lab experimentation, etc.) reaches the suffering threshold. Organisms by their nature avoid pain. The answer is that humans have devised scales of animal usefulness that legally permit suffering. For example, in many countries you can slaughter and eat a chicken but not your pet. From a legal standpoint, notes Kempers, the welfarist attitude is problematic: animals have no legal status or representation and are allowed to suffer as if inanimate objects and not victims, which they’ve become. Visa A.J. Kurki justly harps on how dignity for animals is philosophically radical, whereas in law it’s more about welfare. The point is that animal dignity extends beyond welfarism’s focus on pain and suffering to include any demeaning actions that debase the positive perception of any species. 

Dignity for animals is muddling its way forward, and the new concern should not only be on the feeling of the organism, whether a chicken in a factory farm or an orca in a tank, but more about human behavior. This can be culturally challenging. The question is not only what our relationship to animals is but what it should be. Why do we breed certain animals for food or as pets? How close should housing development be near wildlife areas? When do we stop experimenting on animals or using them for entertainment? Why are there not more sanctuaries? Relationship assumptions both for and against animals raise questions across the spectrum of societies, whether in developed or developing countries for a range of “animals” in captivity or in the wild. Much depends on education, as David George Haskell is right to emphasize: in biology classes from high school to college he finds little dignity in how animals are used. Advances in computer-generated imaging could help mitigate such physical and cultural cruelty. 

As editor Challenger concludes, most people deny their animality or evolutionary relatedness to other organisms. This distance is an obstacle in trying to achieve dignity for animals. In all, Animal Dignity is an accessible and valuable addition to the growing literature on animal ethics and is recommended for a variety of audiences, from students to policy makers.